Transcript 55: Ghostbusters

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final product exactly.

Episode 55, October 27, 2018: GHOSTBUSTERS

Hello! You’re listening to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous. 

My name is Claude Call, and Bustin’ makes me feel good.

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By many accounts, it was going to take a lot of things to come together in just the right way, at just the right time, for the film Ghostbusters to be a success. And one of those things was the theme song.

[MAIN TITLE THEME]

Let’s start briefly with the movie. By the early 1980s, the original cast of Saturday Night Live had started to make the move from television into films, and while John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray were experiencing success in front of the camera, Dan Aykroyd was doing a little bit better behind it, especially as a writer. Remember, he was the creative force behind the Coneheads and the Blues Brothers. And by 1982 or 3, agent Michael Ovitz said in an interview with Vanity Fair that they probably had 10 different ideas generated by Dan Aykroyd in some stage of development. Aykroyd was pretty well known as someone who was interested in parapsychology, and he’s quoted in the same Vanity Fair article as saying that he wanted to devise a system to trap ghosts, and marry it to the old ghost movies of the past. He noted that nearly every comedy team back then did a horror movie…

[ABBOTT AND COSTELLO clip]

…and so Aykroyd was inspired to start working on a comedy horror screenplay.  Now the movie was originally written to store Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.  Unfortunately Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982 while Aykroyd was still working on it.  Aykroyd showed the script to director Ivan Reitman, who really liked it, but who also thought it was a very complicated story.  The first draft was much darker, took place in the future, and on several different planets or planes of existence.  But however, there were some elements that did make it onto the big screen, including the Sta-Puff marshmallow man and what would ultimately became the Ghostbusters logo: the ghost inside a circular NO sign.  Ovitz brought the script to Columbia pictures, and chairman Frank Price, and price bought the product based on a budget of $25,000,000, which Ivan Reitman had completely conjured out of thin air.  But for a comedy at that time, $25,000,000 was a huge amount of money, at least in the eyes of some of the higher up the Columbia.  The film was slated to be released in the summer of 1984, which gave the team exactly one year to write, shoot, edit, and create special effects for this complicated film.  For the special effects team, has been designing creatures for a movie that still had yet to be written.

At the film neared completion in early 1984, the producers were pretty confident that they had a hit movie on their hands, but Ivan Reitman bought that something was missing.  He bought that they need to be a song close to the opening of the film, during the scene where bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis’ characters first enter the New York Public Library.  His original concept for the song was that would be short, maybe about 20 seconds, the band also need to have the word Ghostbusters in the title.  The song writers who originally received the assignment weren’t coming up with anything that Reitman liked.

[HOLIDAY ROAD clip}

The story goes that Lindsay Buckingham was approached to come up with a theme because he’d come up with the song “Holiday Road” for National Lampoon’s Vacation, but he turned them down. Buckingham didn’t want to be known as a soundtrack artist.

 Now, Ghostbusters didn’t have a music supervisor the way many films do, so the head of the music department at Columbia pictures introduced Ray Parker Jr. to Ivan Reitman and the film’s co producer, a man named Joe Medjuck.  Now, Parker’s producer Clive Davis, didn’t really want Parker working on a song about ghosts.  Most of parker’s songs were about women and romance, and Davis didn’t really like the idea of his star getting romantic with someone who has died.  But ultimately, Davis was convinced to let Ray Parker try.  Of course, if anybody asked Davis about it afterward, he took all kinds of credit for it.

In an interview with the website Screen Crush, Parker says that he met with Ivan Reitman, who sort of explained what he wanted out of this 20 second piece of music

[INSTRUMENTAL VERSION]

Parker was given a pretty tough project to work on. He told author George Cole that he only had a couple of days to come up with something, and it had to incorporate the film’s title in the lyrics. He’s quoted in the interview with Cole , “It sounds easy now because you’ve heard the song. But if somebody told you to write a song with the word ‘Ghostbusters’ in it, it’s pretty difficult. That was the hard part—getting the title in the song.”

But late at night, he found himself watching TV and a cheaply-produced local commercial came on, which reminded Parker that the Ghostbusters in the film had also produced a commercial of similar quality. So he reasoned that maybe he could write the song as a kind of advertising jingle that the business might have commissioned. He put something together and, because he didn’t want to shout the title, he got his girlfriend and a couple of her friends to do that part. But he played most of the instruments on the track., Brian Fairweather played guitar, Martin Page played keyboards, and Ollie Brown was on percussion. But Parker was on another guitar, bass, synth and drums.

Martin Page, by the way, is the guy who wrote “We Built This City” for Starship, but we’ll forgive him because he also wrote “These Dreams” for Heart.

Anyway, the next thing Ray Parker knew, he was getting a phone call in the middle of the night from a very excited director telling him that the music was really wonderful. In fact, Reitman liked the 20 second music so much, that he talked Parker into writing a full length song.  What’s more, the song would be backed by a music video to go with it.

[GHOSTBUSTERS]

Now, in 1984 music videos were still a new artform, and there weren’t a lot of rules for making them. So on the day they were supposed to film the video, they didn’t even have a director. Reitman solved the problem by taking over the duties himself.

The video is a bit of fun, and nearly all of it shot on the cheap and guerilla-style, in the sense that a lot of it broke some rules, and a couple of laws besides. During the video, Cindy Harrell walks into a house to find herself being haunted by a ghost played by Ray Parker. Nearly all of the elements of the house have this funky neon light look to them, but it’s a simple trick where the effects people paint on glass and then shoot through the glass. It’s a great, and inexpensive way to create the illusion of something being in a shot. The film Star Wars: A New Hope, makes use of several of these, and you can see an example of one of them at the website. At any rate, Parker is dancing around and haunting Harrell, and clips from the film are spliced in here and there. Then, maybe a third of the way in, we see Chevy Chase in one of the windows yelling “Ghostbusters!” in time with the song. Shortly after that, it’s Irene Cara doing the same thing. We also see John Candy, Melissa Gilbert, Ollie Brown, Jeffrey Tambor, George Wendt, Al Franken, Danny DeVito, Carly Simon, Peter Falk and Teri Garr, all shouting “Ghostbusters!” at the right moment. Franken also appears in the house early in the video, before the one-word cameos start. Now, to my eye it seems as though a couple of the actors didn’t really know what they were doing, but others were clearly in on the bit.

