There’s not a single formula for bringing an old hit back to life. Sometimes it’s the perfect placement in a movie or TV show. Other times it’s a dancing, singing fruit or a strange association with a pro athlete.
While many classic-rock artists never go out of style — the Beatles and Led Zeppelin haven’t left the cultural consciousness for 15 minutes since the ’60s — most singers and songs come and go. Tony Orlando and Dawn took “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” to No. 1 for four weeks in 1973, but nobody is clamoring for a comeback. But put that song in the credits of a Quentin Tarantino film or a funny car-insurance ad, and suddenly we can’t get enough Orlando.
From Elton John to the Knack, here’s a rundown of how classic songs — including some on the verge of unfashionable — grabbed public attention for a second time.
Three Dog Night – “Joy to the World” (The Big Chill)
The Big Chill revived loads of baby-boomer favorites, including the Rolling Stones‘ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” Aretha Franklin‘s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and Marvin Gaye‘s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But Three Dog Night’s 1971 recording of “Joy to the World” seemed to be the standout. If you were 19 and heard your parents spinning the song from the soundtrack, it was campy and cool. If you were nine, it was goofy and cool. No matter your age, it was cool.
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “Old Time Rock and Roll” (Risky Business)
“Old Time Rock and Roll” helped make Bob Seger’s 1978 album, Stranger in Town, a blockbuster. Oddly enough, the song started as a demo sent to him from friends at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Seger rewrote some lyrics, pianist Barry Beckett added the iconic opening riff and Alto Reed blasted out a perfect sax solo. But the song became massive when it crossed from baby boomer’s 8-tracks to Gen X cassettes with a lip-synced performance by Tom Cruise in 1983’s Risky Business. Since then, thanks to more movie and TV spots, the tune has been a definitive classic-rock staple.
The Beatles – “Twist and Shout” (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Writer and director John Hughes made stars out of several new wave bands, but his quintessential classic-rock moment came in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The 1986 movie starred Matthew Broderick as a kid who could do no wrong, especially when crashing a parade. First, Ferris jumps onto a float to lip-sync Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen,” and then he recreates the chaos of Beatlemania with “Twist and Shout.” The original release spent 16 weeks on the chart in 1964, but Ferris pushed the Beatles tune back on the Billboard Hot 100 for another seven weeks in 1986, which made it the Fab Four’s longest-charting Top 40 hit.
Peter Gabriel – “In Your Eyes” (Say Anything … )
Is this the most romantic song ever written? If you think Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court are total babes, then yes, it is for you. In 1986, Peter Gabriel‘s super-ballad hit the Top 30. Just three years later, writer and director Cameron Crowe used it to give Dobler (John Cusack) and his boombox the ideal emotional charge in an iconic Say Anything … scene.
The Righteous Brothers – “Unchained Melody” (Ghost)
The scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg make love after making pottery (or whatever it is they’re doing) has been mocked across generations — Glee, Community, Family Guy and many more have parodied it. But the blockbuster didn’t just make clay sexy — it made the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 smash “Unchained Melody” a staple of romantic mixtapes and dentist-office playlists from 1990 on.
The Doors – “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)
The Doors have really never gone away. Like Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and 2Pac, a potent mix of music and myth will fuel the band’s legacy forever. But Oliver Stone‘s movie The Doors, released on March 1, 1991, created an almost ’60s-like frenzy around the group for a few months. Thanks to a Billy Idol cover that came before the film and the song rolling over the credits, “L.A. Woman” led the charge of another Jim Morrison resurgence.
Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Wayne’s World)
The Who may have invented the rock opera, but Queen pioneered operatic rock. The band’s signature song sounded like nothing before it and nothing after. In the group’s native England, “Bohemian Rhapsody” topped the charts for nine weeks in 1975 and went on to take the No. 1 spot in about a dozen countries. But the masterpiece stalled at No. 9 in the States. A decade and half later, Wayne’s World‘s Wayne and Garth popped the cassette in their car radio, and suddenly it was everywhere. Eventually the film drove it to No. 2 on the Billboard chart. “There’s a huge irony there,” guitarist Brian May told Guitar World. “Because there was a time when we completely owned America, and we would tour there every year. It seemed like we couldn’t go wrong. And then we lost America for various reasons, which are now history. … Freddie [Mercury] had a very dark sense of humor. And he used to say, ‘I suppose I’ll have to die before we get America back.’ And, in a sense, that was what happened. And it was Wayne’s World, which came completely out of nowhere, that made it happen.”
Stealers Wheel – “Stuck in the Middle With You” (Reservoir Dogs)
Quentin Tarantino built his whole aesthetic from taking forgotten bits of pop culture and pulling them into the modern world. Nowhere else is this more obvious than in his soundtracks. Scottish musicians Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan originally performed the song “Stuck in the Middle With You” with their band Stealers Wheel. And they did well with it, taking it to the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. But Tarantino made it hip for ’90s kids in his funny, dark and (surprise!) violent 1992 debut film, using it to soundtrack Mr. Blonde torturing a cop.
