First Song of the Month: Mick Smiley and the Musical Time Machine

March 3, 2014

magic

Okay so do you remember the part in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis is down in the basement of the fire station with a spazzed-out and spirit-possessed Rick Moranis and suddenly Annie Potts comes down the stairs with that pissed off EPA guy pushing in front of her (William Atherton) and she says, “Egon, I tried to stop him! He says they have a warrant,” and then Egon says, “Excuse me, this is private property,” and the EPA guy says “Shut this off. Shut these all off” in this teeth-gritted, intense, red-faced way, pointing around the Ghostbusters’ HQ basement, at all the gadgets and gizmos and containment units we’ve been enjoying for 45 minutes or so by now, determined to ruin everything, to definitively end all the fun? And can you, like me, lipsyc basically the entire scene that follows because you have seen this movie so many times it might as well be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids? And if you were watching this movie all over again, if you were sitting in a chair – say it’s your favorite overstuffed easychair, or let’s be sentimental and say it’s the chair you sat in as a kid when you watched Ghostbusters your first million times, until your eyes got dry and they literally actually hurt if you would move your pupils to the right or left – if I brought you back there, put you in your old childhood home before it was demolished to make room for the big box store, put that chair back in its worn-out place on the carpet, set you in it, and put on the old copy of Ghostbusters you taped off the TV, and didn’t even fast-forward during commercials, would you be able to effectively karaoke the whole movie in a way that surprised you, with your lips moving over the scripted lines (and the non-scripted ones) before your brain even knew what those next sentence uttered was going to be? Because, if so, this is what you’d lipsync:

I’m warning you – turning off these machines would be extremely hazardous.
I’ll tell you what’s hazardous: you’re facing federal prosecution for at least a half a dozen environmental violations. Now, either you shut off these beams, or we shut them off for you.
Try to understand – this is a high-voltage containment system. Simply turning it off would be like dropping a bomb on the city.
Don’t patronize me. I’m not grotesquely stupid, like the people you bilk…
At ease, officer. I’m Peter Venkman, I think there’s just been a slight misunderstanding, and I want to cooperate in any way that I can.
Forget it, Venkman. You had your chance to cooperate, but you thought it would be more fun to insult me. Well, now it is my turn, wiseass.
He wants to shut down the protection grid, Peter.
You shut that thing down, and we are not going to be held responsible for what happens…
On the contrary, you’re going to be held completely responsible.
No, we
won’t be held responsible.
Shut it off!
Don’t shut it off! I’m warning you.
Ah, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I don’t…
Yeah? Well I’m not interested in your
opinion, just shut it off.
My friend, don’t be a jerk.
Step aside!
If he does that again, you can shoot him.
You do your job, pencilneck! Don’t tell me how to do mine.
Thank you, officer.
Shut it off!

 And after you mouthed those words, you’d see a nervous-looking ConEd man cross the room, switching off the containment units, and the Ghostbusters would kind of sneakily start creeping up the stairs, and then a red light would flash, a scary industrial beeping would sound, steam would blast out of the wall, a giant hole of not-particularly-real-looking light would open up on the firehouse roof, people would run and scramble through the darkened and suddenly smoky building, a pillar of red energy would lift into the air as clumsily blue-screened pedestrians ran past in the foreground, and every unquiet spirit residing in New York City in the summer of 1984 would explode into the sky, into a gorgeous hazy aerial view of Manhattan, streaming in all directions, little pink and fuzzy and surprisingly friendly-looking balls of light, looking for their ideal haunting-places. Some would choose a Midtown subway station. Some would choose a cab bound for “The Columbia Building, 57th Street.” Some would choose a hot dog cart, even though you’ve got to figure a ghost no longer has any corporeal needs, no more use for hot dogs. Rick Moranis would wander the streets, looking disoriented, but with an ominous air about him, a puppet of something a million times larger than himself. Sigourney Weaver would shoot up from her bed, looking hot as hell. The stone wall at the front of her Central Park penthouse apartment would explode outward in every direction.

