From its opening scene, Michael Mann’s feature debut announces its concern with a new type of thief. No more the delicate application of stethoscope – an instrument whose early 19th-century invention signalled a burgeoning alliance between the medical profession and the new science of acoustics. Frank (played by James Caan) breaks safes and enters buildings with power tools and complex electronic equipment. If Frank’s criminal activity is newly hi-tech, so too its accompanying music, composed and performed by German synth rock pioneers Tangerine Dream.
Formed in 1967 by Prussian pianist and Dali enthusiast Edgar Froese, by the end of the 70s Tangerine Dream were one of the highest grossing instrumental rock bands in Europe, their oft-bootlegged live shows famed for their pyrotechnics and elaborate laser shows. The early 80s saw the group supplement their barrage of analogue electronics with increasingly sophisticated digital equipment while pursuing a range of major American film projects, beginning with Thief in 1981.
While Tangerine Dream in 1981 were a newly digitised proposition, so too was one of their chief rivals in the sphere of instrumental synth prog, Vangelis, himself on the verge of an equally productive cinematic career with Blade Runner the following year. But from the very beginning, Thief‘s score sets itself apart from the whispy floatiness of the Greek synth maven. With the first sight of Frank’s equipment the synth pads burst into a hyperactivity of competing arpeggiators, syncopated power chords, and reverb-heavy drum machines. The glistening digital sheen of the music already anticipates the gleam of the diamonds being stolen. Tangerine Dream’s music is at once more ‘pop’ and more ‘techno’ than anything you will find on the Blade Runner score.
As in most American crime films, criminal activity is here a synecdoche for capitalism itself. Thief is essentially a film about a struggle between two different forms of capitalism, represented by two different father figures. On the one hand, the old ‘master-thief’, Okla (a stethoscope man, one suspects); and on the other, Leo, a man associated with malls, rentierism, stocks and shares. Both are referred to – either by themselves or by Frank – as his father. Both of these competing capitalisms are, in a sense, musically coded. The new hi-tech capitalism by Tangerine Dream’s digital synths and sequencers, and Okla’s old-school artisanal cat burglary by the very fact that he is played by country music legend Willie Nelson.
Only in the very last scene of the film do we really hear much in the way of ‘real’ instruments – that is, music that would not be regarded as totally alien by someone used to listening to Willie Nelson – on the non-diegetic score of Thief (there is a brief scene of diegetically performed blues rock earlier on) and it sticks out like a sore thumb. As it turns out, Mann only realised late in the post-production process that he would need soundtrack music for this scene and by that time Tangerine Dream were too busy touring to provide it. Instead, the lot fell to Craig Safan (who would go on to write incidental music for the sitcom Cheers).
The track opens with acoustic guitar, soon accompanied by a sweeping hard rock electric guitar solo. The scene it complements depicts Frank’s final triumph against the forces of the new capitalism – a triumph which, in the context of early 80s America can only be regarded as pure fantasy. It is appropriate, then, that the music lends the scene precisely the atmosphere of that bit in every Guns ‘n’ Roses video where the storyline pauses in order that Slash might stand, a propos of nothing, on the edge of a cliff to perform an equally ecstatic electric guitar solo.