March 5, 2020
#158 The Case of the Missing Hit
by Reply All
A man in California is haunted by the memory of a pop song from his youth. He can remember the lyrics and the melody. But the song itself has vanished, completely scrubbed from the internet. PJ takes on the Super Tech Support case.
Christian Lee Hutson’s music : https://open.spotify.com/track/3g8nKpXsQtXv0lcN4UGVGs
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PJ VOGT: From Gimlet this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: So Alex.
PJ: I’m gonna tell you a story that I think you sort of remember but maybe don’t know the details of.
PJ: So last spring, I went to a therapist cuz I was having a hard time with a bunch of stuff, and I was complaining to this therapist, I was like “Yeah, I’m just so obsessed with this, I can’t stop thinking about this,” and the therapist said something to me that no therapist ever said before. He was like, “Have you ever considered the idea that you might have OCD?”
ALEX: Yes, I do remember this.
PJ: And at the time, I was like, I definitely don't. Whatever else is going on with me, I definitely don’t have OCD. Like, there’s no part of my life that’s about compulsive neatness or order. Like I am a walking pigpen.
ALEX: I can attest to the truthfulness of that statement.
PJ: But what the guy said, he was like, “Well, he was like, there’s a kind of OCD called Pure O where you don’t really have noticeable, visible compulsions. Instead, you’re just extremely, extremely obsessive.”
ALEX: Ok. That, that, that comports with the person that I know.
PJ: Yes, so he gave me the test, I was off the charts. Um, and like it was one of those moments that was really helpful because there were all these parts of my personality that I’ve kind of struggled with that
ALEX: All of a sudden snapped into place.
PJ: It’s like finding your horoscope kind of? Like pe- there’s so many times in my life where somebody’s like, “Oh. Why don’t you just stop thinking about it. Why don’t you let it go. Why don’t you get over it. Why don’t you just not look at that.” And I’ve always been like… you’re joking.
But then, there’s this other thing that happens where sometimes my brain just locks onto things that don’t matter at all, like things that are small and stupid. Like I was talking to somebody the other day about this sci-fi book I read as a kid, and I tried to remember the name, and I couldn't remember the name, and I was like, “Oh, this is the rest of my day. The rest of my day is trying to remember the name of this book, and my brain will not change the channel until I do.
ALEX: What was the book.
PJ: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, thank god, um but but but like I know everybody experiences that, I experienced it, I swear to god, much more deeply.
PJ: I'm saying this to you because the story I want to tell you this week, it’s about a man who is living in exactly that hell, like the hell of having something stuck on the tip of your tongue that just will not go away. I felt like I was uniquely qualified to help him.
And so I tried. The story is a Super Tech Support.
SUPER TECH SUPPORT THEME
So this week, our listener with an unusually thorny technical problem — is a guy named Tyler Gillet.
TYLER GILLETT: So I am — I live in Los Angeles. I am an artist, a film director.
PJ: I was very intrigued by your email.
TYLER: I’ve been, like I can't overstate how much this has driven me crazy. [laughs]
PJ: So what— tell me about the problem.
TYLER: So this-this—the problem began, this is probably, I don’t know, this was a couple months ago now, I was leaving—I was leaving a dinner party with my wife, I think it was a holiday party. And I had, I had a couple of beers and we're driving back to our place and as I tend to do, you know, I'm trying to get her attention, make her laugh, and I’m singing this song that’s stuck in my head, and she’s asking me like, “What is this, what is this weird song you’re singing?” And so I was like, "You don't know this song? This was like a huge thing in the 90's! I can't believe you don't know this song!" So I pull my phone out to try to find it so that I can put it on Bluetooth and we can listen to it on the drive home. And I can't find a single lyric to this song. I can't figure out, you know, who made it. Nothing, no information anywhere on Google about this song. And the next you know the next 10, 15 minutes of our drive home is quiet because I'm just sort of sitting in the passenger seat frantically searching for this, for this song.
TYLER: And I eventually get home it's like, you know, 10:30, 11:00 at night. And she's like, “ Well I'm going to bed,” and I was like “Well cool I'm going to stay up, I got it I got to figure I got to figure this thing out.” And I'm, I'm awake for the next like three and a half hours on Google.
And every time, I searched something new and and found another dead end, I was getting increasingly frustrated but also kind of scared. Like it started to dawn on me that there was something—that there was something really bizarre happening.
It just… It felt almost like he’d found a hole in the world. Like a glitch. He said it wasn’t liek this was the best song in the world like that wasn't the problem. The way he described it, he said it's a song where it's like the choruses are kind of in the style of U2. But the verses are very Barenaked Ladies.
ALEX: So far you're selling me like a song that I really don't want to listen to.
PJ: Well, don't worry. You can't. The point is because Tyler couldn't’ find it, he just could not let go of this thing.
