Pac-Man Fever: the 80’s Arcade Obsession

The band Buckner & Garcia released a chart-topping record in 1982 called Pac-Man Fever. Re-released in 1992, the artists were unable to access their own recordings, so they recreated the album from scratch. The album is based on what was a rather uncommon topic at the time—electronic arcade games, the ancestors of the modern day videogame. The album not only introduced the topic into the music industry, but also showed how popular games became among children and adults. Here we will take a look at the original 1982 release and discuss its strengths and weaknesses in performance, audio quality and production, and content.

Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were the two main members of Buckner & Garcia. Other members included Ginny Whitaker on drums, Chris Bowman and Rick Hinkle on lead and rhythm guitar, Larry McDonald on bass guitar, Steve Carlisle and Sharon Scott on background vocals, David Cole on syndrum, and Mike Stewart on the Moog synthesizer. The Moog synthesizer was used to create sound effects for two songs on this album, “Mousetrap” and “Goin’ Berzerk”. Throughout the album, they use samples from the arcade games to enhance each song’s relevance to its original inspiration. This was a good idea for the most part. In addition, the songs describe the game’s play mechanics along with the characters so that it is clear exactly which game the song is about. This also allows those unfamiliar with the game to still follow along.

“Pac-Man Fever”, the first track, is where the album gets its name. Charting at #9 on Billboard Hot 100 as a single, it was first released as a standalone track in December 1981 until Columbia Records was able to convince the duo to create an entire album based on arcade games. Based on the game Pac-Man (Namco, 1980), the song mentions characters like Speedy and Blinky and sings about strategies to beat the game. The singer also implies that Pac-Man is wildly successful both financially and as a form of entertainment, as he sings of spending all his money and time on the game. The guitar riff in this song is very typical classic rock style, popular in songs of this type. In fact, everything about this song adheres to the elements of successful popular music: it is repetitive, the chorus is simple and easy to remember, and the topic is on something trending in pop culture. It is no wonder that the song reached the top ten in most popular songs of March 1982.

The second song on the album, “Froggy’s Lament”, is based on the game Frogger (Konami, 1981). The verses are spoken rhythmically (rapped, even), unlike the rest of the album. Every verse starts with the same two lines: ”Froggy takes one step at a time, the way that he moves has no reason or rhyme”. This makes the verses easy to remember, as only two of the lines change in every verse. One gripe I have with this song is that the game samples are in a different key from the song, making the samples very dissonant. As Frogger is the only game in this album with tonal samples, the song sticks out like a sore thumb due to its awkward sample overlay. The samples are also not aligned rhythmically with the rest of the song, so nothing is really synchronised well here. I would consider this song to be sub-par production-wise, as this is the only song with this issue.

In “Ode To A Centipede”, the third track, the samples are done a little better than in “Froggy’s Lament”; in some cases, the tempo is set such that the sound samples from the game aligns with the beats. Throughout the song, though, there is a lot of talking, as though the speaker is having conversations with the Centipede, the main antagonist of the game Centipede(Atari, 1981). His voice is fairly condescending—he says things like “Go ahead and run your little legs off. Do you have Nikes for all of ’em?” and uses a taunting and ridiculing tone of voice. Thus, I would say that this song was fairly weak in its vocals. I thought the guitar riff turned out well, though.

The fourth track, “Do The Donkey Kong”, and the seventh track, “Mousetrap”, both sound quite similar. “Do The Donkey Kong” is based on the Nintendo arcade game, Donkey Kong (1981), and “Mousetrap” is inspired by Mouse Trap (Exidy, 1981). Both tracks bend notes in the same way. At least the tempi of each track is different enough and their keys unrelated. On the other hand, “The Defender”, based on Defender (Williams Electronics, 1980), and “Goin’ Berzerk”, based on Berzerk (Stern, 1980), both could pretty much be the same song. Tracks six and eight, respectively, are in the same key, and their hooks are basically the same. The main things that distinguish these tracks from each other are merely the lyrics and the game sound samples.

Finally we come to the fifth track, “Hyperspace”. Based on Asteroids (Atari, 1979), this is the only song whose title does not include any part of the original game’s title. In fact, the chorus repeats the word “Hyperspace” and uses the word “asteroid” only twice in the entire song. The guitar solo in between the second and third verses fit well with the rest of the song and the singer varied his voice even in repetitive situations, creating some different sounds and preventing the song from becoming too regular. This song is one of the better ones on the album.

Overall, this was a fair album; I would say that “Hyperspace” and “Pac-Man Fever” are the two songs that make this album. The other songs are mediocre and are fairly unimpressive. The content is excellent, as video and arcade games would have been considered a novelty subject for popular songs of the 1980s. The audio quality and production was clean, but the songs could have been composed a little more interestingly and with more discipline. Buckner & Garcia’s lack of interest in creating an entire album shows through, especially if their producer was pressuring them to do so. This album would be fine for casual and fun listening, but not much more than that.

Album: Pac-Man Fever
Artist: Buckner & Garcia
Columbia Records, 1982
Performance: 3.5/5
Audio: 4/5
Content: 5/5

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