The Freaky Legacy of the ‘Ghostbusters’ Theme Song

Through ugly lawsuits and curious covers, Ray Parker Jr. finds a way to stay paid

The Paul Feig directed, all-female Ghostbusters reboot arrives in theaters this week, after enduring an early backlash from disgruntled fans who have turned their noses up at the new film. Whether or not it will break box office records remains to be seen, but the teaser has become the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube history, earning over 934,000 downward pointing thumbs since its March 3, 2016 release. Whether this is pure sexism or just people tired of their beloved 1980s properties being recycled is unclear. But as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Naturally with a new Ghostbusters film comes a new soundtrack, and oddly we find a number of artists either covering or interpolating the iconic Ray Parker Jr. theme song. The soundtrack plays like a battle of the bands, with each outfit gunning for the grand prize—trumpeting the new Ghostbusters theme.

It’s quite an honor to bestow—Parker’s original 1984 title track earned him a Grammy, a number 1 video on MTV, a three-week spot at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and added the prefix “Academy Award Nominee” to his name. The infectious hit also added the phrase “who ya gonna call” into the American English lexicon, most recently referenced by Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman character in 2015’s Ex-Machina:

“Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters? It’s a movie, man. You don’t know that movie? A ghost gives Dan Aykroyd oral sex.”

The phrase is referenced in many of the new songs on 2016’s Ghostbusters soundtrack, presumably earning Parker some nice royalties. Peep the soundtrack’s liner notes — Ray gets a writing credit every time his original work is used or interpolated.

Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot’s “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)” was released as a single, and the collab is enduring a similar backlash as the movie’s trailer, with fiery YouTube comments and 103,982 dislikes on the platform. This soulless cover strips away Parker’s vintage synth funk, trading it for edgy guitars and live drums, and it keeps the hook intact—before Pete Wentz and Missy Elliott travel into scarily bad new territory.

“I wish they had called me to maybe work with some of the younger guys and help them get a direction,” Parker recently told Inside Edition. “I’m not going to say it’s good or bad. I’m just going to say: Well, maybe I’m an old guy now, and I like it the old way.”

For better, Pentatonix’s barbershop quintet cover of the song is a nice novelty like any of their other covers, while G-Eazy’s “Saw It Coming” is slowed down, wobbly bass-driven hip-hop, with Jeremih crooning “Something’s got you up all night / so tell me who you gonna call?” For worse, ZAYN’s “wHo,” again ponders which seven digits you’ll dial. A seemingly overlooked candidate for the lead single is Walk The Moon’s nearly identical cover, the only real difference is that a white boy with a cool haircut is singing the vocals. Same goes for “Get Ghost” with Passion Pit and A$AP Ferg lifting the original song’s eerie bridge and performing on top of it.

Aside from original Elle King standout “Good Girls,” if the soundtrack is any indication of the new film, things don’t bode well. But this is not an easy task, even an iconic group like Run DMC couldn’t recapture the magic of the original song with their clunky 1989 Ghostbusters II electro hip-hop re-imagining.

In any case, none of these songs sound like Huey Lewis & the News’ “I Want a New Drug.”

In 1984, Huey Lewis famously sued Ray Parker Jr., suggesting that “Ghostbusters” ripped off his 1983 hit “I Want a New Drug.” The two parties settled out of court and agreed to keep the details of the suit confidential.

But was it truly a copy? Listening to both tracks back-to-back, one can see the similarities. A YouTube search of the two song titles reveals a bevy of poorly produced mash-ups. As a matter of fact, original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman admitted to Esquire in 2014 that scenes in the 1984 film were originally cut to Lewis’ song.

“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.”

“We decided to settle even though I think there’s a lot of songs that are similar to other songs, have the same beat. The fact that it had the same kind of bass hook doesn’t in itself mean a copyright infringement,” Reitman added.

Of course that interview was conducted one year before the “Blurred Lines” verdict, which found the estate of Marvin Gaye winning a copyright infringement case against Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. And with the outcome of that case, one wonders if Lewis might have won against Parker back in the 1980s. In a 2012 interview on Loose Women (a U.K. equivalent to The View), Parker revealed that the film’s producers came to him with a specific sound in mind for the track. Could it have been that of Huey Lewis and the News?

