Miami Nights: rediscovering the iconic ‘Vice’ sound

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By Jack

Miami Vice was the first show to make full use of the colour television. Amid the browns and greys of police procedurals and made-for-TV movies, the pastel pallet of Vice was hugely influential. Much of the 1980s is now seen through a lens of colour-blocked whites, blues & pinks.

The show was colourful, sometimes garishly so, however the iconic image of Vice isn’t baggy linen suits or bouffant hair. The lasting memory of the show comes from the third episode. Crockett & Tubbs drive to meet a drug dealer in the gloaming of Miami; the Ferrari Daytona driving through the nocturnal streets choreographed to ‘In The Air Tonight’. This is the sequence that really captures the feel of ‘Vice’.

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Huge amounts of music was used in the show. Not all of it is relevant to the sound we are discussing here. Indeed, many of the tracks and cameos were merely concessions to the MTV crowd (the original pitch for the show was the words ‘MTV Cops’ written on a post-it). The ‘Vice’ sound is something else, something propagated by the show but not necessarily exclusive to it.

The best evocation of it is still ‘Crockett’s Theme’, and by far the best version (there are many) is from Jan Hammer’s retrospective Escape From Television.

This perfectly distils the smoky, moody and electronic gloss of the ‘Vice’ sound. It’s the threat of danger, but perceived with a cool detachment. Music full of apprehension and drama, but delivered with a cool clarity.

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That is the definition of the ‘Vice’ style of pop that is long gone, but one that still evokes real emotion where so much of the 80s sound has devolved into kitsch.

The constant underpinning of this style, what marks it out, is its deliberate and measured pace. This style has a slower, more meditative beat of between 120 – 140 bpm (‘Crockett’s Theme’ should be played at 132). Pop music in the 80s was all over the place in this regard but typically would play somewhere between 150 – 160.

80s pop is remembered for being high-energy and so these songs stick out all the more. They need not be tied to Miami Vice or associated shows or brands. ‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush perfectly captures the ‘Vice’ style; persistent beat, eerie & minimalist synths and a meditative tone are all perfectly in keeping with this.

Glenn Frey contributed two songs to the show and made a cameo on the episode ‘Smuggler’s Blues, which he soundtracked. Ironically it was his bandmate Don Henley who released the track more tapped in to the mood of ‘Vice’; his classic track ‘The Boys of Summer’.

Synthesisers and drum machines too were integral to the sound. This can’t be too surprising. Every musical era has it’s definitive instrument, and for the 1980s this was definitely the keyboard, or sometimes it’s most infamous incarnation – the keytar.

However the use of the synthesiser in these works was in stark contrast to their use in mainstream pop. If you want to consider classic 80s pop songs and how they make use of the synthesiser and drum machine then think of two songs.

The first is Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. The second is ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ by, of course, Whitney.

Both use synthesisers in the classic 80s’ dance-pop mould; huge synth riffs that run right through the centre of the track, comparable only to the high-tempo drum machines that set the danceable beat.

Here these instruments are used to create a sense of scale. This is when pop was at it’s biggest and most excessive, and a big part of that was the use (or-overuse) of these elements.

Now contrast these smash hits with a song nobody knows – ‘The Madness Of It All’.

Here the same basic arrangement is used to evoke something entirely different. The synthesisers occupy a far greater part of the sound than they do on the Whitney track, and yet they aren’t as prominent. It’s a soundscape of meshing synth effects and drum machines, to create a shimmering, tangible feeling and mood. This idea of ‘soundscapes’ was taken further on The Cars’ Live-Aid soundtrack smash ‘Drive’

The ‘Vice’ sound is lost to history now. It was a style married to synthesiser music and the open emotion of the era. By the cynical standard of modern pop it sounds hopelessly heart-on-sleeve. But it’s truly a lost treasure.

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For a full playlist exploring the ‘Vice’ sound, listen below.

Header GIF credit source here.

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