TYLER: I would wake up in the middle of the night with a new lyric in my head and I'd go to my computer and write it down and then go back to bed. Like this, these lyrics were kind of like filtering into my brain.
Cause the lyrics of this song are not ambiguous lyrics. There are a million and one things that you should be able to just type into Google, and it would immediately pull up, you know, the right song. And instead Google was returning these like wildly literal search results. Like one of the lyrics is, “Better than a sultan for a bride” or something like that, and I’m searching this and it's just pulling up pictures of like, of like royalty, you know?
TYLER: Like sultans and royalty and their family. I'm like this is the weirdest thing that there's not — there's absolutely nothing on the internet about this song.
ALEX: Does he know how he remembered the lyrics so clearly? Was it a song he heard a lot?
PJ: Yeah, it's a song that like, he said he would have heard a lot in like junior high, high school era, when he was growing up in Arizona.
PJ: Which also means that he has remembered this song with what I have to say is a remarkable amount of clarity for over two decades.
TYLER: So the intro, the kind of intro two measures it’s like this [singing] “do do do-do-do-do do-do-do-do do-do-do-do do-do-do-do.” I think it's—I think it's like a flute. And the whole kind of conceit of the song is “Better than,” like “Better than a—” you know, and then they sort of rattle off a bunch of things, like yeah, “You’re better than a [inaudible] with a g-string, better than a promise of a good one night fling, better”—you know it’s sort of like this quick, rap— [snapping fingers]
PJ: [Overlapping] Oh it is Barenaked Ladies-y.
TYLER: It’s very Barenaked Ladies-y, right?
TYLER: And then this sort of—the chorus is like, “Share your love with me tonight, I want to feel that love.” Which is kind of U2, it has the sort of grand, like, arena [laughs], arena sound to it, you know?
PJ: Yeah. And it’s catchy, even like your rendition of it, it has like, Nokia ringtone… magic to it
TYLER: Yeah, there’s like an earworm-y, an earworm-y quality to it for sure.
ALEX: This is the — this, I'm like —
PJ: You don't recognize that?
PJ: Nobody recognized this. So the next thing Tyler did next to solve this, … it was such a desperate attempt at a solution. So Tyler is not a musician, but he decided to try to record this song on his own, using like Adobe Premiere cause he's a filmmaker, so he recorded like a multitrack version of it where he is doing every single instrument himself—
ALEX: With his mouth?
PJ: With his mouth. Do you want to hear what he made?
ALEX: I absolutely do.
PJ: Okay. This is truly inspired.
[Tyler's version of the song plays]
I hate to say it, but one of the reasons this doesn't help much is because —
PJ: He doesn't have perfect pitch.
ALEX: He's not necessarily like a natural born singer.
PJ: No, he would be the first to admit this.
[Tyler’s version of song plays]
ALEX: [laughing] Oh, Tyler! … It reminds me of a lot of bad 90's songs. It does remind me of "Chickety China the Chinese chicken".
PJ: Uh, which is actually called "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies.
[“One Week” plays]
ALEX: It reminds me of Savage Garden, do you remember that band?
PJ: It reminds you of Savage Garden? I guess the choruses?
ALEX: [imitates Savage Garden song] You know that fucking song?
ALEX: Bad song!
[“I Want You” plays]
PJ: Yeah, it's like there was a moment in the mid to late 90's where white alt-rock bands had to like have sort of like the cadence of rapping in their songs. And this belongs to that moment.
ALEX: Yeah. Well, Tyler, sorry this is in your head.
PJ: An additional thing that makes this very frustrating and confusing is that Tyler’s 100% sure that this song is a pop song. He says as a kid he didn't listen to anything obscure or indie, he says his taste in music was just completely mainstream.
PJ: So whatever this was, it was something like, big—
ALEX: On the radio.
PJ: So it shouldn't have disappeared.
ALEX: Yeah, I mean there are regional hits.
PJ: I had the same theory, maybe this was just big in Arizona— but the one thing he found on the Internet was a post on a forum called "Strat-Talk.com", which is for Stratocaster fans, the guitar.
ALEX: Uh, I'm familiar with the guitar.
PJ: Uh, so it's a post by a guy who goes by Piezoman.
TYLER: And this guy on the forum had posted this question, that basically was like, “this song was in my head but I can't find it anywhere on Google.” And then on, on this forum post, he lists some of the lyrics and they're the same. Like the lyrics are similar enough that they are definitely from the same song that I am remembering. And he even went as far as to play the sort of intro, like the first two measures of the intro, on his guitar and posted it on YouTube.
[GUITAR SOUND FROM YOUTUBE]
PJ: The thing about this guy is he's posting from Trinidad and Tobago.
ALEX: Ohhh okay, not a regional hit.
PJ: Not a regional hit. Like somehow this song was heard by Piezo Man, who is in Trinidad and Tobago, and Tyler, who was in Flagstaff, Arizona, but then completely wiped from the Internet.