The Knack – “My Sharona” (Reality Bites)
“Can you turn this up, please?” And the mini-mart clerk regretted his decision to pump the volume to the Knack‘s “My Sharona” for the rest of his life. RCA aggressively marketed the soundtrack to Ben Stiller‘s directorial debut in 1994 and was rewarded by placing five songs in radio rotations and on MTV. But the mini-mart dance scene — set to the Knack’s 1979 global smash and featuring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn — made the slackers boogie. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer power-pop gem.
Dick Dale – “Misirlou” (Pulp Fiction)
Pulp Fiction, which came out on Oct. 14, 1994, did so much: It resurrected the career of John Travolta, championed the independent-cinema movement of the ’90s and brought a bold, jarring color palette to modern film. It also reminded the world that Dick Dale was the king of surf guitar. The movie made loads of old songs cool again, but Dale’s 1962’s groundbreaking, reverb-heavy hit version of the traditional Eastern Mediterranean song “Misirlou” became the defining track of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
Iggy Pop – “Lust for Life” (Trainspotting)
Written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, “Lust for Life” became Pop’s greatest artistic achievement after debuting in 1977. (It’s really hard to over-appreciate this slice of punk fury.) An underground gem for two decades, it never hit the mainstream until the 1996 movie Trainspotting used it in its opening sequence. Since then, it’s been utilized in more films, TV shows, video games and commercials — who knew you could sell cruises on the lyrics “beating my brains with liquor and drugs”?
Elton John – “Candle in the Wind” (Death of Princess Diana)
Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote “Candle in the Wind” in 1973 to honor Marilyn Monroe. It got a second life when a 1986 live version hit the singles chart. But the 1997 version, rewritten by Taupin and performed by John at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, became a global sensation. “Candle in the Wind 1997” went on to become the second best-selling physical single of all time, according to Guinness World Records research done in 2007.
Neil Diamond – “Sweet Caroline” (Boston Red Sox)
During a 1997 game at Fenway Park, an employee in charge of ballpark music spun Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” because someone she knew just had a baby named Caroline. In the years that followed, the song gathered momentum in the park. Then someone in the Red Sox front office decided to push the song as a part of the Fenway experience. “I wanted it to be the middle of the eighth, because you want your more festive songs to occur when the home team is coming up to bat,” former team executive Charles Steinberg told MLB.com. “So we started playing it each day in 2002.” As the Sox became a cultural force and baseball powerhouse over the next few years, the cut became more popular — both in Boston and around the world. A few days after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, “Sweet Caroline” was played in stadiums throughout the league. It’s since become an American standard to rival any piece of pop, rock or soul music.
Faces – “Ooh La La” (Rushmore)
As shocking as this sounds, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore was only a sleeper hit when released in December 1998. It made such a modest splash that the film’s soundtrack didn’t come out until nearly two months after the movie debuted. One of the director’s defining characteristics is a set of ’60s and ’70s songs that underpin each scene just so. But in 1998, nobody knew this, and nobody knew the Faces’ “Ooh La La.” Vinyl junkies loved the 1973 track, but Rushmore introduced it to millions of Gen Xers and millennials. Funny enough, Anderson didn’t come up with the track’s inclusion by himself. “The first time I heard this song … it was played to me over the phone one day by my friend Randy Poster, our music supervisor,” Anderson said on Rushmore‘s DVD commentary. “And right when he played it to me on the phone, I knew that that’s the song at the end [of the movie]. I don’t even really know why, because I think Max would never know the song, but it has the right sadness and wistfulness.”
Pixies – “Where Is My Mind?” (Fight Club)
On Oct. 15, 1999, Fight Club arrived in theaters and introduced Pixies to the next generation of hipsters. The celebrated cult movie used the 1988 song “Where Is My Mind?” to frame its epic closing scene. While never released as a single, “Where Is My Mind?” has become the band’s calling card and has popped up in The Leftovers, Mr. Robot and Veronica Mars. Pixies leader and songwriter Black Francis has said he receives licensing requests for the song every “eight or nine days.”
Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (Freaks and Geeks)
The title track from Joan Jett‘s 1981 LP features a glorious roar. It’s a mission statement, an anthem of rebellion and a defining Jett tune. It also had the ideal amount of swagger, sneer and punk energy to be the theme song of the cult-classic TV show Freaks and Geeks. The Paul Feig and Judd Apatow series aired on NBC during the 1999–2000 season and introduced the world to the next class of Hollywood kings and queens (including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps and Linda Cardellini) and reintroduced Jett.
Elton John – “Tiny Dancer” (Almost Famous)
Director Cameron Crowe has introduced generations to a lot of music. Almost Famous itself carried anyone raised on grunge back to the age of the Allman Brothers Band, Lou Reed and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But the scene and song that stuck was when a tour bus full of burned-out but hopeful musicians, management and hangers-on sang “Tiny Dancer.” “I have to go home,” a confused William Miller says during the sing-along. “You are home,” an impish and magical Penny Lane tells him.
