Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Cheap Trick reissues: June 8, 2010

This week, the Wounded Bird label is reissuing three Cheap Trick albums on CD. Those albums are Standing on the Edge (1985), The Doctor (1986), and Busted (1990). I am glad to see these CDs made available for those who wish to purchase them. However, speaking as a long-time fan of Cheap Trick, I do not recommend any of them. The first two of these albums are from the period in the 1980’s when bassist Tom Petersson was temporarily absent from the group, and was replaced by Jon Brant for a four-album stretch. The third, Busted, could easily be mistaken for an album from that period.

Before we go any further, I should point out that the first two Petersson-less albums from the ‘80’s were recently issued as a 2-on-1 CD by the Friday Music label. When One On One (1982) and Next Position Please (1983) were first released, they were quite discouraging. It was clear that the absence of their original bass player had a noticeable effect on Cheap Trick’s chemistry, and Jon Brant made no impression as Petersson’s replacement. Both of these albums were a comedown from the band’s earlier works, but in retrospect they are actually quite good in comparison to much of Trick’s later work (for example, the three albums being reissued this week). Both albums benefit from strong producers: One On One was helmed by Roy Thomas Baker, and Next Position Please was produced by Todd Rundgren. However, this point also reveals one problem that the band had at this point in time: they were becoming too dependent on their producers. In fact, this part of the band’s history is often referred to as their “Next Producer Please” phase.

The third Cheap Trick album recorded without Petersson is among this week’s reissues. Standing on the Edge reunited the band with producer Jack Douglas, who helmed their superb 1977 debut album. But lightning didn’t strike twice, because Standing on the Edge painfully confirmed the downfall of these arena rock icons. Song doctor Mark Radice co-wrote all of the songs and played keyboards. The result is an album that was slickly calculated to appeal to mid-‘80’s audiences, but didn’t succeed. It does, however, show some signs of life in the lovely ballad “Tonight It’s You” and two revved-up rockers (“Cover Girl” and the title track) that sound more like the Cheap Trick we used to know.

The band proceeded to fall over the edge with The Doctor, another of this week’s reissues. Tony Platt (who mixed Standing on the Edge) was this album’s overbearing producer; Platt gives most of the songs too much speed and too high of a pitch. Paul Klingberg, who was the engineer and co-mixer, played keyboards – which explains why it is the dominant instrument on most of this misguided mess of an album. Cheap Trick don’t even sound like the stars of their own album here; The Doctor sounds like it was recorded by Starship after a sugar-and-caffeine binge. If you buy this CD, I recommend that you program your player to play the title track, “Kiss Me Red”, and “Take Me To The Top”.

The other Cheap Trick CD being reissued this week is Busted, which was recorded after Petersson returned to the fold, and after the band reached their all-time commercial peak with the 1988 album Lap of Luxury. These events should have brought the band back to good form, right? Wrong. Busted was an often embarrassing attempt to keep the band on the charts, complete with cringe-inducing ballads (“Can’t Stop Falling Into Love”, Diane Warren’s “Wherever Would I Be”) and a song co-written by Foreigner’s Mick Jones (“If You Need Me”) that belongs on someone else’s album. Busted is saved (barely) by “I Can’t Understand It”, “Walk Away” (with Chrissie Hynde), “Had To Make You Mine”, and Roy Wood’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonight”.

But there is one good reason to buy the Busted reissue: it also contains all four tracks from the 1980 EP Found All The Parts, as well as that EP’s bonus single “Everything Works If You Let It”. Those same tracks were previously included on a 2006 CD reissue of the All Shook Up album, but that edition has already been discontinued.

Here is a question for both of the labels that have reissued Cheap Trick albums this year: Is there any way to re-release the band’s self-titled album from 1997, which was originally released on the short-lived indie label Red Ant? Now there is an album that deserves to be available.

One more Cheap Trick-related note: their 1999 live album Music For Hangovers, which was released on CD and on DVD, is now out of print in both formats. I have added a review of the album to the bottom of my Cheap Trick page.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Buckner & Garcia “Pac-Man Fever” (1982)

How old does this make you feel? The video game Pac-Man turned 30 years old this past May. For those who may actually be unfamiliar with this game, its title character is a yellow circle whose mouth opens and closes. The Pac-Man runs around a labyrinthine maze eating dots, while four monsters which look like colored ghosts try to catch him. Does this sound simplistic? By today’s video game standards, it is. That’s the way video games tended to be at the beginning of the 1980’s. They were simply-drawn, adrenaline-releasing no-brainers. And they were very addictive. They used to cost 25 cents per game credit at the arcade, but literally billions of quarters per year were dropped into arcade video game machines in the early ‘80’s. These games thrived at a time when the U.S. economy was in a slump that was nearly as severe as the recent one. One particular industry that suffered at that time was the music business, and the video game craze was often blamed for this. The general consensus was that the money which the youth market once spent on records and tapes was now being eaten up by Pac-Man and other video games of that era.

At least one attempt was made to market music to the era’s video game addicts. A duo named Buckner & Garcia scored a Top Ten single called “Pac-Man Fever” in 1982. Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were two guys from Ohio who wrote novelty songs, radio jingles, and occasional songs recorded by other artists. CBS Records signed the duo, and the success of the single caused the label to order up a full-length Buckner & Garcia album consisting of songs about popular video games, recorded over a one-month period. The resulting album was also titled Pac-Man Fever, and consisted of eight such songs.

