Chris Isaak’s 1989 single ‘Wicked Game’ is one of the most instantly recognisable singles ever released. The moody guitar line, sedated pace and Isaak’s remarkable vocals are just three iconic parts of this brooding classic. The ironic thing about the song is that it is often misinterpreted as simply a ballad about unrequited love, but it’s so much more than that.
In 2015, Isaak revealed that song was inspired by a real telephone call he’d received from a woman, who wanted to pursue a casual sexual dalliance with the singer. Shortly after the call, he penned the track.
Detailing the origins, Isaak later told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “It’s about four in the morning, and somebody calling and saying I’m coming over to your house and I thought right after I said okay, I thought I should have never allowed this person to come over to my house. I know what’s going to happen.”
He explained: “I wrote the song between the time I got off the phone and the person came over to visit. It was just about what happens when you have a strong attraction to people that aren’t necessarily good for you. I think it hit a nerve because I think a lot of us have a strong attraction to people that aren’t necessarily good for us.”
Interestingly though, it wasn’t an instant hit for Isaak. ‘Wicked Game’ was a slow burner and didn’t become a success until the latter half of 1990. Given that Isaak’s song is almost a surreal, quaalude fuelled take on rockabilly, auteur David Lynch included the song as a part of his Southern Gothic masterpiece, 1990’s Wild at Heart.
Starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern as two lovers on the run from a hitman, as well as other icons such as Isabella Rosselini and Harry Dean Stanton, Wild at Heart is one of the finest road movies ever made. A polarizing film due to its slightly uneven plot, the inclusion of Chris Isaak’s discussion of unhealthy romance was perfect.
The craze surrounding ‘Wicked Game’ came after Atlanta DJ, Lee Chesnut started playing the song, as he was a huge fan of the film and David Lynch. It gained traction quickly and reached the top ten of the American Singles Chart in January 1991, hitting a high of number six. It became a worldwide smash hit, and without Lynch, Isaak would not have become such a star, making him just another of many who owe their careers to Lynch.
Famously, Isaak starred as Chester Desmond in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992, which would cement the pair’s relationship in pop culture history. ‘Wicked Game’ was Isaak’s first hit, and it is incredible to think that without his inclusion of the song in Wild at Heart, Chesnut wouldn’t have played the song so many times, and we wouldn’t have written this article.
Listen to ‘Wicked Game’ below.