So how did Reitman get this batch of actors to do the cameos? Well. For some of them, a few favors were called in. For instance, Teri Garr was probably convinced by Bill Murray because they’d just done the film Tootsie together. And it was Joe Medjuck who got John Candy by conniving their way onto the set of Brewster’s Millions with a cameraman and a boom box. They got Candy alone for a couple of minutes off-set, played the song for him and told him, “Here’s the song, just yell ‘Ghostbusters’ when everyone says ‘Ghostbusters’ in the song.” And they got him to do it in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, nobody remembers who talked Carly Simon into appearing in the video, or even why she was approached.

George Wendt remembers being on the set for a film called No Small Affair when he was approached by Ivan Reitman and asked to come to his office for lunch. During the lunch meeting, Reitman played the track and he did the line, and that was pretty much it for him. He didn’t even get paid for it.

But that turned out to be a problem later on, because the Screen Actor’s Guild got wind of what had happened, and because videos were still a pretty new thing, and this video in particular wound up being a big hit, the Guild decided to use it as a project for taking on the video industry, what with using actors for free and such. Wendt said that not much came of it in the end, they got letters saying don’t work for free or you’ll be put on double-secret probation or whatever, but in the end nobody who participated thought there’d be any problem with it in the first place. But the other side of this is, because it was considered a promotional piece, nobody was paid to work on it, which meant it couldn’t appear on any home video releases of the film. So for a long time the video was in danger of disappearing altogether, even though nowadays you can find it in a number of places online.

The video ends with Ray Parker Jr. dancing up Broadway, with Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson—all four of them in their Ghostbusters uniforms—dancing right behind him. Parker says he showed up on a Friday afternoon, and the actors were in town on a press junket, and they blocked off a chunk of Times Square, and had them do the bit. Nobody’s even sure that they had a filming permit to do the shoot. In fact, Medjuck has admitted that there was at least one day of shooting the MOVIE without a permit. And, of course, the breakdance that Bill Murray does was completely unscripted, as was Parker’s giving him an assist on the spin. 

The song was a huge hit worldwide, reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Black Singles, and in the Top Ten on the Dance and Adult Contemporary charts. And it was in the top ten for the entire year. It was also a Top Five record in Canada, the UK, most of Europe and Australia, and even Number One in South Africa.

Now, a lot of people don’t remember this, but for the first couple of years MTV was a whites-only zone. If you were an African-American artist, it didn’t matter how hot your song was, you weren’t getting played on MTV. Not until Michael Jackson came out with “Thriller”, and then “Ghostbusters.” Those were the first two videos featuring black artists to air on MTV.

{I WANT A NEW DRUG]

But MVT airplay wasn’t the only controversy attached to the song. When the record was released, Columbia Pictures and Ray Parker Jr were sued for plagiarism by Huey Lewis, saying that “Ghostbusters” was too similar to his own “I Want A New Drug.” As it happens, Lewis is one of the artists who’d been approached to come up with a theme for the film, and he turned it down because he was working on Back to the Future. But that meant that Lewis may have had a stronger case, even if it’s just coincidental. Ultimately the parties settled out of court, and there was a confidentiality agreement attached to the whole thing, except in 2001 Huey Lewis appeared on the Behind the Music show on VH1 and said specifically that he’d received money as part of the settlement. That led Parker into suing Lewis BACK for violating the confidentiality agreement. I wasn’t able to find out how that lawsuit shook out, but that’s not even the weird part.

Here’s the weird part. Around 2004, the filmmakers said in an interview with Premiere magazine that they were using “I Want A New Drug” as temporary background music to help them with the pacing, and—AND! they sent Ray Parker a scene from the film to help him with the theme writing—and the clip had the Huey Lewis placeholder music on it.

Now we move forward to 2013 Ray Parker sued EMI and Sony/ATV Music because he was supposed to receive 75% of the profits from the song, and even though it made about $20 million, his royalties never came anywhere close to the $15 million he figured he should have gotten. But the ownership of the publishing has gotten hazy because the original company was Arista Records. Then Arista was acquired by a company called Ariola. Then Ariola was bought by BMG. Then BMG was bought by Sony Universal. And that’s why Ray Parker was suing Sony. Lots of opportunities for paperwork to get lost, here.

But…let me throw one more spanner into the works, here. Because it’s also possible that Huey Lewis isn’t such the innocent fellow either.

[POP MUZIK]

Take a listen to this:

This is a song called, oddly enough, Pop Muzik, by a band called M and written by Robin Scott. It wasn’t that long ago that some observant internet sleuths noticed a similarity between this and “I Want a New Drug”…

So who’s the thief now, HUEY…?

I dunno, maybe it’s all a coincidence, maybe not. But you don’t hear Robin Scott whining to anyone.

[FALL OUT BOY]

Incidentally, when the movie was remade in 2016, rock band Fall Out Boy and hip-hop artist Missy Elliot teamed up to remake the theme music, which you can see clearly has a different flavor, and Ray Parker Jr says he had no input on the track at all.

[WALK THE MOON]

 On the other hand, the 2016 edition of the soundtrack album also includes this much more faithful version by the band Walk the Moon,

And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to bust ghosts.

Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you then.