In the final months of his life, John Belushi didn’t just have his cocaine problem to worry about. There were also the suits.
“Neighbors,” Belushi’s final film, didn’t go quite the way the comedian intended. A tale of a button-down, stifled suburbanite liberated when free spirits move in next door, the film co-starred his friend and longtime collaborator Dan Aykroyd. First, he and Aykroyd switched roles to change things up — the wild Belushi taking the role of the mild-mannered husband, Aykroyd playing the crazy guy who moved in next door.
It wasn’t enough. Belushi, fueled by drugs, wanted something crazier than the tame rough cut he shouted obscenities at during a screening for executives. “Neighbors” had to have more of an anarchic spirit. It had to have something out of control. Something terrifying.
So Belushi came upon a solution that proved wildly unpopular with studio brass: “Neighbors” had to have the music of Fear, a Los Angeles punk band little known in middle America. And now, a long-lost recording of Belushi singing with the band will be released for the first time.
The song, which shares the title of “Neighbors,” is an early example of punk rock meeting Hollywood — and though he had befriended Fear and the song was written for the film at his request, it’s a recording that Belushi didn’t initially want to make.
“I kept arguing with John, ‘I wrote the lyrics for you to sing,’ ” Lee Ving, Fear’s 65-year-old frontman and only continuous member for almost 40 years, told Rolling Stone. ” … I wasn’t looking forward to singing lyrics that I had written for someone else to sing that were based on a movie that didn’t touch my life. The lyrics weren’t authentic enough for me to sing them.”
“We went back and forth, and eventually John says, ‘OK, OK, I’ll sing it,’ ” Ving said. “John, being such a good mimic, sings it, and you can tell it’s not me.” Two versions were made — one in which Belushi sang lead while Ving sang backup, and another in which they swapped. And both will find their way to a seven-inch single due out this fall.
But, in the words of a commenter on Fear’s Facebook page: “What does Belushi actually do on the track?” He had proven his might as a vocalist on Blues Brothers tracks. But how does he fare as a faux punk rocker? Does he shout “cheeseburger, cheeseburger”?
Sort of. Rolling Stone unpacked it for the squares:
The three-minute tune kicks off with a typically punk — and typically Fear — “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4!” before a throbbing guitar line comes in and Belushi asks, “Where the f— are we?” Then it kicks in with a powerful chorus (“Neighbors/Like your neighbors”), sung with the same sort of slanted melody that made songs like “Let’s Have a War” and “I Don’t Care About You” on Fear’s 1982 debut The Record snide punk classics. The lyrics directly reference the movie’s characters and plot, including some spoilers, all sandwiching the sound of Belushi hawking up a loogie and saying, “Sorry folks, but you can color us gone.” It closes with a sax solo and elastic guitar solo, as Belushi and Ving shout the title.
In the era of crush porn, this is pretty tame stuff. But in the early 1980s, Fear made corporate really, really nervous. Belushi, insisting that the band be included on the “Neighbors” soundtrack, demanded a meeting with the head of Columbia Pictures’ music department: Richard Berres, a 60-year-old former Los Angeles Symphony cellist.
“Belushi barged into Berres’ office, went over to the stereo and slapped in a cassette tape of Fear,” Bob Woodward of The Washington Post wrote in his 1984 book “Wired.” “Berres listened. It seemed to be a rhythm beat with some screeching in the background, an absolute atrocity.”
But Belushi had a point to make.
“John turned up the volume and started dancing around the room, singing along,” Woodward wrote. “Berres tried to turn down the volume, but Belushi wouldn’t let him. He started the tape from the beginning and turned it up even higher. Each time the song was finished, he rewound the tape and played it again.”
The meeting ended when Belushi pulled the phone cord from the wall. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fear didn’t make the “Neighbors” soundtrack.
But this debacle was just a prelude for an even bigger one: As a consolation prize of sorts, Belushi got Fear a gig on “Saturday Night Live” on Halloween in 1981. In an incredible performance that lives forever in punk rock history, Fear and fans, including Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, turned the set of “SNL” into a mosh pit as it blazed through three songs.
“They said we caused half a million dollars worth of damage, but nothing much really happened,” Ving said in 1992. “Some piece of equipment worth 50 bucks got broken. Then someone from the audience said a four-letter word over the microphone that they couldn’t bleep out.”
The network was not happy. Ving said NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff, watching the show at home in bed with his wife, called and demanded stock footage be aired. “They’ll never be shown on ‘Saturday Night Live’ again!” he said, as Ving tells the story. And, evidently, the incident still gets short shrift in anniversary specials.
“It has to be looked at as historical footage, which it is,” Ving told Rolling Stone. “They seem to be overlooking the fact and losing the sense of humor about the whole idea. … It was extremely humorous to me, and I think John saw that humor. That’s what attracted him to the whole idea, but there are those who have their finger on the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ buttons at SNL that did not have that sense of humor.”
The moment was eclipsed by its tragic coda. Less than six months later, Belushi died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin.
But before his death, he had — albeit in his frenetic way — tried to bring an underground spirit back to an edgy show that had become mainstream entertainment.
“Had it not been for John, we would not have had that opportunity,” Ving said.