Thursday, October 16, 2014

Night of Terror #15: 'The Real Ghostbusters Soundtrack' by Tahiti

We're at just about the midpoint of our grand experiment in 31 Nights of Terror, which means it's time for another fabulous guest post. This one is from Ira "The King" Brooker. You can check out his (excellent) blog, that for some reason is updated throughout the year and not just every day for a single month, here. Here's Ira:

Of all the cultural detritus we slather with nostalgia, few maintain as massive an imbalance between audience affection and actual quality than do 1980s cartoons. From Foofur to Kissyfur, Silverhawks to Bravestarr, Flintstone Kids to Pink Panther and Sons, you’d be hard-pressed to find a platter of cheaply produced Reagan-era animation that doesn’t have at least a small internet cult dedicated to its preservation. But most of it is awful. Like, objectively, unwatchably awful. I say this as a lover of indefensible trash and a guy who’s voluntarily watched and enjoyed almost every Andy Milligan movie in existence: 1980s cartoons are the goddamned worst.

That makes it all the more special when one rises above the rabble. The Real Ghostbusters is one of those. I saw Ghostbusters in the theater when it first came out and dug it, but I was still a little too young to really grasp its nuances. I was a sheltered, devoutly religious kid with little awareness of ghosts, the occult or demon possession (My parents only took me to see it in a mistaken belief that it was a straight-up kids’ movie and were quite abashed on the way home from the show) and the parts of it that didn’t go over my head kind of freaked me out.

The cartoon adaptation, though, was right up my alley – a smart, well-written ensemble show that managed a delicate balance of comedy, action and legitimately creepy content. I never missed an episode after school. For a while there the cartoon version of Dr. Egon Spengler – the blonde, rat-tailed and less nebbishy incarnation of Harold Ramis voiced by the incomparable Maurice LaMarche – was second only to Han Solo on my roster of fictional heroes. While The Real Ghostbusters was far from an educational show, I actually learned a lot from it. Like the also excellent Ducktales, the show often worked historical, literary and cultural references into its storylines. Off the top of my head, I remember getting my first tastes of Salvador Dali, H.P. Lovecraft, Citizen Kane and Norse mythology while sitting down for my nightly Ghostbusters fix, not to mention any number of paranormal theories and philosophies.

And so when I stumbled upon a box set of Real Ghostbusters episodes for five bucks at my local Menards, of all places, there was no way that wasn’t coming home with me. I’m happy to say it holds up quite nicely, just as smart and spooky as I remembered it being. Sure, Slimer is as annoying as he ever was, and the writers’ attempts to channel the Bill Murray charm through Lorenzo Music’s Peter Venkman are unfortunate but overall it’s a show I can still watch for genuine enjoyment, not just nostalgia value. 

On this recent rewatch I picked up on a few things that hadn’t caught my attention when I was nine. Some of these were minor flaws, like the numerous crowd scenes that are clearly re-colored, recycled stock footage from some other Korean animation project. Some were minor triumphs, like the attempts at providing semi-plausible scientific explanations for the mechanisms and metaphysics of the Real Ghostbusters universe, evidence of a respect for juvenile intellects that was shared by precious few ‘80s cartoons. 

But the oddest thing I noticed was the soundtrack. The show opens with a truncated rendition of Ray Parker, Jr’s iconic movie theme, of course, but most episodes also feature an original ‘80s pop-funk track, usually used as a backdrop for action sequences or montages. At first I assumed they were cheapie tunes recorded specifically as background filler for low-budget productions - the type of thing we used to score our projects in my high school TV production class - but when I paid closer attention I realized that the lyrics were often directly related to the themes of the episode. It became evident that these were songs written specifically as an episode-by-episode soundtrack to The Real Ghostbusters. That suggested a level of care even beyond the aforementioned stabs at scientific legitimacy. This was unheard of in the quick-buck world of 1980s animation.

As is my usual practice whenever I encounter a bit of fascinating minutia, I immediately tweeted a mildly snarky observation about the Ghostbusters song phenomenon. Within the hour, I was surprised to receive a response from a Ghostbusters archivist, complete with a link to the official Real Ghostbusters soundtrack album. Turns out the songs are all by the same group, a pop duo known as Tahiti, otherwise known as vocalists Tyren Perry and Tonya Townsend. Think about that: in the 1980s, being the house band for The Real Ghostbusters was a job that existed. Not only did Tahiti record songs for the show, ten of those tracks were compiled as an album and released commercially. My best guess was that the producers hoped to recapture some of the bottled lightning that made the Ray Parker song a massive hit. That didn’t happen, but the soundtrack is still plenty worthy of exploration.

Tahiti’s sound is very much in keeping with their decade, a bouncy, pop-R&B style heavy on drum machines and synth hits. Only a few of the album’s ten tracks are lyrically tied to their respective episodes, although the songwriting is generally broad enough that almost all could qualify for radio play. Even something explicitly character-themed like “The Boogieman” (named for one of The Real Ghostbusters’ most traumatizing big-bads, a hoofed ghoul with a gigantic joker head who specialized in terrifying defenseless children in their bedrooms) could have conceivably charted in the era of “Thriller” and “Ghostbusters.” “Mr. Sandman,” on the other hand, uses one of the show’s villains as a muse for a mild love ballad about the guy of your dreams. Other tunes, like the vaguely Prince-ish “Movie Star” or the power ballad “Remember Home” (yes, there were power ballads on The Real Ghostbusters) have less to do with ghosts but stand on their own as solid slices of ‘80s R&B production.

As a matter of fact, maybe the most surprising thing about the Real Ghostbusters soundtrack is how seldom it crosses over into goofiness, and how much more fun it gets when it does. My personal favorite track is probably “Midnight Action,” sort of an updated “Monster Mash” about a spooky late night dance party attended by Frankenstein, witches, “Slimy” (sic) and their monstrous pals. It even features a ghostbusting-themed rap break near the end. I’m also quite fond of the closing cut, “Hometown Hero,” a well-produced number that works just as well as a single as it does as a thematic complement to the show. It also boasts a brief guitar solo by special guest Ray Parker, Jr. complete with Tahiti  reverently chanting his name. I’m not going to say The Real Ghostbusters soundtrack is a lost classic of ‘80s pop, but it’s a fun little album that’s a considerable improvement on most shoddy TV tie-ins of the era (looking your way, The Simpsons Sing the Blues and Coming Out of Their Shells). If nothing else, it’s an indicator of how much care and craftsmanship went into its source material. My time curled up in front of my parents’ old tube TV may not have all been especially well spent - I could sing you the theme songs for Camp Candy and Gummi Bears as proof of that - but it’s at least comforting to know that a few of the objects glittering in the back of my memory really are gold.

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