The Man Behind the Music of Fletch
by Ryan Acree
Some of you may know the name Harold Faltermeyer but I would suspect most do not. He is the answer to the trivia question: “Who wrote and performed the theme song “Axel F” for Beverly Hills Cop. You also might have heard us talk about Harold Faltermeyer and the Fletch Theme song on our recent Fletch episode. However, Harold Faltermeyer is more than just an answer to an 80’s trivia question.
So who was this analog synth master from the 80’s who did film soundtracks for movies like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Fletch, among others? Well, Faltermeyer was born in Munich, Germany, in 1952. He began piano lessons at the early age of 6, and it was discovered that by 11 he had absolute perfect pitch. (For you non-music types, absolute pitch the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.)
Harold had a love for music and started working at the studios for the Deutsche Grammophon label. By 1978, he was hired by none other than Giorgio Moroder to play keyboard and assist with arrangements for the soundtrack to the film Midnight Express.
Now, here is where I stopped. 1978...Giorgio Moroder...ahhh...NO WONDER! You see, Giorgio Moroder is a disco and keyboard musical genius and widely considered “The Father of Disco.” Some of you might recognize Giorgio Moroder’s name from Daft Punk’s album Random Access Memories.
Ok, back to Midnight Express...the film’s soundtrack goes on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score and although Faltermeyer was hired by Moroder as a performer, he also was hired for arranging. You can hear some of Faltermeyer’s melodic influence in the poly-rhythms of the Midnight Express theme song “The Chase”
Faltermeyer and Moroder then collaborate on many other projects and was Moroder’s protégé at the time, but Faltermeyer began to write and produce on his own...songwriting, producing, arranging, performing, remixing..some pop and dance songs, some film soundtracks including American Gigolo and disco movie Foxes. The list of artists he worked with in this period include Donna Summer, Three Degrees, The Sylver, and Laura Branigan.
The next big soundtrack Faltermeyer worked on was Thief of Hearts in 1984, starring Steven Bauer (Scarface), and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. This was another movie soundtrack collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, but this time, Faltermeyer had actual writing and performance credits. His fast synthesizer rhythm signature style is unmistakable in the theme for this mostly unknown cult classic film.
Even though Thief of Hearts was a flop at the box office, Faltermeyer did catch the attention of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who needed a peppy and fun soundtrack for a new police comedy, Beverly Hills Cop. Since we are all familiar with the song “Axel F”, here is Faltermeyer performing “Axel F” live for Top of the Pops in 1985:
Now, here is the thing you don’t know about Beverly Hills Cop...Harold Faltermeyer also co-wrote the song “The Heat Is On” for the Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack, and performed by Eagles member Glen Fry. Now, this song is very heavy guitar driven, but you can still hear the up-tempo syth syncopation from Faltermeyer. I have a feeling that sax part was also a converted syth part.
“The Heat is On” became a major hit single for Fry, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 1985, right behind "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. Now, this was also not without collaboration help. “The Heat is On” was co-written by a UK composer named Keith Forsey. Forsey also worked with Mordor on “Flashdance... What a Feeling" and “The Never Ending Story” where Forsey has a full writing credit for the lyrics. Forsey also has a full writing credit to the signature song from The Breakfast Club, “Don’t You Forget About Me”. So Faltermeyer was in good company when working on “The Heat is On”.
With a chart topping pop song, “Axel F” added to Faltermeyer’s success, reaching #1 in many US charts and International charts. “Axel F” also won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition Written Specifically For A Motion Picture or for Television. Here is an awesome video breakdown of “Axel F” explained and how to produce those individual parts using modern equipment.
That brings us to late 1985 and when Faltermeyer composes the soundtrack for Fletch, and writes the pop song for the film “Bit By Bit” sung by Stephanie Mills. Sadly, the song never charted.
Now, history is hard to repeat itself, but Faltermeyer is not over after Fletch. He goes on to do soundtracks for Beverly Hills Cop II, The Running Man, Tango & Cash, and Top Gun. Yes THAT Top Gun. Sadly, he did not write “Danger Zone” sung by Kenny Loggins (although that was composed by Giorgio Moroder and lyrics written by Tom Whitlock who also wrote “Take my Breath Away” performed by Berlin for the Top Gun soundtrack). According to a recent interview, Faltermeyer was just too busy doing the music Fletch to write pop songs to go along with the score for Top Gun, but Faltermeyer DID write the unforgettable “Top Gun Anthem” song with that awesome guitar melody. It is one of his more moody pieces that still strikes in the heart of nearly every American.
The “Top Gun Anthem” went on to win a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Steve Stevens played guitar on the recording, who is the guitar player for Billy Idol and a favorite of Faltermeyer’s. The two met while working on Billy Idol’s Wiplash Smile album.
For Beverly Hills Cop II, Faltermeyer co-wrote another #1 hit song with Keith Forsey, “Shakedown” sung by Bob Seger in 1987. Shakedown” was meant to be sung by Glen Fry, but he lost his voice just before recording. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s first #1 hit was “Katmantdu” in 1975. They had a couple of hits in 1980 with “You’ll Accompany Me” and “Against the Wind”, but this was 7 years later in 1987, twelve years since his first #1 hit. “Shakedown” went straight to #1 and still remains as Bob Seger’s only solo #1 hit (without the Silver Bullet Band). “ Bob Seger also changed the lyrics a little, enough to get him a co-writing credit. Pretty sneaky of Seger!
“Shakedown” was even nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, but it lost both awards to Dirty Dancing's "(I've Had) The Time of My Life".
When listening to “Shakedown”, you can hear Faltermeyer working more fully and leaning less on synth sounds, but it still has many stabs and a very fast paced and infectious bassline.
Since the late 80’s, Faltermeyer has kept busy. He has done soundtracks, produced an album with the Pet Shop Boys, and even done some video game soundtracks, and done music for TV shows like Sex in the City. Most notably of late, he worked with Kevin Smith on the soundtrack for the buddy cop film in 2010 entitled Cop Out, starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. I guess Smith wanted that true 1980’s buddy cop sound by working with Faltermeyer
According to his website, it looks like Faltermeyer is in a state of semi-retirement doing remixes, compilations, fly fishing, rock climbing, iron smithing, and woodworking:
However, it is true that Harold Faltermeyer is named as the composer for the sequel of Top Gun, entitled Top Gun: Maverick to be released in 2020. So Harold Faltermeyer is not over yet! Yes!!!
So the next time you hear “Axel F” or the “Fletch Theme” or “The Heat is On” on the radio, or watch any of these movies mentioned, hopefully you will think of the legendary Harold Faltermeyer.