Dusting ‘Em Off: Ghostbusters – Original Soundtrack Album

Thirty years later, we're still asking: "Who ya gonna call?"


This week’s Dusting ‘Em Off takes a visit to Spook Central, where the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters is currently being celebrated. Consequence of Sound‘s own boys in gray — ahem, Michael Roffman, Justin Gerber, Ben Kaye, and McKenzie Gerber — take a look back on the iconic film’s equally iconic soundtrack. From Mick Smiley to the Thompson Twins, Elmer Bernstein to Ray Parker, Jr., it’s a 3,500-word nostalgic trip back to a time when Kenner action figures were all we wanted and Bill Murray still enjoyed the franchise. 

gbmike2 Dusting Em Off: Ghostbusters   Original Soundtrack AlbumMichael Roffman (MR): I always look at Ghostbusters as a barometer for my age. I was born the summer it came out, and I became obsessed with the franchise some three years later. Just the name of the movie sparks memories of a chewed-up Peter Venkman toy, my Stay Puft plush toy, and the carton of slime my mother never let me open, which I secretly took outside to empty on my tree house for effect. Similarly, I think of the music. In fact, I don’t see a frame of the film when “Ghostbusters” is muttered, but instead Elmer Bernstein’s creepy, at-times-hilarious score, and, well, quite possibly the dumbest song of the ’80s — Alessi’s “Savin the Day”. Mac, one of the first times I knew you were a pop culture junkie was when you were able to sing along with me. (Listen to it again. The vocalist hits some notes that are very Gerber-friendly. Sorry, Justin.)

Looking at the soundtrack again — I own it on vinyl, which only adds more dust to these sneeze-worthy songs — I forget how eclectic this album really was at the time. But also how telling of the times. The Bus Boys’ “Cleanin’ Up the Town” into the aforementioned track by Alessi kind of sums up how varied the ’80s could be: either an obsession with ’50s honky tonk or the standard new wave. They also strung together a couple of powerhouse acts, again for the time, like Thompson Twins and Air Supply. Then there’s the classic theme song by Ray Parker, Jr. which we’ll get to eventually. Spoiler alert: I loathe that song.

So, what memories do you have of this one?

McKenzie Gerber (MG): I’ve recently folded “Savin the Day” into my acoustic act, Mike! Probably my favorite track here next to “Magic”.

Having two brothers, Ghostbusters was a brilliant movie to grow up with, in hindsight. Whether or not I knew to be excited at the time, I’m fairly certain I was assigned the role of Egon Spengler in my house. Justin was Peter Venkman, and my twin was Ray Stantz, I believe. There was a role for everyone, and every part of the team served their purpose, much like this eclectic album.

One of the earliest memories I have with the soundtrack was jamming out to Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” on a Halloween tape cassette that also featured Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and that kid’s song “The Purple People Eater”. As for the soundtrack, the songs strangely fit the film, serving as a proper introductory piece for what a strange ride the film offers.

Parker, Jr.’s lyrical hook of “Who ya’ gonna call?” is now iconic, but also genius. It’s essentially a commercial jingle that’s become a hallmark of pop culture. There’s no other answer to that question than, well, you know.

Justin Gerber (JG): Parker, Jr.’s “inspiration” was Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug”, although Lewis and his Newsies certainly didn’t see it that way. Parker was sued by the band and later settled out of court.

Mike, how can you loathe the theme song? It’s a classic!

My memories of the soundtrack are nearly as strong as the endless number of quotable lines (“The flowers are still standing!”). As a young boy growing up in the suburbs of Royal Palm Beach, I was freaked out by Mick Smiley’s “Magic” because I always associated it with the rotting corpse of a cab driver who appears as all hell is breaking loose. The streams of spirits circling Dana’s apartment complex frightened me just as much as when the Ark’s spirits circle the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

On the brighter slime of things: The BusBoys’ “Cleanin’ Up the Town” helped calm my nerves after the amazing reveal of the library ghost. Side note: The inclusion of this song must have been demanded by blues enthusiast Dan Aykroyd, right? That song screams “Brunch at House of Blues”.

MR: Look, “Ghostbusters” will always be a classic song to our generation, namely because we grew up when it was such a sensation. No kidding: Go watch the video again and count the number of celebrity cameos that pop up. Chevy Chase, Jeffrey Tambor, Irene Cara, Ollie E. Brown, John Candy, George Wendt, Al Franken, Peter Falk, Danny DeVito, Melissa Gilbert, Carly Simon, and Teri Garr — the producers did a fine job in turning this into a spectacle. So successful that it even nabbed an Academy Award nomination the following year. It’s ridiculous when you really think about what it’s all about lyrically: a commercial jingle for a blockbuster song. Call me a prick, but I’m willing to bet the song will go the way of “Monster Mash” in decades to come, if it hasn’t already.

