‘It’ Songs: How Classics by the Cure, Cult, XTC and Others Shaped the Year’s Scariest Movie
Trying to put together the best possible playlist for running through the city's sewers and fighting a homicidal, shape-shifting creature? The It soundtrack's got you covered.
In addition to telling the terrifying tale of an ancient evil preying on the fears (and the children) of a small New England town, Stephen King's It is an absorbing period piece that's impressively rich with detail. It's a quality shared by the book's new big-screen adaptation, which moves the action — and the soundtrack — up a few decades to the '80s.
Aside from making the story more relatable to the generation of kids who slept with their lights on after reading the bestselling novel in 1986 (and tying in with the current '80s-set horror revival that includes Netflix's hit Stranger Things), the change allowed director Andrés Muschietti and his team to stack the soundtrack with a broad cross-section of songs from the decade. From classic metal to college radio and big pop hits, here's a look at the sound of It — and why these songs matter, both on and off the screen.
The Cult pivoted away from their goth-tinged earlier sound with 1987's Electric LP, which rose from the ashes of their scrapped Peace record — and found the group working with producer Rick Rubin in a more mainstream hard rock vein. The approach paid major commercial dividends: Electric marked their sales breakthrough in the U.S., going platinum and spawning a rock radio hit with "Love Removal Machine." It kicked off a string of big AOR singles for the Cult — and it effectively sets the tone for the late '80s era when we meet the male members of the Losers' Club in school at the start of It.
A classic case of talent undermined by bad business decisions and unfortunate timing, Anvil toiled in obscurity for years before enjoying an unlikely late-period renaissance courtesy of the critically acclaimed documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Say what you will about bully Henry Bowers and his gang, but they evidently had pretty hip musical taste: years before the rest of the world caught up with Anvil, these guys were blasting "666" in their car while tormenting defenseless schoolmates.
Today, Young MC is commonly regarded as just another of the many rappers who helped bring hip-hop to the pop mainstream in the late '80s...and paid the price for crossover success by tumbling into one-hit-wonder status. But in 1989, he was huge — and so was "Bust a Move," MC's ode to the adolescent sexual tension that can only be dealt with by, y'know, following the title's advice. It's the perfect soundtrack, in other words, for the awkward lust that envelops the male members of the Losers' Club after they go for a swim with their new female friend Bev. Like Young MC's early discography, it's all quite innocent — unlike a certain other Bev-centric scene in King's novel, which didn't end up making it into the film.
No band channels raw aggression into music quite like Anthrax, and there's no act of aggression quite like hauling off and hucking a rock at someone — so it serves as a sort of poetic justice that Anthrax's 1988 cover of the Trust track "Antisocial" serves as the musical accompaniment for the pivotal rock fight between the Losers' Club and their teenage tormentors. A more polite rock anthem — like, say, Aerosmith's "My Fist Your Face" — simply wouldn't have cut it.
For the sensitive teens of the '80s, few bands could encapsulate the swirling angst of adolescence more completely than the Cure, and the group's ascension to mainstream status really got going with 1985's The Head on the Door. Boosted by the hit single "In Between Days," which reflected the band's evolving style as well as frontman Robert Smith's growing creative control, the record launched a thousand swooning mixtapes — and while music was probably the furthest thing from Bill and Bev's minds during the bloody aftermath of It's visit to her bathroom, the Door track "Six Different Ways" is still a suitably bittersweet soundtrack for their shared moment.
XTC courted controversy with this grassroots 1986 hit, which bubbled up from B-side status after DJs started playing it instead of its flip side, the Skylarking single "Grass." While the melody is undeniably catchy, the song's lyrics — which take a pointed approach to what XTC frontman Andy Partridge viewed as widespread religious exploitation of children — were seen as potentially offensive. It may have offended more devout listeners, but it still ended up being one of XTC's more widely known songs, and it hasn't lost any of its subversive power over the last three decades — as demonstrated by its appearance in It after the Losers' first fight against the godlike powers of Pennywise.
Their teen-idol pop was marketed predominantly to screaming girls, but there's no way the New Kids on the Block could have achieved the massive level of popularity they enjoyed in the late '80s if everyone hadn't been buying their records. Still, a lot of the guys who might have been fans did their best to hide it — like poor Ben Hanscom in It, who Bev catches bopping along to "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" on his Walkman. She keeps his secret, but she isn't above busting his chops about it later. Sadly, Pennywise doesn't exploit Ben's secret shame while tormenting the Losers, missing out on the chance to plague the boy with visions of undead New Kids and depriving Donnie Wahlberg of a golden opportunity to terrify audiences for the first time since his brief but memorable appearance in The Sixth Sense.