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Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ a Surprise Smash

Visionary film maker David Lynch and Atlanta radio music director Lee Chesnut make an odd couple. But they have one thing in common. Last fall they were probably the only two people in America who thought Chris Isaak’s moody “Wicked Game” was a hit song.

Today, 18 months after Isaak’s song was originally released--and seven months after Lynch put it in the soundtrack to his film “Wild at Heart"--"Wicked Game” has catapulted to No. 7 on the Billboard singles charts, and seems assured to go even higher. (See interview with Isaak on Page 63.)

How did this high ‘n’ lonesome ballad of unrequited love muscle its way into the Top 10 in an era where the singles charts are dominated by pop fluff and throbbing new jack swing?

It all began last September when Chesnut, the music director at Power 99, Atlanta’s key Top 40 station, finished seeing “Wild at Heart” for the third time.

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“Each time I went back I got more excited about this hypnotic instrumental song in the film,” he said. “The movie had already stiffed, but I found the soundtrack and went hunting for the song.

“I was really surprised when I discovered that (the soundtrack album version) had this incredibly cool vocal by Chris Isaak. I kept listening to it over and over in the office and finally told our program director, ‘Let’s put it on the radio for two days and see what happens.’ ”

The first time Power 99 played the song, the station’s phones lit up like crazy. Convinced the song was a hit, Chesnut began calling stations in Tucson, Memphis and Seattle, encouraging his radio pals to play the track. By November, so many radio stations were playing it that Isaak’s record label, Warner/Reprise Records, rushed out a promotional CD single.

Thanks to the success of “Wicked Game,” Isaak’s album, “Heart Shaped World,” which had barely cracked the charts in the summer of 1989, was speeding up the Hot 100. “Suddenly we had stations everywhere getting results,” said Gary Briggs, Reprise’s national album promotion manager. “Once we had some radio support, we were able to go to VH-1, who’d always liked Chris, and got them to start playing the video again.”

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Fueled by a hit single, Isaak’s “Heart Shaped World” album has passed the gold sales mark and is about to make a run at platinum status. Warners insiders say the album is so hot that it’s become the company’s No. 1 seller, currently outselling such in-house heavyweights as Madonna, Paul Simon, Damn Yankees and Jane’s Addiction.

More importantly, in a restrictive pop era where fewer and fewer songs cross over from one radio format to another, “Wicked Game” is a hot item with four different radio charts: Top 40, album-rock, alternative-rock and adult-contemporary.

“The only format we haven’t shipped the record to is country radio,” Briggs said. “And who knows, we might get a few of those stations before we’re through.”

What makes Isaak’s success especially striking is that it comes at a time when Top 40 radio is dominated by such featherweight dance-floor kings as Vanilla Ice, C&C; Music Factory and Will to Power. “We look for songs that are hits, whether they’re dance, rap or rock,” Chesnut said. “And when something sounds this fresh, and has a hook so strong that it stays with you--and haunts you--then that’s the sound of a hit single.”

For now, Warner/Reprise is getting the most out of its surprise smash. Isaak is back out on the road, promoting his 18-month old record (he’ll be at the Wiltern this Friday as part of his Southern California swing). He’s also just shot a new video of “Wicked Game,” making him one of the few pop artists who’ve made two separate videos for the same song.

“This is the way you want to have a hit,” Briggs said. “This one really came from the streets and slapped us in the face, which is the best way for a record to happen.”


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