Happy 50th Anniversary to Easy Rider, which premiered in theaters July 14, 1969, and its accompanying soundtrack, originally released in August of 1969.
Editor’s note: The following represents an edited & expanded excerpt from Stephen Lee Naish’s book ‘Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper’ available here.
This month marks fifty years since the release of Dennis Hopper’s seminal directorial debut, Easy Rider, a film that still holds up as an assessment of America in the 1960s and its social ills. It’s also the gold standard for the way in which independent films can transcend the small audience draw and push into the mainstream, bringing so much acclaim and box office revenue so as to change the direction of films for decades to come.
The film follows two hippie bikers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they drift across the American landscape, chasing down the American Dream on their custom-built motorcycles. Their only goal is to get rich, get loaded, hit the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and as Billy exclaims, “retire in Florida.” These two are America’s lost sons, rebellious, done with the hokey past and waiting for the future to be born, whilst not actively participating in it.
There are many ways in which Easy Rider still resonates five decades later, but it’s the film’s soundtrack—a collection of rock and folk numbers from the era that set a new precedent for film music—that has continued to influence subsequent film soundtracks.
Hopper’s relationship with the key players of the 1960s music scene (Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young were some of Hopper’s close friends) and knowledge of current trends in popular music greatly influenced his career as a film director. His use of music within his own directorial films placed within them cultural markers that offered commentary on the fictional narratives of the film and the factual events that surround the era in which the film was made. For example, Hopper’s use of punk rock in his third directorial film Out of the Blue (1980) perfectly corresponds with the film’s nihilistic worldview, whilst the use of hip-hop in his fourth film Colors (1988) presents a realistic view of his protagonists and their relationship to Los Angeles gang culture.
When Hopper incorporated rock and folk songs from the 1960s into the soundtrack of Easy Rider’s jaunt across America, they not only provided an entertaining visual and aural experience, they also presented additional significance to the narrative—though in some respects the significance was accidental, as Hopper admitted: “It took me a year to edit it. I would play the radio on the way to the editing room and I would hear the music off the radio. And as I was doing the travelling sequences I started putting songs to it.” Originally, the soundtrack was to be scored by folk-rock superstars Crosby, Stills & Nash. However, according to Hopper, the group’s ethos didn’t quite correspond with his own and the point of view of his film: “The original idea was for Crosby, Stills & Nash to score Easy Rider, but I had a falling out with Stephen Stills. We were driving back to my office in his limo and I said, ‘Stephen, this simply isn’t going to work.’ He asked why and I shouted, ‘Because I’ve never been in a limo before and anyone who drives around town in a limo can’t understand my movie! F*** off!’”
This dramatic disagreement led Easy Rider to become a milestone in film soundtracking. Before Easy Rider, it was virtually unheard of for a movie to use already recorded and released music by popular bands and artists on a soundtrack. Prior to Easy Rider, the norm for a film soundtrack was for it to be scored by a set of composers or session musicians after an initial edit of the movie was available.
As the 1960s progressed, a number of films featured original folk rock scores recorded predominantly by one artist. In the case of The Graduate (1967), folk duo Simon & Garfunkel provided original compositions that made up the bulk of the soundtrack material. Alongside the other social, cultural, and film industry changes Easy Rider helped shape, it also laid the foundations for filmmakers to begin to use preexisting music to soundtrack their films. All that was required was for the filmmakers to pay a licensing fee, or in the context of the late 1960s, be associated with enough willing musicians.
Along with other music-orientated films such as The Beatles’ Help! (1965) and The Monkees’ psychedelic film Head (1968), Easy Rider functioned as a prelude to the creation of music videos that would go on to help create music channels such as MTV and VH1 in the mid 1980s. It is certainly easy to spot the embryonic music video style in these late 1960s movies. The staple of most music videos, such as a quick-fire editing style and use of symbolism to tell a short narrative, can be found throughout Easy Rider. According to Andrew Goodwin in his book Dancing in the Distraction Factory, this process of film soundtracks leading to music videos was a natural evolution: “In its earliest days rock and roll was promoted via film; indeed many teens first discovered rock at the movies.” Now music incorporates film language via a music video to promote a song.
The musical interludes of Easy Rider provide a mosaic of artistic imagery to complement the song and underline its meaning within the film. Hopper’s directorial work had a tendency to emphasize the narratives using lyrical accompaniment from songs included on the soundtrack. For example, the imagery for The Byrds’ psychedelic folk standard “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” shows Billy and Wyatt gliding through a rugged sunlit forest, a deep valley running into the far distance, an overshadowing mountain lingering over the landscape, with the sunlight creating prisms of lens flare that absorb the frame. This setting is mirrored in the song’ lyrics: “Journey where the diamond crescent’s glowing / and run across the valley / beneath the sacred mountain / and wander through the forest / where the trees have leaves of prisms / and break the light in colors / that no one knows the name of.”
For further emphasis, Billy and Wyatt then pull up to a gas station called The Sacred Mountain. The imagery of the film perfectly corresponds with and complements the lyrical content of the song and vice-versa.
And it doesn’t stop there. The soundtrack is littered with iconic moments. Steppenwolf’s classics “The Pusher” and “Born to Be Wild” and The Band’s version of “The Weight” cannot be pulled apart from the visuals of Easy Rider. These songs evoke the imagery of the steaming asphalt of the highway, the roar of the motorcycle engine, the smell of oil fumes, the sweat of the two bikers, the lingering reefer smoke. They both sound like the America presented in Easy Rider.
Whilst there is great meaning applied to the soundtrack and its running commentary on the film’s proceedings, there are also moments that apply some light relief. Songs such as Fraternity of Man’s reefer anthem “Don’t Bogart Me” and The Holy Modal Rounders’ bizarre and joyous “If You Want To Be A Bird” allow for humorous moments to unfold within the film, but also offer a lightness of touch and an opportunity to explore other musical twists and turns.
One negative aspect of the soundtrack is the overall “whiteness” and indeed “maleness” of the artists and groups included. Obviously a sign of the times and the inclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” is certainly welcome, but this entry reflects the soundtrack’s only African-American voice. Despite the film taking place over the expanse of the American South, where the rich cultural and musical heritage of African-American blues and soul is prominent, these genres are mostly absent. The only other glimpses are live recordings of New Orleans street performers taken from within the film itself.
Female artists are completely absent. A backing vocal here, a songwriting credit there, but no obvious representation considering the wealth of prominent female artists and female-led groups of the era.
This is a reflection of the film itself. Easy Rider is mostly concerned with the white male viewpoint of its protagonists. Women, when they appear, are timid homekeepers, promiscuous lovers, or scantily-clad sex workers. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s is on hold in the world of Easy Rider. African-Americans are even more sidelined, appearing on the side of roads ringing out laundry outside rundown shacks.
Perhaps Hopper decided to depict these groups in this way because even though women's liberation and the end of racial segregation had happened on paper, there was still much to learn and much more action to take. This, of course, is open to speculation.
Despite its faults, the soundtrack to Easy Rider is a monumental effort. As a compilation record in itself it is a solid, if not complete, snapshot of the era. A mix of rock, folk and psychedelic standards that might have drifted into obscurity if not for being married to a narrative and collection of visuals that have become iconic not just in the realm of film, but within popular culture itself.