I guess I wouldn’t mind it so much if Parker, Jr. wasn’t so goddamn hammy. I know that’s the point, but the whole “I can’t hear you” banter is so pandering, especially outside of the movie. During the film — specifically, during the iconic montage and the closing finale — I don’t mind it. The way they take out certain elements and work in the chorus or the verse, coupled with quotes from Casey Kasem or Larry King, it’s just great. In those moments, the song assumes a heroic personality, thanks to the environment that’s been crafted, and I’m okay with it being hammy and over-the-top and slightly annoying … probably because my focus isn’t on it. Instead, the song becomes a cue, a Pavlovian layer of the flashy ’80s gloss that made me oh-so hungry to buy Ghostbusters cereal, or Kenner action figures, or neon green shirts.

Actually, that’s something I think is unavoidable when discussing this soundtrack, and especially this film. To date, it remains one of my favorite comedies of all time, tied alongside Back to the Future and Caddyshack. Wouldn’t you know, all of those films have specific branding elements that really grabbed us as kids: one has a shiny Delorean, the other a cuddly gopher, and together lame-yet-addicting anthems in Huey Lewis and Kenny Loggins, respectively. It’s not a revelation that producers of the ’80s knew how to market and package their films, but it’s telling that these films continue to live in our lives, no thanks to TBS, and these songs (“Ghostbusters”, “The Power of Love”, and “I’m Alright”) will always perk our ears up in the right way. I guess what I’m saying is: I hate these songs, but I love what they’re tied to … and because of that, I’ll never really consider them insufferable like, say, “Humans Being” from Twister or “Til I Hear It From You” from Empire Records.

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This is probably too early to bring up now — we’ve only scratched a handful of songs on here — but why do you feel soundtracks today are no longer as varied and distinguished as they are here? Sub-question: Why do so few films follow this model anymore? I can think of two franchises that continue to do this: Spider-man and Transformers. Do we prefer them to avoid the soundtrack? Personally, I think it usually comes off as a shameful marketing ploy, but if it’s done tastefully — like, say, in Adventureland (admittedly, not a great example given that it’s an indie drama and not a summer popcorn flick) — I do find myself hitting up iTunes or Spotify for the soundtrack.

MG: Uh … there’s nothing like the cool stylings of Air Supply’s “I Can Wait Forever”.  Kidding aside, Roffman, you bring up a damn good question as to why films have given up on The Soundtrack. The answer? To quote Venkman, “I don’t know, I don’t know…”

Maybe it’s because the Internet is the world’s source for new music and studios don’t feel the need to shell out the big bucks to have a hit number carry their films? I really don’t know. Looking back, the last blockbuster I can remember to successfully issue an agreeable diverse soundtrack was 1995’s Batman Forever.

Though, I can’t complain. I’ve always been a bigger fan of scores than soundtracks. With Ghostbusters, you have the best of both worlds, even though so much of Elmer Bernstein’s score is missing. I would have loved to own the music from that Judgment Day Scene between Winston Zeddemore and Ray as opposed to, say, Thompson Twins’ “In the Name of Love” … which, really, I can’t recall being in the film at all.

But now it’s moot considering they finally put the whole score out there awhile back.

Ben Kaye (BK): I was three years old when I first saw Ghostbusters, but unlike Mike that was five years after the film’s release. My parents were in the processes of building a house on Martha’s Vineyard – where Dan Aykroyd and the late, great Harold Ramis revised their original script in an old bomb shelter – and needed to keep wittle Benny occupied for as long as possible. Thus, I sat in front of a screen and watched Ghostbusters on repeat for an entire summer. And while the film itself is embedded deeper into my core than any other bit of nostalgia, it took a while longer for the soundtrack to graft itself onto my memory.

I must’ve been about 12 when I gained an interest in actually listening to music, and I know I bought the Ghostbusters soundtrack immediately. (I had no interest in the score until years and years later.) What’s funny is even then I realized how much of it was goofy and downright silly. But my obsession with the film let me overlook the fact that “They were boxin’ and trappin’ and shootin’ through the joint” is a ridiculous thing to say, because hearing the word “Ghostbusters” outside of the theme song was amazing. To this day I can’t help but smile when the Alessi Brothers sing, “Speak of the past, they slip in the back way” … What does that even mean?! And for years I was sure it was, “Sneak up the backstairs, slip in the back way.” Doesn’t matter. It’s so gooey/slimy with connections to this major part of my childhood that I love every minute of it.

