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When I’m 64: Chris Isaak reflects on the enduring appeal of Wicked Game

“Wicked Game is one of those songs you hear for the first time and think, ‘That may well be the greatest record I’ve ever heard‘. You know what I mean? It’s immediate. I remember it was on Jukebox Jury and Barney from New Order was on, and he was the only one that twigged it. He said, ‘I’m going to go out and buy that record tomorrow.’ Cool fucker; anyway, common to both Julee Cruise and Chris Isaak is their wonderful ability to write dreamy, aquatic sex songs.” — Tim Booth, James, 1994

On the day I was born (the very same day as Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, natch) Elvis Presley’s notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, celebrated his 60th birthday, which happened to be the 12th anniversary of ‘The King’ moving into Graceland*. Whilst singers Georgie Fame celebrated his 26th, Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite his 14th, and Berlin’s Terri Nunn celebrated her 8th. And if anything makes you feel your age, it’s the realisation that one of the shiny and new pop stars of the day Ariana Grande came into the word while you were celebrating your 24th birthday. Ouch.

I’ve rarely written about my birthday posse, but that’s about to change, because there’s someone else, and he’s a bit of a heartthrob.

Born on 26 June 1956 in Stockton California, with his fitter than Elvis stunt-double looks and twangy guitar, Chris Isaak has always seemed a little desynchronised from pop culture, no matter how retro-fashioned and nostalgia-obsessed it becomes. Of course, he’s already contributed at least one classic to the pop canon, its smokily cinematic romanticism also feeling more related to the worlds of a bygone era. But if ever there was a song to light a cigarette to before slowly kicking back in your chair and possibly running your fingers through your hair and/or loosening your collar… yeah, you’ve found it.

Some songs are masterpieces, some represent moments in time, and others are simply good jams. Isaak’s song is all three. With its lush, languid riff and distinctive production, its sound was like an alternate-universe reflection of classic Americana, rooted in an Presley-Orbison Old World melancholy of the 1950s, but still feeling contemporary due to the hallucinogenic melodrama bound up in that lead guitar work and Isaak’s mumbling big chorus. It’s one of those weird hits that was divorced from its time and place to begin with, which makes for a weird legacy — you can hear it now, over and over again yet still freshly, without the same baggage of it summing up a particular era.

You might think 30 years of familiarity would be inoculation enough against the widescreen wiles of Wicked Game, but its popularity has never waned, taking on a new life in the countless cover versions by indie and alternative acts over the years. Everyone from R.E.M and London Grammar to Tori Amos and Turin Brakes has had a stab at covering the song, while a certain Lizzy Grant reintroduced herself to the world as Lana Del Rey with Video Games, a lamenting tale of tragic love ridden with a similar title, chord structure, and sense of vengeance as Isaak’s classic. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon took this one step further, later dubbing Lana Del Rey “the female Chris Isaak”. So naturally a team up was in order then.

There were other thematic similarities in the then-mysterious R&B singer The Weeknd’s own Wicked Games, which gained an unofficial video that comes across as a sinister cousin to Herb Ritts’s beach flaunt.

Writing about the track for its 25th birthday, Stereogum’s Ryan Leas christened the song as an “unlikely new standard” in contemporary pop songwriting. And a year ago Chris Isaak reflected on the enduring appeal of Wicked Game with the Omaha World Herald.

Q: What did that record do for you? How did it change things?

A: I remember I wrote Wicked Game, and I thought, “The last thing we probably need is another ballad.” They were always telling me, “You’re a good ballad singer, but write more rock ‘n’ roll stuff.” We recorded it and it came out like it had a life of its own. It wasn’t on the radio, and it wasn’t a hit. Nobody really knew us that well yet.

Everywhere we played, we noticed when it came to that song, people would pay attention. We went, “We got something.”

I never called the record company ever in my life. But I actually called up and set up a meeting and I said, “I think this song could be a hit. We’re getting a great response. I want money to make a music video.” They went, “Nope. We don’t think so. You know, it’s a nice song, but this isn’t the year for guitar-driven ballads.” There’s always an expert at the record company. They told The Beatles, “Guitar bands are out.”

David Lynch came to the rescue. He said, “I’m using this song in a movie. Hey, why don’t we have a video?” I said, “David, because I don’t have any money.” Pretty much on his own, he drove the project to make that video. People forget, but he made the first video for Wicked Game.

They played it on MTV, but they would only play it while the movie was in the theatres. It played for a while, and the record was doing well, but they pulled it. By that time, it had caught on to some radio stations.

Then they came back and said, OK, let’s make a video with Herb Ritts. I remember Herb saying, “There’s this girl and she’s not really known, but she’s good. Her name is Helena Christensen.”

Herb asked if I had any notes. I said, “Cut me out and put more of her in.”

It was an introduction that showed what we are. We’re a band that plays American music, and we love ballads and we like traditional singing, and if you heard that and came to the show, you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Q: You couldn’t escape that video. It was on everything. What was your experience with it?

A: I remember seeing it and I said, “It’s a great video. I don’t know if they’ll play it.” When I saw it, I saw a lot of me in it. Every time I’m on it, I thought, “That’s not sexy. That’s boring.”

I remember being in Europe right after we shot the video. I knew it was a hit when I walked down the hall of the hotel, and I could hear from room to room, “The world was on fire …” Wicked Game” gets used a lot. It just seems like a lot of filmmakers have found it’s sort of evocative of something. I’m glad for that.

Q: What were you thinking when you were going to make that record?

A: I never know what’s going to be a huge hit or not. People always ask, “What’s your idea for this album?” It’s very simple. I write 40 songs. I pick out the best 12 or 15 of the 40. And then the best 12 make the record. You’re always just trying to make it better.

I think as we went along, making the first record we were kind of amateurish. The second record, we were learning. I think the band was getting better as we went along

Steve Pafford 

*Elvis performed at the Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana on 26 June 1977, my eighth birthday. This was the last performance Presley ever did. His dad Vernon would die exactly two years later, on Chris Isaak‘s 23rd birthday and my tenth.

Graceland grave

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