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The X-Files | Songs in the Key of X: A Track-by-Track Deep Dive

Ambitious, odd, and unforgettable, this is the story of Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by The X-Files.

The theme tune to The X-Files, by Mark Snow, completely slaps. It’s one of the best theme tunes in TV history, entering the general cultural lexicon to the point that people who have never watched an episode in their lives can have a decent stab at the opening.

In 1996, the show was two years in and a genuine pop-culture phenomenon — naturally, this meant a lot of tie-in merchandise. While some of it was inevitably lazy, the name slapped on any old thing, one particular spin-off product, the compilation album Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by The X-Files, was incredibly ambitious in a deeply odd way. Featuring a lineup of artists that wouldn’t naturally be thought of together — Sheryl Crow and Danzig have fairly different fanbases — and clocking in at nearly 73 minutes, it’s a truly unique product you can’t imagine any other show spawning.

A print advert for Songs in the Key of X from the May 1996 issue of music magazine Spin. | Warner Bros., 1996.

For a start, the majority of the music on it had not featured on the show it was associated with — in fact, print ads for the album boasted “After months of paranoiac secrecy and frenzied speculation, the record is out there. With two exceptions, you have not heard any of this music anywhere else (unless you’re watching us).” Rather than a collection of composer Mark Snow’s music from the show (which would be released seven months later as The Truth and the Light: Music from The X-Files), it’s a collection of ‘90s alt-rock — some pre-existing but unused, but most created specifically for inclusion in the collection.

Producer David Was — of Was (Not Was) fame — was brought in to put it together, saying of the project:

“The good news is that we didn’t have to prowl the gutters of Tin Pin Alley picking up the discarded songs that the usual burger-and-fries of the soundtrack game. Contrary to custom, the music assembled was made for the occasion by artists who came humbly as devotees of the show. The only requirement was that Chris Carter went synaesthetic when he heard their music.”

Was wrote in Entertainment Weekly: “Contrary to custom and logic, nearly everybody remotely cool or consequential in the rock world actually vied to be on this soundtrack. [...] Of course, everybody and their cousin sent a song that ‘was perfect for The X-Files’ — and that inevitably featured equal doses of aliens and government conspiracies: you know, like ‘Martians Killed the Kennedys,’ that sort of thing.”

While the ultimately assembled lineup of artists is very impressive, it nearly included some even bigger names, what Was describes as a “litany of sure things that turned into near misses”: Tom Petty was too busy touring to commit; Bruce Springsteen’s label wouldn’t permit him to moonlight, Seal was, er, on a snowboarding holiday.

It was in some ways polarising — if you bought the CD expecting music from The X-Files, you’d potentially be disappointed, with the “and inspired by” part of the title doing some fairly heavy lifting. As Snow told Sound on Sound:

“I had nothing to with the Songs... CD; Chris Carter is a real fan of modern music, and all the people on the album are fans of the show, and they all wanted to be on it. A lot of the hardcore fans thought it was really bogus because none of the songs (save for a track by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) had been on the show. But it still sold pretty well.”

Here we go, track by track:

Track 0 (hidden track): ‘Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum/X-Files Theme’ — Nick Cave and the Dirty Three

Hidden in the CD’s pregap, hearing these tracks involved rewinding the disc into negative time, something some CD players struggled to do. While not mentioned on the tracklisting, it was alluded to in the CD booklet with the cryptic message “Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like you to know that ‘0’ is also a number.”

Track 1: ‘X-Files Theme (Main Title)’ — Mark Snow

When Chris Carter approached Mark Snow about coming up with a theme for the show, he had two things in mind. The first was the Smiths’ song ‘How Soon is Now?’, and the second was a kind of spooky catchiness. “​I was looking for something that boy scouts could hum at the campfire, as a scary song,” Carter later told NPR. “You know, something akin to The Twilight Zone.”

Snow used a combination of echo effects, samples, and his wife Glynn’s whistling to come up with the theme. The extended version, created for this album, was — unusually for a TV theme — subsequently released as a single and charted around the world, including reaching number one in France.