Blue Oyster Cult – “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (Saturday Night Live)
More cowbell! Will Ferrell and the Saturday Night Live team unveiled “More Cowbell” –one of the long-running show’s best-loved sketches — on April 8, 2000. Ferrell plays fictional cowbell player Gene Frenkle, and guest host Christopher Walken is “the Bruce Dickinson” in a romp lampooning VH1’s Behind the Music and celebrating (even if they didn’t know it) Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” The band’s biggest hit, the 1976 track reached immortality in the oddest way when Ferrell and Walken turned it into a wonderful, ridiculous punchline.
Huey Lewis and the News – “Hip to Be Square” (American Psycho)
Despite the 2000 slasher film getting the release date of Fore! wrong (it came out in 1986, not 1987, as Christian Bale’s psycho claims — you can never trust a serial killer), it was right that Huey Lewis is pretty damn cool. While producers couldn’t secure the rights to “Hip to Be Square” for the soundtrack, the song plays proudly over a gruesome murder and nice monologue about why Lewis is so talented. There are worse ways to introduce your music to a whole new generation, though none come to mind.
The Who (CSI Franchise)
The Who have sold out arenas and stadiums for more than five decades. But the band’s catalog has been pushed to younger and younger fans, thanks to each edition of CSI using a different Who classic as its theme song: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY and CSI: Cyber kick off with “Who Are You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” and “I Can See for Miles,” respectively. When an enduring but aging band gets a boost from one of the world’s most successful TV series, you can bet my generation, your generation and everybody’s generation will always know their songs.
Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin'” (The Sopranos)
One of the biggest songs of the ’80s by one of the biggest bands of the ’80s, “Don’t Stop Believin’” included a story that nodded to Bruce Springsteen, a hook that predicted Bon Jovi and the right balance of balladry and bombast. And it’s only grown more popular since 1981. The Sopranos showrunner David Chase picked the Journey classic for the final scene of his series in 2007. In one of the most memorable moments in TV history, Tony Soprano selects the song on a diner jukebox and looks up in response to a door bell signaling someone has entered — then the screen goes black. That scene paired with our hunger for nostalgia took “Don’t Stop Believin’” to dizzying new heights. A billion Spotify spins can’t be wrong.
The Outfield – “Your Love” (Charlie Blackmon’s Hitting Streak)
While it hasn’t reached “Sweet Caroline” levels in the MLB, the Outfield’s “Your Love” has become a millennial favorite thanks in part to Rockies’ outfielder Charlie Blackmon. The four-time All-Star and 2017 National League batting champion uses the song as his walk-up music. In August 2020, Blackmon went on a hitting tear with a .484 batting average. Just about every story and Sports Center highlight made sure to mention “Your Love.”
Ratt – “Round and Round” (Geico Commercial)
You don’t want rats in your house; you do want Ratt there. At least you should. Yet the un-fun couple in a 2020 TV commercial for Geico home insurance discuss how they’re very happy with their home – except for a “rat problem” … or rather a “Ratt problem.” Stephen Pearcy and his band injected their 1984 sleaze-metal groove into a new century. It wasn’t the first Geico ad to feature classic rock. In 2012, Eddie Money sang “Two Tickets to Paradise” while pretending to be a travel agent; three years later, Europe performed “The Final Countdown” in an office lunchroom, and Canned Heat‘s “Going Up the Country” served as soundtrack to a motorcycle-themed spot.
Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” (That TikTok Dude)
In 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” sold more than a million copies and topped the Billboard Hot 100. The song has been a radio, mixtape and playlist staple ever since. But Nathan Apodaca took it viral on TikTok in 2020 when he uploaded a video of himself longboarding down an Idaho highway, sipping Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice and lip-syncing the tune. In a week, the clip racked up almost 20 million views, while streams of “Dreams” doubled and sales nearly tripled.
Ben E. King – “Stand by Me” (Stand by Me)
A definitive ’60s soul cut, “Stand by Me” became singer Ben E. King’s signature song. But the 1986 coming-of-age movie Stand by Me introduced ’80s kids to the track their parents danced to when they were kids. The song really has never dropped into obscurity thanks to numerous covers by artists like Otis Redding, John Lennon, Mickey Gilley, Maurice White and Julian Lennon.
Otis Redding – “Try a Little Tenderness” (Pretty in Pink)
When Pretty in Pink hit theaters on Feb. 28, 1986, it came with a stunning new wave soundtrack. But the best-remembered musical moment in the John Hughes‘ coming-of-age film might be Duckie (Jon Cryer) dancing, squirming, gyrating, shaking, shimming and lip-syncing to Otis Redding’s 1966 take on the standard “Try a Little Tenderness.” Redding was a showman of immense talent, but he has nothing on Duckie’s fevered, frantic rendition.
Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (The California Raisins)
Turns out Ted Lasso wasn’t the first character to go from a TV commercial to a cultural touchstone. First aired on Sept. 14, 1986, the original California Raisins ad became a sensation. Yes, somehow a group of anthropomorphized, Claymation raisins with a striking resemblance to a Motown act revived “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and put it back on the Billboard Hot 100. And they didn’t stop with the song made famous by Marvin Gaye in 1968: The Raisins released four albums, earned an Emmy nomination and became a must-have toy, lunch box, Halloween costume and more.