Character Studies 20: Music

Music plays an unusually prominent major role in this show about two tough detectives in a crime-ridden urban setting. Nearly every episode features a musical reference of some kind, either in passing conversation, the use of pianos and record players as useful props, undercover identities such as Hack and Zack (“Songs and Laffs”), even the western guitar shirt Hutch favors throughout the run of the series. Sensibly, for the most part there are very few references to popular music of the day, avoiding the series seeming anachronistic or dated – there is more a tendency to reference jazz, blues, or “hillbilly” music, as Starsky puts it. While the incidental background music tends to the generic, rarely changing over the four-year span of the series, it does have its charms, as noted in this somewhat inaccurate but enormously good-natured routine by the British comedian Bill Bailey. In some episodes the music is sophisticated and atmospheric (“Survival”), blaringly spooky (“Bloodbath”) or just plain silly (the va-voom saxophone every time a beautiful girl appears, for instance). Foreground music can also figure prominently, as in many of the club or disco scenes (most notably in “Discomania”, in which popular songs are heard) or as sung or played by characters, most of whom are musicians themselves (“Ballad for a Blue Lady”, “Death in a Different Place”, “Losing Streak”, “Long Walk Down a Short Dirt Road”).

For David Soul, music and acting are of parallel importance, and he gives Hutch a similar love of music, although his two onstage performances in “Long Walk Down a Dirt Road” and “Moonshine” are comedic ones, with him as a nervous wreck (I suspect as a self-deprecating nod to his extraordinarily successful career as a singer-songwriter) and Starsky as his enthusiastic number-one fan. Hutch also has many informal scenes of playing music (“Velvet Curtain”, “Running”, “Little Girl Lost”), and is often seen humming or singing. He writes a lyric to Marianne in “Ballad for a Blue Lady” and is excited to receive an album in the mail in “The Game”. But his best musical moment is in “Body Worth Guarding”, in which he sings a song to Anna, a scene notable for its sweetness and sincerity. Surprisingly, Starsky, often portrayed as being either tone-deaf or indifferent to music, also plays guitar and beautifully sings a fragment of a song, this time to a tense, watchful Monique in “The Avenger”. Significantly, both these scenes show the detectives offering a song as a gesture of comfort to someone they are protecting. For some fans the favorite musical moment might be the robust performance of the jocular “Black Bean Soup” both Starsky and Hutch perform for a motley collection of friends in “Death Notice”, (resurrected in “The Set-Up”), the one and only time they sing together.

There is not only an abundance of singing on the part of Starsky and Hutch in the series, but an unusual amount of dancing too, owing in part to the disco craze of the times but also as an a way to compliment and contrast the muscular physicality of the fighting and chasing scenes (“Las Vegas Strangler”, “Tap Dancing”, “Fatal Charm”, “Murder at Sea”, “Death in a Different Place”, “Discomania”, “The Avenger”, “Starsky’s Brother”, “The Snitch”, and off screen in “Moonshine”). Starsky is a wildly wholehearted dancer, Hutch a more cautious, stiff one, both more than willing to dance if given the opportunity (thus earning a few more points in the desirability quotient for many women). This willingness to engage in and enjoy music belies their hard, masculine characters and gives the series a truly unexpected, enjoyably optimistic element often absent from the grim content of the storylines.

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5 Responses to “Character Studies 20: Music”

  1. hutchlover Says:

    I would respectfully disagree your statement abt DS & Moonshine. While Moonshine is a comedic episode, DS is having an absolute blast onstage. That is his RL backup band w/him in that scene.

    • merltheearl Says:

      It’s probably not clear enough in this Character Study, but I hope I make these salient points in the commentary for the actual episode.

      • hutchlover Says:

        Ah… That could be. Just finished your S1 reviews.

        As an addional studies, perhaps doing one for each season as a whole? S4 esp…what’s going on w/them. I’d love to read ur thoughts.

  2. Dianna Says:

    I keep trying to watch Survival with special attention to the amazingly powerful music, so I can better understand how it enhances the episode, but I get caught up in the story and lose track of which themes are repeated when.

    I have trouble watching video of David Soul singing onstage in real life, because I get a cognitive dissonance from seeing someone who looks just like Hutch but clearly isn’t him. I wonder whether acting in Starsky and Hutch helped or hurt his singing career.

  3. Sharon Marie Says:

    Although very different for detective shows of the day, I think the reference to music was very reflective of the time. The mid 70’s to mid 80’s was a time when everyone wanted a guitar. I was 15 in 1978 and there was not a guy in my high school class of 320 who did not own a guitar and want to play it to be cool for his friends, or to be wanted by the girls.

    I love seeing the side table at Hutch’s with the stereo and record albums. I reflexively want to flip through the albums to see what he’s listening to. It’s what we did back then. It broke the ice when new to someone’s house. It was a conversation starter. There is still one store in NYC in the west village that sells only records. There is a sign in the window that says “No CD’s. Only Records”! When I am down there I still stop and flip through the albums, picking some up to read the liner notes and admire the lost treasure of album art. Last month I saw albums there I hadn’t seen in decades: ELO, Elton John, Springsteen, Cheap Trick, Dylan etc…

    So when I see S & H refer to music, see their albums and guitars, hear them sing, it takes me back to that time in high school and college when we covered songs to have fun with our friends and impress our lovers!

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