Back on Badstreet Filmmakers Reflect on the Song That Made Wrestling Rock
When you think about it, wrestling isn't a sport where athletic prowess wins the day. It's all about presentation, style and keeping the crowd at a certain level of enthusiastic insanity. It's like ribbon dancing but with more machismo, less clothes and a better storyline.
It's also a sport of trends. The staples of the sport have been passed down from generation to generation dating back to one pioneering warrior who dared to pull off the first suplex or sneak a folding chair into the ring behind the ref's back. The theme song is one such trend that started in Dallas with a wrestler named Michael P.S. Hayes as a way to introduce his group The Fabulous Freebirds. Prior to 1984, the wrestling leagues used pop and rock songs as the warrior call for their wrestlers to enter the arena until the people who started demanding royalties for such songs asked them to stop.
"I remember when wrestlers used to come out just to rock songs," says Keith Alcorn, co-writer and co-director of the new documentary Back on Badstreet. "The Freebirds came out to Freebird by Lynyrd Skynrd and the Von Erichs, who were their biggest rivals, would come to Strangehold by Ted Nugent or Tom Sawyer for some weird reason by Rush. I guess because it was a modern day warrior thing."
Hayes decided to just make his own song in 1984 called "Badstreet USA" to serve as his theme and enlisted the help of musicians Larry Velez and Jimmy Papa to write, record and perform it. "Badstreet USA" not only became an underground hit but it was popular enough in the wrestling circuit that it made original theme songs a must for every Speedo-wearing body slammer who followed in his footsteps. Alcorn and Steve Barnes wrote and directed a documentary chronicling the trendsetting song in a new documentary called Back on Backstreet that will be screened during the Dallas VideoFest at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson.
Alcorn and Barnes both work as animators and got their start in the business together before moving on to other projects such as the Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius where Alcorn directed several episodes throughout the 2000s. They also attended Irving High School where Alcorn met and knew Jimmy Papa, son of legendary drummer Tony Papa.
"Keith knew Jimmy and I knew Keith so I got invited into the circle by Keith talking to me about some documentary work," Barnes says. "The reason I wanted to get involved and this may sound kind of silly but I haven't worked with Keith in a long time. So I was excited to be invited into this project. We worked together for 30 years ago and went our own ways and he got in touch with me through a student of mine."
Both watched wrestling as kids, although Barnes admits that Alcorn was more into it than he was back then.
"Even back 30 years ago, Keith was still very much enamored with wrestling and enjoyed it," Barnes says. "He used to take animator friends to the Sporatorium and he would invite me but it wasn't that much interesting to me. Now 30 years later, I wish I had gone."
Alcorn and Papa met up again sometime later and Alcorn says that Papa loved to tell bizarre, hilarious stories about his days working with Hayes' band and the tours that followed after they wrote and recorded Badstreet USA.
"We talked about this for several years," Alcorn says. "We talked about Badstreet and that's kind of his legacy, him writing this song with Michael Hayes and performing it and going on tour. We'd talk about it and talk about it and finally said it's been about 30 years since he did this song. We should do a film because the anniversary is coming up. So we started looking through pictures and videotapes and he has this enormous collection of stuff. All the footage in the film came from him and since it's the 30th anniversary, we thought we have to do it."
Papa has a very prevalent role in the movie as the official storyteller of the behind the scenes goings-on as the song gained popularity and helped earn Hayes a mini-following as a wrestler and a singer. The stories and events are so off-the-wall that it shaped the documentary's zany, comic style filled with goofy animations and comments that frame the story of the song, Barnes says.
"Jimmy has about 1,000 stories and I thought as I was starting to get to know the Freebirds, I thought of a lot of comic images," Barnes says. "I couldn't help it. Jimmy's a pretty visual talker himself and he would tell these strange stories. I couldn't help but imagine funny ways to renact the stories or do it with a funny bit of some kind. Jimmy will never let you down about information."
One of the stories and re-enactments that didn't make it into the final cut centered around one of Jimmy's whacked-out girlfriends who worked as a valet in Hayes' entourage and tried to beat him up while they filmed the video for Badstreet USA. Alcorn says he got a brilliant idea to reenact it with puppets.
"Jimmy felt like 'I don't know if I want this moment acted out by puppets' and we took it out," Alcorn says.
The legacy of the song and the sordid, strange events that followed its success drive the meat of the film. Barnes says the song was a perfect fit for the man belting out the tune and its success made other wrestlers
"In my opinion, it was one of those magic moments for these guys because first of all, Michael Hayes is a charasmatic person and he was absolutely the talker of the Freebirds," Barnes says. "The other guys were quiet and skilled wrestlers. In my opinion, Hayes was a very skilled speaker. He also had moves and he could dance. He was already prancing around and acitng like a peacock so his personality and his voice and I wouldn't say he's a Perry Como or a skilled voice but he has a very gruff, sandpaper voice for this song. Then guitar player Larry Valez wrote this great licks for this song and it was just perfect for this moment."
Alcorn also credits the song's success to Hayes' dogged pursuits as a wrestler and a singer, even if that singing voice was gruff and scratchy enough to grind precious minerals.
"He was a great promoter," Alcorn says. "He talked about it all the time and when he would go from one wrestling federation to the other, that song went with him where ever he want and he was a great frontman for it. He's a great talker and maybe because it was the first that stuck, it's still one of the more popular wrestler entrance songs of all time."
See the film on the big screen duringDallas VideoFest at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.