Mick Smiley Made the Best Ghostbusters Song, Then He Disappeared
Hunting down the mysterious musician that lent a wonderfully strange piece to one of the biggest films of all time
In July of 2008, I experienced my first truly sweltering day as a resident of New York City. I walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, staring up at the stone and metal towers through an eerie haze of ozone, and all I could think was, I feel like I’m in that scene from Ghostbusters when the ghosts bust loose. It’s that point where the EPA official forces the ‘Busters to shut down the spirit-containment field on a hot evening and, in a gorgeous aerial shot, we see spectral streaks swirl around the Manhattan skyline in the simmering air before they touch down to terrorize the sweaty populace. And if I felt like I was in that scene, that meant I felt like I was hearing the song that plays during it: a tune called “Magic.”
You might be familiar with the ditty, but you’d basically only be familiar with it due to its use in that bit of footage. It was never released as a single and it was never used in any other film. It’s perfect for the scene, though: it centers around eerie, driving thumps of synthesizer, drums, and acoustic-guitar hits. The singer cryptically intones, “Please … please … pleeeeease … let’s make some … I believe it’s magic, I believe it’s magic.” Watch how it’s used and tell me it isn’t an ideal fit:
When I got home, I searched for the song to revel in it during the hypnotic heat wave, recapturing the visions of New York I had as a kid in Illinois. What I found left me baffled.
First of all, when I downloaded “Magic” from the iTunes store, I thought I’d purchased the wrong track. I hit play and a downtempo power ballad cued up, filled with “In the Air Tonight”-esque drum-machine beats and lyrics like, “Strangers meet, strangers dream / some call it love, I call it magic.” And then, at the 2:21 mark, with no buildup whatsoever, it made a hard left turn into the chilling composition I’d been looking for. The juxtaposition was goosebump-inducingly disorienting. Listen for yourself, and make sure you stick around for that twist:
I had to know who composed this wonderfully strange piece. It was apparently some guy named Mick Smiley, but that was basically all I could find out. No biography, virtually no discography; only a writing credit on a Lita Ford song called “Kiss Me Deadly.” That was it. There was a MySpace page dedicated to finding him, and all its members’ efforts had come to naught. The mystery was dazzling: how could someone on one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time just disappear like that?
On the verge of the release of the new Ghostbusters, I sought out Smiley (with the help of pop-culture historian Marc Tyler Nobleman, who tracked him down five years ago for a brief email interview) to find out how he carved out his little piece of cultural history and why he disappeared afterward.
“I don’t want to be known,” Smiley told me. “I’m not as enamored of my accomplishments as, maybe, other people would be. I’m proud of the things that I’ve done, but I’m just moving on.”
Despite his firm protestations that “Magic” is largely a thing of his past, he’s not a confrontational man in the slightest. Indeed, as I learned over the course of our hourlong conversation, he’s a decidedly relaxing presence, even just on the phone. Smiley is a California native, born in Berkeley in 1948, and his sedate, nasal drawl drips with West Coast chill, even as middle age has worn it into to a slightly raspy baritone.
“Smiley,” as it turns out, is his middle name, chosen long ago as his stage moniker in place of his surname, Cipolla. When I and my fellow Smiley-heads sought him out in the late aughts, we wouldn’t even have known where to find him, as he hasn’t traded on the “Smiley” name since the mid-80s. And even if we’d known to Google “Mick Cipolla,” we wouldn’t have found much — he avoids all social networks.
I was right in reading his digital chat with Nobleman as terse. He hadn’t wanted to be found. “It took Marc many emails to even convince me to talk to him because I didn’t see the point, honestly,” Smiley recalled. “I thought, ‘What’s the point of rehashing this? It’s already happened. Move on. A new adventure awaits you.’”
But press him a little bit and he’ll tell you about the thrilling days of his mid-30s, when he was a working musician pursuing recognition and fame in Los Angeles. “I had my own band called the Mick Smiley Band, and we were a little fish in a big pond, but we were popular in L.A.” he recalled. “We did, in L.A., the circuit: the Whisky A Go Go and the Troubadour, et cetera, et cetera. We were sort of in that new wave bag, which was a big bag, by the way.”
While playing in that scene, he befriended star producer/songwriter Keith Forsey, by that point a veteran of the disco and new wave movements. When Billy Idol crossed the pond to launch a solo career, Smiley says Forsey gave him his biggest gig yet: playing bass on Idol’s first EP, Don’t Stop. Though he wasn’t credited when the EP was released in 1981, it did bode well for the future. About two years later, Smiley and Forsey decided to make a go at putting Smiley on the map: they recorded a demo tape of some of Smiley’s best songs, one they could shop around with labels. One track they were particularly passionate about was a fresh Smiley creation called “Magic.”
