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The Original ‘Trainspotting’ Soundtrack Holds Up Even Better Than the Movie

On the occasion of this week’s U.S. release of ‘T2 Trainspotting,’ a fond look back at the mid-’90s cool of the original’s soundtrack

(Capitol Records/Ringer illustration)
(Capitol Records/Ringer illustration)

When Danny Boyle’s whimsically harrowing Scottish-burnout dramedy Trainspotting first hit America in summer 1996, it introduced medium-cool, Buzz Bin–diving teenagers to the holy trinity: Britpop, electronica, and heroin.

The coolest kids knew all about the first two already, presumably; as for heroin, it had already prominently ravaged a few titans of grunge, which most of the uncool kids were still listening to instead. But whether you knew the likes of Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream, and Underworld intimately, or just as names to drop, the two Trainspotting discs (the sequel coming the following year after the first volume sold like crazy) were a revelation. Today, they enjoy their rightful place among the mass-market titans of the ‘90s-movie-soundtrack genre, alongside, uh, The Crow or Empire Records or, God help us, Judgment Night. The first volume is the rare compilation that hangs together as a cohesive, thoughtful album, despite the fact that many songs are old enough to be other songs’ parents, and sound like it.

On the occasion of this week’s U.S. release of T2 Trainspotting, a 20-years-in-the-making sequel that finds Boyle reconvening the original cast, let us return now to the coolest CDs you could reasonably expect to find in an endcap display in a Best Buy in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the ’90s. As the Trainspotting discs aren’t readily available on Spotify and Apple Music, here’s an approximated Spotify playlist, with a few alternate versions and what have you.

We begin, as the film gleefully does, with Iggy Pop.

Trainspotting did for Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” what Wayne’s World did for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The strutting, bumptious, joyously sordid song — and the album to which it lent its name — was nearly 20 years old in 1996. Meanwhile, Iggy himself had long been regarded as a punk godfather better abstractedly revered than actually enjoyed. (I recall wincing while watching him harangue a bored, disinterested audience at a Cleveland amphitheater when he opened for Pearl Jam sometime in the less joyously sordid mid-’90s.) But “Lust for Life” leaps off the screen here; it makes the movie, and vice versa, triggering a somewhat disquieting career renaissance for Iggy, or at least the song subsequently appeared in a bunch of ads and TV shows, including a series of wildly ill-advised Royal Caribbean Cruise spots.

Iggy is the movie’s North Star: His slurring, lascivious “Nightclubbing” shows up as well, neatly cleaving the movie in two temporally and emotionally. The first 40 minutes of Trainspotting are a delightful romp, with Ewan McGregor’s Renton and his motley gang of uncouth frenemies prancing through a string of bar fights and battle-of-the-sexes fencing matches and lovingly filmed drug fugues. There is a mega-gross public-toilet scene set to both Brian Eno and Georges Bizet, a nightclub meet-cute-enough set to Heaven 17 and a Blondie cover, and a brief wisp of New Order playing faintly in a teenage schoolgirl’s house.

And then “Nightclubbing” fades out and a dead baby shows up, and the next 20 minutes or so are profoundly unpleasant, leavened only by the soundtrack’s second monster hit, in the form of another punk godfather’s golden oldie.

Setting a romanticized drug overdose to Lou Reed’s then nearly 25-year-old “Perfect Day” is way, way, way too on the nose, which makes it, once again, a perfect fit for Boyle’s sink-into-the-floor theatrics. Eventually, “Perfect Day” got its own wildly inappropriate ad, too: for the Playstation 4. This movie got Iggy Pop and Lou Reed exactly right in a way that inspired the rest of the world to get them spectacularly wrong.

And finally, for the soundtrack’s third monster hit, we return to the film’s present, or, y’know, its future. Meaning dance music.

Underworld’s “Born Slippy (.NUXX)” was an ecstatic gateway drug for thousands of medium-cool Midwesterners skeptical of the dance floor (reasonable) or the term “electronica” (very reasonable). Bigger, louder, bawdier crossover smashes had already arrived (Prodigy’s “Firestarter”) or would impact soon (Chemical Brothers “Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Setting Sun,” the latter featuring vocals by Noel Gallagher, who apparently kept Oasis off the Trainspotting soundtrack because he thought the movie was actually about people who watched trains). But “Born Slippy” has aged the best, or the most gracefully, its off-kilter beat-poet-techno charm intact. The T2 Trainspotting trailer fires off the song’s shimmery opening synth chords within seconds, taking no chances. The nostalgic contact high is immediate and undeniable.

As a movie, Trainspotting fizzes out a bit in its final act, with an abrupt and half-assed heroin-deal subplot that if nothing else would help prepare Anglophiles for the glut of madcap Guy Ritchie flicks to come. The music, though, ensures the movie’s place in the high-cultural firmament. The sequel has been out in the U.K. for a few months and has been received respectfully, if not rapturously — Boyle gets the old gang together and doesn’t embarrass anyone, including himself. T2 has got its own soundtrack, of course — mixing old favorites (Iggy Pop and Underworld are back, though Lou Reed, obviously, is not) with newer hitmakers who evoke older ones. (Scottish polymaths Young Fathers get three tracks.) If you recall Trainspotting fondly, the sequel’s probably not gonna ruin that for you. But the tunes couldn’t possibly compare.