'Boardwalk Empire' Theme: Series Creator Explains Decision to Use Contemporary Music

Abbot Genser/HBO; Bob Berg
Steve Buscemi, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe (inset)

Time out of mind? Although set in 1920, Terence Winter tells THR why he purposely chose 90s rock band Brian Jonestown Massacre as the soundtrack to the HBO show's title sequence.

There are so many things to love about Boardwalk Empire, from the characters to the costumes to the title sequence, which features star Steve Buscemi standing on an Atlantic City beach as hundreds of bottles wash ashore around him. But some fans of the HBO drama, whose second season premieres tonight, have wondered why the show’s theme song, a track by psych rock band Brian Jonestown Massacre from their 1996 album Take It From the Man!, was chosen rather than a period-appropriate piece of music.

“I wanted unexpected,” Boardwalk creator and executive producer Terence Winter tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t want to do some Charleston, which didn’t really kick in until 1924 anyway, and everything I heard from the period had people doing the Charleston.”

While experimenting with the opening, Winter says he paired the footage of Buscemi looking out to the horizon with several different pieces of music, including Brian Jonestown’s “Straight Up and Down.” “I had been a fan of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, so we tried it, and I said to the editor, that really works for me.”

Even with so much attention paid to period details such as wardrobe and props, the fact that the theme employs a contemporary song using instruments not yet invented during the prohibition era, when Boardwalk Empire takes place, doesn’t bother Winter one bit. “It’s a show set in 1920 seen through a different perspective, not a literal look at the 1920s,” he explains. “Some people find it jarring to see 1920s clothes and hear contemporary music. I look at it as, it’s a 90-second intro and then you have all the 20s you want.”

Watch the opening theme below: