Breaking Bad: The Ballads of Heisenberg and the music of Breaking Bad


Breaking Bad has gone out with a bang, here Getintothis’ Chris Burgess examines (pretty much spoiler free, for all of you yet to watch it) the music from one of television’s greatest dramatic triumphs.

Let me first clarify: I’m a massive fan of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and would not want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of the show.
I’ve tried to ensure that I don’t give any spoilers in this article and certainly no major plotlines are given away. I may reference certain scenes in later episodes, but only in a very general way. S’all good, man.
Breaking Bad is one of the most critically-acclaimed shows ever made, and it’s not hard to see why. With meticulously crafted storytelling, stellar acting, stunning locations and gorgeous cinematography throughout, the show has built and built to its final crescendo.
However, one equally important – yet seldom discussed – element that makes the show so impressive is its soundtrack. I can’t think of another programme that has used such a wide-ranging selection of music with such artistry and finesse.
There are other shows that compare in quality, but get nowhere near in terms of scope. Mad Men has a wonderful soundtrack, but is mostly limited to period songs from the 1960s. Eastbound and Down often leaves me scrambling for my phone to use Shazam to identify the tunes playing out, but sometimes you feel they try too hard to shoehorn songs into the action.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, contains at least five or six songs per episode that are perfectly placed to convey emotions, underpin the narrative, build tension or drive the story along. The sheer breadth of musical genres utilised to do this is what makes the show different to most others, in terms of scoring.
We try not to have too many rules,” series creator Vince Gilligan said in an interview last year.
The men behind the soundtrack are, Series Composer Dave Porter and Music Supervisor Thomas Golubic. Porter, who creates the original music in the series, is a master of using score to create tension and oppressively atmospheric moments.
Each track a mix of electronica and world music instrumentation, which blends perfectly with Breaking Bad‘s lush photography. Perhaps the best example of this is the song ‘Aztek‘, used when Tuco’s cousins turn up.
Alongside the original score, Golubic picks out the songs that make the soundtrack and admits that it’s not always an easy job. Indeed, the scale of the show means that he must be familiar with a LOT of different musical styles and genres. “There is a lot of music that I love that I’d never be able to use because it’s the picture that tells you what it wants“, he said in a recent Huffington Post interview about the job.
The show’s soundtrack takes in a very wide and diverse set of songs, from the upbeat – such as the breezy Californian sunshine of Let Your Love Flow by the Bellamy Brothers and the catchy It’s Such a Good Night by Paul Rothman – to the explicitly atmospheric – like the haunting Magic Arrow by Timber Timbre and the ridiculously gorgeous Black by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, featuring Norah Jones.
Genre-wise, anything and everything seems to be fair game. We’ve heard dub (Nine Years by Ticklah), country (James Hand with Here Lies A Good Old Boy), classical (Haydn String Quartet No.5 in D major, Op.64 ‘Lark’), and electronic (Uh! by Fujiya & Miyagi) as well as blues, opera, hip-hop, reggae, and even the grimy alt-rock of Badger and Jesse’s band – the marvellously, horrifically named Twaughthammer.

As the show is set in New Mexico, there is a great deal of Latin-flavoured music featured. The fiery flamenco of Tamacun by Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the cinematic 1977 by Ana Tijoux immediately spring to mind, as well as a multitude of Spanish language hip-hop tracks.
Perhaps the most cinematic show that the small screen has ever seen, I doubt any series will have a soundtrack to match it for a long, long time.
Here are Getintothis‘ top 10 songs from the show:
1. Working for a Nuclear Free City: Dead Fingers Talking
Used during the first RV meth cook between Walt and Jesse in the pilot episode, Working for a Nuclear Free City manage to create a mix of 90s baggy indie and modern electronica, sounding very much like the Stone Roses, if they’d had synths instead of guitars.

2. America: A Horse With No Name
Opening the second episode of Season 3, A Horse With No Name‘s lyrics fit in with the action perfectly, as Walt drives through the hot New Mexico desert.

3. Knife Party: Bonfire
Walt and Junior share a father and son bonding session over a couple of new cars. Knife Party provide the soundtrack, somehow managing to add a Latin flavour to in-your-face dubstep.

4. Los Cuates de Sinaloa: Negro y Azul: The Ballad of Heisenberg
The ‘narcocorrido’ Mexican song was written specifically for the show, and tells the story of Walter White/Heisenberg and the events of the show preceding it. “But that homie’s dead, he just doesn’t know it yet“, they ominously sing.

5. Dave Porter: The Cousins
The only recurring motif in the series, Porter’s original score creeps along, building menacing layers of tension as it goes along.

6. Quartetto Cetra: Crapa Pelada
Perhaps the best example of the music providing a backstory to the characters, we see lab assistant Gale singing along to this rather obscure 1940s Italian vocal quartet. The singing is word perfect, and the establishing shots of other worldly items signify that Gale is a cultured, well-travelled man.

7. Peter Schilling: Major Tom
Sticking with Gale, I have to include perhaps his finest moment – a karaoke version of Major Tom, complete with Thai subtitles. It’s another great example of the levity that the music provides in the show, although the scene where Walt and Hank view the video is filled with tension.

8. Prince Fatty (feat. Horseman): Shimmy Shimmy Ya
Perhaps the funniest scene in the entire series – Brighton’s Prince Fatty covers the ODB classic, while Jesse messes around in the lab. Who wouldn’t do the same given some yellow overalls and an air hose?

9. Apparat: Goodbye (instrumental)
Heard in the season 4 finale, Goodbye flows effortlessly over the action – building in intensity as it goes along. The lush arrangement conveying raw emotion from the start, it’s perfectly placed.

10. Tommy James and the Shondells: Crystal Blue Persuasion
Ain’t it beautiful, crystal blue persuasion.” Tommy James manages to crystallise in one line the ‘product’ underpinning the entire series, with sumptuous organ sounds and a blissful horn section. This was used in one of the best montage sequences in the show, and the song fades out to great effect.

Further reading on Getintothis
Getintothis reviews LCD Soundsystem‘s Shut Up & Play The Hits.
Getintothis reviews The Stone Roses: Made Of Stone.
Getintothis reviews The City That Rocked The World: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool.
Liverpool Lift-Off Film Festival 2013: Music at the movies – the soundtrack of our lives.
My night with Tarantino in Liverpool and his top soundtracks
Cronenberg & Lynch: Music & Non-Music
The Art Of The Pop Video at FACT, Liverpool
The Wire: Soundtracks and Top quotes
Warp presents All Tomorrow’s Parties film.