Eaten alive 

Twenty years ago this spring, Atlanta duo infected the airwaves with "Pac-Man Fever." But don't hold your breath waiting for another videogame music hit.

Billboard's Top 10 singles chart of March 1982 neatly reflects the highs (J. Geils Band's "Centerfold") and lows (Air Supply's "Sweet Dreams") of the early-'80s pop music landscape. Sandwiched between Diana Ross' "Mirror Mirror" (No. 8) and Olivia Newton-John's "Make a Move on Me" (No. 10) was a snappy little number from Buckner and Garcia called "Pac-Man Fever." Launching with an instantly memorable lyric -- "I've got a pocketful of quarters and I'm headed to the arcade" -- the song is strikingly goofball and remarkably earnest all at once. While many of those who remember the tune have since filed it under "disposable pop arcana," others regard it as the ultimate ode to the classic videogame era.

Junior high school buddies Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were just "two bozos from Akron" (their words) when they moved to Atlanta in the mid-'70s. The songwriter/producers were recording commercial jingles and engineering the occasional high-profile track (including the theme song to television's "WKRP in Cincinnati") when they came up with the idea for "Pac-Man Fever" in the fall of 1981.

"We were recording every night in the studio, and we used to stop at this little pub on the corner of Marietta called Shillings," Garcia recalls. "They had a Pac-Man machine in there real early on, before anybody really knew what it was. We'd stop in there on the way home, have a couple of beers, and play the machine. We got hooked on it, and we thought, 'Hey, this might be something that we can make a song about.'"

Note to aspiring songwriters: It's just that simple. Released 20 years ago this March on CBS Records, the "Pac-Man Fever" single went on to sell 1.2 million copies across the United States, finally dropping off the Billboard charts in May 1982 after 14 weeks.

Buckner and Garcia wrote "Pac-Man Fever" in about an hour at Jerry's home in Doraville on his childhood piano. They took the song to a local artist management company, which sent them into the studio to record it. When none of the major record companies would touch the tune, the pair released the album in Atlanta only. Local radio latched onto the tune, and in a matter of days Buckner and Garcia had sold more than 10,000 singles.

Meanwhile, the son of a CBS Records executive got the tape and couldn't stop playing it. CBS signed the pair, and they recorded eight other tunes -- including "Ode to a Centipede" and "Do the Donkey Kong" -- for the first videogame music concept album. It sold 900,000 copies.

Buckner and Garcia found themselves at the center of the videogame zeitgeist virtually overnight -- and they had a hit record to boot. Interviews and TV appearances soon followed, including spots on "Entertainment Tonight," "American Bandstand" and "Solid Gold." In retrospect, it is incredible that a three-minute pop song devoted to the pleasures of the joystick could reach such a venerable position on the charts.

"There were a lot of great records out then, and people still like them," says Buckner. "But they didn't always capture the imagination of the kids and the people at the time."

The success of "Pac-Man Fever" is indicative of the hypnotic allure videogames held over the American public in the early '80s. But the appeal of videogames is perhaps even stronger now than it was in 1982. As the industry has grown, driving sales that challenge those of the Hollywood studios, video gaming has become more complex and, thus, more entertaining.

So one is left to ponder: Is it time for videogame music resurgence? After all, many of the same 25- to 35-year-olds busy making music in bands today were the same kids giving up their quarters for Frogger and plunking down money for "Pac-Man Fever" two decades ago. In other words, we've officially entered the age in which musical trendsetters have grown up in a world already populated by videogames.

While video gaming's presence can be witnessed occasionally in rock and pop, it's most clearly felt in hip-hop and techno music, where samples from classic arcade-era games and beyond are found amid beats and drum loops.

One need only turn to the Yosumi Records two-volume Game Over series to get a feeling for video gaming's influence on hip-hop. Featuring a diverse collection of artists -- including Masta Ace, Craig Mack, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One -- 2000's Game Over and 2001's Game Over II compile beats and rhymes semi-inspired by videogames. In most cases, the samples are subtle and hard to perceive, so as not to overpower the tracks. Other times, the technique is more in-your-face. The underground hit "Super Brooklyn," for instance, contains a prominent sample from Super Mario Brothers.

But the diverse world of electronic music seems to hold the greatest affection for videogames. Creatively speaking, the marriage makes sense. There is a great deal of crossover between the realms of DJ culture and gaming culture.

"You think of [gamers] as somewhat introverted," says Hazeus, a local drum 'n' bass DJ and self-proclaimed videogame enthusiast. "They're at home; they're into technology; they're on the Net or whatever. Electronic music goes hand-in-hand with all those things."

This crossover may have hit critical mass with Astralwerks' 1996 release, Wipeout XL, the soundtrack to PlayStation's series of futuristic racing games. With its standout tracks from the Chemical Brothers, Photek and The Future Sound of London, Wipeout XL appeared just as electronica's presence was being felt in the popular music arena. In many cases, it was a gamer's first exposure to the genre. Wipeout's successful mix of game-play and music is emulated to this day with varying degrees of success. More recently, the U.K.'s Ministry of Sound contributed the soundtrack to Extreme G III, another futuristic racing game.

