Friday, July 1, 2011

Buckner & Garcia - Pac-Man Fever

In the early 80’s, the musical duo of Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia started out with a novelty Christmas song about the NFL. But their biggest claim to fame came in 1982 with Pac-Man Fever, the song and album that celebrated the biggest arcade video games at the time. The album was certified Gold and sold over 900,000 copies by the end of that year.

Now, it is no secret that I am a huge geek. And back in early 1982 when I was halfway through my junior year of high school, I was a very much the same way. I often spent my weekend nights down at the Central Avenue arcade, feeding allowance money into the token machine so I could get the right tender to play all of my favorite games. My best friend John and I would spend the entire evening there among the neon glows, blips and bleeps, and then cap things off with some pizza and Pepsi at the snack place next door.

Of course, when Pac-Man Fever hit the record stores that March, I immediately snapped that album up on vinyl. I was in game-geek heaven! Was this record considered cool? Only among us nerds. Was it groundbreaking music? Not so much but it was well composed and performed. Was it fun? I certainly thought so. And did I listen to it a ton? You better believe it!

Side one opens with the chart-topping title track. “Pac-Man Fever” spent fourteen weeks on the US singles chart and woka-woked its way to number 9 on the US Billboard Top-40. The song successfully summarized the mania surrounding this game; players of all ages seemed to love running around the maze and gobbling up the dots before the ghosts got them. Like all the songs on the record, the game sound effects really bring back that nostalgia feel. When I hear the opening notes of the song, which were the opening notes of the game, I’m instantly taken back to standing before a machine. Personally was more of a Ms. Pac-Man kind of guy. That game had a better feel to me and I could get more play time off a single token. She never got a song though.

“Froggy’s Lament” pays tribute to one of my wife’s favorite games, Frogger. She enjoyed hopping her frog up the screen, avoiding the oncoming traffic and then navigating the sinking logs in the river. This song has a funky synthesizer line to it, and the lead singer uses a voice that sounds like an old bullfrog in a swamp.

“Ode to a Centipede”, of course, was about that bug zapping game from Atari called Centipede. It was so popular that it spun off its own follow up Millipede, and its concept was copied by a number of other game companies hoping to cash in on the idea. This was one of those games I played a lot; I would set up an alleyway with the mushrooms so I could quickly destroy new centipedes as they started descending each level. The blaster sound effects supplement the piano/synth parts well, making this song right at home in the new wave sound prevalent at the time.

“Do the Donkey Kong” has to be my favorite track of the record. It was the second single from the album and reached number 103 on the US Billboard Hot 200. Presented like a classic dance-description song, it has a bouncy beat to it that gets my feet tapping. I can’t help but sing along to it (after all these years I still remember the words to all of these songs - how weird is that?). The game of Donkey Kong always vexed me. Timing those barrel jumps on the first level was a pain. I was much better at the second level with outwitting the fireballs.

Side two begins with “Hyperspace”, a song inspired the game Asteroids. This one has a funk feel to it thanks to the guitar and drums. The lyrics match the rapid fire your blasters need when destroying the continuous onslaught of space rocks. While the game had very simple graphics, it really became quite a challenge when the varying sized chunks were coming at you from every direction.

“The Defender” slips back to the new wave sound, but in a slower tempo. Even without the game sound effects, this song would have fit the era - given the renewed popularity of sci-fi films in the theatres. I was not a big player of Defender; if I was going to blast aliens I would play Space Invaders.

“Mousetrap” has some of the wildest sound effects (cats meowing, dogs barking, a screeching hawk) but that was reflective of the zaniness of Mouse Trap. This game was sort of like Pac-Man, except you are playing a mouse. The “ghosts” are cats. Instead of power-pellets, you had a bone that turned you into a dog. The weird part was the randomness of the hawk that attacked you. Oh, and you could change the paths on the maze by flipping walls. See, I told you, wild! But I really liked this game a lot and thus the song too.

“Goin’ Berzerk” opens with fifteen seconds of instrumental reminiscent of “Beth” by KISS, and then the intruder alert is sounded (with the game‘s signature synthesized voice). After that, this ballad is punctuated by laser blasts and robot enemies. The song is well composed like the rest, treating the subject matter with respect. Berzerk was another game I had trouble playing. Zapping robots I could handle, but the electrified walls were a challenge. I never lasted more than a couple levels before game over.

I loved hearing all of these songs again after all these decades. Sadly, my old vinyl copy of this album is long since gone. When I turned my record collection over to my older brother in the 90’s, he either gave it away or sold it. Definitely my loss. If he still had the record, it would have been one of the first I would have transferred to digital last time I visited.

When CBS records would not re-release the original recordings on CD format, Buckner & Garcia re-recorded the album in 2002. Unfortunately, with almost twenty years past, the guys couldn’t get the new versions to sound exactly like the old (their voices had matured, some of the game sound effects could no longer be re-created, etc.).

Luckily, places on the Internet like Grooveshark and YouTube are there with the original audios, put up by fellow fans of the record. So, do a quick search and time-warp back to the arcades of the early 1980’s.

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