For this month’s installment of Terror on the Turntable, we’re going to take a little detour. A diversion if you will, into the often complex and murky world that is the music business. But don’t for one second think that we’re not talking spooky here. It is after all, A Haunting on Film Street Month here at NOFS. And when it comes to spirited, supernatural sing-a-long’s, nothing comes close to touching Ray Parker Jr.’s smash hit theme for Ghostbusters.
Initially rocking 1984 audiences with its earworm melody, groove-inducing rhythm and clever catchphrases, the track hit #1 on the Billboard charts with ease. Even more impressive, it stayed there for an astonishing 3 weeks. Garnering critical acclaim, a cameo laced music video and even an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, it’s hard to imagine a song as beloved and cherished as the Ghostbusters theme could have be swirling with drama. But baby, this is 80s-era Hollywood. Where cash talks, bullshit walks, and not everything is as simple as it seems.
Directed by Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Twins) and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters was poised to have mass audience appeal with its clever balance of comedy, action and horror. Starring a top tier cast and displaying sky high production value, all the stops were being pulled out for the big budget venture. But the marketing and producing team knew there was one more thing that could really send the film over the top; a killer theme song. The potential for cross promotion, cross industry earning power and marketing avenues within the music industry was an enticing avenue to explore, and a proven one at that. So when it came time to find the right person for the job, they thought they knew exactly who to call—Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac.
Yep, you read that right. Fresh off the success of ‘Holiday Road‘ written for National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983, Ghostbusters wanted in on the action. Although the song only peaked at No. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it was catchy, popular and got lots of additional radio play. Buckingham’s star power was undeniable and getting him involved with the project was an easy decision to make. But here’s the catch…Buckingham wasn’t interested. Not really needing the money and not wanting to be stereotyped as the ‘soundtrack guy,’ Buckingham passed on the offer to further pursue his own musical interests.
Needing another big name, the production began to look elsewhere. Now, this is where the story begins to get a little muddy. Allegedly, the next top pick for the job was none other than Huey Lewis from Huey Lewis and the News. At the time, Lewis was killing it in the pop world. With his catchy blend of rock, pop and swagger, sales were strong and Lewis’ star was skyrocketing. After nabbing a top-10 hit with his song ‘Do You Believe in Love‘ off his 1982 album Picture This, early signs pointed to his new album Sports doing even better. Released in September 1983, the first lead single ‘Heart and Soul‘ reached No. 8 on the charts with ease. Then, in January 1984, Lewis outdid himself again with the album’s second single ‘I Want A New Drug.’ The song was a smash and Lewis became an artist very much in demand. When supposedly approached to pen the theme for Ghostbusters, Lewis declined due to the fact that he was already working on music for another production, Back to the Future.
Now officially getting down to the wire, production finally called up the multi-talented musician, singer and songwriter, Ray Parker Jr. Although not a household name at this point in time, Ray Parker Jr. was an incredibly active creative with a stunning roster of credits to his name. Along with his years of playing guitar in various bands, Parker also worked as a studio musician. This often overlooked, but crucially important job allowed him to collaborate with artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, The Carpenters, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and more. Best known for his R&B, Motown, and romantic-themed music, the opportunity was a little outside Parker’s normal box. Although originally discouraged from taking the gig by mentor and producer Clive Davis for this very reason, Parker ended up accepting the job and got to work.
Having less than 4 days to turn in a viable option for a 30-ish second theme song (which he then had to stretch to 4 minutes), the heat was definitely on for Parker. Even though guidelines were loose for what the production required, there was one big stumbling block; the song had to have the word ‘ghostbusters’ in it. Stumped on what to do with the word, Parker finally found inspiration in the form of a late night TV commercial for a local business. Using the commercial advertising format as the lyrical framework, Parker wrote the now famous ‘Who ya gonna call?‘ line and pulled in his girlfriend and some of her friends to chant the callback, ‘GHOSTBUSTERS!‘ Perfect! Now, about the music…
Playing the drums and synthesized bass parts himself, Parker laid the upbeat and perky foundation for the track. Overlaid with slightly sleazy saxophone, thick and crunchy guitar tone from Brian Fairweather and sprinkles of spookiness with Martin Page’s synths, the music was simple, but incredibly effective. The track grooved, it had personality and embraced all the popular 80s sound tropes in both pop music and horror scores. It was everything the production could have asked for and more. It was also eerily similar to a familiar track by the aforementioned Huey Lewis. Seriously, listen to Parker’s theme and then check out ‘I Want A New Drug.’ The likeness between the two is more than slight.