The song “Pac-Man Fever” is a fun, if cheesy, novelty song for those who remember the early ‘80’s. Its commercial sound is from the same school as Huey Lewis and the News and the Fabulous Thunderbirds; its lyrics refer to strategies and character names related to the Pac-Man game itself, and evoke a few memories of what it was like to be addicted to the video games of that period (“I don’t have a lot of money but I’m bringin’ everything I made, I’ve got a callus on my finger and my shoulder’s hurtin’, too”). The song is also loaded with sound effects from the game, and it opens with the game’s intro music – which was said to have been the most-played piece of music of 1981 because of the number of times the game was played that year. The “Pac-Man Fever” single belongs in a time capsule.

But the full-length album...maybe not so much. It is undoubtedly difficult to make an entire album based around popular video game concepts, and Pac-Man Fever doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. It’s too sincere to be campy, and too cheesy to be respectable. Not to say that it doesn’t have its charms. “Froggy’s Lament” (which is about the game Frogger) is made likable by froggy talk-sung vocals of the type that are not uncommon among novelty songs. “Mousetrap” is a decent song that could be mistaken for some kind of metaphor if you didn’t know what album it came from. “Ode To a Centipede” (about Centipede) and “Hyperspace” (about Asteroids) are good illustrations of what ‘70’s progressive rock had evolved into by the early-‘80’s, and both make good use of sound effects from the respective games. But on “Do The Donkey Kong”, it is obvious that the duo were trying too hard to score another hit single. “The Defender” is much too cheesy and simple-minded even for this album. And a gentle ballad peppered with sound effects from the nightmarish Berzerk game is a concept that just doesn’t work. Clearly, Pac-Man Fever is the kind of album that is trash to some and a treasure to others. You know who you are.

In 1999, Buckner and Garcia re-recorded the album after failing to obtain the rights from CBS, who had no intention to reissue the album as a CD. The new version was first released independently by the duo in 1999, then released again by K-Tel in 2002 (K-Tel 3012). It is probably a difficult task to recreate any album 17 years after the fact, but an attempt at an exact reproduction of such an of-its-moment album as Pac-Man Fever is likely to be a futile one. To their credit, the duo do a surprisingly good job of reenacting the album’s early-‘80’s pop sounds, which were decidedly anachronistic by 1999. But they just aren’t able to recapture that 1982 feeling. The 1999 version of the album sounds more like a failed attempt to relive a past moment than like an actual souvenir to commemorate that moment. This is especially true on “Mousetrap”; the duo was unable to re-record the sound effects from the long-lost game, so they used actual animal sound effects instead. The song now sounds even less evocative of a video game than it was before. The 1999 version of “The Defender” is a slight improvement over the original, because at least some of its cheese was skimmed off the top. But anyone who wants to really experience the glorious retro-silliness of Pac-Man Fever is better off searching out a vinyl copy of the 1982 original.

Buckner & Garcia “Pac-Man Fever” (Columbia/CBS RC 37941) 1982

Track Listing:

1. Pac-Man Fever -- (about Pac-Man)
2. Froggy's Lament -- (about Frogger)
3. Ode to a Centipede -- (about Centipede)
4. Do the Donkey Kong -- (about Donkey Kong)
5. Hyperspace -- (about Asteroids)
6. The Defender -- (about Defender)
7. Mousetrap -- (about Mouse Trap)
8. Goin' Berzerk -- (about Berzerk)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Eleven years!

Time continues to fly. It has now been eleven years since I first created my website Rarebird’s Rock and Roll Rarity Reviews. This is one time when I cannot say that little has changed with the site in the past year. When my old web page service was discontinued by the provider a few months ago, I moved the site to its new domain at rarebird9.net . It’s something I probably should have done a long time ago. Besides having an address that is easier to remember (and, in this day and age, easier to Tweet), I am now provided with more detailed information about the traffic that comes to my site. If I went by the external counter on my home page – which I have been going by for nearly six years – I would think that only 1 or 2 people visited the site each day. According to my web provider’s stats, the site is actually used by more than 30 unique visitors each day, and that includes the home page. Apparently, many types of hits do not register on the Amazing Counters counter.

Much has changed since 1999, including the music industry. Eleven years ago, music was primarily something that people purchased on a CD, or (to a lesser extent at that point) a cassette or LP. Notwithstanding the current vinyl resurgence, music is fast becoming something that we download instead. Some people, including Sir Richard Branson, are predicting an end to in-store music sales in the near future.

Thus, it is becoming less easy to define a “rare” or “out of print” album than it was when I first created the site. Many songs and albums which are no longer sold in physical form are still available as legal downloads from Amazon.com and iTunes. Such albums can still be classified as “out of print”, but can we really consider them to be “rare” if you don’t need to leave your computer in order to purchase them?

And, if the distribution of music in physical media really does become obsolete, does that mean that every album will technically be out of print? Personally, I’m dreading the thought of a future without album cover art and liner notes. I guess I’m a dinosaur who takes pride in owning albums instead of just having mp3 files stored in a computer. Seriously, where is the fun in that?

If we really are facing a future such as that, I can’t stop it. But I do intend to keep my website up and running for many years to come, even if we reach a point where the concept of the site stops making sense. Once again, I want to thank everyone who has visited and supported the site in any way over the past 11 years. It has been very encouraging to learn that there are more of you than I thought.