Tyler had already tried messaging Piezo Man on the forum, no luck. I tried also. No luck either. So Tyler’s next step had then been to take the song he made and then tried to plug it into this app called Soundhound. Soundhound is like Shazam except, the idea with Soundhound is supposedly you just sing a melody into the app and it’s supposed to be able to recognize the song.
ALEX: That's really cool.
PJ: Yeah, so he tried that. It hadn’t worked. So that’s when I came up with a plan of my own, which is this: I was gonna fly to Los Angeles, get Tyler into a studio and then just make a way higher-quality, way more accurate version of this song from his memory. Then we could take that copy, plug it into Soundhound, and then we’ll have it.
So that was the plan. After the break…Los Angeles.
PJ: Welcome back to the show.
Ok so a couple weeks ago, my friend Christian Lee Hutson, who’s a singer/songwriter in LA, he basically put together a band for me, just a bunch of great musicians he knows, who he said would be willing to help me with this project.
Person: Hey how’s it going?
PJ: Hey, PJ. Nice to meet you.
PJ: I met them on a Sunday morning in a parking lot of this recording studio called United Recording in Hollywood. The band, uh, I would describe them as cool in an unintimidating way? They were just a gang of really smiley dudes.
LOGAN: Hi PJ, Logan.
PJ: Nice to meet you Logan.
LOGAN: What's up?
PJ: Should we go in?
ENGINEER: Hey how you doing.
PJ: Hi is this studio B?
ENGINEER: Studio B.
MUSICIAN: Hey how you doing man?
PJ: So we walk in the studio and everybody's like, oh god. This place is uncomfortably fancy. Like, this was a studio that Frank Sinatra built in Los Angeles.
ALEX: Okay. [laughs]
PJ: I started thinking about the band that actually recorded this song, like did they get to use a studio this nice to do it? It's a beautiful like, wood paneled — like the walls had all the records that were made there and it's like
PJ: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, Mariah Carey… (laughing)
CHRISTIAN: Think of all the things that have been recorded here and now…
PJ: And now this...they fell so fast. [laughs]
PJ: We were, we’re joking, I was starting to get a little bit queasy at that moment just because like, we’re in a really nice recording studio, there’s four musicians, there’s an engineer, just like what business do I have trying to recreate a song out of somebody’s memory. And that is the moment when Tyler shows up, the guy with the song in his head.
PJ: Hey Tyler! Nice to meet you in person, how's it going?
PJ: So we go to the control room, they're like “Hey, we've got like a runner if you guys need snacks or anything.” Which is a guy who works for the studio who goes to get you snacks.
ALEX: I didn't know that there was such a thing.
PJ: I didn't know either.
PJ: Anyway, Tyler, me, all the musicians, we gather round in a semi-circle...I recite the plan...
PJ: So I’m a journalist. and I make a podcast and sometimes we’ll, listeners will have problems they want help with...So this guy wrote us...
PJ: And it feels like everybody is sort of enjoying the challenge of this, but nobody really thinks Tyler’s gonna remember the song well enough to really make something out of it. Like we are taking a crappy fossilized footprint of a dinosaur and trying to imagine and recreate the dinosaur from that footprint. So I take out my iPhone and I play Tyler’s recording and show people what they’ll be working with.
[Tyler's recording plays]
Person: I can’t believe how much he remembers.
Person: What is that song I am thinking, it is reminding me of one particular song (sings)
Person: That’s the Barenaked Ladies!
Person: Oh that is the is that “One Week”? Yeah ok, yeah.
So at this point my friend Christian, the guy who got the band together, this is the moment where he realizes what he’s gotten himself into? Um, he leans over to me and he goes, “I’m gonna have to sing this?” because Christian is a very talented musician but it’s true the way he sings his song...
[Song by Christian Lee Hutson]
PJ: Sounds NOTHING like the Barenaked Ladies guy.
PJ: So anyway
PJ: The band leaves the control room and goes into the live room and starts warming up. The crazy thing, the thing that I didn't expect, was that basically Tyler immediately transformed into like a very confident music producer. Like he was running around like, the guitar’s going to do this.
TYLER: (coaching guitar player) Instead of the deh-dah-loo, it's like dah, dah, dah — instead of like doo da doo it’s like dah dah dah. Yeah, that's it.
PJ: The cymbals I think need to be a little more shimmery.
PJ: Like bass is going to do this.
Tyler: is there a, is there a more, is there a sparser bassline? It feels busy.
PJ: He was like the guitar’s supposed to sound a little more edge guitar like from U2...
Tyler: Is there a way to turn down the level of funkiness?
PJ: He was so specific in his musical instruction in a way that I would never have been able to be.
Guitar and Drums, Singing
ALEX: That sounds like trying to make a police sketch.
PJ: Yes, it’s totally like a police sketch except in this case the dude who got mugged has perfect recall for people’s faces. Like, Tyler started coaching the drummer, he started coaching the bassist, the guitarist who also played flute, and then he jumped in the vocal booth with Christian and was coaching him through vocals.
Christian: [singing] Though some things are never what they seem / I never have to
worry because I know you are, you’re better than a [laughter]
PJ: Tyler was so high off the thrill of seeing the song come back to life...first of all, he made his wife come to the studio to see, because he was like this is real, this is real. You can see the song is real. And then he like — he would like —
ALEX: Like in the middle of it he called her?
PJ: He called her and she came. She drove over to the studio. And he was like clutching his hair in his hands in like pure joy. And then he even actually started remembering parts of the song he’d forgotten, like “Oh, you know there’s this guitar solo, can we do the guitar solo?”
[Tyler sings guitar solo]
ALEX: [laughs] I'm very happy for Tyler.
PJ: I know! It felt great, like, it felt like we’d yanked this thing out of his memory and we turned it into an actual roadmap we could actually use to find the song. Do you want to hear it?
[PJ plays final version of song]
ALEX: Your buddy is such a trooper for actually singing these lyrics.
PJ: He kind of killed it.
ALEX: "Better than a cherry on a whipped cream sundae".
The guitars are shimmering.
PJ: They are very much shimmering.
ALEX: The rhythm guitar shimmers.
PJ: This is the solo.
ALEX: Alright, so... then you ran it through the thing and you figured out what it was.
PJ: We put it into Soundhound. No result.
PJ: But now we had like a real version of this song. We could go play for people. We could find somebody who recognized it.
I had this feeling like I was carrying almost a artifact. Like we had plucked this song from whatever late 90’s Napster graveyard it had been interred in, and it was our’s now, you know, it was like having a baby triceratops in my pocket. So I figured the best place to take this would be to music critics.
So I called Brendan Klinkenberg, he’s a senior editor at Rolling Stone.
PJ: Ok here we go.
BRENDAN: I do not know this song.
PJ: Ok .
BRENDAN: I'm sorry ..lemme...do you want me to grab some people like in a conference room?
PJ: Yes, oh my god, yes please!
BRENDAN: There’s a bunch of people who would be better suited to have heard this.
PJ: Oh my god, thank you so much.
Brendan was referring to the fact that he's 28, there are a lot of critics at Rolling Stone who are older than 28, so he grabbed 5 of them, he said between them there was over 100 years of pop music writing experience in one room.
Someone at Rolling Stone: You’re talking to the Rolling Stone braintrust...and we were young in this time period and listening to a lot of modern music like this.
PJ: So I played it for them… nothing.
Rolling Stone people: No, no, nothing. Not at all. Not ringing any bells.
They thought that because they didn’t recognize the song, it actually meant the song probably didn't exist.
Rolling Stone: That’s either a super elaborate prank or...
Something’s very strange here, something’s off in the, something’s off—
What do we know about the guy... is he telling the truth?
Does he work for a viral marketing company?
PJ: Their honest-to-god best guess was that this was a hoax. That Tyler was just lying to me. But I believed Tyler. So I went for a second opinion. I called Jessica Hopper. She's a legendary music critic, she used to edit Pitchfork, she ran MTV News.
PJ: Alright, here we go.
PJ: Do you recognize this at all?
JESSICA: Part of it.
JESSICA: The like, the like dibdibadiba
JESSICA HOPPER: This song probably exists, where did he live?
PJ: He lived in Arizona, he lived in suburban Arizona and he said he only listened to the radio and not cool radio.
JESSICA: Mmm..mm..MMM. I love this challenge. This is weird. It was a man singing.
JESSICA: And it was a rock band…
PJ: So the one other place that he found it on the internet when he looked, there was a post on a stratocaster guitar forum. And that guy was in Trinidad and Tobago.
JESSICA: It’s a major label record.
PJ: Major label record.
JESSICA: Yeah, ‘cause there’s no indie record that would have literally gotten around the world to weird places like that. It would have had to be something that was a charting hit.
PJ: But then if it’s a charting hit, how is it not on the internet?
JESSICA: This is a real Bermuda Triangle situation—
JESSICA: They’ve both sailed through this song. Oh my god. Ok. Can you send me a copy of this song?
PJ: Yes absolutely.
PJ: So next person I tried was… I emailed Robert Christgau...you know who Robert Christgau is? [Alex: Yeah.] Like dean of American pop music where he's like––
ALEX: Wait, you you contacted Robert Christgau about this?
PJ: I emailed Robert Christgau about it. I was like, he's heard every pop song since 1967. So he told me to email him the song, which I did, and he said “You know actually the person who would really know this is Rob Sheffield.”
PJ: Which is the same thing the Rolling Stone editors had said. Everybody seems to agree that Rob Sheffield is the human encyclopedia of forgotten pop music. He would definitely know it.
