The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Ray Parker, Jr. – “Ghostbusters”

HIT #1: August 11, 1984

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

The Ghostbusters have done it. They’ve crossed the streams and defeated Gozer, the ancient evil menacing Manhattan. A vortex has opened up in the sky, sucking New York’s evil spirits into some other dimension. The Ghostbusters, dazed and blinking and covered in marshmallow goo, walk out onto the street to meet the throngs of cheering New Yorkers — priests, punks, Hasidic Jews, Hare Krishnas, little kids hawking bootleg Ghostbusters T-shirts. Bill Murray finally kisses Sigourney Weaver, who still looks faintly embarrassed to be around him. And underneath all this jubilation, a simple, electric, instantly familiar synth-rock jam pulses away.

With the arrival of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters,” this column enters a new era. “Ghostbusters” is the first song in this column that I can remember hearing when it was still vaguely new. I was four years old when “Ghostbusters” hit #1, and my parents were not the sort of parents who played pop music in the car. (Instead, I heard motherfucking All Things Considered and Prairie Home Companion constantly. You will never, ever find me listening to NPR today. It’s a vital public institution and blah blah blah, but the sound of people speaking in NPR voice will always evoke feelings of carsickness and visceral boredom in some deep pit of my soul.) I remember kids singing “Beat It” on the playground, but I don’t remember hearing the song until I was older. “Ghostbusters” is a different story. If you were a kid in the mid-’80s, “Ghostbusters” simply became a part of your being.

It wasn’t just the association with the film, though that obviously helped. Ghostbusters was a huge movie for me as a kid. It was the first VHS tape that my family rented when my parents finally bought a VCR, and it sent me screaming from the room when the ghost lady in the library turns into a monster. “Ghostbusters” was also the theme of The Real Ghostbusters, the spinoff cartoon that started airing on 1986 and that I probably liked better than the movie, at least at the time. As a song, though, “Ghostbusters” was the first piece of music that I intentionally listened to over and over. It looms even larger in my memory than the movie or the cartoon.

At some point, one of my parents brought home a tape, probably some kind of bootleg. I think the cover art was Dracula with a boom box held up to his ear. Side one had a few vaguely spooky songs — “Ghostbusters,” “Monster Mash,” “Thriller.” (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” another 1984 single, peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Side two was just spooky sound effects. “Ghostbusters” was the first song on side one, so I’d just rewind and play it again and again. In retrospect, it might’ve been my first favorite song.

Point is: This column is now entering my own zone of personal nostalgia. I’ve never tried to write objective reviews of these songs — or, for that matter, of anything else. (Objectivity in criticism is a pernicious myth.) But when these things are deeply tied in with my own personal memories, I’m going to process them in different ways. In the case of “Ghostbusters,” I’ve lived with this goofy little song for basically my entire sentient life.

“Ghostbusters” exists as a song because a bunch of people said no. Columbia Pictures knew it had a hit on its hands with Ghostbusters. The movie was done, and it was getting great marks from testing audiences, but director Ivan Reitman wanted a theme song — something fun and upbeat, with the movie’s title in it. He had trouble finding someone who would record it. Lindsey Buckingham reportedly said no. Huey Lewis, fatefully, also turned Reitman down. But Reitman finally had some luck when he hit up the pop-R&B lothario Ray Parker, Jr.

Ray Parker, Jr. came from Detroit, and he’d gotten started in the music business early. As a teenager in the late ’60s, Parker started playing guitar at the Detroit nightclub 20 Grand, joining the house band led by the legendary funk percussionist Bohannon. Shortly thereafter, Parker joined the touring band that backed up the Spinners. Parker also spent time working with Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra and with Stevie Wonder. Parker was in Wonder’s band when Wonder opened for the Rolling Stones, and he played on some of Wonder’s ’70s masterworks. (If you’re keeping score at home, that makes Parker the third musician, after Michael Sembello and Deniece Williams, to play in Stevie Wonder’s ’70s bands and then to go on to score a #1 hit with a song on an ’80s movie soundtrack. That’s pretty weird!)

In the ’70s, Ray Parker was one of the most in-demand studio musicians working. He played on a ton of records, including a handful of #1 singles — the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads,” Rhythm Heritage’s “Theme From S.W.A.T.,” Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” Parker also got into songwriting. In 1974, Parker and Chaka Khan co-wrote the Rufus single “You Got The Love,” a #1 R&B hit that also made it to #11 on the Hot 100. (Rufus’ highest-charting single, 1974’s “Tell Me Something Good,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8. As a solo artist, Chaka Khan’s highest-charting single is her 1984 version of Prince’s “I Feel For You,” which also peaked at #3. That one is a 9.)

In 1977, Ray Parker formed a slinky, synthy funk group called Raydio, and they started racking up hits right away, starting with 1978’s “Jack And Jill,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 7.) Raydio had their biggest-ever hit with 1981’s “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do),” but they broke up that same year. (“A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) Parker went solo in 1982, and right away, he scored again with the flirty, goofy, genuinely fun “The Other Woman.” (“The Other Woman” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

By rights, Ray Parker Jr. should’ve been all over MTV in its early years. Raydio had been early music-video adapters, and on camera, Parker was basically Billy Dee Williams — a charming and handsome loverman type who didn’t take himself even remotely seriously. In the video for “The Other Woman,” Parker plays a horny, cartoonish vampire; it’s almost a rough draft of the Ghostbusters video. But MTV wouldn’t play Black artists in its early years, and even after Michael Jackson’s breakthrough, they were a rarity on the network. Maybe that explains why Parker went two years without another top-10 hit.