Although it took some time, the song eventually made it to Lewis’ ear. And no surprise to anyone, he wasn’t exactly pleased. More than annoyed, Lewis ended up suing Ray Parker Jr. and Columbia Pictures for plagiarism. Due to the incredible popularity of both songs and the film itself, both parties agreed to settle out of court for an unspecified amount in 1995. (Rumors state the settlement was for a cool $5 million) Neither admitting nor denying the validity of Lewis’ claims, the studio decided it was in everyone’s best interest to simply put the issue to bed. Tied into the settlement agreement was a stipulation that Lewis’ could never publicly mention or discuss the matter. And he didn’t…for a while.
In a now famous 2001 MTV Behind the Music interview with Huey Lewis, the singer blurted out this statement:
The offensive part was not so much that Ray Parker Jr. had ripped this song off, it was kind of symbolic of an industry that wants something — they wanted our wave, and they wanted to buy it. It’s not for sale. In the end, I suppose they were right. I suppose it was for sale, because, basically, they bought it.
By saying this, Lewis broke the previously agreed upon, legally binding, pact of silence regarding the issue made some years prior. While the statement may have been made in a rather flippant and passive aggressive way, the settlement had no expiration date. And Ray Parker Jr. knew that. Proving that some wounds never heal, Parker decided it was his turn to initiate legal matters, suing Lewis in March of 2001. Seeking compensatory and punitive damages, Parker’s lawyers claimed that by breaking the gag order, Lewis had not only violated their legal agreement, but that the statements were intentionally inflammatory causing Parker emotional distress.
But here’s the big money question when it comes to the sonic similarities and claims of plagiarism between the two songs—was it intentional? In my personal opinion, the answer is…kind of. Was there ever a blatant request from some part of the production team to rip-off ‘I Want A New Drug?’ Probably not. Did they request something similar? Yeah. Backing up this vague nod and wink idea, Ivan Reitman himself stated in a 2014 Esquire interview,
We kept looking for a song for the montage in the middle of the movie. I was a big Huey Lewis fan, and I put in ‘I Want a New Drug’ as a temp score for screenings. And it seemed to be a perfect tempo, and we cut the montage to that tempo. When it was time to mix the movie, someone introduced me to Ray Parker Jr., and he comes back with a song called ‘Ghostbusters’ that has basically the same kind of riff in it. But it was a totally original song, original lyrics, original everything.
Backed into a creative corner under a tight deadline, it’s incredibly reasonable and easy to understand how and why Parker’s version of the song sounds so similar to Lewis’. The film was done. The edits were nearing completion. The production and team surrounding it had a sound in mind, a very specific sound. Considering the difficult situation that Parker was placed in, it’s pretty incredible that he was able to create a theme as uniquely his as it was inspired. And, if we’re being picky, many have argued that Lewis’ song is actually similarly inspired by the band M’s song ‘Pop Muzik’ from 1979. If not familiar, definitely check out that track as well to decide for yourself.
Despite the years of litigation, decades of speculations and accusations, Parker’s smash hit still stands as one of the most recognizable, singable and enjoyable movie theme songs that have ever existed. An eternal Halloween classic, Parker’s theme introduced him and his work to a much wider audience and became a huge feather in the already accomplished musician’s cap. Over the years, Parker has often spoke fondly and pleasantly about the theme and his experience despite the drama. In an interview with HLN, when asked if he ever gets tired of the song, Parker perhaps put it best when he said, “It’s like, am I tired of holding the best lotto ticket of the best thing to ever happen? No. In my kids’ schools, it makes me famous to the young kids.”
Where do you fall on the Ghostbusters theme song debate? Plagiarism? Or an inspired work of creative ingenuity? Talk all things Ghostbusters with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! And make sure to check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!