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Something Strange Indeed: The Music Of Ghostbusters

The comedic legacy of Ghostbusters is pretty firmly set in stone — deep enough that even the idea of a reboot was enough to freak out Gen X manchildren and send them running to the hills crying about their damaged childhoods. (How said childhoods were left intact after the dopey Ghostbusters II, I don’t know.) But with the soundtrack for the reboot causing even further consternation one track at a time, a lot of people are probably left reflecting on that Ray Parker Jr. theme song and All The Feels it brings up in the hearts of the ’80s babies that now comprise the majority pop-cultural voice of the internet. Let’s not get contrarian for its own sake: “Ghostbusters” the song is a total jam. But even as people cling to their memories of the film, how much are they worrying about — or even maintaining — their memories of the soundtracks, at least past that iconic theme? It’s probably worth revisiting the previous films’ soundtracks to see if there really is any correlation between how entertaining and enjoyable these films were and how worthwhile their soundtracks are — and whether the reboot’s soundtrack holds any good or bad omens about the movie itself hitting theaters next month.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Aside from maybe The Breakfast Club, there are few soundtracks to iconic ’80s films with a greater divide between the memorable big hit and the remainder of the album than Ghostbusters. A 10-track cash-in that’s barely more essential than the smash single theme, there’s not only its share of filler — two selections from Elmer Bernstein’s frothy, half-memorable score, plus an instrumental version of the Ray Parker Jr. cut that also showed up on the 7″ — it’s also a snapshot of a largely forgotten version of the ’80s that left artists like the R&B bar band throwback the BusBoys and the briefly megastar-status Laura Branigan as footnotes-in-retrospect. And most of these songs aren’t even as memorable as the moment Louis Tully tries to zazz up his lame party by throwing on the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” a then-punchline omitted from the original soundtrack (though tacked on to a 2006 reissue) meant to show off just how uncool Rick Moranis’ dork accountant neighbor really is: music from the ’70s, eeeeew. Shame it was the best song in the whole damn movie.

The Big Single: Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters”

Before hitting #1 with “Ghostbusters” in 1984 and subsequently being accused of ripping off Huey Lewis & The News, Ray Parker Jr. was the frontman of Raydio, who hit #8 with “Jack And Jill” in 1978 and were subsequently accused of ripping off Stevie Wonder. Not like this is the fairest assessment of Parker’s career: Before cutting his most widely known single, Raydio delivered their share of underrated jams — 1979’s Rock On is a pretty solid pop-funk album — and Parker’s solo career was hardly an afterthought pre-“Ghostbusters,” either. If you haven’t heard Parker’s 1982 single “The Other Woman,” one of the best-ever early ’80s New Wave moves by an R&B artist (non-Prince division), you should probably fix that problem ASAP. (Note the possible future typecasting with the super-paranormal horror-movie kitsch music video — it predated the one for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, but rumor has it MTV wouldn’t air it because they were uncomfortable with depicting an interracial couple.) As for “Ghostbusters,” you’ve probably heard it a thousand times if you were (A) alive in 1984 or (B) have been within 500 feet of a Halloween party, so good luck getting it dislodged from your head now that I’ve brought it up. Still, joke all you want about that lift of the “I Want A New Drug” riff (Parker ultimately paid Lewis in a settlement) — that haunted-house funk synth in the “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” hook is something Rick James would’ve sold his “Unity” ring for.