Justin, if there’s one track on the entire thing I’m completely unhappy with, it’s “I Can Wait Forever” (sorry, McKenzie!). If there are two, it’s “Magic”. I hated “Magic”. I still do. It makes me uncomfortable and scares the beejesus out of me. When I watched the movie in my later teenage years, I remember thinking how suddenly inappropriately frightening that music and that scene of the ghosts taking over was for children. The whole thing struck me as entirely family-friendly, until right then, which I know is absurd. And have you ever seen the video for this thing? It adds this whole level of creepy ogling. It just makes my skin crawl. But at the same time, I kinda dig that. I dig that the movie got that scary for me and that the echo-y undulations of this song were part of that. Doesn’t mean I want to listen to the thing on repeat.

Mike, I don’t hate the theme song at your level, but it definitely annoys me. And maybe not directly for its obvious ties to branding (I like “I’m Alright”, so don’t nobody worry about me), but for the Pavlovian response that branding brings forth. Being a nerd who refuses to grow up, I have the Ghostbusters logo tattooed on my ankle, see, and every time, every time, someone notices they say, “Who ya’ gonna call?” and smile and laugh like, “Betcha no one’s ever said that one before!” It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even make the “my right ankle” joke anymore. And that’s all that damn song, because never once does anyone say that in the movie.

I’ve often wondered why we don’t see soundtracks like this anymore. At the same time, scores seem to have become much more popular. Maybe that’s because when we’re looking to buy a soundtrack, we want there to be emotional resonance between film and sound, and because of the way “popular” music saturates everything, this is best accomplished with a score. I mean, when was the last time a film had a real “In Your Eyes” moment, something that would forever connect to the song? Meanwhile, something like Adventureland works because what they’ve created is essentially a mixtape to a period of time that the movie does an equally good job of capturing.

Still, I never was much of a “score” over “soundtrack” guy, though in later years I’ve warmed up to it a bit. And, McKenzie, “In the Name of Love” plays softly off in the background right before the guys get their first call, during the “This magnificent feast here represents the last of the petty cash” scene. But I dig the “driving music,” too.

MR: I think the inclusion of Thompson Twins was actually a smart move on the producers’ part. Their biggest hit, “Hold Me Now”, had just hit the States that spring, and I can imagine literally every radio station playing it … considering they still do today. It’s just weird how minor of a role it had in the film, though at least it was in the film. My pet peeve with soundtracks, especially those released post-2000, is that so many songs never even appeared in the film.

Look at 2002’s Spider-Man. I bought that soundtrack namely because I’m an idiot and obsess over anything Spidey-related, but I remember being baffled at the inclusion of songs there. About 80% of the soundtrack doesn’t even appear in the film; instead, it’s a marketing vehicle for whatever acts that label wants to shill. So that’s something Ghostbusters didn’t do, which is nice. And let’s be honest, they could have easily … that single alone made this soundtrack sell like hot cakes.

gb back Dusting Em Off: Ghostbusters   Original Soundtrack Album

Mac, I’m also a score guy, too. Right now, the site’s running the Greatest Composer of All Time tournament, and it’s sort of a straight-from-heaven project for me. I never stop listening to scores, and it’s not because they lead me to recall any particular scene; it’s because a great score has just as much character as the film itself. I’ll forever argue that Bernstein’s score is one of the greatest of all time, which sounds like a loaded statement and a tad sensational on my part, but it’s all in the character.

Listen to “Main Title Theme (Ghostbusters)”. The piano feels like it’s actually walking in the same fashion as Bill Murray’s self-assured yet socially glib Venkman. Listen more as the tuba, the theremin, and the strings all add a sense of mystery that, if you revisit the full score, twists and turns, allowing room for romance, curiosity, and horror. Justin and Mac, you both bring up the film’s turning point with the containment unit breakout scaring you, and that’s what I love most about this film. Ivan Reitman allowed the film to veer from comedy and towards some classic horror tropes, even rivaling masters at the time like John Landis or John Carpenter.

Of course, the only reason nobody ever gets scared is because you have the four boys in gray ready to save you. But also there’s Bernstein, whose eclectic and knowledgeable score keeps this from ever becoming a romantic comedy, a Saturday Night Live skit, or simply a Meatballs rehash. The keyword is knowledgeable. The score knows its film, which explains why “Dana’s Theme” floats along as elegant and regal as the character or how “Hotel Haunting”, not included here, takes a playful scene like Venkman’s sliming and injects a little terror, as well.

I’d say the real shame about this soundtrack is that they really did short-hand arguably the best part of the film. It’s baffling they would opt for only three Bernstein tracks, missing out on vital pieces like “The Library” or “Checking Dana’s Apartment”, which has more character themes than any other piece. I mean, did we really need an instrumental version of “Ghostbusters”? No. Hell, you could have even added two or three more tracks since this only comes out to a light 37 minutes.

