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 (original LP sleeve)

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)