For years, Lee Ving, the vocalist and leader of impish punk bruisers Fear, has been teasing the release of a song the group recorded with John Belushi in 1981. He’s finally putting out the tune — the appropriately snotty-sounding “Neighbors,” which was supposed to accompany the Belushi movie of the same name — digitally on Halloween and as a special seven-inch in November. But even before the decades-long wait for its release, the origins of the recording were steeped in strife.
The SNL actor became a fan of Fear after catching them on the L.A.-based music-TV show New Wave Theatre in 1980. He got in touch with the show’s host, Peter Ivers, who gave the actor Ving’s phone number. “We had a couple of beers and became fast friends,” the Fear frontman recalls. Belushi asked Fear to write a song for the movie he was making at the time, Neighbors, a comedy about a family whose lives change when a younger couple, played by Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty, move in next door. The group obliged him on the offer, writing a plodding, charging barnburner.
Fear recorded the tune at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles with Belushi’s Blues Brothers buddy, legendary Stax Records house guitarist Steve Cropper, producing. But initially Belushi didn’t want to sing on it. “I kept arguing with John, ‘I wrote the lyrics for you to sing,'” Ving recalls. “I was quite militant on the punk-rock issue of being punk-correct in that I wasn’t looking forward to singing lyrics that I had written for someone else to sing that were based on a movie that didn’t touch my life. The lyrics weren’t authentic enough for me to sing them. We went back and forth, and eventually John says, ‘OK, OK, I’ll sing it.’ John, being such a good mimic, sings it, and you can tell it’s not me.” Ving sang backup on the recording, and then eventually he relented and recorded his own lead vocal take with Belushi on backup, which he did not intend to release at the time.
The three-minute tune kicks off with a typically punk — and typically Fear — “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4!” before a throbbing guitar line comes in and Belushi asks, “Where the fuck are we?” Then it kicks in with a powerful chorus (“Neighbors/Like your neighbors”), sung with the same the sort of slanted melody that made songs like “Let’s Have a War” and “I Don’t Care About You” on Fear’s 1982 debut The Record snide punk classics. The lyrics directly reference the movie’s characters and plot, including some spoilers, all sandwiching the sound of Belushi hawking up a loogie and saying, “Sorry folks, but you can color us gone.” It closes with a sax solo and elastic guitar solo, as Belushi and Ving shout the title. The movie, which was Belushi’s last before his death of an overdose in 1982, would go on to become a box-office hit. But it wouldn’t include his recording with Fear.
When Belushi presented the song to Neighbors‘ producers, they were appalled by it and refused to use it, much to the actor’s chagrin. So Belushi, feeling like he wanted to do right by his new friends, arranged for Fear to be booked as the musical guests for Saturday Night Live‘s Halloween episode in 1981. It would become one of the show’s most notorious musical segments. Rowdy punks — including Belushi, then–Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye and the Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan and John Joseph — moshed and stormed the stage as the group played “Let’s Have a War.” It didn’t go the way NBC had hoped it would when they agreed to have the band on.
“It was great,” Ving remembers. “Apparently everyone has a problem with the censors at SNL. We had nothing to do with the expletive uttered by an audience member. John had called some of friends of his from Washington, D.C., and said, ‘Would you come to New York to be in the audience for Fear?’ He wanted 15 to 20 people, but they stopped in Baltimore and Philly before they got to New York and arrived with 35, 45 people. It was members of punk-rock bands so it was an actual punk-rock audience.
“The real audience at Saturday Night Live was scared to death,” he continues. “They didn’t know what was happening with all the mayhem. The camera people were trying to protect their cameras. Dick Ebersol, who was stage manager, got hit in the chest with a pumpkin. It smashed all over his shirt. As we finish ‘Let’s Have a War,’ one of the kids grabs the microphone, stuck it in his mouth and screamed, ‘Fuck New York!’ And the main NBC guy was at home watching with his wife and freaked out, calling the station saying, ‘Go to stock footage. Cut, cut, cut.’ They swore that night they’d never rebroadcast our footage. As a result, I have become one of the esteemed members of the permanently banned.”
Although the show’s producers have since allowed the footage to air, in truncated form, Ving is still miffed at the way they’ve been treated. “It was shortsighted of the Saturday Night Live staff and ownership to dis-include the performance in their anniversary episodes,” he says. “It has to be looked at as historical footage, which it is. They seem to be overlooking the fact and losing the sense of humor about the whole idea. I had a sense of humor at the whole idea of starting Fear. It was extremely humorous to me, and I think John saw that humor. That’s what attracted him to the whole idea, but there are those who have their finger on the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ buttons at SNL that did not have that sense of humor.”
Belushi died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin in March of the following year, crushing the singer’s spirits. “It was such a tragedy,” Ving says. “And it could have happened to any of us at that time. It was an extremely bad luck turn of events; it was nobody’s plan and nobody’s fault. Not even the girl who administered it. It’s just a tragedy with a capital ‘T.'”
In the months that followed the actor’s death, the Fear frontman didn’t feel comfortable issuing the song. “What happened was so devastating to all of us that we almost didn’t want to do anything with anybody we knew prior to that terrible event,” Ving says. “It disrupted all of our lives.”
The singer held onto a “beat-up old cassette tape” of the song he’d grabbed as a reference for years. The idea to put it out now came up while Ving was prepping for the October release of a 30th-anniversary reissue of Fear’s More Beer LP. “I didn’t know what the rights were to the song or who had the two-inch tape,” he says. “It turns out my business partner is friends with [John Belushi’s widow] Judy Pisano, so he contacted her — she’s a sweetheart — and she had the two-inch.” Ving worked out an arrangement with Belushi’s estate, arranging for its official release.
Ving touched it up at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 earlier this year (“It’s not exactly Steve Cropper’s mix, but it’s based off that,” he says), and prepped two unique sides for the seven-inch: The first will feature Belushi singing with Ving on backup, and the flipside will sport the version with Ving on lead with Belushi backing him up. “We’re very proud of it,” Ving says.