And you’d be hearing a song. Do you remember how the song goes? It’s got a funky little woodblocky rhythm, made by a drum machine called the Roland CR-78, with a Linndrum snare and kick on top. Spooky little backwards sounds shiver underneath it. There’s a synthbass delayed throb. And a voice, a creepy and cold and disembodied voice, says this one word over and over and over on top: “Please.  Pleeeasse. Pleeeeaaassse….” The ghosts sail through the air and shriek and then another vocal, reverbed, chants, “I believe it’s magic,” over and over. Maybe, if you were me and you were a kid, you would rewind this part again and again, delighted by the ghosts, the special effects, the sense of hell literally breaking loose, of things being let out that can’t ever be put back again, of disaster and walking apocalypse, Signourney Weaver’s eye makeup, and what the fuck is this song? Who makes a song like this? What kind of music is this? I was heavy into the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows;” I used to stay at home faking being sick and watch “The Compleat Beatles” on VHS and that TV special made me want more than anything, at eight years old, to take LSD, and this whole droning one-chord “I believe it’s magic” thing felt like an 80s update on that sound, it felt similarly cold and shivery and similarly like it wanted me to surrender the void, to shut off the containment units, to let everything scary escape, once and for all, though I couldn’t have articulated that that was what drew me to it.

Anyway. Turns out that it’s a song by a guy named Mick Smiley. “Magic.” 1984. And if you’ve never heard of him, well, I haven’t either. Let me look him up on Wikipedia.

******

Okay, so there’s no Wikipedia entry on Mick Smiley, which feels like serious obscurity these days. I instead clicked on one of the first links that popped up when I Googled his name and read that he played bass for Billy Idol and wrote the Lita Ford song “Kiss Me Deadly” (nice one). The piece I read (http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2011/10/super-70s-and-80s-ghostbustersmick.html) goes on to say that “His whereabouts are currently unknown.” Regardless, there’s an interview with him. Presumably from an undisclosed location? I excerpt some of the interviewer’s questions, and his answers to them, below:

Was “Magic” released as a single?

No.

Did you perform “Magic” on any late-night talk shows?

No.

What was your reaction to another song called “Magic” (by the Cars) becoming a smash hit the same year Ghostbusters came out?

No reaction.

Did you do any press for the movie?

No.

Have you been interviewed about the song before?

No.

How often do “Magic” fans locate you?

They don’t.

What is your opinion of the song today?

I like the second half of the song. First half is a bit sappy (although it was heartfelt when I wrote it).

So here Smiley breaks his wall of “no”s to refer to a cool thing about “Magic” that you wouldn’t know if you didn’t listen to the whole original song and if you just knew it from the excerpt in Ghostbusters (though I think you actually have to buy the soundtrack to get the song itself and I’ve had a hard time finding it) – the whole first half of the song “Magic” is in fact really super different. It starts out as a sultry mid-tempo ballad somewhat in the vein of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” only with slightly more of a power-pop sheen. I don’t agree with Smiley’s negative assessment of the first half of the song. It’s pretty cool, actually! From a songwriting perspective it’s not much, but I love that distant super-reverby guitars and those sort of cheesy Kate-Bush “tribal” background vocals. Of course, everything changes in the second half. That’s the moment that you go from listening to an interesting 80s pop curiosity to having a full-body sense memory. You’re walking down the streets listening to the first half of “Magic” on your phone or whatever, and then that Linndrum fill comes in and the song changes and suddenly you’re in a trance, you get lost down a side-street, staring up at the sky, you’re Louis Tully, hearing voices no one else can hear, directives from another time, chased by mystical forces no one else can understand or see, trying to fulfill some kind of weird half-understood promise you made to people who died a long time ago that you never even knew. The song, and the vibe that goes with it, just takes over. The void unfolds underneath it.

