I want to defend an unappreciated and unfairly maligned album. There are many tropes associated with 1980’s pop music, and one album embodies all of them. That is why it is the quintessential 1980’s album. Note that there is a difference between being the epitome of something, and the pinnacle of something. When most folks think about 80’s albums, they tend to list the most popular, or the most timeless. What I say epitome, I refer to both the good and the bad. And when it comes to the 1980’s, there is plenty of bad to go around. For my money, there is one album that embodies it all. And that is Buckner & Garcia‘s magnus opus, “Pac-Man Fever.”
In December of 1981, a couple of musicians, who already had a modest novelty song hit with “Merry Christmas in the NFL” (recorded under the pseudonym Willis “The Guard” & Vigorish), recorded another novelty song. This time, they decided to sing about the video game craze that had been sweeping the nation. The first verse begins with the singer mentioning how he has a pocket full of quarters, and he’s heading toward the arcade. And the last verse ends that all of his money is gone, but he’ll be back the following night. But the real gimmick of the song was that the song incorporated sounds from the actual video game into the song. The song begins with the actual beginning of a game of Pac-Man (and judging by the sounds, not a very good start. Or at least the player is not going by the “pattern” to win the first level.) Buckner & Garcia weren’t the first to do this. The Clash beat them to the punch by using sounds from Space Invaders in their song “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe.” However, that song was never released as a single, while despite all odds and common sense, “Pac-Man Fever” became a Top Ten single in the U.S.
Of course the record label insisted that B&G make an entire album based on novelty arcade songs. Because if lightning can strike once about gimmicky songs, (and in 1981 sampling was still in its infancy, so using sound clips from video games was still considered a gimmick), the company naturally concluded that it can strike twice. (Hey, two Sandinista! references in a row!) So B&G were forced to come up with seven more songs right away. And to be perfectly honest, no one could complete this impossible mission. Even “Weird Al” mixes in non-parodies into all of his albums to change-up the pace. Even though there were a cornucopia of choices B&G had in terms of the number of video games out there in 1982, I shutter to think of the possible ideas they might have rejected: “I dig Dig Dug“; “Do the Mr. Do!“; “The Adventures of Venture“; “Tron‘s Blues”; “Disco Tempest“. On the other hand, if they could have collaborated with Queen to perform “Radio Galaga,” that could have been awesome! I will briefly discuss the songs/games that were ultimately chosen for the album, in order of track listing:
- Pac-Man Fever – This is the only songs that sings about the process of playing the game, and not about the game itself. Granted, the game is a simple maze that features a yellow blob that eats dots. The music is as simple as the lyrics. The game’s sounds drowns out the drum machine most of the time, and the guitar solo is pure 80’s montage music.
- Froggy’s Lament – After the clip from the start of an actual Frogger game, the songs sounds awfully similar to Dolly Parton’s hit, “9 to 5.” Maybe it’s because of the singer’s low voice, or the minimalist keyboard sound, but this is my favorite song of the album, and should have been the follow-up single to the title track.
- Ode to a Centipede – For the first 52 seconds, the song is a very good 80’s song. Then, they decide to go the spoken word path. Even as 9 year-olds, my friends and I mocked this song mercilessly. This time, they have the keyboards drown out the arcade sounds. The guitar solo sounds like if was lifted from Journey (ironic since was a 1983 video game that featured the band.) Seriously, the vocalist was talking to a centipede.
- Do the Donkey Kong – The record label ultimately chose this song as the follow-up single, and failed to chart. The lyrics make no sense whatsoever. It’s a bunch of unrelated activities that vaguely describes two of the four levels in the game, yet they have the audacity to say at the end of the second verse now we now know what this game is all about. The song is memorable for its Clearmountain pause – which gets me ever freakin’ time! The probable reason is so both sides of the album can be equal in length. Side A was about 30 seconds short, so they decided to repeat the chorus one more time to pad the time.
- Hyperspace – Since the game is on a toroidal plane, the “Hyperspace” button would more accurately be described as a “Random teleport,” and the outcome of the teleport was more often worse than staying in your original position. The lyrics make no sense in order to maintain the rhyme scheme, but the simple 3 guitar chords, and the sounds of the game’s UFO make the song very catchy. Of the other seven songs of the album, this one is the closest in style to “Pac-Man Fever.”
- The Defender – I swear the Droid commercials were inspired by the start of the song. Back in the day, Defender was considered the hardest video game to play. Bonus Fun Fact: pre-YouTube, this song was the hardest track to find on the ‘net. This song has the least video game sounds, but the clip they do use is what makes this otherwise terrible song fairly decent. I consider it one of my guilty pleasures, as I over-analyze the lyrics as a 4 minute space opera – in the same sub-genre as such classics as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, but in the second-tier category with “Major Tom,” and “Mr Roboto.”
- Mousetrap – I won’t sugarcoat it – this song sucks. It’s fitting that a game that was created in an hour to be a derivative of the game “Pac-Man” has a crappy song about it. This song must have be made in the 11th hour in order to complete the album. I really don’t blame B&G for this turd. This song had no business being recorded. I’d rather hear a clone of track 1 called “Ms Pac-Man Fever” than anything based off an Exidy game.
- Goin’ Berzerk – This game was chosen because it was the first game to have actual vocals – the game, and its robots taunt you the player. The song uses the classic line, “Chicken! Fight like a robot!” The song sounds like it could be from Styx’s album “Kilroy was Here,” not only due its subject, but also because the singer does his best Dennis DeYoung impression.
So there you have it: a cavalcade of 1980’s tropes: Executive Meddling; Mondegreens; Nonsensical lyrics; pregnant pauses, heavy use of keyboards, drum machines, and power guitar solos. Because it’s because of the flaws that scream, “I’M THE ’80’s” is why I hold this album dear to my heart. I’ve played these songs in my jukebox more often than I played songs from some truly classic 80’s works such as: “Appetite for Destruction”; “The Joshua Tree”; “Born in the USA”; “Glass Houses”; “Sports”; and Operation:Mindcrime.” “Pac-Man Fever” continues to remind me just how schlocky the decade was, and it helps to keep my nostalgia in check. And for that, I thank you, Buckner and Garcia.