When Ivan Reitman brought Ghostbusters to Parker, Parker had some trouble with the idea. Parker only had a few days to turn the song around. When Ghostbusters was in production, the producers had reportedly used the Huey Lewis & The News single “I Want A New Drug” as a temp soundtrack, and they reportedly told Parker that they wanted something like that for the final scene. The song also had to be built around the word “Ghostbusters,” which Parker hated. Nothing rhymed with it. He didn’t even want to sing the word.

Finally, watching TV one night, Parker had the idea that the Ghostbusters were a small business — the kind of business that might need an ad jingle for a local TV commercial. Parker wrote them that jingle. The Ghostbusters of the movie would’ve probably been happy to have Parker’s song; it would’ve really livened up their ad.

The song that Parker wrote was big and silly and memorable, and it piled hooks on top of hooks. Parker found exactly the right vibe for the movie — crowd-pleasing and relentless, but also knowing, in an eyebrow-waggling sort of way. Parker plainly didn’t take the song even remotely seriously, so he filled it up with little turns of phrase: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood,” “If you have a dose of a freaky ghost.” When Parker wails out that bustin’ makes him feel good, you have to imagine that he knows exactly what that means.

As a song, “Ghostbusters” is an efficient little hook-delivery system. Its main riff, played on both guitar and saxophone, lives inside your head from the first moment you hear it. So does the other riff, the one on the pre-chorus that sounds like a siren. Parker, producing himself, keeps things clean and bouncy and synthetic, working in spooky sound effects but never losing the feeling of half-sarcastic celebration. And since Parker didn’t want to sing the word “ghostbusters,” he instead figured out a great little call-and-response bit. He asks who you gonna call, and then the backing vocalists — Parker’s girlfriend and her friends — yell the title of the movie. It just works.

Ivan Reitman directed the supremely silly “Ghostbusters” video, where Parker plays a horny ghost who, in the end, turns out to really just want the girl in the video to call the Ghostbusters. (Cindy Harrell, the girl from the video, is now married to Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and she’s the mother of Cody Horn, Channing Tatum’s love interest in Magic Mike.) Reitman had Times Square shut down so that he could film Parker and the Ghostbusters stars doing a goofy synchronized dance, with Bill Murray getting in some supremely clumsy ad-libbed breakdancing. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon used a version of that dance as its closing credits.

In retrospect, the funniest thing about the “Ghostbusters” video is the utterly random parade of cameos from circa-1984 celebrities who show up just long enough to yell the song’s title: Chevy Chase, John Candy, Jeffrey Tambor, George Wendt, Al Franken, Danny DeVito, Peter Falk, Teri Garr, previous Number Ones artists Irene Cara and Carly Simon, a few people I don’t recognize. It’s a perfectly silly little time capsule, and it was enough to finally get Ray Parker Jr. onto MTV.

Ghostbusters was, of course, a massive hit and a generational touchstone. At the 1984 box office, only Beverly Hills Cop earned more money, and even that one was only because of a 1985 re-release. Parker’s song was massive, too, and it was one of five #1 hits nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Parker didn’t win the award; he lost it to a former collaborator. But Parker did perform “Ghostbusters” at the Oscars, singing from a levitating forklift on a stage full of dancing ghosts, with Dom DeLuise showing up as a vampire for some reason.

Huey Lewis noticed all the success that Ray Parker was having with “Ghostbusters,” and he also noticed that the song had some musical similarities to “I Want A New Drug,” the 1984 single that had been a #6 hit for Huey Lewis & The News and that had served as the temp soundtrack for Ghostbusters. Huey Lewis sued Parker, and the two settled in 1995. As part of the terms of the settlement, both parties were supposed to keep the agreement confidential. But Huey Lewis talked about it on his 2001 episode of Behind The Music, so Ray Parker sued Huey Lewis right back, reportedly winning a bunch of money from him. (“I Want A New Drug” is a 7. Huey Lewis & The News will eventually appear in this column.)

I think “Ghostbusters” is a better song than “I Want A New Drug” — punchier and funkier and synthier and sillier, with more lyrics about busting ghosts. Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking. In any case, Ray Parker Jr. never had another top-10 hit after “Ghostbusters,” though he kept putting out records and working with other artists. Before 1984 was over, Parker also wrote and produced “Mr. Telephone Man,” a #12 hit for the boy band New Edition. Five years after “Ghostbusters,” the former New Edition member Bobby Brown got to #2 with “On Our Own,” his theme for Ghostbusters II. (“On Our Own” is a 9. Bobby Brown will eventually appear in this column.)

Ray Parker Jr. didn’t get to remain a pop star for long, but he presumably gets paid every time another Ghostbusters-related project comes out and uses his theme. I hope that makes him feel good.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1984, when he was still in charge of the Memphis wrestling territory, Jerry Lawler recorded a version of “Ghostbusters” called “Wimp Busters.” Here’s its video, which makes me wish I could spend the next week watching nothing but Memphis wrestling from the ’80s:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Run-DMC rapped over a sample of “Ghostbusters” on their own song, also entitled “Ghostbusters,” from the 1989 Ghostbusters II soundtrack. Here’s the video:

(Run-DMC’s highest-charting single, the 1986 Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mistah FAB’s video for “Ghost Ride It,” the supremely fun 2008 hyphy track that’s built on a “Ghostbusters” sample:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott’s “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid),” the offensively shitty version of “Ghostbusters” that they contributed to the soundtrack of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot:

(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” peaked at #2. It’s a 4. Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2017 Stranger Things episode where “Ghostbusters” soundtracks a montage of the kids dressing up like Ghostbusters for Halloween: