Primitive Radio Gods’ “Phone Booth” Hangs Up A Rage Against The Machine Fan


This summer, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.”
THE YEAR: 1996.
THE REASONS: Not being “Bulls On Parade.”

By the end of the summer of 1996, I finally got my hands on a copy of Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire. It had been a long time coming. My parents were by no means strict when it came to records that had been slapped with Parental Advisory stickers, but for some reason, Evil Empire was a no go. I don’t think I had made much of a case in its favor—perhaps I had blown all my bargaining chips on trying to get my dad to bring home a copy of Pulp Fiction while my mom was down the shore with her girlfriends (to no avail, by the way), and was simply just too worn out and/or disenfranchised to push for anything else.

But some of us are fortunate to have feckless, ne’er-do-well older cousins to guide us down darker paths. On a family trip to Cape May, New Jersey, David—my senior by only a year, but infinitely wiser and more learned when it came to age-restricted goods—put that bright yellow cassette in my pre-pubescent hands. It wasn’t contraband or anything, and I didn’t have to hide it from either of my parents. It was an earned gift, rather, after the few months of incessant teasing I had endured at the hands of the SoCal alterna-rock outfit Primitive Radio Gods.

I was fortunate to grow up in a college town with a pretty reliable alternative radio station. State College, Pennsylvania, home to Penn State University and the Revolution 101.1, kept a ten-year-old relatively well-versed when the allowance money dried up and trips to the record store were no longer negotiable. Staying up late(ish—until 10) for the nightly countdown sufficed nicely; I kept my trigger finger on the record button on my tape deck, waiting for some R.E.M. or Spacehog or Supergrass or whatever Buzz Bin-approved track I could add to my small, cobbled-together library of analog-pirated compilations. Other nights I’d settle for the occasional request or call-in contest (an unwrapped promotional copy of English camp-rock outfit Space’s Spiders is the only prize I can recall winning). But that particular summer, one prize had eluded my tape deck’s record button: Evil Empire’s second single, “Bulls On Parade.” The hardest rock the Revolution would play was Stone Temple Pilots; you were far more likely to hear “The Distance” rather than “Bulls On Parade,” even though “Bulls” seemed to be getting some cross-genre traction.

In order to catch it, you had to be quick, and you had to be familiar with the intro. Having never heard it on record and only on the radio maybe once or twice, my only frame of reference was the music video, which was getting some pretty decent rotation on MTV at the time. “Bulls On Parade,” it turned out, had no intro—it just launches right into that “WANAHH-WAH-WANAHH.” But cue up the music video, and there’s the brief clicking of a film projector before the song kicks in, thanks to its grainy 8mm aesthetic. (So guerilla.) That, I thought, was my cue to hit record. One night I heard what sounded like that very same clicking, pushed the button, and sat back feeling pretty self-satisfied. I had reeled in a biggie. The radio dub to end all radio dubs—at least for my group of friends, for that summer.

But what followed was most assuredly not “Bulls On Parade.” Instead of that song’s blast of low-end-heavy skronk, in dropped some chunky, trip-hoppy drums. Then, a few spare bass plunks. Then, strangest of all, B.B. King. “I’ve been downhearted baby/ I’ve been down, I’ve been downhearted baby/ Ever since the day we met.” The fuck? What I ended up recording was the buzzy “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods, and oh was I disappointed. I remember vaguely disliking the song at first—for some reason, that vocal sample gave the song a spiritual resonance that I found pretty unappealing at the time. And Chris O’Conner’s flat, anesthetized vocal delivery seemed beholden to a kind of mope-y strain of indie rock that I wouldn’t find much use for until 2000. He was not dropping the hits like de la Ro, so I was of the opinion that he, too, should get the fuck off the commode. But the Revolution just played the living daylights out of it, and with every spin, I felt increasingly cheated and grew more incensed. I’d hear that clicking and hissing, and my ears would prick up like a startled faun, only to fall limp with that simple refrain: “I’ve been downhearted baby/ I’ve been down, I’ve been downhearted baby… ”

“Phone Booth” is, by all accounts, a pretty terrific song. Turns out, it always kind of was. My vision was obviously clouded at the time, and I do feel pretty sheepish about how stupid I must’ve looked talking shit about it. (Where, I’m not sure. The foursquare court?) I was (and continue to be) pretty stubborn, but there’s no ignoring the song’s subtle (and not-so subtle) charms. Turns out O’Conner is a pretty damn good lyricist—patient, wistful and sometimes weird, but not completely humorless (“Sunday comes, and all the papers say/ Ma Theresa’s joined the mob and happy with her full-time job” is still a great fucking lyric). Those muted, muttered “doop-doo-doo-doos” feel like a returned mating call to Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” And yeah, it’s kind of a shame he decides to sing the sample himself there at the end.

But these are mild grievances. “Phone Booth” was ahead of the curve, in some respect. It came out three years before Moby would release Play, heralded for melding old blues vocal clips with contemporary techno pop elements. But go back to “Phone Booth” and it’s all there, with those bells and funky sad-sack drums all digitally jumbled together to try and lift King’s tinny wail. It was, if nothing else, a very successful marriage of analog and digital, appropriately dosed with the right measure of melancholy. And now I realize that back then, with my finger on my tape deck, I was too dumb to realize that the clicking and hissing I was hearing on the intro was actually the sound of a needle hitting vinyl.

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