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Can Anyone Top the Original Ghostbusters Theme?

Everyone from Conor Oberst to Run-D.M.C. have tried to do justice to Ray Parker Jr.'s classic

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    Feature Image by Cap Blackard

    Cover Girl is a bi-monthly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. As musicians throw around genres, tempos, styles, and intent, associate editor Nina Corcoran breaks down what makes them stand out. This week’s inaugural column looks at Ray Parker Jr.’s iconic theme song “Ghostbusters” and the countless imitations it has inspired over the years.

    If you’ve been to a concert on Halloween, chances are you’ve seen a band cover the Ghostbusters theme. They likely did it in costume. They likely omitted certain lines in favor of the crowd shouting back at them. They likely cackled at various points, both with delight and slight embarrassment, suddenly aware of the straightforward riffs and long pauses that seemed normal until hearing it live. From its awkward synth solos to its forced shouts, the Ghostbusters theme song is packed with campy goodness that warms the heart. It’s the type of cheerful sing-along that you can’t help but contribute to, even if the predictable chord progressions and elongated stretches play differently in a live setting. It is, whether you like it or not, a classic.

    There’s a reason the Ghostbusters theme has lasted over three decades. It’s still relevant and, perhaps more surprisingly, it’s still familiar to (most) young people thanks to its simplicity. Say a guy had never seen the 1984 film before or heard its iconic theme. Half a minute into the song, he would get the gist. Who are you going to call? Ghostbusters. Duh. How could you not when there’s stereotypical ‘80s synths and the deep vocals of Ray Parker Jr. beckoning you? There’s a reason the theme stayed in the No. 1 spot of the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in 1984 and then hopped across the pond to snag even more radio spotlight. It’s a call-and-response favorite that’s as easy to learn as it is to sing along to, providing simple pleasures in a simple structure. Most importantly, it’s partnered with a ridiculous, trivial, and totally indulgent film that emphasizes its childish perks. As pop music has proven time and time again, especially in light of the recent poptimist era, simplicity wins when it makes you feel good.

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    Much of “Ghostbusters” floats effortlessly in 2016 because the original film itself is still held in high regard. Rewatching the movie can point out some of its flaws, be it the cheap jokes or flat lines, but those don’t really count as true faults. Was Ghostbusters ever trying to be a serious film? The fact that the enormous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man frees Dana and Louis should suggest that, no, this is not a serious film. When a giant confectionery puff momentarily takes the role of the protagonist, it tells us that this is not the America we know, as much as we may dream it would be. It’s an idea run wild that, without its theme song, might feel like an over-exaggerated joke.

    So how, exactly, did that theme song come to be? The producers approached Parker hoping he could scramble together a hit in a few days’ time. Though it seemed impossible, he was able to make it work, mainly because he accepted the fact that there was no time to write elaborate lyrics. A cheap commercial reminded him of the film’s own ties to fictional businesses and corporations, leading Parker to emphasize the theme’s advertisement-like tones. The resulting hit is one that we can all sing along to, the way we would a McDonald’s or Old Navy jingle.

    And yet, despite Parker’s attention to commercial rhythms, he still faced accusations for ripping off others. Huey Lewis brought Parker to court, insisting that the Ghostbusters theme directly plagiarized his own hit “I Want a New Drug”. A quick listen confirms that the riff Lewis wrote, one very similar to what Parker used in his theme, is far too brief to give the case any real merit. But Lewis had every right to raise an eyebrow; the film approached him earlier on to ask if he would write the theme song, but since he was too busy working on music for Back to the Future, he had to decline.

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    Parker’s attention to detail, or rather his decision to avoid complicated flourishes, ensured that his tune would stand the test of time. In the 30-plus years since “Ghostbusters” debuted, it’s been covered countless times. So often, in fact, that it’s not possible to pick a “best” cover because those that do it justice are songs that barely, if at all, alter the original version.

    There’s Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes with Ben Kweller at his side, decked out in tacky Ghostbusters gear. There’s Mistah Fab’s infamous sample and the famous Run-D.M.C. follow-up for the film’s sequel, a can’t miss. There’s the charming bare-bones folk of the Two Man Gentleman Band against the intense metal of Leo Moracchioli. Then comes the ska-punk version of Attaboy Skip (which often gets falsely attributed to Spunge). Of course, we can’t forget Hoobastank’s decent attempt, a video which sees them donning costumes and facial expressions that inspire cringing at best. When there’s so many covers, and so many that fail, it’s hard to pick a quality one. The ones that stand out are those that refrain from altering much, switching up the style or words here and there but maintaining the original’s goofy spirit.

    That said, it’s easy to rule out covers that don’t impress. For one, almost every track on this year’s Ghostbusters remake fails to reinvent, instead opting to totally ruin what was handed to them. (It goes without saying that the commercialized version Fall Out Boy wrote disgraces the theme.) This is a shame, because the film remake itself is actually pretty dang funny. Having lackluster variations of the theme pokes and prods in ways that suggest the film itself is a letdown, which, let us reiterate, it’s not.

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    Maybe it’s not a surprise that modern-day acts have a hard time recreating a song as brilliantly campy as “Ghostbusters” without losing the original spirit or altering it beyond recognition. Choosing a winner is difficult in part because there are so many covers, almost all of which defer from altering the original version. Instead of pointing to a new version, this column, perhaps for the only time in its existence, hopes to revert to the original. We stand here today to salute a song so great in its concept that the only covers that come close — notably the Two Man Gentleman Band’s and Run-D.M.C.’s — win merely by adding their own flavors to a standard that’s already pretty much perfect.

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