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Cosmic Radio: Five Songs That Give Life To 'Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2'

Russ Fischer

“I feel like the soundtrack in the second one is better.”

Two years ago, James Gunn stoked interest in the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which follows on from the platinum-selling collection of songs from the first Guardians film. Few albums sell well in today's music market, but Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a monster that helped introduce new audiences to a bunch of classic tunes.

When it comes to Awesome Mix Vol. 2, Gunn was right: The second soundtrack is better. The songs on Vol. 2 are tightly connected to the tone and events of the movie, despite the fact that almost all were written decades before it was conceived. It's a more surprising collection, too, with tracks that will be new to most audiences, giving Gunn a chance to stamp it with his own tone.

Join us as we explore some of the best songs on the mix. This isn’t every track on the soundtrack — you can get that by going right to Spotify or another streaming service of your choice (or buy an actual copy!) — but we'll hit the soundtrack's surprises and the tracks most deeply intertwined with the story of Star-Lord and friends.

'Mr. Blue Sky' By Electric Light Orchestra (1977)

Gunn kicks off GotG2 with this irrepressible track that plays over Baby Groot dancing through the sort of Big Space Battle we usually see as the climactic event in other movies. The track’s bouncy rhythm isn’t even a riff, just an upbeat throb of drums and strings (from piano, bass, guitar, even cello), but the pulse sets up the bright lyrics. The sun’s out! It’s nice! People are happy!

But a shadow, like the one hanging over several Guardians throughout the movie, creeps in from the fringe. ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a master pop craftsman, hides some of the darkness with falsetto Beatle-esque harmonies, as the chorus asks, “Where did we go wrong?” The middle bridge, jogging forward on the song’s primary poppy pulse, acknowledges that nothing lasts. “But soon comes Mr. Night creepin' over, now his hand is on your shoulder.”

Mr. Night isn’t a pseudonym for Thanos — at least, not as far as we know — but the point is there, all the same. Happiness is fleeting, better enjoy it while it lasts. But do the Guardians even have happiness?

Side note: While the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy was pretty good, it was undermined by the associations some of those songs have with other films. "Hooked on a Feeling" will always belong to Quentin Tarantino, and "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" has a solid place on the surprisingly great Devil’s Rejects soundtrack. This time, Gunn wrests control of songs away from prior users. "Mr. Blue Sky" has been used in many films, but the Vol. 2 opening is going to override them all.

'Lake Shore Drive' By Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah (1971)

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah isn't a person, but a band, with connections to Chicago band Rotary Connection, which also included singer Minnie Riperton, the mother of actress Maya Rudolph. What’s that got to do with anything? Not much, but it helps place this otherwise reference-free song in some pop context.

This is one of the pleasant surprises Gunn weaves into the Guardians sequel soundtrack. The backstory of Vol. 2 is informed by Peter Quill’s parents, specifically the universe-roaming days of his dad Ego, which led him to Quill’s mom in the 1970s. This tune is a primo driving ditty; I can imagine Ego cruising back to his corner of the cosmos blasting this in whatever passes for a galactic tape deck.

The '70s music scene was massively different to now, with no internet for distribution, no cable TV (and therefore no MTV), and not even a major FM station in many markets. With a few Beatles-size exceptions, bands didn’t instantly become popular on a national scale. Their singles might become regional hits, then relentless touring and aggressive promotion to an ever-widening radius of radio markets could help an act built their name.

(This still happens in hip-hop, where an act like Migos can be popular in their local market before breaking out on a national scale. But even there it's different, because of the internet and modern mix tapes.)

Plenty of bands, including Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, stalled at the regional level. “Lake Shore Drive” was a hit in the Chicago area and into the greater Midwest, but that was about as big as the band ever got. The song's uncontainable, upbeat personality and vague air of mystery has kept it alive for decades; it deserves this second chance.

Side Note: Songwriter Skip Haynes says the song’s “LSD” acronym refers only to the Chicago road described in the song, and not to the hallucinogenic drug. But the single’s B-side “The Snow Queen” is definitely about cocaine, and the drug references in “Uppers and Downers,” also from the band’s LP, are pretty clear. So decide for yourself.

'The Chain' By Fleetwood Mac (1977)

Prior to their 1975 album, the first to feature creative and romantic partners Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac was almost a washout. Then the mid-‘70s lineup crystalized the potential of all members, forging the group into a vessel for often virtuosic writing, singing and playing.

Still, Fleetwood Mac, after a year of recording and touring with Buckingham and Nicks, was a bundle of fraying nerves and really messed-up sexual and romantic entanglements. Friction and contention were the Mac's bywords. Those personal clashes and harmonies informed the creation of Rumours, the band's best record.

