The CW’s Supernatural is a special show for several reasons: its fans are treated as part of the family; it’s the only show on television that is older than the network that airs it; that on-air longevity also makes it America’s longest-running genre television show. However, one of its most special features is the most under-discussed: its commitment to bringing classic rock to primetime.
Show creator Eric Kripke made music a priority for the show with one very important line in an early draft of the pilot: “You can take your anemic alternative pop and shove it up your ass.” The line preceded a music cue, and its clear decree helped set the tone for the entire series.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, the series’ music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas, said that upon her hiring, the show’s executive producers told her exactly how they wanted the show to sound: “They knew from the beginning that they wanted it to be their very favorite, iconic popular rock songs from the ’70s and ’80s.”
In act two of that early draft, brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) drive off in the show’s other main character, Baby, a 1967 black Chevy Impala that’s “pouncing down the I-5 like a panther.” Baby’s cruise is set to a music cue described as “Dean’s music” — “adrenaline-pumping METAL.”
Although Supernatural is set in the present day, the show’s music cues evoke the historic nature of the boys’ work; timeless rock scores a classic struggle between good and evil. “Saving people, hunting things,” Dean bluntly summarizes for Sam, “the family business.”
The brothers are vestiges of a different era, preferring to drive across America’s open roads instead of taking planes (mostly because Dean has a fear of flying) to hunt ghosts, vampires, ghouls, and other things that go bump in the night.
Although an airborne truth serum in Season 14 forces Sam to reveal his favorite artist is Celine Dion, the show favors American, British, and Canadian rock groups that evoke vintage Americana. As Patsavas once explained, the show “has a very road-trip flavor.”
Songs from beloved bands like The Rolling Stones are just as likely to earn a reference in episode titles (such as Season 5’s “Sympathy for the Devil”) as they are to be used to soundtrack an episode (such as Season 13’s “Rip This Joint”). The brothers even use the names of famous rockers as aliases when investigating supernatural events as priests (Fathers Simmons and Frehley), and FBI agents (Agents Plant and Page).
The commitment to rock even continues at nationwide and international Supernatural fan conventions, where the actor who plays God on the show, Rob Benedict, kicks off almost every cast interview session by covering Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” with his band Louden Swain.
In addition to helping set the tone of the show, rock also helps define certain characters. This is especially true with Dean, an avowed Led Zeppelin fan (in Season 4’s “The Monster At The End of The Book,” we learn his favorite Zeppelin song is a tie between “Ramble On” and “Traveling Riverside Blues”) who controls Baby’s radio and has a funny tendency of humming rock standards to help himself out of tricky situations. He memorably hums Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster” to calm his nerves on a plane and Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” to get a baby to fall asleep.
Since these rock songs and bands are infused into the DNA of the show, watching Supernatural — particularly in its first few seasons — feels like you are eavesdropping on two brothers having the greatest (and also longest) road trip ever. As the latter half of Kripke’s famous script note declares, “We’re playing Dean’s music…and we’re playing it loud.”
When Supernatural premiered its 15th and final season this month, it opened the first episode with Bob Seger’s “The Famous Final Scene.” It was a callback to an artist the show has used before and someone Dean has referred to as “one of the greatest rock writers of all time.” It was also a reminder of how important classic rock music has been to the series over its nearly 15 years on the air. Here’s a look back at some of those other great rock music cues that helped define the show:
Season 1 Episode 1: “Pilot”
AC/DC, “Highway to Hell”
Kripke originally pitched Supernatural as “X-Files meets Route 66,” a story just as much about monster hunting as it is about the unique feel of a road trip and journeying America’s back roads. The boys essentially live in their car; they hop between motels, and their diet consists of junk food from motel vending machines and 24-hour diners. Fittingly, this quintessential AC/DC song starts playing as the brothers are driving along a deserted road after solving their first case together in a while.
Season 2 Episode 12: “Nightshifter”
In this episode, Sam and Dean find themselves running from the long arm of the law after taking down a shapeshifter involved in a series of bank robberies. While inside the shapeshifter’s latest mark, the City Bank of Milwaukee, they find themselves surrounded by a SWAT team and a particularly motivated FBI agent who has been ordered to take them in based on the trail of bodies and desecrated graves they’ve been responsible for since they began hunting. The Styx song slowly builds as the brothers make their escape from the bank, disguised as the very SWAT agents they are trying to escape. Once they take off their masks, the song kicks up, which is incredibly satisfying.
Season 3 Episode 4: “Sin City”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through The Jungle”
The show has used Creedence Clearwater Revival before, most memorably in the Season 1 finale when “Bad Moon Rising” soundtracked the episode’s cliffhanger –a car crash that involved the brothers and their long-lost father. This time, the brothers find themselves investigating a strange town in Ohio where every resident suddenly seems to be acting on their worst impulses, gambling, drinking and sinning from morning till night. “Run Through The Jungle” plays as the boys take in the state of the town.
Season 4 Episode 3: “In The Beginning”
The Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man”
In this flashback episode, Dean is sent back into his own past and runs into his grandfather in 1973 Lawrence, Kansas. He learns that the hunter’s life is in his DNA. The song’s lyrics are practically a motto for the Winchester family: “Lord I was born a ramblin’ man, tryna make a livin’ and doing the best I can.”
Season 5 Episode 3: “Free to Be You and Me”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
This song accompanies a montage of Sam and Dean attempting to go their separate ways: Dean hunting, and Sam fruitlessly trying to live the “normal” life after burning all the fake IDs he’s used for work. If Dean could be distilled into a song it’d probably be this one. Ackles has even covered it for fans at a convention.
Season 6 Episode 9: “Clap Your Hands If You Believe”
David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
“Clap Your Hands If You Believe” is a fitting title for an episode that features crop circles, ufologists, and evil fairies. Bowie’s song plays as Dean hilariously fights off one of the aforementioned fairies after it barges into his motel room. At an August 2019 Supernatural convention in Vancouver, Padalecki said that this music cue is one of his favorites from the entire show.
Season 7 Episode 17: “The Born-Again Identity”
The Yardbirds, “Turn Into Earth”
This ominous but catchy tune from the ‘60s English rock group plays while angel and Winchester-ally Castiel (Misha Collins) regains his memories and the smiting powers mid-fight with a group of demons. It is undoubtedly one of Castiel’s coolest action sequences and a fan favorite in large part because of this music cue.
Season 8 Episode 17: “Goodbye, Stranger”
Supertramp, “Goodbye Stranger”
“Goodbye Stranger” starts playing when Dean turns his car radio on, and it keeps playing in the following scene as Castiel, whose mind has been corrupted by the brainwashing attempts of a rogue angel, drives away from the brothers on a bus and becomes, as the lyrics suggest, “a ship without an anchor.” It’s a flawless marriage of plot and score.
Season 9 Episode 16: “Blade Runners”
The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”
Usually, background music is just that: something that plays in the background and gives you a sense of the tone that a scene is going for. In this scene, however, Crowley (Mark Sheppard), the King of Hell, is holed up in a lavish hotel room injecting himself with human blood (which in the show’s lore acts as a kind of narcotic for a demon), and the song’s lyrics match up perfectly with his actions. Crowley knives a demon who betrays him, shoots up, surveys the damage around the room, and catches his reflection in a nearby mirror as Lou Reed croons, “I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can/’Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/When I put a spike into my vein.”
Season 10 Episode 5: “Fanfiction”
Kansas, “Carry On Wayward Son”
In the landmark 200th episode cheekily titled “Fanfiction,” Sam and Dean are drawn to a haunted high school theater where a group of students is performing Supernatural: The Musical, a production of Sam and Dean’s lives (which have been turned into a book series within the show). In the most stirring scene, the teen actors come together on stage dressed like the series’ main characters to sing Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son,” a song that’s thought of as the show’s unofficial theme song. In 2017 the band even made a surprise appearance at the show’s San Diego Comic-Con panel to perform it. The song is also used in the show’s recaps.
Season 11 Episode 4: “Baby”
Bob Seger, “Night Moves”
This memorable episode takes place almost entirely inside of Baby and is one of the most fulfilling results of the show’s experiments with POV. This Bob Seger hit helps end the episode on a rare hopeful note for the show. As it plays, the brothers are singing along to Dean’s cassette (yes, cassette!) together inside the Impala, eating junk food, and joking around while driving along an unnamed coast as the sun sets.
Season 12 Episode 16: “Ladies Drink Free”
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, “Real Wild Child”
This cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child” closes out the episode. It starts up after Claire (Kathryn Love Newton), the brothers’ quasi-protégé, confesses to her adoptive mother that she’s been hunting, thereby finally fully committing to her hunter journey. It’s a very fitting music cue for the scene as a female rocker covering a song originally sung by a male rocker is a neat parallel to Claire following in Sam and Dean’s footsteps and taking on a job that is dominated by men.
Season 13 Episode 21: “Beat the Devil”
Harry Chapin, “Cat’s In The Cradle”
Every road trip needs a sing-along song and this is it. “Cat’s In The Cradle” is a perfect song for the show because, as fans know, Supernatural’s unofficial subtitle is “Daddy Issues.” Here, the song Rolling Stone named one of The 10 Saddest Songs Of All Time plays in a bar as a dejected Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) laments to a bartender about his estrangement from his son.
Season 14 Episode 7: “Unhuman Nature”
Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Let It Ride”
For 14 seasons, Dean is Baby’s owner and primary driver, but a very important thing happens in this episode: Dean teaches Jack (Alexander Calvert), the devil’s real son and his surrogate one, to drive her. At first, there’s no music playing at all as a nervous Jack tries to get a handle on driving. “Try using one foot, not two, and relax,” an unusually patient Dean suggests. Slowly, Jack gets the hang of it and Dean flips on the radio which is playing “Let it Ride.” This song will forever be memorable because it’s the song that soundtracks this very sweet and historic moment.
This is the soundtrack to the road so far. Here’s to more great tunes in Season 15!