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!