I make no attempts to conceal my lifelong obsession with the video games I played in my youth. My Atari 2600 and Intellivision are still hooked up to my TV, I have collected over 200 game cartridges for those systems, I own a pinball machine and an Asteroids cocktail table, I lurk in the forums at AtariAge.com, and I even have my own web site devoted to the topic.
But I can acknowledge some of the, er, pitfalls of such an obsession.
Yesterday a couple of friends and I stepped into the netherworld of arcade auctions. I went to a previous auction with one of them, and we each walked away with a machine in tow… I got the aforementioned Asteroids cocktail table; he took home a Ms. Pac-Man cabaret machine.
Yesterday’s auction was a comparative disappointment. Again, we each had our sights on a particular machine: I sought a Dig Dug, he wanted Tempest. And again, we found what we were looking for… the somewhat meager selection of machines up for bids did nonetheless include a fairly-decent Dig Dug and a pristine Tempest. Unfortunately, both of us were under strict spousal orders not to come home with another game.
I made a feeble attempt at bidding on the Dig Dug but ultimately let it go for a paltry $425. My friend didn’t even bother making a showing on the Tempest, which eventually closed at a surprisingly low, given its excellent condition, $900.
Although the auction was, for us, a failure (but a rousing success for our wives), it did inspire a renewed interest in, or at least awareness of, the music of Buckner & Garcia. (I think I phrased that wrong… this actually made a bad situation worse.)
In case you’ve forgotten, Buckner & Garcia were the one-hit wonders who provided the soundtrack to America’s early-’80s obsession with Pac-Man, in the form of “Pac-Man Fever.”
Most people, unaware of their good fortune in this matter, have probably lived the last 21 years in the belief that this was the only song ever recorded by the joystick-jockeying duo. But the blissfully ignorant among us are wrong. So very, very wrong.
In fact, Buckner & Garcia tried unsuccessfully to repeat their success cashing in on pop culture fads by recording a dreadful piece of rubbish entitled “E.T. I Love You.” But that wasn’t before CBS Records ill-advisedly inflated their “Pac-Man Fever” success into an entire LP… a concept album, no less, focused entirely upon the popular video arcade games of the day.
Marketing types have a curious unwillingness to take chances on new ideas, combined with an uncanny ability to take one small, unexpected success and run it into the ground with lightning speed. Such was the case with Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” album… eight B&G songs about nothing but video games!
Of course, this was a bad idea.
But once the ball (or in this case, the tape, or to avoid the mixed metaphor I am about to produce, the locomotive) is rolling, nothing can stop the freight-train momentum of a fundamentally-flawed concept with obscene amounts of cash strapped to its back.
I’m sure some of you out there owned a copy of the album. Judging by the dozens of tattered copies of the LP I found at a St. Paul Cheapo Records store when I purchased my own in a surge of retro-kitsch interest in the mid-’90s, sales were quite brisk, at one time. I imagine most copies that haven’t yet found their way to used record stores are stuck away in attics around the country, alongside long-forgotten lava lamps, pet rocks, unopened six-packs of Billy Beer, leisure suits, leg warmers, and other detritus from the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Personally, I think the lava lamps deserve more respect than that, but I understand their place in most people’s forgotten fad attic archives.)
For those of you who’ve never heard the album, or have spent years in therapy trying to forget it, I’d like to share my recent experience, having brazenly subjected my ears and brain to the entire thing (not all at once, of course, or my head surely would have imploded before I had the opportunity to write this).
The music is god-awful, to be sure. But I discovered something upon my most recent listening that I never noticed before. If you pay close attention, you can actually hear the evolution of the musicians’ mental state during the recording of the album. This is, in fact, a brilliant case study in what happens to people who’ve come up with a goofy but novel idea when they are pressured to draw that idea out far beyond its inherent appeal.
Track 1: Pac-Man Fever
This, of course, is the original idea, recorded well before the rest of the album. If I remember the story right, Buckner & Garcia were a couple of commercial jingle writers and performers based in Atlanta, who came up with the idea of making a song about their enthusiasm for Pac-Man. The song effectively captured the public’s temporary obsession with the game, and was requested so much by listeners to local radio stations that the guys got a record deal out of it. Unfortunately, that meant they had to actually record an entire record.
I completely understand the decision to make a concept album. There is no way this song would fit with a program of serious songs. It had to be novelty all the way. But a better decision would’ve been to leave well enough alone.
Track 2: Froggy’s Lament
Fresh in the studio on the heels of their unexpected rise to fame with “Pac-Man Fever,” the boys put together this silly, but still fairly enjoyable little tune inspired by Frogger. They kept up the gimmick of using actual game sounds in the song, and engaged in some good-natured self-mockery in the form of bizarre, frog-like voices. But the concept was already beginning to fray.
Track 3: Ode to a Centipede
OK, let’s get one thing straight. There is no way a ballad about a centipede — the creature or the video game — could ever be a good idea. The fact that this nauseating experience is only the third track on the album has to be seen as an acknowledgement of the weakness of the concept. Hopefully, B&G’s intention was to send a warning to CBS management that this was a bad idea that would never work. They didn’t get the message. (I should just point out here that I realize the songs were probably not recorded in the sequence they appear on the album. But just work with me on this, OK?)
Track 4: Do the Donkey Kong
On the surface, this is a happy, bouncy, ’50s sock-hoppish dance tune, albeit one with horrifically stupid lyrics. But despite the perky tempo and forced enthusiasm of the singing, you can hear the band’s deep regret for ever having accepted the advance to record this album.
Track 5: Hyperspace
To resolve any ambiguity (“hyperspace” being a staple in the concept of scores of space-themed video games of the early ’80s), this song happens to be about Asteroids, a game that is near and dear to my heart. One of the most exciting things about this game (aside from its gripping black-and-white vector graphics) is the awesome bass-heavy rumble its speaker generates when you blow up an asteroid. (Homer Simpson might even describe the effect as “bong rattling.”) So it’s quite painful for me to hear those beloved explosions in the context of this song. I try to avoid listening to it much, lest the unfortunately-catchy chorus should find its way into my head uninvited while I’m playing the game.
By this point, Messrs. Buckner and Garcia were clearly just going through the motions, hoping to get the damn album over with as soon as possible so they could focus on their next big idea… a song about E.T.
Track 6: The Defender
Buckner (or is it Garcia?) sings with almost-believable conviction here about his passion for his role as the “captain of the ship and its men.” But his profound sense of self-loathing is beginning to overwhelm the music. Then again, from the listener’s perspective, that’s probably a plus.
Track 7: Mousetrap
By now, the band has basically worked through its issues. The guys know what they’re doing is hopelessly lame, but the end is in sight, and now their self-loathing is recast as a blatant contempt for the listener… an unmasked incredulity that anyone would bother to get this far into the album without flinging the disc out the nearest open window.
Track 8: Goin’ Berzerk
I think the title says it all. Every turn of emotion the musicians endured over the 3 days they took to write and record the album merges with the others and a final picture comes together of the stark reality of what they’ve just done: Here, at last, we are left with a document of one of the most monumentally-stupid attempts to cash in on a fad in human history.
Fads are defined by their temporality. Fads are, almost by definition, intrinsically ill-conceived. If they weren’t, they would endure. But they don’t. Sadly, they usually leave artifacts like this behind.