‘The Wicked Die Young’ So That Refn Might Truly Live

In which we get to hear some of what inspired Nicolas Winding Refn when he was creating his distinctive film

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has great taste in music.

Just think about the music he’s used in his films, especially Drive, The Neon Demon, Bronson, and Only God Forgives. In them, you’ll hear New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Glass Candy, Electric Youth, College, Chromatics, Kavinsky, Riz Ortolani, The Walker Brothers, and many more — not to mention the brilliant score work of composer Cliff Martinez. All memorable, crucial artists.

But what about outside the films? What’s Refn listen to when he’s conjuring his divisive, memorable, and stylized fare? Thankfully, Refn’s given us some insight with The Wicked Die Young, a new compilation of work he listened to while making high-fashion horror film The Neon Demon.

The Wicked Die Young, which is intended as a companion piece to TND, contains exclusive tracks from Drive artists Electric Youth, TND composer (and long-time Refn scorer) Martinez, and Refn’s nephew, Julian Winding, who also had a killer electronic number on the TND soundtrackThe Wicked Die Young also has a slew of quality work from the likes of Suicide, Giorgio Moroder, Pino Donaggio, Lynsey de Paul, and Sparks, among others.

All in all, it’s a rewarding ride with song styles that, like inspiration, come in waves. The release, part of Refn’s curated series for Milan Records, comes out on Friday, April 14. You can pre-order it now if you want to. You probably should. (Update, April 14: You can buy digital and vinyl editions directly from Milan.)

What Inspires Refn?

Naturally, the character and substance of the music Refn listened to while making TND and the music that ended up in TND aren’t always in the same boat. Sometimes inspiration comes in different shades and movements — and I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I’m always damn curious what inspires the Danish director.

Steelberg’s take on Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, ‘The Neon Demon.’

The compelling TND is a stylized, neatly crafted display of rotting glamor, and its music reflects this. Martinez’s sometimes ambient, often kinetic electronic score pairs well with the vampiric carnage and necrophilia that pepper the film about the competitive Los Angeles fashion scene. (Just as Martinez’s often subtle Drive score offered a complementary, but stark, contrast to The Driver’s ferocious, and bloody, anger.)

Contrast that with what’s on The Wicked Die Young. One could argue that Electric Youth’s haunting “Good Blood,” Martinez’s pensive “Becoming,” and Winding’s electro-banger “When You Want to Hurt Someone,” all could have found a lovely place on the TND soundtrack alongside the score, Winding’s dark disco “Demon Dance,” and Sia’s “Waving Goodbye.”

The drumless “Good Blood” is in many ways a quintessential Electric Youth cut: Austin Garrick’s celestial synths and Bronwyn Griffin’s ethereal vocals weave together in their trademark fashion, unleashing upon us a subtle but profoundly catchy melody.

“Becoming” features an ambient synth kinesis with glassy synths that roll smoothly all over each other and encounter a sporadic choir, all with the support of Martinez’s deft composition skills.

The new Winding track, “When You Want to Hurt Someone,” is a tough-as-nails electro cut that complements well his extroverted dark-disco TND contribution, “Demon Dance.” Things pulsate, get acidy, rip you raw a bit, and in general keep you in a fully assertive posture.

Beyond that, Refn’s inspiration takes interesting turns, down roads gritty with rough-edged rock, intoxicated with classic disco perfection, and baptized with beautiful balladry.  

Photo by Johnny Jewel, who through Italians Do It Better is also selling 'Wicked.'
Photo courtesy of Italians Do It Better, which is among the outlets selling ‘Wicked.’


Amid the rock set, there are some garage-spawned gritty bangers. For example, British punk band 999’s 1978 hit “Homicide” comes at you from the angry underbelly of London with power riffs, fierce drumming, and singer Nick Cash’s dirty wail. This is about as far from TND’s airtight glamor as you can get, but it’s easy to picture Refn conceptualizing chic barbarism while listening to this cut. After all, this is a song called “Homicide.” The Wicked Die Young also includes the glammy protopunk of Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers’ “Pirate Love,” which only adds to the grit.

Suicide’s 1978 proto-synthpop classic “Cheree” has the DIY aesthetic of downtown NYC punk/glampunk — at least when downtown could incubate such a thing. It’s a sweet little taste of subversion that serves as a nice handoff to the disco numbers that bring so much joy to The Wicked Die Young.

And speaking of those disco numbers, Moroder’s handiwork is naturally all over a couple of them. One is his version of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and the other is Sparks’ 1979 disco hit, “The Number One Song in Heaven,” which Moroder co-wrote and produced.

Moroder’s take on “Nights,” the title of which he changed to “Knights” in a noteworthy act of pundom, is a confidence-building groover that does a great job of representing his mid-70s acousto-electronic oeuvre. But it’s his cut with Sparks that is a big standout on The Wicked Die Young.

“Heaven” is a seven-minute blitz of Hi-NRG/synth-pop — a dynamic, boisterous number that expresses itself in a series of movements all tied together by tightly compressed acoustic drums, kinetic synth-bass arps, and Russell Mael’s pyrotechnical glam vocal explosion. For a fairly minimalist cut, it packs a massive punch. It’s such a good time.

Throughout The Wicked Die Young, Refn provides plenty of opportunity to cool down. For example, there’s the theme from Pino Donaggio’s score for Brian de Palma’s 1980 seductive melodrama Dressed to Kill. It’s a delicate symphonic cue laden with a wistfully sweet sense of foreboding. There’s also Lynsey de Paul’s laid-back 1973 ballad “Won’t Somebody Dance with Me.” This bittersweet gem pops up on occasion every decade and deserves a resurgence.

Overall, The Wicked Die Young cracks open a door into a tiny portion of Refn’s creative process. We hear an eclectic mix of cuts that seemed to foster the extraction from Refn’s mind the haunting, gory, shocking, and detached The Neon Demon — to tell the story of the haunting, gory, shocking, and detached LA fashion industry.

The Wicked Die Young Tracklist:

  1. Electric Youth – “Good Blood”
  2. Lynsey de Paul – “Won’t Somebody Dance With Me”
  3. Suicide – “Cheree (1998 Remastered Version)”
  4. 999 – “Homicide”
  5. Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – “Pirate Love”
  6. Dionne Warwick – “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls”
  7. Tommy Seebach – “Bubble Sex”
  8. Amanda Lear – “Follow Me”
  9. Giorgio Moroder – “Knights In White Satin”
  10. Sparks – “The No. 1 Song In Heaven”
  11. Cliff Martinez – “Becoming”
  12. Pino Donaggio – “The Shower (Theme from Dressed to Kill)”
  13. Claudio Gizzi – “End Of A Myth”
  14. Julian Winding – “When You Want To Hurt Someone”

In addition to this compilation, Milan’s Nicolas Winding Refn Presents series includes special editions of the soundtrack to his own film, Bronson, along with soundtracks for Robocop, The Terminator, and It Follows. More information on the releases is over at Milan.

(Feature Photo courtesy of Italians Do It Better, which is also selling The Wicked Die Young.)

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