When David Chase, the mastermind behind The Sopranos, spoke to Vice in 2015 about the show’s music, he explained that “you can’t just have cool songs. The songs can’t all be good, because life isn’t like that.” For Chase, music was essential to the storytelling, but it was also a way to gain insight to his characters. This was never more evident than with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the chronically depressed gangster who was the heart of the show. Over six seasons, Chase used the lyrics and melody of his (mostly) hand-picked soundtrack to help round out the nuances of Tony’s complicated personality on The Sopranos (which you can stream on HBO Now). Here’s a look at some of the songs that helped describe Tony in a way that words alone never could.
Alabama 3 – “Woke Up This Mornin'”
While Chase originally wanted a different theme song for each episode, “Woke Up This Mornin'” would end up immortalized as the soundtrack to The Sopranos‘ opening credits, which chronicles Tony’s drive from New York to his home in New Jersey. Visually, the opening showcases everything that comprises Tony’s world, from the massive industrial buildings, to the brick-and-mortar shops of his old neighborhood, to his home buried deep in an affluent suburb. Sonically, Alabama 3’s vocalist Rob Spragg drops perennial blues phrases in his rough, gravelly delivery, and repeats the line “Woke up this mornin’/Got yourself a gun,” underscoring the violent reality of Tony’s day-to-day world.
Nick Lowe – “The Beast in Me”
Closing out the show’s pilot episode is Nick Lowe’s storied, remorseful ballad, which was originally written for Lowe’s father-in-law, Johnny Cash. Here, in Lowe’s version, his baritone delivery speaks woefully to a man’s savage, untamed id, which seems to be custom made for Tony Soprano, who despite his aspirations to do what he felt was right, he often fell victim to the tantrum-prone sociopath that dwelled within him.
The Rolling Stones – “Thru and Thru”
As the season two finale, “Funhouse,” opens on what would be the last meal between Tony and Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), this brooding Stones’ ballad, sung with weathered delivery by guitarist Keith Richards, narrates a montage of Tony’s vast criminal empire through the eyes of those most affected by it. By the time the song’s stumbling arpeggio starts up again in the show’s closing moments, it also accompanies a very similar montage, but this time, one that ends with a haunting reminder of the brutal consequences of Tony’s world.
The Police/Henry Mancini – “Every Breath You Take/Peter Gunn”
A light-hearted entry for a relatively light-hearted episode, the season three premiere, “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” gives us an episode largely from the perspective of the FBI during their endeavor to plant a listening device in the Soprano’s family home. The mashup itself — which was thought up by Chase’s wife, Denise Kelly, who received a songwriting credit for the episode — sets The Police’s ode to stalking played alongside Henry Mancini’s brassy, surfy theme song from a cop show of the same name. It doesn’t rely on subtlety, and instead plays off the episode’s sense of humor while providing a rare look at Tony’s life from the outside, and all the boring conversations about water heaters and dietary fiber that come with it.
Steely Dan – “Dirty Work”
Speaking of those incidentally boring moments, in the midst of the FBI tracking every member of the Soprano household, we’re treated to a few glorious seconds of Tony driving along in his SUV, staring blankly forward and mindlessly belting out the chorus to Steely Dan’s 1972 classic. What it lacks in insight, it more than makes up for by as a rare moment of levity, and a particularly relatable one at that.
The Kinks – “Living on a Thin Line”
While it doesn’t come up until halfway through the show’s third season, The Kinks’ solemn lamentation on time and the inevitability of change echoes one of the very first things Tony confesses to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) — that he felt the best was over, and all that’s left is the bitter end. Of course, as the song’s title suggests, there’s an underlying sense of trepidation, personified by Tracee, the ill-fated stripper who’s the focus of the episode, “University,” where the song is featured throughout. While it speaks to her character’s all-too-brief arc, the same could be said of any of the show’s characters, all potential victims of their own dangerous lifestyle.
Time Zone – “World Destruction”
Easily the most jarring entry on this list, the 1984 collaboration between now controversial Time Zone founder Afrika Bambaataa and former Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon is an angular, untamed protest song, ranting on everything from class warfare, racism, and, of course, complete global annihilation. It was a fitting anthem to ring in the show’s fourth season, which took on a decidedly darker tone while also starting to reveal an increasingly paranoid Tony Soprano.
Van Morrison – “Glad Tidings”
“Glad Tidings” is another song that weaves itself effortlessly through the narrative of an episode, this time in the season five closer “All Due Respect,” which zeroed in on the season’s featured character, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), who found himself in a New York mob war in a way that guarantees an unhappy ending. While suitably infectious for a Sopranos tune, the song’s particularly upbeat nature, both in tempo and lyrics, seems like an odd contrast, until you factor in Chase’s uncanny eye for detail. The Star Ledger noted in 2004 that “moments before buckshot hit Blundetto, we heard the verse that opened with ‘And we’ll send you glad tidings from New York’ and closed with ‘Hope that you will come in right on time.'”
Pink Floyd – “Comfortably Numb”
As Tony and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) leave a particularly frustrating meeting in New York, Tony keeps wondering about Christopher’s incessant restlessness, which ends up causing him to wreck his car. Just prior to that, the last conversation the two would end up having was about the soundtrack to The Departed, which also coyly reminded viewers that Christopher was an avowed Scorsese fan. As Pink Floyd’s sullen ballad “Comfortably Numb” plays in the background, the last line that’s heard is the ominous “The child is grown/the dream is gone,” an almost custom-made lyric for Tony’s dashed hopes that he once had for Christopher.
Journey – “Don’t Stop Believing”
Already a long-standing favorite of barroom jukeboxes everywhere, Chase had crafted the show’s final moments around the infamous power ballad more than a year before filming. In a 2015 interview with the Director’s Guild of America, Chase described that scene, which began with Tony staring at a jukebox filled with songs that he called the “soundtrack to his life.”
No matter what song we picked, I wanted it to be a song that would have been from Tony’s high school years, or his youth. That’s what he would have played.
As the song helps to narrate the show’s final moments, Tony becomes the hardened city boy, while Carmela (Edie Falco) becomes the wide-eyed small town girl, and the song’s midnight train to anywhere becomes a metaphor for their journey together into Tony’s life of crime. Journey’s then-vocalist, Steve Perry, wouldn’t allow the song to be used unless he was told how the episode really ended, while audiences were treated to the notorious cut to black, stopping the song abruptly while starting a furious debate for years to come.