I’m not sure if ghosts exist. I’m pretty sure I’ve had interactions with ghosts, but I was never fully conscious when they happened. I was on tour recently and woke up to see that a figure was standing over my bed, staring down at me, not necessarily menacing but curious, a hot dog nowhere nearby. I went back to sleep and the figure didn’t return. I know for a fact I don’t believe in ghost containment units, or at least not literally, because you can’t really contain ghosts permanently. Some bearded skinny guy from the EPA is always going to bust in and fuck up your containment plan, to chaotic effect. But it’s nice to have ghosts around. It’s nice to believe, even falsely believe, that the past doesn’t go away and that there’s something about when you were sitting in that easychair lipsyncing to Ghostbusters that was true and that will always be with you somehow, locked somewhere in some pocket universe. And a song can be like a broken containment unit that’s freshly shut down and beeping and shooting steam into the air, especially if it’s a song that you haven’t heard in awhile, that hasn’t acted on those worn-out old neurons in years and years, that still holds a strange and powerful charge, that can shoot you back in time or that can bring back an old ghost long enough for you to hold hands and catch up. The obscureness of Mick Smiley and the hard-to-findness of this song protected it and kept it a bit unspoiled, so it feels as magic as anything you’re going to find out there in the world of the living.

 

PREVIOUSLY:

The Rock*A*Teens were the Best American Rock Band of the 90s
Exuma and When Friends Turn You On to New Music
Little Beaver and Why Partying is Important
Sparks and Semen and Transcendence
The Baptist Generals and Having a Song to Protect You
No One Can Ever Call George Jones Mr. Fool No More
Van Morrison Does Middle Age Right

Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity

 

 

 

Posted in: New Pieces | Tags: , ,

10 Comments |

10 Responses to “First Song of the Month: Mick Smiley and the Musical Time Machine”

  1. Will Sheff

    Actually, I sat up. It wasn’t a hypnnagogic/hypnopompic hallucination in my opinion because I was able to move. Don’t try to use your fancy Wikipedia on me, I studied sleep science under Walt Mink, the professor so cool they named a rock band after him. Granted it was a pretty dreamy “physics for poets”-like class, but I will no in way allow that to diminish my snobbery and we did glue electrodes to people.

  2. Peter

    Well, I’m convinced. I’ll be checking under the bed for ghouls tonight.

    I also really want to believe that studying sleep science bears at least some small resemblance to the film “The Science of Sleep”.

    • Will Sheff

      Pretty much exactly the same but with a charismatic white-haired prof instead of Gael Garcia Bernal and with a shorter run-time.

      • Peter

        I always thought you seemed like the kind of guy who spent too many of his formative years flouncing around cardboard models and gluing odd things together, and now this confirms it.

  3. Ghost

    Yeah, the first half is pretty cool, oh, and the tempo’s changin.. wait, fuck, the EPA, gotta go

  4. Rory

    This is an incredible article. For years I searched for this song – because I fucking loved that section of the movie. I got the Ghostbusters soundtrack on vinyl a few years ago and was skipping through the tracks desperately trying to find the music from that section. Of course, I listened to the first two minutes of ‘Magic’ and thought – this isn’t it, unaware that the song drastically changes. Anyway – I am supposed to be working tonight, so naturally I got to thinking about this and with some googling I find it and then I find this excellent little piece summing up exactly what I felt about it too.

  5. Barāyanoush

    Thank you for this article! I’ve always felt the way you do about that song and that scene. Though I was so weirded out by the soundtrack version of “Magic” that when I was putting my CD collection on MP3 back in the late 90s I went and edited my copy to contain only the second half.

  6. Michelle Smith

    Ok, but WHO’S the drummer?? Or, E-drummer, I should say. Probably those Simmons octagon shaped drums, always used with acoustic cymbals as the cymbals were yucky. See: Total Eclipse of the Heart, Sunglasses at Night (Kenny Aronoff, the drummer from Danny Collins film) and Mad Max.

Leave a Reply