We explore how Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ became a pop classic over a quarter of a century after its release
Some songs are masterpieces, some represent moments in time, and others are simply good jams. Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” is all three. The song is over 25 years old now but its popularity has never waned, taking on a new life in the countless cover versions by indie and alternative acts over the years. Everyone from Mac DeMarco to Tori Amos has had a stab at covering the song, and in the past 12 months alone you might’ve heard James Vincent McMorrow’s forlorn version soundtracking a Game of Thrones trailer, Ursine Vulpine’s cinematic reimagining accompanying a video game teaser, and a stripped-back take by Lydia Ainsworth appearing on her recent album Darling of the Afterglow. Writing about the track for its 25th birthday last year, Stereogum’s Ryan Leas christened the song as an “unlikely new standard” in contemporary pop songwriting.
But how did a forgotten album cut get such an esteemed status? And why can’t we let go?
The story behind “Wicked Game” lives up to the infamous softcore porn-meets-film noir music video that would later accompany it – as Isaak puts it, the song was inspired by a booty call. “I remember that a girl had called me and said, ‘I want to come over and talk to you,’ and ‘talk’ was a euphemism,” he’s explained. “And she said, ‘I want to come over and talk to you until you're no longer able to stand up.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you’re coming over.’ And as soon as I hung up I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I know she’s gonna be trouble. She’s always been trouble. She’s a wildcat. And here I am, I’m going to get killed, but I’m doing this.’ … By the time she came over to the house, I had the song written. And I I think she was probably upset because I was more excited by the song.”
Nailing a studio version took a little longer. After various attempts to record it, “Wicked Game” ended up as an album track on Isaak’s 1989 Heart Shaped World. Bass and drum tracks were sampled from earlier takes, while Isaak softly sang with speakers rather than headphones to get the desired vocal effect. The song’s distinctive aching, delayed riff came courtesy of guitarist James Wilsey, who pretty much became known as James ‘Wicked Game’ Wilsey from there on. To promote the album, Isaak and his band undertook a national tour and released “Don’t Make Me Dream About You” as a lead single, both of which were a moderate success.
Then, David Lynch got in touch. The cult filmmaker had been a fan of Isaak’s for a long time (he’d previously used his songs “Gone Ridin’” and “Livin’ For Your Lover” in his classic Blue Velvet), and while working on Wild at Heart, he asked for a copy of the Heart Shaped World master tapes. Lynch mined the tapes for like “10 or 15 minutes” of material for the film, according to Wilsey, eventually using an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” for one of the film’s pivotal scenes. After seeing Wild at Heart in 1990, Atlanta radio programmer Lee Chestnut tracked down the original version of the song and started to give it prominent airtime, resulting in a swell of local support. The renewed interest in “Wicked Game” prompted Isaak’s label to release it as a standalone single – the only thing it needed was a music video.
Enter fashion photographer-cum-music video director Herb Ritts. At the time, Ritts was notorious mostly for his photography work with Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and other a-list celebrities. In the music industry, he was the mind behind the provocative photo campaign for Olivia Newton-John’s Physical. The music video for “Wicked Game” would be his masterpiece. (In fact, there were two videos for “Wicked Game” – David Lynch himself helmed one, but it’s Ritts’s visual that’s most well-known.)
“In song, (Chris Isaak) often pens himself as a tragic character of a bygone era while maintaining an out-of-era rockabilly look. It’s no wonder he was a perfect fit for David Lynch”
Ritts keeps it minimal. After casting supermodel Helena Christensen as Isaak’s love interest, he uses just a beach and a blue screen to construct his world. The action is limited in scope, but undeniable in effect: in a glossy black-and-white sheen, Isaak and Christensen intimately tumble around in the sand, never looking each other in the eye. Occasionally, it’s broken up with a close-up of Isaak’s head amongst blue-screened clouds. Heartbreak never looked so good. “I like the fact the fact that I don’t get the girl,” Isaak later recalled. “She’s not kissing me, she’s kind of ignoring me through the whole video, and that kind of matches the song, which is, you know ‘I’m in love with you, but you’re playing me.’”
