Today’s Best Springsteen Cover: Bill Murray, “Badlands”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Any song that Bill Murray sang as his SNL character Nick Ocean. the lounge singer, was golden. Whether it was the Star Wars theme, which he performed in his first skit ever as Nick, or “Let’s Get Physical,” “I Am The Walrus” or even “I Write The Songs,” all of which Ocean made his own, no performance was ever as viscerally funny as when he and Paul Shaffer performed Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” on the SNL 25th anniversary show.

Bill Murray

The occasion was several decades past Murray’s time as a cast-member. He joined the cast in their second season, replacing the show’s first star Chevy Chase, who had left the show in 1977 to move to L.A. and become a movie-star.

For many shows in his first year, Murray played “the second cop,” as he said – the humorless part in the SNL skits that got no laughs. Week after week he felt bad that he hadn’t established himself in any way.

“I was just dying on the vine,” he said. “Then somebody gave me this shower-soap thing in the shape of a microphone, and I took off with it and wrote this sketch.”

Except for Paul McCartney, in the role of smarmy singing Denis O’Bell from the comic Beatles epic, “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number),” nobody has ever mined as much comic gold as a bad lounge singer. Murray (AKA “the funniest man ever to come out of Wilmette, Illinois), played Nick Ocean 13 times; eleven on the regular show, and once for this, the 25th anniversary show in 1999, and again in 2005 for the 50th anniversary show.

Murray and Shaffer edited the song somewhat, removing the big pre-chorus and other parts to get to the chorus quickly (which is okay; this is comedy). They performed it in a slightly slower tempo than the record, but kept it in the original key: E major. 

In the SNL oral history, Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Miller, Bill Murray remembered the origins of Nick Ocean, and how he and Paul Shaffer engineered Nick’s big 1999 comeback.

Bill Murray & Paul Shaffer, “Badlands,” Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Show

BILL MURRAY: Paul Shaffer, Tom Davis, Marilyn Miller and I got together  to work on something for the show. We went to Paul’s apartment and spent like a couple days doing it. Danny [Aykroyd] came over.

It was like a party. Paul opened some really good wine. Somebody rolled a joint. It was hysterical. We just started telling stories, all the time thinking we don’t want this part of it to end. We were in no rush to write the sketch.

I wanted to do a Bruce Springsteen song. I just thought `Badlands’ was the right song.

And I was arguing with Marilyn. It’s great to argue with Marilyn; in the old days I didn’t get Marilyn. She used to argue so vociferously.  I used to think, `What a bitch this woman is.’ She’s sort of this Jewish princess with a literary bent, and it was always like, ‘I don’t even know how to talk to someone like this.’ 

And I would just say something like, `Marilyn you are wearing thigh-high boots. How the fuck am I supposed to take you seriously?’ That’s all I could say to her in my head. I couldn’t really argue with her about the point of it, because she didn’t get my point of view. She didn’t get me at that point. 

The mistake was always to argue with her about this thing. The right thing to do was always make her laugh. If you could make her laugh, then she could see that you knew what you were talking about, because if you were good enough to make her laugh, you must be funny. And it took me years to figure that out.

So we were arguing about `Badlands.’ There’s some lyric in `Badlands’ that’s really appropriate for what we did, for what we’d done. It wasn’t ‘Born To Run’ and just doing a classic song, which is what we always used to do. `Badlands’ was more about what our experience had been.  it’s really about us.

Paul was like, ‘Badlands’? And when we started singing the song, his eyes lit up and he got it. Marilyn was still arguing and Paul said, `It’s going to be `Badlands.’

Paul will listen to everything. He is a fantastic listener, but when he actually speaks he’s speaking because he knows the right answer.

So when he got it, it was like, ‘Great. Now we’re there.’ The writing of it and doing that as a group was really fun. I think we took five or six days to finish it.

Singing the harmony part with Paul to `Badlands’ on that show was one of the high points of my entire career. We hit the notes. We pushed  the hell out of it. We even put more lyrics in.  They wanted to cut lyrics and cut the time, and we said, `No, this is what we’re going to do,’ and everybody just got out of the way.

And when we did it and we nailed it, I thought, `Bruce Springsteen’s got to be liking this!’”


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