From the opening scene of the birds eye view over lower Manhattan to the closing credits of every episode, you know that music is very important to the show runners behind Billions. The underlying score, a sort of industrial ambient techno riff and drone, is composed by Los Angeles based electronic musician Eskmo. The general mood set by the score is one of dramatic tension and urgency. Like, what the heck are these people going to do next, is the thought the music puts into your head.
Peppered throughout nearly every episode are carefully curated tracks. chosen for the way they match a scene or a mood or a character, or simply because the show creators really dig the music and wanted to make a place for it in their creation. We get to hear an eclectic mix of hip-hop, techno, pop, Italian pop, alt-pop, alt-country, punk and metal. From classic rock to classic punk to classic motown. I think that’s it, but I probably missed some! They cover it all!
This post is the result of my binging all 12 episodes again, this time with Shazam in hand to identify all the musical bits I didn’t already know. Just as each of the 12 episodes had a unique core strength to them, so do the selection of songs backing them up. Whether the music is straight up mood inducer or meant as an ironic statement, there’s nary a dud in the bunch.
We learn from Kate Sacher telling her boss, Chuck Rhoades, that Bobby Axelrod has been seen sniffing around a grand multi-million dollar house in the Hamptons. The shot cuts to Bobby walking thru hallways, surveying expansive ceilings, and taking a dip in an outdoor pool. Behind it all: Despot, “House of Bricks”
Bobby Axelrod’s lawyer, Orrin Bach, may not be Italian (or he may be? Not really important to know.), but we do know from this next scene that he likes having his beard and pate coiffed at a fancy panelled barber shop with Italian music playing in the background. As Bryan Connerty is tempted by his old law professor’s allusions to how much he could be earning if he went to the Dark Side, we hear a chorus of “when, when, when” in Italian. The tune is: Emilio Pericoli, “Quando, quando, quando”.
The pilot episode closed out with a sort of fantasy techno-pop instrumental. We’ll hear this again throughout the season in previews and promos. El-P, “$4 Vic/Nothing but You+Me”
1.02 Naming Rights:
The episode opens with Axe in his skivvies, getting dressed for the evening with the help of his assistant and then his right hand man, Mike “Wags” Wagner. He saunters thru the office to exit the building and get into a helicopter where his beautiful wife awaits. This tune is used again in the closing credits: Nick Waterhouse, “High Tiding”
An assistant working at the DA’s office is up to some extracurricular activities when we hear this next ditty. Tara sniffs cocaine to the tune Major Lazer, “Too Original”
The episode opens with the wife of Axe’s old business partner thanking her editor for a sweet book deal, set to the 70’s R & B sounds of Dramatics, “Get Up and Down”
Bailey III walks into the YumTime offices with the YumTime jingle playing in the background. This tune was un-shazam-able, so I can only assume it was an original for the show. 🙂
At Axe Capital, it’s a party in the club as mailroom crew pass out YumTime treats to the tune of Major Lazer, “Jump Up”
After a meditative sesh with Dr Wendy “Mojo” Rhoades, Maria Saldana packs up her things and leaves Axe for greener pastures. Fresh from 1972, a Brian Eno and Brian Ferry collaboration: Roxy Music, “Ladytron”
All gear is out for a night of debauchery at Chez Rhoades, but Wendy is disappointed to see that Chuck is not feeling the cattle prod. She leaves him to “stew in it” while she calls Saldana and offers her fund $250K. This tune also closes out the episode. Dramatics, “Love was Strange”
In the fresh air of a dog poop-free Brooklyn Promenade, Chuck walks along to Edwin Starr, “War”
1.04 Short Squeeze
Oh, the multiplicity of references in the first scene of this episode! Mick Danzig is armed with an automatic weapon and a liver soaked in Steven Soderbergh’s signature Bolivian spirit Singani 63. Deer are eating up his yard and he’s not going to take it any more. Behind the cacophony of rapid gunfire, we hear: Andrew Bird “Oh No”
Bobby and crew have landed in Quebec to an exclusive behind the scenes tour of a Metallica concert. As soon as Bobby steps up to the concession table, he’s greeted with pretty young thing Elise, a singer with the opening band. She flirts shamelessly, cooing to Axe that change is good. He shrugs, growls “Yeah… but not just for the fuck of it” and chugs his beer. Elise takes a hint and goes up to practice her cover of a Ratt song: Kerry Bishe, “Round and Round”
Back stage, Metallica gives the guys a private live show where they play: Metallica “Harvester of Sorrow”.
Then on stage we get the seminal metal classic (recently the first metal recording to be inducted into the Library of Congress) “Master of Puppets”
1.05 Good Life
An episode curiously lacking in music. Or else I didn’t hear any what with the glare of the post-coital glow on the lawn at Chez Axelrod. This was the episode that ends with Dollar Bill getting arrested and even the music over the closing credits was un-shazam-able.
1.06 The Deal
Another episode with a lot of moody ambient undertones, but not much more identifiable music. Towards the end, we get Bobby taking over from his driver as he cruises up the West Side Hwy to another round of Metallica, “Master of Puppets”. That’s the tune over the closing credits too.
