Mostly '80s Music from 'The Americans'
by Chuck Eddy | July 1, 2014
The Americans — FX network's highly addictive serial drama about an arranged-marriage Russian KGB couple disguised as middle-class Americans in suburban Virginia during the Reagan years, getting slowly sucked into Western life with unwitting help from the friendly though philandering FBI agent down the street — probably has TV's smartest soundtrack right now.
Most of the music comes, appropriately, from the '80s. But it's not the obvious '80s you might expect. The music directors prefer low- or mid-level hits that can seem vaguely familiar but that you can't immediately place — often surprisingly stark and shadowy ones, from aging '70s classic rockers trying to keep pace in an increasingly electronic era of post-disco New Wave: Peter Gabriel (used twice so far, most inevitably with 1980's frostbitten Cold War metaphor "Games Without Frontiers"), his fellow Genesis alumnus Phil Collins, Golden Earring, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend, Todd Rundgren in Utopia. These are balanced with songs that never made it past college radio, from ominous New Wave bands who in turn sound informed by prog rock or Eurodisco in retrospect: The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Fad Gadget. Squeeze sneak in with their atypically synthesized early track "Slap and Tickle"; so do a barely known Phoenix, Ariz., skinny-tie combo called Blue Shoes, with their local-only early '80s radio hit "Better." Roxy Music's "Sunset," though dating way back to 1974, fits right in.
The show's 2013 pilot opened on about as perfect a note as you could imagine, with "Harden My Heart," Quarterflash's quiet-storm-saxophoned rock smash from 1981; before the episode was over, "In the Air Tonight," "Tusk" and Juice Newton's bubblebilly Dave Edmunds cover "Queen of Hearts" had all helped establish a sense of time. Since then, yacht-rock grooves from San Francisco smoothies Pablo Cruise have shown up twice. And the palette got varied otherwise: Here-and-gone '70s R&B from Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack; high-octane rock from Mountain, April Wine and Billy Squier; Southern soul from McKinley Mitchell; old standbys you're more likely to recognize from Stray Cats, Modern English and Kenny Rogers. On The Americans, they tend to creep up on you when you're not looking, undercover like the spies themselves. On this playlist, you can hear them all.