The Best Deep Cut: Thompson Twins, “In The Name Of Love”

Oh, right, the Thompson Twins: They were pretty big for a while. Madonna joined them onstage at Live Aid, the UK music press regularly assailed them as mediocrities, and Into The Gap went platinum on both sides of the Atlantic in a 1984 that wasn’t lacking in blockbuster albums. But two years before “Hold Me Now” made them big enough to position them as an MTV fixture and perceived recipient of unwarranted megahype, the Steve Lillywhite-produced Set spun off this single that bricked on the UK charts but caught on big in the States on Billboard’s dance chart, hitting #1 on the cusp of summer 1982. This was when the dance charts were in a weird but fascinating post-disco, pre-Madonna/Thriller limbo — the Twins were bookended by one-hit wonders Chéri (“Murphy’s Law”) and Sinnamon (“Thanks To You”). But “In The Name Of Love” isn’t a Euro-Montreal shuffle-disco confection or a proto-freestyle slice of gleaming boogie funk — it’s a jittery, flatly sung mid-tempo sweatbox of a track that sounds like a sawn-off, deceptively hooky pop take on Remain In Light Talking Heads. The quasi-highlife guitars alone make this a deep listen, and considering its omnipresence throughout the decade — the original release in ’82, its soundtrack appearance in ’84, and its ’88 Shep Pettibone remix, also a #1 dance chart hit — it’s a wonder that it isn’t a bigger crossover.

The Worst Track: Alessi, “Savin’ The Day”

Alessi, aka the Alessi Brothers, were (and presumably still are) twin brothers from Long Island who had a top 10 UK hit with the soporific “Oh Lori” in 1977 and maintained a consistently bland corporate-rock identity with a sideline in the bad-cover-version phase of the 1979 disco glut. (Listen to their failed attempt to do for the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” what Amii Stewart did for Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” and you might get a clearer idea of what disco sounded like to the rockers who hated it.) “Savin’ The Day” gave them another genre to fool around in, that of Montage Rock, where it’s impossible to separate a song, no matter how mediocre, from the cheap thrill of watching a movie’s hero(es) get ready to come, see, and kick something’s ass. “Savin’ The Day” is produced by Phil Ramone, whose immense contributions to the works of nearly every major field of recording and production from the late 1950s to well into his late 70s just about overshadows the fact that he was also responsible for co-producing Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us.” And when you’re not watching ECTO-1 driving through Manhattan with a full police and Army escort to fuck up Gozer The Gozerian’s whole scene, what “Savin’ The Day” sounds like is some guy who absolutely has to have a perm-mullet oversinging generic anxiety lyrics (“You seem a little strange/ Something about you not the same/ Nowhere to hide from the feeling/ Running through my veins”) through lockjaw like a whiny, asthmatic Kenny Loggins.

The Weirdest Inclusion: Air Supply, “I Can Wait Forever”

On the original LP, this was the last cut on Side A, which I’m pretty sure is a smart move because who heard Ray Parker Jr. on the stereo or watched this movie in the theaters and went, “Oh damn a brand new Air Supply soft-rock slow jam”? Someday I will go to a thrift store and sift through all their copies of the Ghostbusters soundtrack and see if there are any that show even the slightest amount of wear on that track.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

What Ghostbusters was to the half-forgotten artists of the early-mid ’80s, Ghostbusters II was to the burgeoning superstars that were climbing the charts when the first movie was in heavy VHS-rental rotation. Sort of. The soundtrack might be best remembered for its relatively shallow dive into New Jack Swing — two cuts by Bobby Brown, and one from the Johnny Gill-era, Minneapolis Sound-ified New Edition. But there’s also a couple cuts from NYC hip-hop icons Doug E. Fresh and Run-DMC, the latter of whom took over the Parker role of doing the Ghostbusters theme and sounded super-outmoded in the process of trying to sound like Tone-Loc. There’s also a cut from perennial soundtrack standbys Oingo Boingo, released the same year that member Danny Elfman became one of Hollywood’s most renowned film score composers with Batman; that “Flesh ‘N Blood” sounds like a dollar-store version of 1983 Billy Idol should show you where Elfman’s priorities were. And given its centrality to the movie’s plot, it’s an unbelievable contrivance that the mood slime the Ghostbusters use to save the day would be happy with the ’80sed-to-death version of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher And Higher,” performed by Howard Huntsberry, who’d performed the role of Wilson in La Bamba two years previous to far more faithful effect. Throw in near-nadirs by ’70s superstars like Glenn Frey, Elton John, and Kool & The Gang’s J.T. Taylor, and there’s not a lot to be nostalgic about — kind of like the movie itself.

