How Angelo Badalamenti gave Twin Peaks its dark, beautiful heart

Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle Maclachlan in Twin Peaks - Alamy
Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle Maclachlan in Twin Peaks - Alamy

The whole thing hinged on $50,000. In 1985, David Lynch was applying the finishing touches to Blue Velvet, his petrifying meditation on the darkness lurking behind the myth of suburban bliss. He was keen for the soundtrack to feature a cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren as recorded by goth collective This Mortal Coil. Alas, Lynch’s producer Fred Caruso blanched at the $50K asking price. In a bind, Lynch asked an obscure Brooklyn composer named Angelo Badalamenti to come up with a piece that communicated the same haunting mournfulness.

Lynch’s directions were at once simple and typically obtuse. He wanted Badalamenti to “compose something with no beginning and no end” and to make it “just ethereal beauty”. Out of this came Mysteries of Love – a unsettling torch song with lead vocals from little-known Creston, Iowa singer Julee Cruise, whom Badalamenti had met on the set of a musical he had written, The Boys in the Live Country Band.

None of the three could have known it – but their lives had changed forever.

Badalamenti, who has died age 85, became Lynch’s great foil. Five years after Blue Velvet, they would create some of the most gorgeously disturbing music ever set to film with the score to Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The score and the story of doomed small town girl Laura Palmer weren’t just complementary – they were entwined, one intimately informing the other. To this day, it is impossible to listen to Badalamenti’s Laura Palmer’s Theme or the Twin Peaks theme, reworked from Cruise’s Falling, without being reminded of the show’s mingling of beauty and terror. You may perhaps experience a shudder or feel a chill, even on a warm day.

“It was really off the wall,” is how Badalamenti described Twin Peaks when talking to Rolling Stone in 2014. “I thought it was either going to sink violently down the drain or, hopefully, capture the intrigue of enthusiastic people conversing by the office water cooler on a Monday morning.”

Lynch has never worked in an orthodox fashion and the genesis of the Twin Peaks soundtrack was typically idiosyncratic. In 1989, he asked Badalamenti join him at a studio near Times Square. There, they spun three plates at once. They worked on a Julee Cruise album, Floating into the Night, to which Lynch contributed lyrics (as he had on Mysteries Of Love).

They also hatched the musical Industrial Symphony Number 1 – The Dream of the Broken Hearted. It would be performed twice as part of the New Music America Festival. The cast included Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern and Michael J Anderson – the Lynch regular who, in Twin Peaks, would famously portray The Man From Another Place (aka the dancing dwarf).

With all of that going on, somehow Lynch and Badalamenti also found time to create the musical bedrock for Twin Peaks, which the director was writing with Hill Street Blues veteran Mark Frost. Innocence was bound up with darkness in Twin Peaks and in the character of Laura Palmer, the All-American cheerleader whose murder in a quiet town in America’s Pacific North West is the mystery around which the show orbits. And the music set the tone from the outset.

In Badalamenti’s Manhattan office, Lynch asked the musician to imagine he was walking through a creaking woodland at night. All he could hear was the wind, rattling the branches. And then, a cry in the darkness. Maybe a hooting owl. Perhaps something else.

David Lynch, Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti in 1989 - Hulton
David Lynch, Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti in 1989 - Hulton

“Just slow things down and it becomes more beautiful,” were his instructions. Half an hour later, they had what Badalamenti regarded as merely the bare-bones of a piece. For Lynch, though, it was perfect. He would later name it Laura Palmer’s Theme. “Don’t change a single note,” said Lynch. “I see Twin Peaks.”

They weren’t done. For the theme track, it was decided to repurpose Falling from Cruise’s Floating into the Night album. An instrumental version plays over the opening credits. And then, at the end of the first episode, Cruise graces the Roadhouse venue in Twin Peaks itself. In both cases, there was a conscious contrast between the ethereal pop and the horrific subject matter of murder and evil lurking behind twitching curtains.

“In the ruckus of beers flying through the air at The Roadhouse, we have Julee singing a beautiful, slow-tempo song, and it's so outrageous,” Badalamenti would recall. “You would never have that kind of song in a place like that. [...] The songs with Julee serve a two-fold purpose: They contrast the visuals and they set the tone for the show.”

Cruise was as baffled as anyone by the sobbing storm cooked up by Lynch and Badalamenti. Recording Floating into the Night with this oddest of odd couples, she wondered what she had signed up to. She wasn’t alone.

“I wasn't quite sure how the hell we were going to pull it off. One night I played some demos for my husband's friend and his wife, and she said, 'white wine muzak'. Aaaahh! I took it home for Christmas – and everyone in my family hated it. They were like, 'What are you singing about?' One of my lawyers at the time said, “This is a novelty.” I said, “like [comedy ukulele player] Tiny Tim?”

Twin Peaks was a bit Tiny Tim itself, with its unsettling mix of horror and humour (much of the latter courtesy of the deadpan Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper). And while interest in the series fizzled in the short term thanks to an uneven second season (by which time Lynch had temporarily absented himself), the score was understood to be an instant classic.

Within a few years, producer Moby had sampled the Laura Palmer’s Theme for his spooked rave anthem Go. Meanwhile, the finger-clicking Audrey’s Dance – which blended Lovecraftian terror and lounge pop – would come to be seen as encapsulating the entire Lynchian aesthetic. It was as comforting as apple pie, even as it stared into the void.

“If the show was a boat moving along, Angelo’s music was the river that carried it,” Mark Frost would later reflect. “It helped create and support the mood of the show. It gave you a very specific sense of time and place that felt outside of real time and real place. It helped elevate the show into a mythological realm that really separated it from the usual TV view of what the world is. I can’t imagine the show without the music.”