“I think it was the record company's idea,” recalled Snow later. “Someone called me up and said: ‘We need a four-minute version today!' I said ‘I’m in the middle of doing the show music!’ They said ‘Put it aside, you gotta do it!’ So I just elongated the track, added another section with the whistle sound, and made the strings do some oddball triads over the top — I must have done it in half an hour. I just wanted to appease these guys at the label and get back to work. The four-minute version originally appeared as the first track on The Songs in the Key of X CD, and it was just luck that Warner Brothers thought it would be good to release it as a single. They were just amazed that it took off. To me, as a musician, it was hilarious: here's a hit record that has no singing, no bass, no drums, no guitars, and that stays in D minor for four minutes! It's unbelievable.”

A promotional photograph showing the four members of Soul Coughing
Alt-rock band Soul Coughing made several contributions to soundtracks in the 1990s, including Batman & Robin (1997) and Spawn (1997). | Warner Bros./Slash Records, 1996.

Track 2: ‘Unmarked Helicopters’ — Soul Coughing

Full of conspiratorial references, this song was later heard in the Season 4 episode ‘Max’ (S4, Ep18) and appeared on Soul Coughing’s 2002 best-of Lust in Phaze. The band also featured on the soundtrack to the first X-Files movie with their track ‘16 Horses’. Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty mentioned another connection to the show in a chapter of his warts-and-all memoir The Book of Drugs (2012), in a chapter called “The Fuck List”, writing:

“I fucked a gangly, dazzling woman whom I recognized from an episode of The X-Files. Though insanely gorgeous, she spoke with the nerdiest voice I’ve ever heard.”

Track 3: ‘On The Outside’ — Sheryl Crow

‘On The Outside’ was originally written for Crow’s 1993 album Tuesday Night Music Club, but didn’t make the cut. However, X-Phile Crow also refers to the show in her 1996 single ‘A Change Would Do You Good’, mentioning Scully by name:

“Chasing dragons with plastic swords
Jack off Jimmy, everybody wants more
Scully and angel on the kitchen floor
And I'm calling Buddy on the Ouija board”

Track 4: ‘Down In The Park’ — Foo Fighters

Originally recorded by Gary Numan’s band Tubeway Army, this cover sees Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl doing a fine job of imitating Numan’s particular cadences. While Blink-182’s Tom Delonge is most people’s go-to for UFO-obsessed rock stars, Grohl has a lifelong fascination with the phenomena. The band name Foo Fighters comes from a term used by Allied pilots in the Second World War to refer to mysterious flying objects, while Grohl’s record label imprint is called Roswell Records, named after the site of the famous 1947 UFO incident, which itself featured in The X-Files on multiple occasions.

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and his wife Jennifer Youngblood are visible behind a suited man who walks towards the camera.
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl checks his watch as he walks with his then-wife Jennifer Youngblood in the wake of the notorious Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden) in The X-Files episode ‘Pusher’ (S3, Ep17). | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

Grohl and his then-wife, photographer Jennifer Youngblood, make a very brief appearance in the background of the episode ‘Pusher’ (S3, Ep17). Gillian Anderson later told Rolling Stone: “Dave Grohl was a big fan of the show. He came to the set for one episode as an extra. He did a cameo; a drive-by. If you blink, you miss him. He ended up just being the guy in a hallway.” Grohl has described himself as “an obsessive fan” of both the show and Anderson.

When the first X-Files movie came out, Foo Fighters re-recorded ‘Walking After You’ (from their album The Colour and the Shape (1997)) for it, and at one point David Duchovny was set to direct the video for it, telling MTV: “I may be directing a video for the movie. We’ll see. Maybe the Foo Fighters. I don't know. I wouldn't know what the hell I'm doing.” The video was eventually directed by Matthew Rolston and subsequently described by Grohl as “suck-ass.”

Foo Fighters are also the only band on this album to be named by Mark Snow as one of his favorites — he told The Millennial Comet he enjoyed: “Eagle Eyed Cherry, Metallica, Foo Fighters, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Crash Test Dummies, Chumbawamba, Tracy Bonham, to name a few.”

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