The Big Single: Bobby Brown, “On Our Own”

Let’s get this out of the way: This song is almost good. Yes, L.A. Reid and Babyface bring their A game, embedding the sound of New Jack Swing to perfection and sounding so 1989 you can almost hear an earthquake postponing the World Series in the background. Yes, the hook is titanium, as Brown — fresh off the world-conquering Don’t Be Cruel and not yet a tragic national joke — sings like a man who’d just been promised a real-life proton pack of his own for appearing on the soundtrack. But then he raps. And even with a long tradition of R&B superstars incorporating the movie’s plot into the theme’s actual lyrics, “On Our Own” outdoes the Impressions’ Three The Hard Way theme “Make A Resolution” (“They kidnapped Wendy/ They killed poor House/ But not before they let part of the secret out”) for shoehorned tie-in ridiculousness. Not only is “To battle out Vigo the master of evil/ Try to battle my boys? That’s not legal!” just barely short of its corniness becoming kind of likable, one line — “So they packed up the crew, got a grip, came quick/ Grabbed the proton packs on their backs and they split” — is a double-lift from Eric B. & Rakim’s classic 1988 singles “Follow The Leader” (“Back up, regroup, get a grip, come equipped”) and “Microphone Fiend” (“I kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug, then I jet”). If only that was the most embarrassing thing about this song.

The Best Deep Cut: Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew, “Spirit”

So Ghostbusters II isn’t exactly a hit parade once you get past the New Jack Swing portion of the record. But if Run-DMC’s post-peak contribution is kind of a bummer, Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew’s contribution is at least enjoyably bizarre. “Spirit” is one of three tracks that just straight-up says, “Yeah, this is about ghosts and the people who bust them in a sequel-based context,” and easily the most straight-faced one; you really believe that Doug is seriously invested in the whole plot point that New Yorkers’ bad moods are making subterranean slime angry and is doing his damnedest to make it into a metaphor that maybe works outside the boundaries of the movie itself. Just a year removed from the underrated gem The World’s Greatest Entertainer, the Original Human Beatbox was still in fine form here, and even if the beat’s wedged in a weird place between creepy synth-choir “Haunted House Of Rock”-era Whodini and the Stubblefield-break impact of EPMD, dude actually turns “Who you gonna call/ Ghostbusters!” into a pretty solid golden age hip-hop call and response.

The Worst Track: Glenn Frey, “Flip City”

A mere five years previous, Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop had conspired to put Glenn Frey neck-and-neck with Don Henley in the fight to be the most successful of the solo Eagles. If that sounds like a two-way tie for last, it was all over but the money-counting by ’89, as Henley’s The End Of The Innocence went six times platinum en route to becoming dadrock canon a year after Frey’s Soul Searchin’ got clowned by critics and ignored by buyers for its half-hearted coasting. Anybody annoyed by “You Belong To The City” should be horrified by the idea of what Glenn Frey sounds like when he doesn’t care, in which case the gong-and-organ intro and chirpy faux-goth synth-o-rock of “Flip City” is a big fat whatever.

The Weirdest Inclusion: Elton John, “Love Is A Cannibal”