ROB: When it comes to terrible music from the vault of collective cultural memory, I’m the janitor with a broom. [laughs]
PJ: [laughs] Can I play you this mess?
PJ: Is this ringing any bell?
ROB: Uh, no. It’s not ringing any bells at all. I’d love to, to hear just a bit of it again.
PJ: Yeah let me play it again for you.
ROB: Thank you.
ROB: Something I picked up that I didn't pick up the, the first time is the reference to, to Bettie Page pictures, which is like that’s-that’s-that’s-that’s super specific. That’s definitely late 90s. That’s definitely not early 90s. I, you know, I would, I would bet, not a limb, I’d bet a toe that it’s 1997-99.
PJ: What do I do?
Rob: Have you tried just like walking from town to town with a ukelele? Knocking on doors?
PJ: [laughs] That feels like the punishment. That feels like my sentence.
PJ: So this is the point where my obsessive brain just really dug its teeth in because despite all this work, not only was I no closer to finding the song, the song was winning. It had wormed itself into my brain so terribly. I actually realized, it’s been decades since I heard a pop song that I couldn’t just immediately look up online to get out of my head. And it was like, in the meantime, my brain’s defenses had atrophied.
Like, during the day, it was kind of fine. Like I’d walk around humming the song. I’d see people in the hallways and sing lyrics to them. It was at night that it got really bad. I’d go home, I’d eat dinner, I’d get in bed, and I’d just lie there. Staring at the ceiling. The guitar solo, just 17 seconds of music, looping in my head for hours. Like till literally 3AM.
[PJ MISERABLY SINGING]
PJ: I have an obsessive brain. I’m used to obsessing over things. This was uniquely bad. It was just a melody. A melody and this question, which was starting to feel frankly infuriating. “How on God's green earth can you have a hit radio song that actually just gets vaporized from history?”
And it wasn’t just me, like one of these nights I got a text from Christian, the singer. He was also awake, also humming it to himself.
CHRISTIAN: do do do do do do [singing song]
PJ: Your brain is broken the way my brain is broken.
CHRISTIAN: It’s like Tyler has like a contagious disease. He’s patient zero. And now, I… we all have it.
CHRISTIAN: I talked to Jay and Max who played on that session. I guess they had dinner the other night specifically to talk about this song. Cause they both are having the same thing we’re having — can’t get it out of their heads. They’re like what, something so familiar about this.
PJ: Wait they met up to have dinner just to talk about the song?
PJ: That makes me feel so much less alone.
CHRISTAIN: Man I really hope that you figure this out.
PJ: I know.
So at this point I escalated things. I decided, I’d been going about this all wrong. The song hadn’t gotten to a point where music critics themselves cared about it. So who was somebody who the song would have mattered to back when it came out?
And the only name I could really come up with was Steven Page. Steven Page was the former frontman of the Barenaked Ladies.
ALEX: [laughs] Okay.
PJ: Cause my thinking was, everybody keeps saying the verse of our mystery song, sounds like the verse of “One Week” —
[“One Week” plays]
If I was the frontman for the band that sang “One Week,” I would notice the songs that were very similar to my hit song. So I called Steven.
PJ: Hey Steven, how's it going?
Steven: I'm great, how are you?
PJ: I'm good. I'm calling you for a weird reason.
PJ: So Steven was the lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies when they were doing songs like “If I Had A Million Dollars”… Goofy pop songs that sold millions of records. So first things first, I played him the song.
PJ: Ok here you go.
Steven: I, there are elements in that that are very Barenaked Ladies, and they're little things like, there's the flute part, like when we had a song “Who Needs Sleep” that had a flute thing in it like that. And then like the, in the chorus there's that duh duh duh duh in the guitar which is like very Barenaked Ladies. But that stuff is more Barenaked Ladies to me than the song itself. The song itself makes me go “Oh, that’s what people thought we sounded like.”
PJ: Oh wow.
Steven: Yeah. [laughs]
So Steven did not recognize the song. But, he was actually able to help me with the mystery, that question of like, how does a pop song just disappear? He said that, as someone who was actually in the late 90s music scene, this completely made sense to him.
PJ: Can you imagine the band that would have written this song?
STEVEN: Oh yeah, there was an era there in that, like whatever, ‘97 to 2002, where there were bands, largely who'd grown up in the bar scene, who had this kind of mix of like the history of being a cover band who then morphed into a band who had originals. And at that point, that was the absolute peak of the the record industry, 1998 to 2000.
PJ: What do you mean?
STEVEN: That was when the record business made the most money in the history of the record business.
STEVEN: It was the bubble, it was-it was-the—the real estate bubble or the dot com bubble of the music business.
PJ: The way Steven described it, all this money pouring in — it was actually unsafe for musicians. Because it meant the labels were just in full speculation mode, they were treating the bands like penny stocks.
STEVEN: So they were signing bands left right and center.
PJ: Interesting. So it was like—so it was totally an era that would support somebody who pops up, does one thing, and then you never hear from them again.
STEVEN: Yeah. It's also possible too that sometimes these bands would have a song or two that they would test on some radio stations, and they'd never get the record deal. Or they'd get the record deal and the album would never come out—
PJ: Wait, what?
STEVEN: Cause the song wasn't—yeah it'd be kind of like, you know demoing the stuff—they'd be doing a test market. Doing some research, they would call it. Doing research on a record.
PJ: So you'd, you’d write the single, you'd record the single, it'd get mixed, engineered, it would get played on the radio and if people didn't respond to it in like, Flagstaff, Arizona, it just disappeared?
STEVEN: Sometimes that was the case. or the record would come out and not get any promotion. But stuff might seem, like seem like it's a hit when it's—you just happened to be hearing it a few times while it was being tested in your market.
PJ: That's so strange. God for those bands it must have been so hard. Like—
STEVEN: Oh god I know so many bands, so many great bands too who, you know, record, were in debt up to their ears with the record company and the record company would either not put the record out eventually or they'd put it out and dump it and they'd get dropped and then they'd be seen as a band that got dropped and it was hard to get second chances then.
ALEX: So this band could have been one of those.
PJ: It is fully possible this song was played on the radio, but never actually released. Which would explain why it never made it onto the internet.
PJ: This was the first person I spoke to who actually had a working theory for how Tyler could’ve heard this song a million times on the radio, but then also the song just disappeared. And Steven had an idea for how to find the song.
ALEX: Which is?
PJ: He said what we had to do is try to go find a radio program director who worked in the late 90s.Record labels were bombarding them with singles. They were the ones who heard everything. So I played tried that, played the song for Preston Elliot from Y100, and-
PRESTON ELLIOT: [laughing] Ahh. Uh that's got a real distinctive melody to it with the, with the flute playing there and it would definitely stand out to me if I knew that, you know? Because that's a really dorky sounding song I think that I would absolutely recognize it. (PJ laughs and sighs)
PJ: So, Preston had never heard this song. He was absolutely sure.
But that was okay, because there was one more avenue to try. It was actually Christian’s idea, the singer from the band.
CHRISTIAN: It might be worth reaching out to like producers from the time.
PJ: Ohhh cause probably like there was like one producer who did like half of these guys' albums.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, probably. And usually when you have a band that like is either trying to sound like another band or whatever, they would always try to—like that guy. I think his name was Jerry—but he produced all the Blink 182 stuff and every band that sounded like Blink 182 is like, let's get this guy to record.
CHRISTIAN: And maybe there's that equivalent of that for the Barenaked Ladies.
It turns out there is her name is Susan Rogers
SUSAN ROGERS: Hi! That was weird.
PJ: What's going on? Did it answer funny?
SUSAN: Oh well first there was dead silence, and then there was a tone that sounded like a complex tone that was kinda rising in pitch?
PJ: You hear everything musically.
SUSAN: [laughs] I don't know about that
PJ: Well at least you hear things more musically than I do.
SUSAN : Oh ok.
PJ: So Susan Rogers, along with David Leonard did the bulk of the Barenaked Ladies production, and I played her the song.
PJ: Does it ring a bell?
PJ: So she didn’t remember it, but she had a totally different theory.
I have a strong suspicion that what he’s hearing in his brain is a hybrid… that it might feature a verse from Barenaked Ladies and a chorus, chorus from something else. When the brain is forming memories, it has to take a pattern of neural activity… and it has to tag that pattern...with this protein...but that pattern is pretty darn fragile.
PJ: Okay, so a thing I should have mentioned about Susan. She actually left the music industry to pursue a career in academia, she knows a ton about cognition, how the brain works. But her theory that this is actually a false memory for Tyler, that it’s two songs that he’s fusing together...that’s actually a theory mostly based in her days as a music producer. She told me a story about working in the studio.
Susan: I remember one time, Prince was uh, we were at rehearsal and he was at the piano and takin’ a break and he's just noodling around with something and he he he liked it. The thing he was noodling around with and he looked up and he says, “That's really nice, did I write that?” [PJ: Huh] You know, he didn't, he wasn't sure. He liked it and he wasn't sure if it was one of his or not.
Before Prince I worked with Crosby, Stills, and Nash and I’ll never forget this. I walked into the studio one morning after they had been up all night working on a track and the engineer was just putting it away so I heard the track. It was just instrumental at this point and I said, “Oh, I love that song.” And Nash looked at me, and he said, “What song?”
SUSAN: And I said, “The one you’re playing right now — Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
PJ: Oh no.
SUSAN: And he said, “Uh, we just wrote that and recorded it last night.” [PJ laughs] And I went, “No you didn’t because it’s on the radio.”
PJ: So Susan’s point is even professional musicians can mix up whether they’re writing a song or remembering a song. And she thinks Tyler just made the opposite mistake. Like, he thought he was remembering a song, actually he was taking like chunks of songs he half remembered and writing a new song with them.
PJ: Is there something, musically, do you hear the song and it sounds like— what about the song makes you think it could be two songs crossed together musically?
SUSAN: It doesn’t really, doesn’t really sound like a single.
SUSAN: The radio was so damn competitive in the 90s. You had to be damn good. And it sounds like the kind of song that would have made the grade as a nice album cut, but…I kinda suspect, my strong hunch is that that song is an invention.
PJ: Susan’s theory both made sense and sent me into a total tailspin. Cuz at this point I realized the song is an earworm, it’s stuck in my head …but it's an earworm that can never be removed because to get rid of a song that's stuck in your head, you have to listen to the song and we have a melody to a song that might just not exist.
ALEX: This is actually my worst nightmare.
PJ: And honestly, I'd been walking around for weeks thinking how unusual and interesting it was that Tyler, a non-musician, had a sort of, almost photographic memory for a pop song that he had not heard since he was in high school. Susan's explanation for what was actually going on, it made a lot more sense.
ALEX: Sure but that still doesn't explain our guy in Trinidad and Tobago.
PJ: That is what I thought. So I actually, I went back to the Stratocaster forum, I went back to that post, and there's two things. One: Piezoman actually did not post very many of the lyrics to the song, he had that opening melody and then he had like two lyrics, really. So it was fully possible that Tyler had composited the—
ALEX: Part of the song that he remembered—
PJ: With something else.
PJ: But the other thing I noticed is in his original post is that Piezoman actually mentions posting questions about the song on Facebook. And so I was like "Oh, I should try to find that Facebook post." Cuz the whole time I’d been searching for the song, Tyler had been searching for the song, everybody had been searching for the song, we’d been searching the song on Google. Nobody had looked on Facebook. So I start plugging lyrics into Facebook, and I get a hit. A hit that leads me to the first person I’ve ever played this song for who actually recognized it.
EVAN: [laughs] [song playing]
Evan: Wow they did that all from memory?
EVAN: Wow man, I thought everyone forgot about that song.
PJ: So this is Evan Scott Olson. The reason he remembers the song is, he wrote the song.
ALEX: Fucking get out of here!
PJ: [laughs] So when I did that Facebook search, I never found Piezo Man, but I found this other post from a guy in the Philippines who’d posted the entire lyrics to the song like everything Tyler remembered—the verse, the chorus, actually a little bit more—and this guy, at the bottom of his post, helpfully identified the singer. Do you want to know how Evan ended up writing a hit pop song that disappeared from the internet?
ALEX: Of course I do.
PJ: So, Evan’s from Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 30 years old when he wrote the song and he said it basically popped into his head.
Evan: Songs like that that kinda fall into your lap, you know are totally an organic experience, they kinda just grow and grow and I wanted something that was, you know really pop-oriented and I wanted to create something that had a really catchy beat.
The song that just sprung from Evan’s head, he called it “So Much Better”.
ALEX: Uh huh.
PJ: Who were you listening to at the time? Who were your influences musically?
EVAN: I think, I think at the time, I've been listening to a lot of U2, you can probably hear that—
PJ: Yeah, I can hear it in the chorus.
EVAN: Yeah, yeah. So, so that's probably where that came from. But um, again, like I was listening to and there was a band, and I can't remember the name of the band, but it was kind of like an industrial band that had really syncopated vocals. [rhythmic vocals] And I just can't remember the name of the band but I was listening to a lot of stuff like that.—
PJ: The verses to me sounded like Barenaked Ladies.
EVAN: See, I never thought about that.
EVAN: I never, I'd never, I never really got into them.
PJ: so i was very surprised to learn that Evan actually made this song completely alone. And once he was done he sent it to this company that would print CDs for you. And when he would play shows locally, he would just give the CDs out for free.
PJ: The thing that happened next is the part that just feels like the embarrassing dream that every musician has that they don’t tell anybody. Which is, out of the blue, he gets a phone call from this guy who says, “Hey, I work for Universal Music [Alex: Oh wow], the largest music label in the world” [Alex: Uh huh]. They send a Lincoln town car to his house.
Evan: First of all, I live in Greensboro North Carolina, it's like a medium sized town, it's not a big town, but they send this town car, this really nice town car with this driver. Really cool guy, just telling me stories and talkin up a storm and so I get to the, I get to the plane and I’m in first class, and then I get off the plane and you know how people hold up signs with your name on ‘em you know?
PJ: No one has ever done that for me.
EVAN: There’s a guy with a sign with my name on it and he takes me to the hotel, and I get into this big huge suite and you know, how do you, how do you absorb that kind of experience I dunno.
