Let me tell you something: Overthinkin’ makes me feel good

No Ghostbusters Week could be complete without at least a passing mention of Ray Parker Jr.’s 1984 hit “Theme from Ghostbusters.”

[Editor’s note: Do you want some more Ghostbusters overthinking? Check out our Ghostbusters Overview Set, with downloadable commentary on the first two movies and Bridesmaids! Get it now!]

No Ghostbusters Week could be complete without at least a passing mention of Ray Parker Jr.’s 1984 hit “Theme from Ghostbusters.”

We all know this song—it’s possibly the single most recognizable movie theme song in history—but some of us may not know the inexplicable music video, which is about a woman whose glowing neon house is apparently haunted by the disembodied heads of Chevy Chase and Danny DeVito.  Spooooooky!

(BTW, let me just point out that there’s something predatory about Parker’s relationship with the poor woman in this video.  He’s presumably a ghostbuster, but the ghosts are just his backup singers.  Is he drumming up his own business, like Micheal J Fox in the Frighteners?  And does he really need to hide under her bed while she’s sleeping?  Gross.)

We also probably all know that Huey Lewis sued Parker for ripping off his own 1984 hit, ‘I Want A New Drug.’  This song is pretty famous, but much less well known than the Ghostbusters song, so give it a listen if you haven’t heard it already.

Parker eventually settled, so the courts never got a chance to decide if this was a copyright violation or not.   Which is kind of a shame, really, since it would have been interesting to see how it panned out.  Listening to the songs back to back, it’s pretty hard to believe that Parker wasn’t thinking about Lewis’ song when he wrote it.  But it’s also impossible to hear this as a simple ripoff or duplication.  The lyrics have no similarity whatsoever.  The chord changes, form, and vocal melody are all quite different.   So really, all we’re talking about is the hook, especially those prominent chords on the third and fourth beats of the measure.  (The Ghostbusters theme also contains a few variations on New Drug’s sax riff, but while these are definitely there, they probably wouldn’t strike us as objectionable if the hook didn’t already have us thinking about the other song.)

What exactly is Lewis suing to protect here?  If Parker had sampled his actual recording, that would be one thing – case law is pretty clear about that – but suing to protect an abstract musical idea is a lot harder to defend when the new version has been changed this extensively.  Imagine for a minute that Lewis, not Parker, had written and recorded the Ghostbusters theme.  What would people have thought then?  Obviously he’d take some flack for spinning his wheels, but it probably wouldn’t have caused much of a scandal.  Bands have always issued new songs that are obviously based on old hits, and a lot of times they’re closer to the source text than the Ghostbusters theme is.  If we’re going to claim that the riff from I Want a New Drug is a legal entity that can be abstracted, copyrighted, and owned, why is one artist allowed to hold separate copyrights on different versions of the riff? It’s like the old classical music joke that goes “It’s not that Haydn wrote more symphonies than Beethoven:  Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, Haydn wrote one symphony 104 times.”  (This is grossly unfair to Haydn, but still kind of funny.)

And you have to wonder where we draw the line. The Ghostbusters theme reminds me of more than just Huey Lewis after all… the bridge has a pretty clear reference to the “I Want My MTV” part from Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing.  And maybe I’m imagining things, but when I listen to the “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” part, I find myself thinking about the Vincent Price break in Micheal Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’  If the connection exists, it’s very subtle indeed, but the chord progressions while not identical are similar, and in both cases there’s an ostinato figure – the bassline in Thriller, the siren effect in Ghostbusters – that maintains its original pitches regardless of what’s going on with the harmony.  I dunno, take a listen for yourself and tell me if you hear a connection… it’s never not a good time to watch the Thriller video.

This example is a little silly, sure, but the whole thing is a little silly.  There’s only twelve notes, and only so many ways to combine them.  Lewis’ lawsuit seems sensible enough in and of itself, but I feel like its a slippery slope:  if we encourage this kind of thinking, pretty soon everyone will sue everyone always.

Was Ray Parker a thief who got what he deserved?  Does Huey Lewis need to shut up and take his lumps like a man? At the end of the Ghostbusters video when they’re walking down the street dancing, is Dan Aykroyd totally doing the Thriller Zombie Arm Swing?  Sound off in the comments!

8 Comments on “Let me tell you something: Overthinkin’ makes me feel good”

  1. Darin #

    In the comedian cameos of Parker’s videos, was that Senator Al Franken at 3:42? (Yes, I know that Franken was quite the comic at the time.)

    This reminds me of all the patents on proteins, naturally occurring events that are in patterns and someone asserts that they own the intellectual property.

    Huey needs to take his lumps. I imagine if we followed every Jazz or Blues riff, we could find a zillion ripoffs. Maybe I should make my first million getting patents on song riffs and suing people. Sounds silly, doesn’t it?


