Vintage Nerdcore: Pac-Man Fever at 30
Much like pro wrestling, video games are another part of pop culture easily referenced by the modern artist, whether it's Styles P checking Red Dead Redemption in "B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast)," Del The Funky Homosapian's love letter to video games "Proto Culture" or Childish Gambino sampling the music from Donkey Kong Country for "Eat Your Vegetables."
Pac-Man wasn't the first arcade game or the best game of all time, but it was a landmark in video-game history and became part of the fabric of pop culture. Unfortunately, America's favorite pellet-chewer hasn't had a lot of songs written in his honor.
Ask someone to name a song about Pac-Man. Since this is Houston, the obvious choice would be Lil' Flip's "Game Over." However, if that person hasn't studied up on their Houston hip-hop history, they'd have to go all the way back 30 years to find another big song about Pac-Man.
But "Pac-Man Fever" wasn't the last video-game song for the pair known as Buckner & Garcia. It was only the beginning.
Novelty songs are everywhere these days. Anyone with some free time, a little bit of musical talent, a camera and an idea can go from nothing to viral sensation overnight. It's not the type of success that makes for hit singles, but fame is fame.
There was a time, before viral videos and social media, where one could theoretically have a real music career off of novelty songs. With the right song at the right moment, you could get that one hit necessary to live off of the rest of your life.
Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were just your average novelty songwriting duo when they got lucky in 1982. "Pac-Man Fever" was the right blend of silly and pop culture at the time and went all the way to No. 9 on the Hot 100. That was enough for Columbia/CBS to offer them a record deal.
That record deal came with a price: The label was only interested in more songs about video games.
The result was an album titled Pac-Man Fever, which Rocks Off is 95% sure was the first concept album about video games. The title track might have been a hit, but could they repeat their success over the course of an entire LP? We loaded the album up on Spotify to find out.
1. "Pac-Man Fever": Not to overanalyze things, but for a guy with a fever, he never once mentions sweating or feeling hot. As a silly song it's not bad, but it could stand to have a bit more of the actual Pac-Man music involved. Honestly, it's kind of hard to imagine this song taking off, which says a lot about the power of video games and Pac-Man at the start of the '80s.
2. "Froggy's Lament": It's a shame that the chorus of the song is so weak, because the verses are actually kind of fun. The spoken-word description of the journey of Frogger's unnamed protagonist is funny and the game sound effects work nicely. Sadly "Go, Froggy, Go!" doesn't inspire the audience to cheer him/her on to his destination across road and water.
3. "Ode to a Centipede": A shockingly good track that sounds like a super-nerdy Journey outtake. Seriously, the keyboards are crazy reminiscent of "Separate Ways." There's something bizarrely charming about the singer asking if the centipede has Nikes for all of his feet, even if the spoken-word part of the song goes on a bit too long. If it were two minutes shorter, it would be an almost perfect bit of '80s nostalgia.
4. "Do the Donkey Kong":- This is the first song that really sounds like chart bait. "Pac-Man Fever" sounds like an accidental hit, but this track sounds like they're trying really hard to write something that will be popular. The vocals are a bit cheesy, but it actually kind of works. The singer plays it so straight with his requests to "do the Donkey Kong!" that you have to admire their dedication to the bit.
5. "Hyperspace": The most interesting thing about this track is that it's the first that doesn't mention the original game in its hook. Writing a song about Asteroids makes sense in that it's a classic, but doesn't make sense in the context of the album because the music was far from iconic. This is the first real misfire on the album and the first time the gimmick really wears thin.
6. "The Defender": Buckner & Garcia were, if nothing else, decent songwriters. They're easily the Nickelback of the video-game song genre. Yeah, every song follows the same basic format, but when that formula works the songs are at least listenable. "The Defender" is a perfectly acceptable, middle-of-the-road track. It's not great, but it's not a waste of time. It's what more deep cuts should aspire to be.
7. "Mousetrap": When the band decided to reissue the album in the late '90s, the label wouldn't turn over the masters and so they had to rerecord the tracks. It's not a big deal for most of the tracks, but it hurts this one pretty bad. They were unable to locate an original Mousetrap machine to sample, and thus made the baffling decision to sample real animals instead. You know that theory about how people really like songs that feature dogs? These barks weren't enough to save this one.
8. "Goin' Berzerk": Musically not bad, but the vocals don't work for this particular vocalist. Luckily the sound effect usage is pretty hilarious, which makes it a bit easier to look past its problems. One wonders if they wouldn't have been better off putting this track together without the vocals, although it's hard to imagine the label being pleased with an instrumental about a video game.
Final Thoughts: There have been better gimmick concept albums, there have been worse gimmick concept albums. Credit where credit is due: Only one track is really awful, and even the less good tracks had something going for them.
Overall, the high-end tracks are the type of thing you'd put on a fun mixtape for long car rides. Still, after sitting through the entire thing, it isn't shocking to discover that Buckner & Garcia were a one-hit wonder.
Best Tracks: "Do The Donkey Kong"; "Ode to A Centipede" Final Score: 4.5 out of 8
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