“To me that was an impossible song to write. The first thing they said was ‘I want it up-tempo, I want this, I want that.’ And I said, ‘Oh that’s easy, I’m a musician, I can cut it.’ Then he says I want the word ‘Ghostbusters’ in it… I’m like ‘How am I going to sing Ghostbusters in a song? I’m ruined here, it’s never going to happen! To me, I had to almost make it into a commercial.”

To make matters worse, Parker was under an incredibly tight deadline.

Ray Parker Jr.’s 1984 album, Chartbusters.

“There was about 50 songs for this Ghostbusters thing and they didn’t like any of them. So finally in the last few days, they said let’s call Ray Parker and see if he likes this movie and would like to write a song for it. I just loved the movie, but I had no idea that they wanted the song in two days,” he told Casey Kasem in 1984 on America’s Top 10.

He further elaborated in the U.K. in 2012: “The music came pretty quick. The problem was they wanted the word ‘Ghostbusters’ in the music… It was 4 AM, and I had about 4 or 5 hours left before the messenger service was going to come. Had I not turned in something, I would not have gotten any money.”

And in 2014, Parker recalled: “Ivan called me at three o’clock in the morning and said, ‘I already took the cassette you gave me and put it into the 35mm mag.’ I guess he really liked some of my slang language from Detroit. He kept saying, ‘I like the way you say, I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts,” and I said ‘That’s going to be the background vocal,’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, it’s fine, let’s keep it the way it is.’ He wanted to make it into a record.”

“It was only going to be 20 or 25 seconds long. So what we did is take the tape machine and spliced and spliced and edited it and made it four minutes long,” Parker told Inside Edition.

In our age of digital sample kits and pre-made drum tracks, one could argue that everything sounds like something else, creating “blurred lines” between what is and isn’t copyright infringement. In fact, detractors love to point to M’s 1979 hit “Pop Muzik” as the place where Huey Lewis himself “ripped off” the bass line for “I Want a New Drug.”

It’s been reported — perhaps erroneously — that Huey Lewis and the News were originally approached to record the title track to Ghostbusters, but could not because they were attached to Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 smash Back to the Future, which produced the hit song “Back in Time.” Still, “Back in Time” was not a hit on the level of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.”

“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,” Huey Lewis told VH1’s Behind The Music in 2001. “It’s not for sale… In the end, I suppose they were right. I suppose it was for sale, because, basically, they bought it.”

After that Behind the Music episode aired, Parker sued Lewis for breaching the confidentiality clause they had agreed to after the original 1984 lawsuit.

Ray Parker Jr., 2015

“First of all I don’t know much about the Huey Lewis controversy. There were about 10–15 people involved in the lawsuit. Everyone claimed they wrote that song,” Parker wrote in a Reddit AMA chat in early 2016. “I had a wonderful lawyer who didn’t tell me anything about any of the lawsuits, so I don’t know anything. I know there was a gag order, but in 2001 there was a VH1 special where he talked about it and I got a lot of money out of that. 30 years later and I still don’t really know much about it. But it didn’t really affect me.”

But what made Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” such a hit was not the similarities to “I Want a New Drug,” but what Parker did with it, whether it was borrowed or not. His creativity shined through, turning the song into not only one of the biggest, most recognizable movie anthems ever, but also a Halloween standard.

“It came from TV. There was a commercial that came on TV, I think it was insect [exterminators] — those guys that come and spray. I was half asleep and they had those packs and they spray like this,” Parker said in 2012. “To me it looked just like the Ghostbuster pack. Then the number came on the screen and I said ‘That’s what I saw in the movie!’ So I thought ‘What I am going to say is, ‘Who you gonna call’ and let everybody else say ‘Ghostbusters!’ I never say the word Ghostbusters [in the song].’

Perhaps Michael C. Gross, who designed the Ghostbusters logo and passed away in 2015, put it most succinctly: “They played it ad nauseam. Many people said to me, ‘I love your movie, but can you get them to stop playing that fucking song on the radio?’”

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Mike “DJ” Pizzo

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Marketing Content Manager @ Reef Dispensaries / Co-creator of Cuepoint @ Medium / creator of / Host of Let the Record Show



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