“Originally it was kind of a syrupy ballad,” Smiley said with a laugh. “It’s funny when you look back at this kind of stuff. You’ll look back some day and say, Man, what was I doing? And then Keith said, ‘Why don’t we change the ending? What if we change the feel of the song?’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it, man.’” Smiley opted to make something in the vein of then-hot, synth-friendly British groups like Depeche Mode and Erasure, two of his favorite acts of the era. Thus was the eerie, eventually game-changing second half born.
“The second half’s my favorite part, actually,” he said. So why not make the whole song like that? He says the contrast is what made it unique. “What we did was, we just did something that seemed really different and cool. That’s how you make the sausage.”
The demo languished, not picking up label interest. However, it somehow ended up in front of director Ivan Reitman, then hard at work on putting together Ghostbusters. For whatever reason, “Magic” stood out to him. Smiley learned that he’d appear on the soundtrack, though he got no synopsis of the film or description of where his track would fit in. He only got to see the synthesis of footage and tune when he sat at a pre-release screening for the cast and crew. When the big ghost-escape moment happened, he recalled being a little overwhelmed and “feeling like I wrote it for the movie.”
The film, of course, was a massive success, as was the soundtrack — especially the mega-hit title track. It was only natural that Smiley would try to ride its coattails. He and director Dominic Sena — later famous for Swordfish and the Gone In 60 Seconds remake — crafted a weird, black-and-white composition in which we see Smiley romance a woman he meets in a diner, later taking her to what looks like a warehouse to take a shower in a freestanding tub. As far as Smiley knows, it never got played on MTV or anywhere else. Nevertheless, an Argentine YouTube user named Jose Luis Marciale “downloaded the video years ago from [the] Internet, [though it’s] impossible to know the source” around 2001, remixed the song slightly, and uploaded the video (with some repetitive footage due to the remix) in 2012:
But “Magic” failed to take off. It was never released as a single. Smiley suspects that’s because the post-“Ghostbusters” single, the BusBoys’ “Cleanin’ Up the Town,” underperformed. He wrote “Kiss Me Deadly,” which Lita Ford took to no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988. However, around then, personal troubles threw Smiley’s career for a loop. He and his then-wife had a daughter who developed cerebral palsy. Caring for her became a major commitment.
“It was really long and arduous, and the marriage, of course, crumbled,” he said. “So I decided at some point that I needed to do something I felt that had more of a chance of making steadier income. And one of the things that started happening was that DJing started happening. I knew that, if I knew music well, then I knew I could DJ.” He started up a DJ company called Better Music Services, and that’s been his life’s work ever since—spinning at weddings and other parties. Just a few years after “Magic,” Smiley’s days as a singer and instrumentalist were, for the most part, done.
Fast-forward to today, and Better Music Services appears to be doing great. They specialize in nuptials, and their Yelp ratings are fantastic. Five-star reviews across the board. Though the company has a staff, Smiley is the guy who always gets special shout-outs in the reviews. “Mick was our DJ for our wedding on April 25, 2015. All I can say is WOW!” says Karen R. And Michelle B. raves: “Mick helped with transitions from location to location (within one venue but it would have still been very tricky without him) and made sure that my bridal party and family/friends were ready for cues and toasts.” Quoth Rachel F.: “My 80 year old grandmother, who never dances, was twirling around all night!”
Between his Better Music Services work and his Ghostbusters royalties, Smiley is financially secure. He recently re-watched Ghostbusters for the first time since its release when it popped up on TV; he thought “the movie holds up really well, but that scene” — his one, that is — “is great.” He occasionally dips his toe in the tide of making music again: he recently produced for a band called Owenstone and co-wrote a song with them called “Summer Lane.” He doesn’t listen to “Magic” often, but had a proposal for the band: why not re-record it, with an extended version of that semi-famous second half? Alas, they balked, and soon broke up.
Nevertheless, Smiley seems to harbor the slightest dream that the song might have a second life in another form. He occasionally hears mashups featuring “Magic” that are sent to him by friends. “They would say, ‘You know, there’s a mix of ‘Magic’ with — oh, who’s Beyonce’s husband?” Jay Z, I told him. “Right. So I’d go on and I’d Google it and there it was, some DJ had mixed the two.”
I tossed out the idea that a hot artist might officially sample the song or even cover it — perhaps Ariana Grande? He had a better (and, frankly, somewhat plausible) idea: Pitbull. “Pitbull can do the — ” and here he hummed out the recurring bit in the coda where a guitar hammers four hits, pauses, then stutter-steps four more in quick succession. “We may have stumbled on something! Mr. 305 doing ‘Magic’! I mean, why not?”
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