Videogame samples play an important role in Hazeus' work, even if he doesn't generally lift entire melodies when sampling. "The sweeps, and the blips, the little dingbats -- you know, those are definitely useful when you're scratching."

Hazeus smiles as he describes finding just the right sound. "I have the whole virtual world at my fingertips: all the games and collections that I've had over the ages," he says. "Little twidgits that you hear in the background, little swoops or whatever -- those can really make the breakdowns."

Accessibility also makes videogames a great resource. Hazeus gets technical: "I own a PlayStation 2, and they have an optical output. So I'm able to plug that into a sound card and get the optimum sound quality from that. No noise gain from the connections or RCA jacks. Take the line out, put it into your computer, and it's in the mix."

Unfortunately, it's difficult to find authentic videogame music in mainstream releases. Hazeus reiterates that, despite the popularity of video gaming and the occasional breakout Wipeout-style recording, the music remains primarily underground. "We're talking small labels, or something you burn off onto a CD to play that night, or put into a battle for your own use," he says.

As always, the Internet remains a viable source for delving further. The website Overclocked Remix (remix.overclocked.org) compiles videogame music remixes from amateur DJs scattered throughout cyberspace. The overall quality of the work represented is impressive -- and so is the depth of the contributors' videogame knowledge. Classic music from Nintendo through contemporary PlayStation masterpieces (the Final Fantasy series ad nauseum) can be found remixed here.

But by and large, it's a rare occurrence indeed when Mega Man soundbites appear in Tower Records, much less on the Billboard charts. There's a deceptively simple reason why it's so hard to find this stuff: It is nearly impossible to obtain the rights to the source material.

So how did Buckner and Garcia manage to land the Pac-Man rights in 1982?

Back during the initial recording of "Pac-Man Fever," an engineer working with Buckner and Garcia simply walked into a bar or video arcade and recorded the sounds live off the machine. (The Pac-Man sound effects were recorded off a machine in a deli.) But even those primitive samples had to be licensed.

"It took contracts worldwide with different companies," says Garcia. "Because in the United States, one company would have the rights to Pac-Man, and in Japan another company. So to get those eight songs licensed took 39 contracts."

Most guys with a turntable would get buried under so much paperwork. The result is that videogame samples are more likely to stay underground. Even so, Hazeus offers this report from his place of employment, Satellite Records in Little Five Points:

"There's a Pac-Man track in drum 'n' bass right now, and I have people coming into the store, like, 'You got that?' It's still popular. It still lives -- this game from back in the day. Even though it was released before any of these people were born. But they still know it."

Buckner and Garcia have thought about stepping up to the plate and recording a "Pac-Man Fever" sequel.

"We get a lot of communication from [videogamers], because they hold us up as the granddaddies of the videogame revolution or whatever," Garcia says. "But we're more musicians."

For now, a sequel seems unlikely. Still, they seem flattered -- if not a bit bewildered -- to be considered a significant milestone along the videogame highway, even if they did stumble on the idea and happened to strike it rich. And yes, "Pac-Man Fever" made them rich, though they won't reveal how much money they've made in royalties and such.

These days, Buckner and Garcia keep busy in a variety of ways. Buckner has done voiceover work for Fox 97. Garcia makes his own regular contributions to the Waffle House jukebox, including the catchy if ordinary "Saturday Night at My Place." Together, they still record commercial jingles and produce their own music. And proving that they are enshrined forever in the pop culture pantheon, "Pac-Man Fever" recently appeared on "The Simpsons."

If, for whatever reason, you were unable to catch "Pac-Man Fever" the first time around, Buckner and Garcia have re-recorded their classic album, which can be purchased on their website (www.bucknergarcia.com).

Talking to Buckner and Garcia, one gets the distinct feeling that they are not videogame aficionados. When confronted with a description of the recent PlayStation 2 hit "Grand Theft Auto III" -- in which the main character steals cars in between killing policemen and carrying out errands for the mob -- Buckner is appalled.

"The violence that's in the games now, I mean, need I even say it? Do we need more violence? Look at the situation in the world now," he says. "I think it's disturbing; some of these games are pretty violent. I mean, I wouldn't want my kids playing them. I think you get to a point where it's not fun anymore."

So does that mean my own lyrics to "Grand Theft Auto III Fever" would fall on deaf ears?

Got a pocketful of bullets and I'm headed to the rooftops,

Gonna shoot a helicopter down and blow up a bunch of cops.

My wanted level's high and my energy is low,

Gonna screw a hooker fast and then kill her really slow.

Buckner warns: "To create a song that has mass appeal is among the most difficult things you'll ever do."

And he should know.

music@creativeloafing.com

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