PJ: Evan says he kept thinking, “This song is really quirky, are they sure it’s gonna be a hit?” But it didn’t matter, the whole thing was like a fever dream. He gets whisked into this meeting with Doug Morris, legendary label exec at the time, he ran Universal Music.
EVAN: I walked in there and he says you like ice cream? And I said yea I love ice cream and then he said something into this monitor on his desk [PJ: What?] and then this beautiful like 6 foot tall ... I guess it was his secretary I dunno, but she comes out with this tray of ice cream, no check this out, like coconut amazing like coconut flavored ice cream that’s like organic coconut flavored ice cream in martini glasses. And I, and I sit there and I eat ice cream with Doug Morris and there’s a rapper called Juvenile?
PJ: Yeah I know Juvenile.
EVAN: And he had a song called ‘Back That Azz Up’?
PJ: Yeah I know ‘Back That Azz Up’.
EVAN: First time I was in Doug Morris’s office, he played me that song.
[JUVENILE SONG PLAYS]
EVAN: I thought, wow this makes my song look really stupid. It was just funny cause Doug Morris was at that time was probably in his 60s and he was really digging this song.
Evan: And next thing I know I was signing a record contract-- it all kinda happened so fast. It was really unbelievable.
ALEX: That’s ridiculous.
PJ: Yeah, but it’s like as soon as he signs that contract, things go downhill. They actually go downhill in a way that really reminded me of everything Steven from Barenaked Ladies had said. First, they don’t do what you’d expect -- they don’t re-record the album, like in a real studio, with a full band?
ALEX: They just released his-
PJ: They literally took the thing he’d made and started sending it to radio stations.
PJ: The label did officially put the record out, but they basically buried it. There was no national tour, there’s no real money for promotion. Evan says he actually remembers the moment where he realized what was happening.
EVAN: They have these drop dates where they put the record out, and it’s always on a Tuesday. At least it was back then, it was always on a Tuesday. And the original drop date Septemer 9th or something like that, I can’t remember exactly. And the first red flag was when they said, oh we’re moving the drop date. And I just knew that something was up. They were talking all about business and all about radio spins and all about not getting enough radio spins in this place and I’m not getting enough in that place and you know, is it gonna sell over here and then Evan we need you to call some people to see if you can get a spark going in this area.
PJ: They wanted you to call radio stations and tell them--
EVAN: They wanted me to call radio stations, they wanted me to call friends to see if I could get you know…and I ended up, this is, this is really crazy but I ended up paying, sending a check to a friend of mine in New York and saying I need you to go out— and his name’s Gary. I said “Gary I need you to go out to the that big record store.” What was it called?
PJ: Tower Records?
EVAN: Virgin. Virgin Records. I said “Here’s a check, I want you to put it in your account and I want you to go out and just buy handfuls of the CD, just every record store you could find and just buy handfuls of CDs.” And he did. And um but it wasn’t enough to, to, to keep it going.
PJ: And did you, at the time, did you feel disappointed that it didn't turn into the bigger thing?
EVAN: I felt, I felt bad, because I felt like I had let them down because they were they were really expecting it to you know, be a big hit song. And I just felt kind of guilty. Because, was it something— because I started to think that maybe just because I didn't record it in a real big studio, I did it in my bedroom you know, maybe if I had gone in and done a huge, big recording of it, or at least gotten it remixed, you know? I don't know.
PJ: I think it's weird that you feel like you disappointed them, because what it sounds like is they were like, let's just try it.
EVAN: Yeah, like they're throwing spaghetti against the wall and just see if it sticks, you know.
PJ: But you’re the spaghetti.—
EVAN: Yeah, exactly.
PJ: So, after the label dropped him, Evan just returned to his normal life in Greensboro. He says he went back to just playing local shows, mostly covers. But he says he’s happy, like he’s a professional musician, he gets to write songs for TV and movies, and he says actually, without “So Much Better,” he doesn’t think he would’ve had have the confidence to have a career in music.
ALEX: So when can we get a copy of the song?
PJ: Oh he emailed it to me. Let me play it for you.
[Song plays a little bit]
PJ: It’s a [indistinct]
ALEX: The drums are way heavier too.
PJ: That’s all Evan.
ALEX: Tyler remembered this extraordinarily well.
PJ: Of course, I also played it for Tyler
TYLER: My heart is pounding. This is crazy.
TYLER: Wow. (PJ: yeah) Holy shit. (PJ: Yeah) It’s a great song
PJ: I also played it for Christian, the singer.
CHRISTIAN: Oh my god. Oh my god, how did he remember that?
TYLER: I’m gonna immediately, when we're off the phone, listen to the song on repeat.
ALEX: That's awesome.
Evan Scott Olson, if you want to see him live, he plays every Wednesday night at Printworks Bistro in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tyler’s planning on going this spring. And, Tyler said, he’s gonna personally add the lyrics to “So Much Better” to the internet where they belong.