David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 286: The Hitmen (Bates Motel)

September 24, 2023

When one thinks about the thousands of bands, especially before the turn of the century, who got a record deal, maybe a tiny bit of public reaction, then disappeared into oblivion after 1 or 2 albums, one wonders how the band members hope they are remembered 30, 40 or 50 years later.

It might be especially frustrating if you were a Hitman, who in 1981 represented a miniscule blip on the radar because of a brief foray into the public sphere thanks to Columbia Records' Exposed II. Their inclusion on this collection of little-known artists (the record company's offering of "A Cheap Peek At Today's Provocative New Rock") allowed for a half dozen people like me to know they had a recent single provocatively entitled "Bates Motel."

By the way, how provocative was an offering of artists ranging from Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark (pre-John Hughes), Tommy Tutone (pre-Jenny), Billy Thorpe (post-everything, as he had been around for 15 years), to Harlequin (pre, post, present? Bueller? Anyone?)?

"Bates Motel" went nowhere on the charts (as an aside, I wish I could get find a source that provided more context for non-charting singles; is there anywhere, for instance, one could find if a song was only played 38 times on radio stations before fading into history?). Not that "Bates Motel" is a classic by any means, but it does employ an atmospheric approach that made it somewhat noteworthy compared to the rather bland pop offerings of 1981: Juice Newton's "Queen Of Hearts," Christopher Cross's "Arthur's Theme," and Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross's "Endless Love." Even the New Wave hits of 1981, such as Human League's "Don't You Want Me" or Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," didn't double down on the atmosphere as well as "Bates Motel."

Honoring its source material, "Bates Motel" starts with some kind of sound effect, the kind of puzzling, haunting sound that could be a scream or a police siren before a synthesizer line lays out the bottom of a beat, punctuated by a throbbing bass line. When Ben Watkins voice slinks in with images of the narrator hunting humans, the creepiness is fully present: "A man after meat/out in the street/the edge of your seat/forever/the places I stalk/where no man would walk/the king of suspense/forever."

The guitars slash, because . . . of course, while the chorus keeps it simple: "check in/check out/check in/check out/I'll turn my home/into Bates Motel." Between the background moaning and the horror soundtrack instrumentation, the bridge cranks up the spookiness.

The Hitmen did make a video for the song, as evidenced by the "taped-off-of-MTV" offering on YouTube. (Again, I wish I could find sources that would tell me how many times MTV played this song. 5? 10? 100? What chance did a little-known band have to be played enough to be coveted?) The video slathers on the Hitchcock worshipping, including Watkins fondling the picture frame of the Master of Suspense himself.

So, here's the thing, if you are Ben Watkins, how has Google preserved the memory of your "Bates Motel"? The first Google hit is a downloaded track from YouTube, which for almost any song becomes the first hit. Then, you'll next find your historical presence on Discog, a music geeks' online database and marketplace for music well-known or obscure, is second. Great! I am still known by the music nerds! What does "Bates Motel" mean in terms of a broader public memory? Well, your third hit finds the song's presence on Psycho Wiki, a fandom page for the source material for the original "Bates Motel." The three-sentence description for your song references The Hitmen as a British punk band, cites how you all were confused with another "Hitmen" in Australia, provides the dark lyrics, and a picture of, presumably, the sleeve to the 45. A link to the actual song is not even provided. Not the most in-depth way for the public to (re)-discover you.

Interestingly, Ben, in the "pop culture reference" link at Psycho Wiki, you will find one other Bates Motel reference: to a 1980's band called "Bates Motel," featuring even less information than your Psycho Wiki page had. So, that's something. Unfortunately, pages dedicated to the woman shopper in the hardware store or Woody Woodpecker's brief cameo in Psycho III get as much, if not more, description than your 1981 single.

Welcome to the world of Alfred Hitchcock's cast-offs.

Eventually by the bottom of page two of the Google search, some interesting riffs about "Bates Motel" show up, including obsessed fans trying to find it in rereleased form (sounds like one guy did), but inevitably the connection keeps coming back to Hitchcock's film/character, with perhaps a singular exception. In one great discussion, one blogger not only digs the macabre sentimentality of the song, but also notes that singer Watkins went on to record with other (for me) equally obscure bands, while even working with porn star Traci Lords on a song. Wow.

So, basically, Hitmen, the closest release you have to a hit, is forever associated with the movie you were, apparently, honoring. I suppose that may have worked out well, as people probably search hourly for Psycho or Bates Motel. I doubt many Harlequin, the band, references, are popping up when people search "Harlequin" and "Innocence."

The Hitmen. "Bates Motel." Torn Together. Columbia, 1981. Link here.

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Day 287: Jo Armstead "You Cut Up The Clothes"

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