Few one-hit wonder songs from the '90s hold up as well as Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Phone Booth With Money in My Hand." The song was ahead of its time with its perfect use of a B.B. King sample and hip-hop beats mixed with a more traditional piano-based rock ballad. How could a song so good lead to jack shit?
But first, let's get the other stuff out of the way. who the hell were Primitive Radio Gods anyway? Where did they come from and where did they go?
Primitive Radio Gods' story is one of extreme disappointment, extreme luck, then just regular disappointment, followed by more extreme disappointment.
The Gods' album Rocket started as a project by Chris O'Connor, the bassist/singer from some Southern California band called I-Rails. Around 1990-91, O'Connor made a demo of ten hip-hop inspired tunes on a shoe-string budget, recording in a friend's garage using a barely-working 16-track tape deck. He sent the tapes out to local radio stations under the moniker "Primative Radio Gods" (sic) expecting airplay, but instead got silence.
And O'Connor became so used to the silence he decided he'd continue the silence with a job where he couldn't hear shit. He used his Navy training to become an air traffic controller at LAX and got to wave those glowsticks and wear those super-intense ear muffs--no doubt working to muffle the cries of his inner thoughts, screaming at O'Connor that he should be backstage somewhere, doing blow off Winona Ryder's big toe.
Instead he wussed out, put the tapes in storage and forgot about them until 1994 when he finally grew a pair--or had some surgically implanted--and decided to send the demo out to a bunch of record labels as a last ditch effort to revive his flagging music career (get it? Flagging! Cause he flags down planes! No, I'm not Bill Shakespeare, I get that a lot though).
Weeks later, O'Connor heard from the executive of Fiction Records who said that he was very interested in the demos, but namely one song--"Where the Monkey Meets the Man." Okay, not really. Predictably, the exec. liked the only song worth a damn, "Standing Outside a Phone Booth..." and soon O'Connor found himself with a publishing deal, a contract with Columbia Records and "Standing" on the uber-'90s soundtrack to the massive box-office failure, The Cable Guy--directed by Ben Stiller, written by Judd Apatow and starring Jim Carrey, and nobodies like Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. Of course that movie would fail! We were all geniuses in the '90s. We knew what was good. Batman Forever, now that was a fuckin' movie!
The song became a huge hit, going to #7 on Top 40 and #1 on Modern Rock Tracks. Kids and grandparents alike were singing the B.B. King sample at the top of their lungs, "I been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met!" and people were so pumped by the song, they went out and bought the album.
Er, bad idea. You see, the album, to put it in Wesley Willis terms, sucks a caribou's asshole. "Standing" is, like so many other one-hit wonders, far and away the best song the band ever released and not at all indicative of the rest of the band's work. At the time the song may have seemed like a novelty, but with its earnest lyrics, inventive, lo-fi production and innovative sampling it was ahead of its time and wouldn't sound out of place coming from a lot of current indie bands. The song is actually affecting--I still get chills up my spine when O'Connor begins to sing the B.B. King line right before the song delves into instrumental feedback and dissonance.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for their great choice of follow up single--"Motherf**ker." Right off, that song has hit written all over it, right? It should be noted that I'm not censoring myself, I'm writing the word at it is written on the back of the album, and in turn, the word that earned them the much coveted "PARENTAL ADVISORY" sticker. I don't know if they bleeped it on radio cause, frankly, it was never really played on radio.
Sure, "Motherf**ker" isn't bad for a lo-fi alternative funk-rock song with hip-hop elements. Okay, yes it is. First, there's this annoying siren that plays throughout the song, as well as a beeping that sounds like a garbage truck backing up. Then, O'Connor tries to actually sing on this one--gone is the low-key talk-singing he did on "Standing." His voice cracks and breaks any time he goes out of his vocal range several times, making him sound more like a terrible Soul Asylum tribute act vocalist than a singer with a major label contract. Add to that the atonal, amateurish lead guitar that has not one, but two solos. The chorus is the only decent part, but it sounds like it was taken from an '80s monster ballad and sticks out like Sarah Palin at a PETA meeting (topical reference quota fufilled).
Perhaps the worst part is the production. It doesn't just sound cheap, it sounds like a cheap record where the producer desperately wanted to make it sound expensive--and failed miserably. We know O'Connor made it under less-than-ideal circumstances, but tons of great records have been made with fewer resources than he had and sound a lot better (Bleach, Bee Thousand, Nebraska, to name a few)--hell, "Standing" perfectly utilized his cheap tools and budget; it sounded cheap, yes--but in a creative way, like when you were a child and your parents would give you a cardboard box and magic marker and tell you to make a game and you had more fun than you would playing Sega Genesis or Ninja Turtles.
(No? No one else's parents did that? Just mine? Okay.)
Despite Rocket being cerfitied gold, "Motherf**ker" received no promotion by Columbia, who clearly saw "Standing" for the fluke that it was. And in a case of assholism that might make even James Spader's character in Pretty in Pink gasp, the label dropped them soon after.
Things only got worse from there on out. The group was lucky enough to have a fan in the executive from Columbia who had signed them in the first place--Jonathan Daniel. Having moved on to Sire Records, Daniel got the group a deal at Sire to release their follow up album, Mellotron On! Unfortunately, Sire was merging with London Records at the time and were having issues negotiating the release of Mellotron On! During the hiatus, the band was forced to go back to day jobs--O'Connor held out for as long as he could by living off songwriting royalties, but eventually he caved in and became a flower delivery boy. Yikes.
After they were dropped from London-Sire, Daniel once again stepped in and signed them to his independent label, What Are Records? where they released a modified version of Mellotron On! titled White Hot Peach. The album did nothing on the charts and after releasing a couple of other EPs and compilations, the Gods moved on to releasing music independently from their website.
Most recently they released an mp3 Internet-only, "shoegaze inspired" album titled Sweet Venus on their website. The only information I can find on it is from some Australia-based music magazine called Tomatrax, which listed one of the album's songs as #1 for 2006. Check out their site if you want, (it's hosted by geocities, so you know it's legit).
Next time we'll talk about an artist who made one hit and disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again--something Primitive Radio Gods probably should have considered.
Download: Primitive Radio Gods - Motherf**ker
Download: Primitive Radio Gods - Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand
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