Even if you're not a fan of the Star Wars films, you have to admit it would be hard to find a catchier, more charming song performed by an alien band than what was played in the background of the original 1977 film's Cantina Band scene.
Of all the Star Wars references, inside jokes and homages that have appeared in pop culture since the original film's release, it still stands out as one of the best. In honour of the franchise's seventh instalment, The Force Awakens, out now, we examine five astonishingly detailed (too detailed, even?) facts about what became known as the "Cantina Band Song."
1. The song most people commonly refer to as the “Cantina Band Song,” or “Cantina Band 1,” actually has a very real, very Earthly name: “Mad About Me.” Then there’s “Cantina Band 2,” named because it’s the second song you hear during the Cantina Band scene in the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (yes, there are two songs), which is called “If I Only Could Let Go and Cry.”
2. Both songs were composed by John Williams, who was given direction from George Lucas to make it echo swing music. "Can you imagine several creatures in a future century finding some 1930s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace — and how they might attempt to interpret it?" Lucas reportedly told him. If you compare Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” to “Mad About Me,” the homage is perfectly clear.
3. To perform the piece, Williams brought in nine jazz musicians, and included trumpet, saxophones, clarinet, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Caribbean steel drum, another drum, an ARP synthesizer for the bass and various other percussion. To give it that alien quality, the bottom end of the sound was minimized, with added reverb working to thin the instruments out even more.
4. This is the part where the attention to detail reaches a stratospheric level of nerdom. The band, which really only appears in the background of the Star Wars movie and has exactly zero effect on the plot of the film, has a complex back story, which I will attempt to briefly summarize.
The band is actually called Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, and they are a group of Bith aliens who play a genre of music called "jizz." Anyway, apparently the Bith respiratory system makes the aliens ideal woodwind players, as they can hold a note indefinitely (Bith musicians are also said to make an appearance in The Force Awakens). Band leader Figrin D’an has a reputation as a strong negotiator, but with a knack for making poor decisions, which explains how he landed on Jabba the Hutt’s bad side. The band was contracted to play exclusively for Jabb the Hutt, but it secretly played the wedding reception for the crime lord’s nemesis, Lady Valerian, forcing the members to go underground until Jabba the Hutt’s death (during that time, they performed under the alias Babbarine and the Wookie Kotters, obviously).
This is all taken from a supplementary short story about the band,We Dont’ Do Weddings: The Band’s Tale, which you can listen to, if you dare, as an audiobook below. It includes such gems as D’an’s description of how Jabba the Hutt’s “fat blotchy tail always twitched in rhythm whenever we played.”
5. The Cantina Band proved to be so popular with fans that George Lucas and John Williams attempted to imitate their success in Return of the Jedi, to mixed results. The Max Rebo Band (fun fact: it featured Figrin D’an’s brother, Barquin D’an!) can be seen playing Jabba the Hutt a song called "Lapti Nek.” And, since it was 1983, it wasn’t an attempt to emulate swing music, such as the Cantina Band, but instead, disco. The result is a sleezy, sped-up disco song that sounds like a mix between Rick James and Cindy Lauper. Of course, that band and song has its own complicated backstory, but needless to say, the Max Rebo Band — despite being the most popular band in the universe, apparently — never managed to achieve the level of adoration that Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes achieved.