It wasn’t long before the song was a top 10 hit on the Billboard charts, driving Heart Shaped World to triple-platinum sales. Different directors attempted to recapture the chemistry of Ritts’s video in their own work by using “Wicked Game” for countless big and small screen appearances over the years. It was featured on some of the biggest sitcoms of the 1990s, from Beverly Hills 90210 to Melrose Place to Friends (the latter of which cemented its status as the TV love song, soundtracking Ross and Rachel’s long-awaited planetarium pash). Forgotten films like Billy Baldwin crime drama The Preppie Murder and road comedy Leaving Normal both used it. And after Wild at Heart, it turned up in a further two Nicolas Cage vehicles, The Family Man and Matchstick Men. Moving into the late 1990s and early 2000s, the song experienced an unlikely resurgence in the alternative rock scene that sprung up after grunge, with groups such as HIM, Stone Sour, and Three Days Grace all recording melodramatic takes on the track. Even so, its true resurgence wouldn’t come until the following decade.
In 2011, a network of music blogs helped a fresh batch of “Wicked Game” admirers come to light. There were cover versions from artists like ‘chillwave’ pioneer Washed Out and Brooklyn indie act Widowspeak that year, while a certain Lizzy Grant reintroduced herself to the world as Lana Del Rey with “Video Games”, a lamenting tale of tragic love ridden with a similar title, chord structure, and sense of vengeance as Isaak’s classic. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon took this one step further, later dubbing Lana Del Rey “the female Chris Isaak”. There were other thematic similarities in the then-mysterious R&B singer The Weeknd’s own “Wicked Games”, which gained an unofficial video that comes across as a sinister cousin to Herb Ritts’s beach flaunt.
It’s hard to say why the sound and aesthetic of “Wicked Game” came back into fashion at that time, but it’s possible that it’s down to The xx. The fresh-faced London trio had released their debut album xx two years earlier, exhibiting a spacious, lush sound that would go on to reconfigure the wider pop landscape, most notably in bands like London Grammar. The xx liberally channelled “Wicked Game” on their own “Infinity” in 2009, and posed for promotional photos straight out of the Heart Shaped World-era lookbook – it’s easy to see how this could have indirectly initiated a wave of Chris Isaak fever. But if “Infinity” was The xx paying homage to Chris Isaak, then London Grammar’s cover of “Wicked Game” is their homage to The xx via Chris Isaak. The band described their choice of cover as “obvious” given that their music was “sonically not that dissimilar” to Isaak’s: “There’s a lot of space in the record.”
One of the appeals of “Wicked Game” is that, vocally, it’s a great way to show off (or, if you’re Mac DeMarco, take the piss out of) your own voice. The painful falsetto might be out or reach for some people, but it’s inspired many others. Toronto singer Lydia Ainsworth described to us how covering the song helped her focus on conveying emotions through voice alone while recording her second album Darling of the Afterglow, describing “Wicked Game” as “incredibly direct with its message” and “raw and exposed with emotionality... vulnerability is a feeling we can all relate to.” Another unlikely Isaak acolyte, Metallica vocalist James Hetfield, cited Isaak’s vocal performance as the push he needed to bring his voice to the fore during the recording sessions for the Black Album.
Elsewhere, HIM lead singer Ville Valo described how the song’s distinctive production captures both an “Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison sentimentality and otherworldly melancholy.” It’s a sentiment echoed by James Vincent McMorrow, whose cover soundtracked the season six trailer for Game of Thrones. For him, the dualistic nature of the classic hit is both “sentimental” and “gritty... as hard as nails.” This sentimentality is something that Isaak has embraced throughout his career. In song, he often pens himself as a tragic character of a bygone era while maintaining an out-of-era rockabilly look. It’s no wonder he was a perfect fit for David Lynch: not only is he notoriously handsome with a killer quiff, he’s also damaged (Isaak’s distinctive nose betrays his brief boxing career) and a hopeless romantic. For all intents and purposes, he’s like Twin Peaks’ James Hurley, haplessly pursuing his own Laura Palmer. While football jock Bobby Briggs would seduce Palmer with his sheer studliness, Hurley’s approach is more lovelorn, all heart-shaped necklaces and home-recorded love songs. (Lynch clearly saw a space for Isaak in the Twin Peaks universe too, later casting him as the disappearing Agent Chester Desmond in its prequel feature Fire Walk With Me.) The following exchange between Hurley and Palmer says it all:
James: You always hurt the ones you love.
Laura: You mean the ones you pity.
“Wicked Game” captures this want of the wrong. It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do.