  2. DPSquared #

    Copyright infringement requires a showing of substantial similarity and actual (or constructive) access to the work. Access is pretty easy to show here; substantial similarity is a slippery legal concept, but it’s ultimately a factual determination, so basically Huey would just have to convince a judge or jury of it. The thing presumably got settled because both parties thought there was some chance they’d lose on that determination. So that’s just the system at work as far as I’m concerned. Copyright law certainly has some screwy bits, but I don’t think this is one of them. It carves out a lot of safe territory for subsequent artists: fair use, protection of expression only and not ideas/information, no protection for short phrases and the like. If you can’t convince a finder of fact that you’ve played it straight, you deserve to lose. Like democracy itself, it’s the worst possible system except for all of the others.

    And apologies for nitpicking but this sentence muddles a couple legal concepts: “If we’re going to claim that the riff from I Want a New Drug is a legal entity that can be abstracted, copyrighted, and owned, why is one artist allowed to hold separate copyrights on different versions of the riff?” First, legal entities are things that can in their own right have rights or property, like corporations. Second, copyright law doesn’t give “thingness” to individual parts ideas, melodies, words, etc. It gives a bundle of rights to the author with respect to an entire creative work fixed in a tangible form. There’s nothing abstract about it at this level: there needs to be a physical thing to have a copyright, even if it’s a hard drive. In the case of a musical recording, you have two separate works: the recording itself, and the music as expressed in the recording. Here it would be an infringement on the music and not the recording, to which Parker’s work would supposedly bear a substantial similarity. Huey holds rights to his work as a whole, not any individual riff or variations on it. But the more pieces of it you borrow, the closer you get to that “substantial similarity” standard.


  3. Wade #

    Wasn’t the battle over the Ghostbusters theme the reason Huey Lewis and the News agreed to write a couple songs for Back to the Future? So if not for Ray Parker, The News would never have gotten an Oscar nomination for “The Power of Love”.


  4. stokes OTI Staff #

    DPSquared – thanks for the explanation, and no need to apologize: this is a “safe space” for nitpicking. I guess my complaint, then, is that while there are very obvious similarities between the two songs, I don’t think that any of them are enough to make the songs “substantially similar.”

    Maybe you can explain something more, though. If copyright doesn’t give “thingness” (great word choice!) to individual melodies, etc, why is it a violation of copyright to sample even a single note without permission? I’m not trying to argue with you, I’m just honestly curious.

    You know what, I’m actually curious about another thing too, and here I am trying to argue with you. “There’s nothing abstract about it at this level: there needs to be a physical thing to have a copyright… In the case of a musical recording, you have two separate works: the recording itself, and the music as expressed in the recording.” In what sense is the music expressed in the recording not an abstraction? If you take the complete works of Metallica and arrange them for string quartet, you are keeping the pitch relationships and rhythms but discarding everything else, and it’s illegal if you don’t have permission (and a bad idea in any case). If, on the other hand, you discard the pitch and rhythm (and lyrics) but keep everything else (certain instruments mixed a certain way, a certain vocal technique, etc.) you’re entirely within your rights. Certain aspects of music are therefore privileged, and I would argue that they are privileged precisely *because* they are abstractions (or more accurately because they can be abstracted). We have a symbolic vocabulary for writing down pitches and rhythms; no such language exists for vocal technique and instrumental balance; therefore, pitches and rhythms are coyrightable and the other aspects are not.

    Wade – I think actually it went the other way around… the Ghostbusters producers tried to hire Lewis, but he was busy working on BTTF, so they hired Parker instead. This may have contributed to Lewis’ decision to sue… it certainly sounds plausible that the producers would have told Parker “Look, we wanted to hire Huey Lewis, so write us something that’s as close to that as possible.”


  5. Pianodan #

    That’s DOCTOR Infinite Brian Mays to you, pal!


  6. Gab #

    I actually had no idea there was a lawsuit. I always assumed Parker’s song was a legitimate sample, done with permission, given how extremely close they sound (imo).

    I’d like to know how Parker comes back to life in the video. He obviously starts out as a ghost because we see him floating through things, but later he has a physical body around which the woman wraps herself (and boy, a feminist critique of the video would be *so* rich).

    @DPSquared: Since music is a form of intellectual property, wouldn’t this mean at least some aspect(s) of it must be intangible, abstract, etc.? A non-thing is still a thing in that it’s an idea, thus a noun, ergo something a person can own. I agree there are two parts to music ownership, the first being the notes on the page, and the second being the execution/what is recorded/heard/etc. But since the latter is something we cannot actually touch or move around in itself, it’s an abstract concept the author of the notes spawning the sound can still have rights to.

    @Tom: And then there was Vanilla Ice.


  7. Rob #

    What a great music video. I never knew that the Ghostbusters and Ray Parker Jr. walking down the street together in this video was the source of the same walk on the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show. I hope that they make another movie, but soon!


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