Holy shit have I been ranting. Can you tell I treat this movie like religion?

MG:  THERE IS NO RELIGION, ONLY ZUUL. There is no denying Bernstein’s score is superior to most scores we get today for comedies. Think about it. Can you name a great comedic score lately? I will say, in regards to our rant about Soundtrack Vs. Score, today’s comedy is definitely where that concept took root. I think almost every comedy we see today is full of eclectic music from yesterday and today’s hits. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see the future 23 Jump Street soundtrack feature a little James Horner, preferably along the lines of the score from Glory.

JG: But this movie has become a religion over the past 30 years, or at the very least a cult phenomenon. For instance, do we care what music is playing when Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks swim away at the end of Splash? Do we scour the internet in search of the hit single from The Jewel of the Nile (answer: Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”). No! But we will search high and low to find the name of the song that plays at the end of the aforementioned “driving scene.” I care enough to find out that the answer is Elmer Bernstein’s “Judgment Day” and can be found on the 2006 re-release of the film’s score, but not the soundtrack.

Regarding the film’s diverse soundtrack and the alleged lack thereof in this day and age, I point you gentlemen in the direction of at least two young-adult-novels-turned-film-franchises. The Twilight films from New Moon on feature a wide range of artists, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire even more diverse (from Christina Aguilera to Antony and the Johnsons). Here I am, defending young-adult films, but it is what it is.

Where I agree with you is on the marketing. The Twilight and Hunger Games soundtracks are strategic moves to get the young ones familiar with the ways of a Thom Yorke or Patti Smith, and get the indie kids to purchase records they would have otherwise never owned. Save the title track, you can’t really say the same about the Ghostbusters soundtrack. Unless the cool kids were really digging into the BusBoys’ back catalog.

MR: Ouch. How could I forget about the Twilight and Hunger Games soundtracks — after all, one of Lykke Li’s strongest songs to date, “Possibility”, belongs to the vamps. Okay, I stand corrected. With that now in mind, it would appear the soundtrack format hasn’t changed much at all. Sure, no children were going to get into Laura Branigan or Mick Smiley, but c’mon, this is 1984 … Miami Vice was right around the corner and pop culture catered to adults. Actually, if you think about it, Ghostbusters wasn’t even a “kid’s movie,” per se. Not until The Real Ghostbusters popped up on television screens on Saturday morning, bringing all the merchandise we were talking about above. No, Ghostbusters was shipped out to the Animal House crowds. The kids came later.

With that in mind, this soundtrack is really no different than the two soundtracks you mentioned, Justin. So, I guess my question is, “Are soundtracks still a lucrative format?” I would say yes. If only because it’s essentially a free marketing tool to a guaranteed platform. If you’re talking about a juggernaut franchise like Twilight, which is arguably bigger than Ghostbusters (even when adjusted for inflation), then it’s only an additional revenue stream for the studios. The format is even the same. One song written solely for the film + a collection of B-sides that bands offer up to the studio.

JG: To answer your first question, I think the distributing of soundtracks is still a lucrative business model, but not in the way it used to be. If we look at the Top 10 Soundtracks of 2013, many of these are from TV shows (Nashville) or film musicals (Frozen). Hunger Games is the only one that represents a collection of new songs by various artists. But the idea of a soundtrack making money is still relevant in 2014, even if music sales have dwindled considerably across the board, to say the least.

As for the theme song, I don’t know if Ray Parker, Jr./Huey Lewis’ “Ghostbusters” is entirely responsible for keeping the film alive in the 21st century, not with the advent of YouTube and other video-streaming sites with unlimited clips from the film, countless retrospectives, and never-ending rumors about a third film. But I would say the song was instrumental in keeping the film in the public conscious throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, getting us to the age of the internet. That is the power of an earworm, my friends.

Any takeaways on the Ghostbusters II soundtrack before wrapping things up?

MG: Just whether or not we tag this with the Bobby Brown video:

or Doug E. Fresh’s spirit:

Yet another ridiculously diverse soundtrack. Kudos to the boys in gray for keeping things relevant.

MR: “On Our Own” is still the only Bobby Brown song I enjoy — love that New Jack swing, folks. Just remember, a proton pack is not a toy.

JG: I owned the singles for “On Our Own” and Howard Huntsberry’s cover of “Higher and Higher”. What can I say? I love soul. As for that age-old question: “Who ya’ gonna call?”, the answer is The BusBoys.

MR: I disagree. The answer is Bernstein. ::drops Ecto goggles::