Primitive Radio Gods is essentially Chris O'Connor, who wrote, produced, sang, and played all the instruments on "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand." The song is rather mysterious, as is Chris. Most of what's known about him comes from a 2015 Songfacts interview
, where he told his story. When asked what the song is about, he replied: "A light that never goes out."
The hook samples the line, "I've been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met" from a live performance of B.B. King singing "How Blue Can You Get?," which can be heard on his 1971 album Live in Cook County Jail. That song was written by a British songwriter/music journalist named Leonard Feather, along with his wife Jane. They each shared composer credits on "Phone Booth" as a result of the sample.
This song was written and first recorded in 1991 by Chris O'Connor. His band The I-Rails spent the back half of the '80s playing gigs around Santa Monica, California, releasing four independent albums along the way. When they broke up in 1991, O'Connor used his friend's garage studio to record the Rocket album, which cost about $1,000 to make and was filled with songs dealing with his disaffection. Predictably, he got no takers and the album sat on the shelf.
O'Connor abandoned his music career and took a job as an air traffic controller at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1994, his passion for music returned, so he pressed 500 CDs of the album and sent them to independent record labels college radio stations. These unsolicited discs rarely found the ears of a decision-maker, but Jonathan Daniel, an A&R man at Fiction Records, popped it in and gave it a listen. "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth" jumped out at him - "It's got tons of atmosphere" he recalled. Daniel played the CD for some other executives, and O'Connor got a deal with the Ergo division of Columbia Records, which released the album as Primitive Radio Gods - a far more exotic moniker than "Chris O'Connor."
Released in 1996, "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth" went to #1 on the Modern Rock charts and got considerable airplay on Top 40 radio. Needing a band to tour in support of the record, O'Connor enlisted his I-Rails bandmates, guitarist Jeff Sparks and drummer Tim Lauterio, to become the Primitive Radio Gods along with lead guitarist Luke McAuliffe. Sparks quit his day job - driving a beer truck - to join the band.
The title, which does not appear in the lyric, comes from a 1978 song by Bruce Cockburn called "Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand," which is on Cockburn's album Further Adventures Of. Chris O'Connor told us: "I had already finished the song and thought, 'That's It.' I threw 'standing' in front, but at the time I would have swore I lifted it word for word."
Originally, this song was released in Europe, where it failed to chart. In America, before the album was released, the song was used in the 1996 Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy, which made it more appealing to radio stations loath to play songs by unknown artists.
In America, the song was not released as a single, so if you wanted to own it, you had to buy either the Rocket album or The Cable Guy soundtrack. Holding back release as a single made the song ineligible for the Billboard Hot 100, but it went to #10 on their Airplay chart.
"Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth" is one of the more unusual hit songs ever recorded, complete with church bells, distortion, soft synth, a title that never appears in the lyrics, and a very brief chorus of "Do do do do do do."
When the band toured, it was on the strength of this hit, but the other songs in their setlist were more standard guitar-based blues. This discrepancy didn't play well live, and the band couldn't expand their following. One more single was distributed to radio stations: a track called "Motherf--ker." That one went nowhere, and the band was dropped from their label. In 2000, they resurfaced with a new album called White Hot Peach
; In 2020, they released their "last and final" album
, which is untitled.
The female vocals are by Mary Kay Fishell, who was in a Los Angeles-based group called The Convertibles.
When Chris O'Connor created this song in 1991, he didn't think it would ever be released. Along with the rest of the Rocket album, he made it to teach himself how to use a sampling keyboard. When it became a hit five years later, he felt like a fish out of water. Promoting the song was "one part Spinal Tap, one part deer in the headlights, and one part good old fashioned bloodletting," he told Songfacts.
O'Connor soured on the industry and went out with a blaze of glory. "Out of a 30-year period of writing and recording, my music industry rape lasted about a year, in which all relationships and bridges were burned, so my experience is too limited to warrant anything resembling a polished turd of wisdom," he said. "I can, however, leave you with this famous quote from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: 'The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.'"
The band name Primitive Radio Gods came from a song by O'Connor's previous band, the I-Rails. Explaining why he used that name instead of his own, he told Songfacts: "I'd rather use new words to define myself than something I had no choice in, and find boring and unoriginal. Since I first got into recording songs (which began with a 4-track cassette tape recorder), part of the process that made it fun was picking a new band name and album title to group the songs in. As for my ego, while very dependable in some areas, it has never helped me get on a stage. I've always relied on intoxication for that."
An early version of this song contained a sample from the 1965 French film Alphaville which had to be removed when the sample didn't clear.
Directed by the GobTV collective, the music video was shot in London. Chris O'Connor was still working as an air traffic controller at the time, and called in sick three times so he could do the shoot. It did very well on MTV, which helped the song's fortunes considerably.