If you were a kid growing up in the mid-’80s and had access to a synthesizer, it’s almost inevitable that, at some point, you would have had a go at playing the melody from Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F.
The main theme from blockbuster Eddie Murphy buddy movie Beverly Hills Cop, Axel F was pretty much ubiquitous back in 1985, but as Faltermeyer - who turns 71 today - recalled to the Red Bull Music Academy back in 2014, the initial reaction to his sparse yet futuristic sounding riff wasn’t overwhelmingly positive.
“The interesting thing about that song is that, first of all, nobody wanted to have it,” Faltermeyer remembers. “I got close to the fact of getting fired from the movie because I tried several different themes. Nobody liked it and it mostly has to do with the fact that at that time, to score a comedy was always done with an orchestra. It was like this Hanna-Barbera aesthetic, like you had like the orchestras with the cartoonish kind of themes.”
If there’s one thing that Axel F isn’t it’s orchestral. In fact, every element comes from an electronic instrument: a Roland Jupiter-8 was used for the lead line, a Moog Model 15 provided the bass, there were chord stabs from a Roland JX-3P, the Yamaha DX7 served up the marimba sound and drums came courtesy of a LinnDrum.
None of this gear would have sounded out of place in the charts in 1985, but in movie theatres, instrumentation of this sort was far less common.
“There’s the idea of doing an electronic score and doing that with one of the most successful comedians we had in America at that time, Eddie Murphy, so the studio was nervous,” confirms Faltermeyer. “Everybody was nervous.”
Worse still, two of the people who were most unsure about Axel F were Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the legendary duo who were producing Beverly Hills Cop. Without having them on side, it would almost certainly be a non-starter.
“I played them the first couple of bars of Axel F and I still see it as if it was yesterday,” Faltermeyer recalls. “I see Bruckheimer looking at Simpson, Simpson looking at Bruckheimer, [director] Martin Brest looking at, then the editor, Billy Weber, who said, ‘Nah. It doesn’t work.’ It was like a situation you were against the wall somehow. What should you do?”
Fortunately for Faltermeyer, he had two things going in his favour. The first was that director Martin Brest was fully onboard with the idea of having a stripped-back, electronic soundtrack - “he had a very clear view of what he wanted to have. He wanted to have like the aesthetic of groups like Yazoo or Afrika Bambaataa,” notes Faltermeyer - and the second was that the notoriously volatile Dom Simpson, who was known for his hedonistic, drug-fuelled lifestyle, also had a habit of changing his mind.
“Martin Brest, the director, was sitting there and I still remember that with his - he always smoked cigarettes with a tip - he was smoking like that and he said, ‘Let me hear it again.’ I played it again. He listened, very into it, and then the thing was over and there was silence.”
For Faltermeyer, this felt like make or break: “Well, this is it now. Either I’m fired or they like it, what else could happen?” he recalls.
A lifeline, it turns out: “Martin Brest said, ‘I have to tell you, guys. I think that this is the most perfect cue I ever heard for this movie. I think it’s great. I love it and we should go for it.’ Then I won and then Simpson said, ‘Yeah. I think it’s great. Let’s do it.’ Then Bruckheimer said, ‘Yeah. Great. Let’s do it.’ And Billy Weber said, ‘I still don’t think it works but you guys do it.’ I was in and I did the movie.”
A wise decision, it turned out - Axel F went on to become a worldwide hit and an iconic piece of synth music history. So much so that, in 2005, it had the, um… ‘distinction’ of being covered by Crazy Frog.
And there’s something else you should know about Axel F, too - it wasn’t actually written as a complete song at all.
“Axel F was never a song,” Harold Faltermeyer confirms. “Axel F was always a patchwork. It was a cue with the main theme [imitates Axel F theme]. Then you hit another cue with [imitates Axel F stabs], and then you had the marimba cue, which back then we all called the banana cue, because it was the scene where Murphy puts the banana in the tailpipe of the two clumsy cops. We designated this marimba sound to the clumsy cops so this was the banana sound.
“So these three parts were never linked together in one piece for the movie, so we assembled it for the record.”
Axel F, then: one of the best-known ‘synth songs’ in history is just a selection of parts that were never meant to be sequencer together at all.