So “The Chain,” from that album, is a product of five people who kind of love each other, but kind of hate each other, and do great work even as they squabble among themselves. Not hard to see how that has a place in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. (All the movie leaves out is all the cocaine that fueled the Rumours recording sessions.)

In fact, “The Chain” was written in an even more haphazard manner than most of the band’s songs, with sections of the tune drawn from ideas and other compositions. Some of the final version was literally cut and taped together from portions of other songs. Buckingham told Rolling Stone in 1977, “We ended up calling it 'The Chain' because it was a bunch of pieces."

Recently, Gunn told the same magazine that the song is “about the Guardians, at least in the way we use it, and we use it a couple of times in the movie.”

Side note: For some great history of Fleetwood Mac’s formation and evolution, check out Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City. The film profiles the LA recording studio of the same name, which is where the 1975 Fleetwood Mac album was recorded after Buckingham and Nicks signed on. In chronicling the studio, the film becomes a sort of stealth history of some of the band’s most important days.

'Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)' By Looking Glass (1972)

This one is total cheese, a prime example of heart-on-sleeve AM radio gold. It also boasts slick production that highlights the main melody and deploys horn flourishes and backup vocals like nets to snare any listener.

The band Looking Glass was a New Jersey combo, but the song really broke out in the Baltimore and Washington, DC area. Just as with “Lake Shore Drive,” rigorous local promotion helped the song catch on in the Maryland region — the difference is that from there, “Brandy” was launched to national success, ultimately topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is a key part of Star-Lord and Ego’s story. The hero’s father relates his own journey through the cosmos, and his love for Star-Lord’s mother, to the story told in the song’s lyrics. It’s almost like Ego uses the song, which tells of a sailor who likes this girl Brandy a lot but ultimately is *really* in love with the sea, as justification for bailing on Peter’s mum. We’ll let you see how the film plays out to see how that one goes.

This song being a key part of a movie like Guardians represents the Looking Glass story coming full circle in a way. Singer/songwriter Elliot Lurie left music to work as an exec in the music department at 20th Century Fox, continuing his Hollywood career as a music supervisor. Independent of Lurie’s work, this song has had a long life in media, showing up in movies and TV, being covered by other bands and inspiring more artists.

Side note: Barry Manilow’s massive hit "Mandy" was a cover of a UK song called "Brandy" that was written around the same time that "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl") was a hit. Manilow changed the title and lyric for his tune to avoid any confusion with the song by Looking Glass.

'Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang' By Silver (1976)

There are two types of people: Those lucky few who already know this song and will be thrilled to hear it in the context of a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and those who are about to become big fans of this kitschy, totally catchy single. (Gunn was in the latter group, until a fan recommended the song for this movie.)

There’s a fitting aspect of genre clash here. Vol 2. shows Gunn tweaking the Marvel model to fit a bizarre family dynamic into the established tentpole framework. The band Silver was mostly a country band, but needed a hit. Their label threw this tune, written by Rick Giles, at the group. The recorded result isn’t a country song at all, but it has the sort of indefinable crossover quality that makes it seem at home in a few different radio formats.

So “Wham Bam” became a minor hit, with big success again in the Chicago area. Nationally it ended up at No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 1976, just one spot below “Evil Woman” by ELO, and 14 spots down from No. 56, Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” another Guardians soundtrack tune. There's some kind of cosmic connection there. I'll quit wondering how this song has never been put to use by other filmmakers in the past (Tarantino was asleep at the switch here) and be happy I get to enjoy it now.

Side note: The cover for Silver’s only record was designed by the same artist who did work for bands like Poco and America, and most notably the cover for Aja by Steely Dan, and the ‘70s logo for Crosby Stills & Nash. Who's the artist? You might know him from shows such as The Simpsons, or The Pee-Wee Herman Show. The late Phil Hartman, a supreme comedian and voice actor, created the Silver cover art, as well as the others mentioned above, before his acting career took off.

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So, what did we leave out? I hate to skip over Sam Cooke, but everyone should already know his work. (Pick up his astounding Live At The Harlem Square Club album if you don’t have it.)

Parliament is equally great, but equally well-known, and while I love Sweet and the track “Fox on the Run,” that song only appears in the trailer. (And we’ve talked about it here.) "Surrender" by Cheap Trick is an all-time favorite, and the "Mommy's alright, daddy's alright, we just seem a little weird" lyric is perfect for Guardians, but I'd rather let that song live as a rock gem all on its own.