Well, one hit is still more than I’ve had or most other people have, so no there’s no shame in being a One Hit Wonder. Since today marks the 96th anniversary of B.B. King’s birth, it seems appropriate that we remember one of the definitive such songs of the 1990s – one which happens to borrow from B.B. heavily. Who remembers the Primitive Radio Gods and (take a deep breath) “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” ? It was very much the one hit for that “band” as well as one of the oddest alternative rock hits of the decade. And it was sitting at #1 on the short-lived Canadian alternative rock chart this day in 1996. It had already spent six weeks on top of the American one that summer.
The Primitive Radio Gods have had a super-natural lifespan for an under-the-radar band. They formed around 1985, then going by the name The I-rails, and are apparently still an active commodity in one form or another. The L.A.-area band consisted of Chris O’Connor, guitarist Jeff Sparks and drummer Tim Lauteria, plus after this song hit the bigtime, another guitarist, Luke Mcauliffe, but they’ve always been the baby of bassist and singer O’Connor. In fact, this hit single was made by O’Connor by himself in a friend’s garage. The I-rails had done four indie records by 1994, and somewhere along the line, they more or less fell apart. O’Connor had made this song, or a demo for it at least, prior to 1994, found it when cleaning out the garage, or something to that effect. He mailed it to a few A&R guys, and one, Jonathan Daniel liked it. He would become something of a fairy godfather for the band. He quickly signed O’Connor to a publishing deal with Fiction Records, then somehow used connections to get them signed to a recording deal with CBS. Later, on after they’d dropped the band, Sire had signed them but failed to put out a follow-up record due to corporate restructuring, Daniel would return to sign them to an indie label he ran.
“Standing Outside…” was nothing if not eclectic in inspiration. The title apparently came from a similarly-titled, obscure song by Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn, “Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” The beat is very hip-hop and ’90s but the underlying sound is a sample of B.B. King doing “How Blue Can You Get?” . O’Connor wisely gave songwriting co-credits to Leonard and Jane Feather, who wrote the B.B. number. Add in some melancholy and slightly disjointed lyrics about a couple separated by space and mentality and nice, twinkly piano and you have…something different.
The song blasted off slowly, but after it was used in the movie The Cable Guy, it took off…like a Rocket, which happened to be the name of the album Columbia had them quickly record. It soon went gold in the States. The single became popular on MTV and ran up the Billboard charts, eventually hitting #1 on the Alternative Rock one, and #10 on overall radio airplay. To the north in Canada, it did even better, also topping their alternative charts and going to #2 as a single. We can thank (or curse…no, thank!) John Mellencamp whose “Key West Intermezzo” blocked the phone booth song from #1.
The Primitive Radio Gods put out another album last year, but seem destined to be forever known for the song allmusic pegged squarely : “all the appeal of an adult novelty for most listeners… it was out of the ordinary…but not something that you would want to investigate much further.” Gone with the phone booths perhaps?