Week 24: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods

When he was 21, Chris O’Connor and two friends formed a band called the I-Rails. They had some fun, released a few albums, but never got the big break they were looking for. When his two friends left to go have real lives in 1991, O’Connor put together some more songs on his own, using leftovers from the band’s final months together. He sent the demo out to local radio stations under the name “Primitive Radio Gods”. Nothing happened.

Dejected, O’Connor did what most depressed people do: he became an air traffic controller. Then, a couple of years later, he was cleaning out old boxes when he stumbled upon the demo. Clinging to his conviction that the music was good, he mailed copies to every record label he could think of. One track caught the ear of the right person at the right time, and all of a sudden O’Connor was being distributed by Columbia Records. His success was driven almost entirely by this song, released around the time that Portishead was making “trip-hop” a common term, but written years before, when Nirvana and Guns N Roses were topping the charts.

This song ended up on the soundtrack to the 1996 film “The Cable Guy”, about a lonely, depressed cable repair man…which makes sense when you remember that the song itself was written by a lonely, depressed air traffic controller.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The vocal sample. Years before Moby was doing it, O’Connor had the great idea to mix old blues vocals with trance beats. Probably the catchiest part of the song, the sample features B.B. King’s 1964 song, “How Blue Can You Get?”.

2. The piano. As the track approaches the 3-minute mark, a floaty, sprawling piano solo begins. Paying no attention to the tempo of the song, it just kind of goes wherever it wants. The sound of the instrument is pure early-90s ballad, but somehow it works.

3. The lyrics.  Like all the best songs from the 90s, this one is full of wonderful non-sequiturs and baffling religious references. O’Connor was probably down in the dumps when he wrote the lyrics, and as the title suggests, he probably had a good 90s sense of dark irony as well. And if you’re not sure what it means when he says, “you swim like lions through the crest/and bathe yourself on zebra flesh”…well, if you don’t understand that, I can’t possibly explain it to you.

Recommended listening activity:

Going through your change, trying to find coins from the year you were born.

Buy it here.