1989’s Sleeping With The Past might have dropped long after Elton John was considered a contemporary artist without the word “adult” preceding it, but it was at least a hit, with the single “Sacrifice” becoming his long-awaited first solo #1 single in the UK. It made that position in June 1990, just about a year after Ghostbusters II was released to theaters, and more than half a year after its initial release with “Love Is A Cannibal” as the B-side. And if that doesn’t make the inclusion of “Love Is A Cannibal” on the Ghostbusters II soundtrack feel enough like a parts-bin afterthought, this song wasn’t even the B-side when “Sacrifice” actually hit the top of the pops — “Healing Hands” replaced it for the 1990 re-release that made #1. I don’t know if the fact that “Love Is A Cannibal” was the flip of the original single had anything to do with “Sacrifice” taking forever to climb to the top, but as undercooked attempted-rockers go it isn’t exactly the second coming of “The Bitch Is Back,” and its lyrics (“Woman is a criminal/ She have the hunger/ But man is the animal/ And love eats love, eats love”) are a lot less profound.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Beyond the focus-grouped mishmash of famous names, far past the negative buzz that’s somehow found a way to connect agitated MRAs to disillusioned Fall Out Boy enthusiasts, there is one simple fact about this soundtrack: When given the opportunity, just about anyone will decide that writing a song for a Ghostbusters reboot means writing a song around the “Ghostbusters” theme. Walk The Moon’s cover-version opener is the CGI-gloss version of the practical-effects original, where once memorable SFX now come across as just another example of spectacle being over-saturated until it feels not just ordinary but rote. Pentatonix cover it and drench it in the kind of a cappella-but-not cheese that uses harmonies and melodies as elbow-to-ribs winking jokes. Zayn Malik — excuse me, ZAYN — builds a woozy ballad’s hook off the phrase “Who you gonna call,” there’s yet more lifts of the Parker Jr. theme’s hooks in Mark Ronson’s “Get Ghost,” and Fall Out Boy’s “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)” is another variant on the OG version that would make both Parker and Huey Lewis disavow any knowledge of ever writing that riff in the first place. Of course, Parker’s original shows up at the end because nothing else really does the job.

The Big Single: Fall Out Boy ft. Missy Elliott, “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)”

Ugh. Do we have to talk about this again?

Thanks to the miracle of potentially dicey spyware-riddled lyrics sites, I can confirm that no, Missy does not say anything that would get her on an FBI watchlist, but that’s probably because she hardly says anything worth remembering (“I see shadows all on my wall/ Man, these monsters be big and tall”). Patrick Stump doesn’t either, dude just paraphrases the original lyrics and both grammatically “corrects” and forgets to complete the phrase “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” If anything, the big to-hell-with-this about this song is that it tries to be rock, pop-punk, emo, hip-hop, funk, and some vague game-of-telephone form of EDM all at once — a nice trick if you can pull it off, but this is how it sounds when it’s focus-grouped to death. It’s not clear just how much this was concocted to bring out maximum genre synergy, but it sounds like musical slurry.

The Best Deep Cut: Wolf Alice, “Ghoster”

Hey, here’s something — a decent-enough grunge-pop-garage churner that clocks in at two and a half minutes and splits the difference between Garbage and L7 for maximum hookiness. See what can happen when the UK music press still insists on looking for guitar-rock heroes but figures they don’t have to sound like the 50th coming of Oasis?

The Worst Track: Beasts Of Mayhem, “Want Some More”

“Saw It Coming” almost took this honor, but at least Jeremih does his best to cancel out G-Eazy’s abysmal faux-drawling phony blaccent. And as much embarrassment as “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)” has been causing to just about everyone who listens to it, even the tragedy of Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott both letting down their fanbases can’t quite measure up to the half-assed attempt at incorporating the movie’s Plot Band into the soundtrack. The wholly fictional actor-ringer Beasts Of Mayhem — not to be confused with Tommy Lee’s nu-metal bad idea cavalcade Methods Of Mayhem — are (if trailers are to be believed) the center of a scene where they somehow summon up some kind of demonic spectre mid-concert. Assuming that this band’s supposed to be metal of some kind, their watered-down crossover thrash wouldn’t pass muster in the city that gave us Anthrax, much less a year where even fairly accessible bands like Kvelertak live and die on wall-crumbling volume and shredded-steel vocals. “Want Some More” sounds like a bar band with a setlist heavy on Counting Crows trying to write their own version of Metallica’s “Whiplash.”

The Weirdest Inclusion: Mark Ronson, Passion Pit, & A$AP Ferg, “Get Ghost”

(Sorry, Ferg. “Shabba” still bangs.)