Can’t Get You Out of My Head: the best tracks from the new Adam Curtis documentary

Few documentary filmmakers care more about music than Adam Curtis, so we dive into his best selections for his recent six-part documentary series.
Posted: 19 February 2021 Words: Miles Ellingham

Few documentary filmmakers care more about music than Adam Curtis. Since his award winning 2002 film, The Century of the Self, Curtis’ baroque style has returned – year on year – to haunt the BBC airwaves like a spectre, each time supported by an extraordinary soundtrack. Reportedly, Curtis delayed the release of his new six-part series, Can’t Get You Out of My Headbecause he couldn’t think of the right song to end it on. 

We’ve given you a list of our ten favourites off the show… but it’s funny, his aesthetic is so pronounced that a lot of them just feel like ‘Adam Curtis Songs’ – he’s become a genre unto himself.

Amon Düül II - 'You’re not Alone'

Amon Düül II came straight out of the German student movement of the 1960s, coming together to form an art commune and eventually a band. Amon Düül II’s approach to music-making was to experiment with all the reckless abandon of the era. ‘You’re not Alone’ feels hauntingly expansive and is a lesser known song from 1974 album, Hijack

The Specials - 'Do Nothing'

It’s hard not to be infected by the joyful, laziness of this record. There’s a bizarre contradiction at the heart of the track, which is at once cheerfully carefree and deeply nihilistic. Frontman Jerry Dammers swaggers about the song, confessing in blithe sincerity that "I'm just living in a life without meaning". 

Aphex Twin - 'Avril 14th'

In our postmodern age, Aphex Twin has been afforded near-mythic status – and rightly so; he’s somehow capable of almost anything. 'Avril 14th' has been likened to the work of Eric Satie by established music critics. 

Marlene Dietrich - 'Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind'

This is a cover of ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’ by socialist troubadour Pete Seeger. It’s an incredible cover, by an iconic woman who fled Nazi Germany – donating most of her earnings to assist Jewish asylum seekers. ‘Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind’ builds with each concurrent verse, adding a symphonic grandness to the original cover. 

The Incredible String Band - 'Air'

Nothing invokes the hubristic sentiment of the British hippy movement more than ‘Air’ by The Incredible String Band. ‘Air’ is completely haunting and totally contented, it’s the sound of sinking back into the daisies. Curtis is, of course, deeply critical of this tendency, seeing it as the start of the age of the individual, and the beginning of a countercultural retreat away from the dream of radical change. 

2Pac - 'Violent'

In Can’t Get You Out of My HeadCurtis tells the story of a Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, a militant activist and member of the Black Panthers. She, and 20 other members were acquitted for conspiring to bomb police stations and department stores in New York City. In many ways, 2Pac takes on his mother’s radical legacy via his music. 

Egor i Opizdenevshie - 'Eternal Spring'

This track is one of Egor Letov’s many side projects. Letov is the founder of the dissident band, Grazhdanskaya Oborona (‘GROB’ for short) and a major player in the Siberian punk explosion. Letov was committed to a mental ward after the mother of his second guitarist denounced him to the KGB. These grainy recordings are all that survive of an incredibly interesting Soviet cultural turn. 


Burial - 'Forgive'

What Adam Curtis list would be complete without a nod to Burial? The reclusive maverick’s ghostly compositions have been a stalwart of Curtis’ soundtracks for a long time. For his latest work, he’s chosen ‘Forgive’ off Burial’s eponymous 2006 LP. 

The Sex Pistols, Edward Tudor-Pole - 'Who Killed Bambi?'

This novelty track from The Great Rock and Roll Swindle is wonderfully bizarre. By the time the song was recorded, John Lydon had up and left the group, leaving Edward Tudor-Pole to employ a sarcastically exaggerated hillbilly drawl, asking “Who killed Bam-bi?!” over and over. Though it’s a thing of silliness, it retains the Pistols’ trademark ‘fuck you buddy’ attitude. 

Schneider TM - 'The Light 3000'

Finally, here’s an electronic re-telling of The Smith’s sadboy anthem, ‘There is a light that never goes out.’ This cover re-invents the song, employing modulators and drum-machines to recite it though the mind of the living machine. As with all great covers, Schneider TM extracts the feeling of the original, bringing it forward into a completely new context. It’s quite moving. 

Can't Get You Out Of My Head is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.

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