1.07 The Punch
The Axelrod kids are at an arcade and Bobby is swimming with this chorus in his headphones. “I’m the boy they can’t ignore / For the first time in my life, I’m sure”: Replacements, “The Ledge”
As soon as he hears news that his kids just came home with a neighbor who’d been drinking, Bobby runs over to give him a talkng to that ends in a punch. The tune playing is what is termed “jangle pop”:…the brand of alt pop that took me away from pop in the late 80’s, reminiscent of Violet Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to my ears:, but decidedly darker: Guadalcanal Diary, “Say Please”
Bobby and Dimonda share another meal to talk about the leaked video of the punch, this time in an Italian restaurant with a live show and we hear: Nick Apollo Forte, “Agita”
The Rhoades are having their own Italian fare with the sickly sweet couple who share passwords. Over a plate of Babbo’s tripe, we hear: The dB’s, “Love is for Lovers”.
Lara, in an effort to teach the kids some values, sends them to a camp where they’re forced to give up their electronic devices. They relinquish their devices, almost, to the tune of: Guadalcanal Diary, “Watusi Rodeo”
Bobby subverts his wife’s authority and sticks one to The Man when he breaks his kids out from camp. The boy who would never grow up can only grow up to be a debaser and we’re treated to the arguable pinnacle in the transformation of rock and punk that happened in the late 80’s, early 90’s : Pixies, “Debaser”
1.08 Boasts and Rails
The opening scene is a FBI raid on Donnie’s home. Over this scene is sort of a non-sequitur of a song: Jason Isbell, “Cover Me Up”. It could be that this song was chosen because the lyrics are about a lost person finding a home, redemption through love, a man offering himself up to be used forever in the name of love, and that’s what Donnie has done for Axe. Whatever the thought behind it, I totally applaud the choice because, in the end, this artist was my favorite of the several new musical discoveries this show provided. So much of country music is about storytelling, but Jason Isbell’s songs are short stories that I would actually read. So literate and so true…a level of beauty approaching a tuning fork in the sky.
Finally, when Chuck and Bryan are getting tipsy in a bar and talking about The Pouch and Nazi haberdashers, there’s some R & B song in the background, that I couldn’t catch.
The episode closes with more of Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” and this time I start thinking that the lyrics are meant to be about Bobby and Wendy, their deep relationship which Chuck hates so much. Mostly the lyrics are meant to be about Bobby: “Heart on the run keeps a hand on a gun, can’t trust anyone.”
1.09 Where the F is Donnie?
Lots of background tunes in this episode, music playing in restaurants, etc. that shazam couldn’t pick up. No problem, however, identifying the song over the closing credits: Townes Van Zandt, “Waiting Around to Die”
1.10 Quality of Life
The episode with a bunch of time jumps, when Donnie dies. Bobby is clued in on Donnie’s illness in the bathroom .Ben Kim walks in with headphones on, and when he takes them off to hear Axe telling him to beat it, we hear: : Chumbawumba “Tubthumping”
At Donnie’s funeral service, Wendy sees Bobby alone and brings over a bottle of champagne: Parker Millsap, “Heaven Sent”
Bobby goes to breakfast to woo investors and I could tell it was a Mozart piece playing at the restaurant, but I didn’t know which one. Shazam provided a beautifully specific answer: Mozart – Symphony n°40 – Berlin / Szell Salzburg 1957
Now who can forget the fake fight scene between Bobby and Dollar Bill? A fun folksy bluesy but upbeat tune fuels the hijinks: Parker Millsap, “Quite Contrary”
This brilliant young artist returns a third time as we see everyone covering Donnie’s picture in fall leaves: Parker Millsap, “Sticks and Stones”
The episode ends with Chumbawumba again as Bobby walks away, in theory, from the knock down he endured in Donnie’s death.
1.11 Magical Thinking
The long awaited session between Bobby and Wendy happens in this episode. The first song we hear accompanies them chucking office equipment off the balcony at Axe Capital: Van Halen, “Cradle will Rock”
Chuck meets Ira for cocktails at a hipster bar. Ira shares the gem of advice, “You can’t be subtle on Tinder” while this plays in the background about a guy drinking and smoking and sex’ing, feeling like “Kobe back in 03”: Azad Right, “Diesel”.
Lara and Lu drive around town reliving their youth and pull up to a helicopter.: The Hold Steady, “Sequestered in Memphis”
Bryan and Kate want some danger so they share a tender moment at the shore lighting some fireworks. Before the police sirens start, we hear: Ryan Adams, “I Just Might”
Chuck sees Axe and Wendy sharing a cigarette after their session and all he can see is black. The dark indie grunge fits perfectly:: Black Heart Procession, “Suicide”
Back at home, while Wendy showers, Chuck sneaks a peek at the night’s session notes on her computer. The episode closes with a song alluded to by something Chuck said earlier in the episode: Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody”
1.12 The Conversation
As Bobby’s silhouette rises to meet the SoHo street, we see him waiting for Wendy outside Soul Cycle. An old soul funk staple plays: Sly and the Family Stone, “Everyday People”
Bobby speeds back home and before he’s pulled over by his friend Raul the cop, we see him smiling along to the witty post-grunge sounds of: Courtney Bartnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
The episode and the season closes out with punk, new punk that asserts the fact that punk will never die. And how befitting this series are lyrics like this:
Don’t want to buy an ounce, for me the right amount in the entire pound…As long as there’s a law, I’ll be a criminal
There you have it, the compendium of music found in Billions, Season 1. Boy, there sure was a lot of music in Billions Season 1. I put all 36 tracks together into a playlist: here.
If I’ve missed anything or there’s something I didn’t identify correctly, please do comment and let me know!