32 MPH / Give Me What I Need!

Billy Idol puts the cherry on top

Speed is signed, sealed and just about ready for delivery to the masses. But before Fox rolls the film out for a summer 1994 splash, there’s just one last piece of business: a soundtrack. But it won’t exactly be a creative endeavor that’s organically of a piece with Jan de Bont’s action extravaganza. It will be a last-minute, slap-dash effort to add some marketing muscle to the whole enterprise.

Speed's executive soundtrack producer Ralph Sall
Speed‘s executive soundtrack producer Ralph Sall

Enter executive soundtrack producer Ralph Sall, tasked with cooking up a concept compilation album of pre-existing songs that Fox can push in the marketplace. It’s not the kind of role he’s used to, but he’s more than up for the job.

“People don’t buy CDs anymore, and so, the idea of making a record that will exist in the marketplace and get on MTV and help market the movie, none of those things exist as they used to,” Sall says. “Obviously, the first job, always, as a music supervisor, is to enhance the movie, the moments in the movie. This particular venture crossed the line. It was important to try to get something for people to continue the energy for the end titles, but, obviously, there was a marketing element to the project, which existed apart from the movie itself.”

Sall’s big idea would be to collect a bunch of songs that kind of, sort of play on the themes inherent in the movie. Anything about vehicles or crashes or, you know, going fast? That’ll work. The track listing would include tunes like The Plimsouls’ “A Million Miles Away,” Cracker’s “Let’s Go for a Ride,” Blues Traveler’s “Go Outside and Drive,” Rod Stewart’s “Hard Road,” Kiss’ “Mr. Speed” — you get the idea. But an original song would be part of the package, too, and Sall has just the right rocker in mind: MTV generation icon Billy Idol.

“I had taken this kind of left turn a little bit away from the traditional Billy Idol sound,” Idol says. “I think we came late to it. We were one of the last things they thought about in terms of the soundtrack or the music. So, we wrote a kind of classic Billy Idol song that almost has a like a ‘Rebel Yell’ structure. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle bit, drop down, you know? Which was perfect.”

Billy Idol Steve Stevens Speed Premiere
Billy Idol and Steve Stevens at the Hollywood premiere of Speed

And so, “Speed,” the film’s closing-credits track, finds its way into the world. A high-octane burst of adrenaline, it’s just the right jam to send audiences out of the theater on a high after a two-hour thrill ride.

“I had come from working with Vince Neil for a while, and all of my guitars were tuned down a whole step,” guitarist Steve Stevens says. “Ordinarily, guitars are tuned to E. These were tuned to D, and I just kind of left it that way. Ordinarily, we never do that with Billy Idol. Everything’s usually standard tuning. So, this one, when we’ve played it live, I’m reminded, ‘Oh, why didn’t I retune?’ But that’s why it sounds a little bit heavier than some of the Idol stuff, because the guitars are all tuned down a bit.”

But that’s not all. This being the era of MTV, and this being Billy freakin’ Idol, there would have to be a music video. Like everything else in the final sprint to release, it would be a rushed endeavor. The music video directing tandem of Andy Delaney and Monty Whitebloom (under their shared “Big TV” moniker) would get the gig.

“When I was a kid, I was a late punk rocker, so, Generation X were, like, ‘OK, yeah, Billy Idol, alright,'” Delaney says of Idol’s humble UK beginnings. “We were, like, ‘OK, we’ll do it, but we need to try and recreate a punk club in London in 1977.’ Right? That was it. And they were, like, ‘Yeah, but what’s that got to do with the film?’ We were, like, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about that. We’ll figure something out.'”

All of that and more in this week’s episode of 50 MPH!

Speed Soundtrack
Cover of the Speed: Songs From and Inspired By the Motion Picture Soundtrack

Episode 32 Transcript

Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.