Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Buckner & Garcia - Pac-Man Fever (1982)

I was about to start work on a review of the Donkey Kong Country series. Searching for a title to the article, my brain stumbled upon "Do the Donkey Kong," a song by Buckner & Garcia. Famous for their 1982 top-ten hit "Pac-Man Fever," the duo were signed to cut an album full of video game-related songs, one of which was the aforementioned Donkey Kong track. As the story goes, the guys wanted to release their hit with a more varied selection of pop tunes, but the record company wanted the arcade stuff.

Before listening to this record, and doing the research, I assumed Buckner & Garcia were video game fans desperately looking for another single. I assumed the other seven tracks would be embarrassing attempts to recapture the Pac glory. Once I finally listened to them, I saw there was real songwriting talent behind all the allusions to joysticks.

Track listing:
1 - Pac-Man Fever (3:48)
2 - Froggy's Lament (3:18)

3 - Ode to a Centipede (5:37)

4 - Do the Donkey Kong (4:24)

5 - Hyperspace (4:07)

6 - The Defender (4:02)

7 - Mousetrap (4:00)

8 - Goin' Bezerk (4:17)

The opening track remains a home run, integrating real sound effects from the game into a more-than-capable pop song. Despite being labeled a novelty hit, "Pac-Man Fever" never feels exceptionally goofy. The musicianship is on point, with smooth backing vocals and a hummable melody. My main trepidation with listening to an entire album of these songs was because "Pac-Man Fever" was such a good overall tribute to the arcade era. If every song had such specific reverence to its corresponding video game, this would be a painful half hour.

So on to track two, "Froggy's Lament," which you can probably guess is inspired by the classic cross-the-road game Frogger. The gravelly narration reminds me of the song "Hot Rod Lincoln." It has the makings of a good B-side* to the title track because it's quick and catchy in its own right. The song isn't heavy-handed in referring to the game. No one's talking about quarters or high scores.

"Ode to a Centipede" is next, which switches things up from bouncy pop to a moodier vein. The dueling keyboard and driving piano are reminiscent of many 80s hits in a good way. Spoiling this atmosphere is the bizarre delivery of our singer on cheesy speaking parts. Among other things, he asks the titular centipede if he has Nikes for all of his feet. If "Centipede" took a page from the track before it, and dropped the overt game references, it could have been really cool. At over 5 minutes, it goes on a verse or few too long.

"Do the Donkey Kong" shares too many thematic elements with the title track for my tastes. It's not a bad song, but feels lazy in such close proximity to "Pac-Man Fever." Track five is called "Hyperspace," inspired by the game Asteroids. It too seems to suffer from being another fun and peppy song with well-executed rapid-fire lyrics near so many like it.

"The Defender" made me smile because it sounded like an 80s TV theme song through and through. I can just picture actors turning to the camera with cheeky acknowledgment as their credit appears. It bears repeating, though, that the sequence on this album is a detriment. Played in a row, these songs change just enough to sound fun when enjoyed in the background. Listened to with any attention, they run together. I guess I shouldn't be surprised given the genesis of this album. Their website reported it was turned out in a mere few weeks. But there was promise shown in the early tracks. The songs work better individually than in a collection.

"Mousetrap" keeps the hit coming, unfortunately. "Goin' Bezerk" takes us back to some kind of innovation. It would not sound out of place - stripped of video game lyrics and sound effects of course - among other midtempo 80s love songs. From where I sit, we end the album on a thumbs up.


What we basically have are two talented pop writers cornered by a concept. To draw a tortured analogy: none of the songs are gutter balls, but half of them just seem to be after getting to the end of the alley. It's a curious piece of nostalgia with songs other than the hit worth trying.

Little caveat emptor, however: the album was re-released and re-recorded for CD in 1999. That version sounds like one of those karaoke CDs, with the original game samples often replaced, and the music and vocals noticeably different from the slick production of the original "Pac-Man Fever" single.

* For the record, Pac-Man Fever's proper B-side in the 80s was simply an instrumental version.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jason:

I had the opportunity to read your review of our album Pac Man Fever. As you can imagine over the years we have been reviewed by most everyone in the business but I wanted you to know that I thought your review was one of the best. Even though it wasn’t all positive I felt it was fair, intelligent and well written.

I found your comment on “Goin’ Berserk” very perceptive as the song was actually an 80’s love song originally. When CBS told us to make all the songs about video games we rewrote the lyrics to fit the Berserk game.

And on “Ode To A Centipede” we were purposely being campy with the talking parts. We envisioned a lonely kid playing the game and talking to the Centipede. In the creative world everything doesn’t always translate as one would wish.

Interestingly we are currently working on a DVD that addresses the making of the album with comments on the writing and production of each song.

As you know they are celebrating 30 years of Pac Man this year and there are several things going on for us. One includes a new single release which we would like to send you for review if you are interested.

Thanks again for taking the time to review our music.

Jerry Buckner
Buckner & Garcia Productions

Bucner & Garcia said...

Thank you again for your review of our album, “Pac Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. I would like to invite you to check out my new internet show, “The 1 Hit Wonders Show” with Jerry Buckner:

It features interviews with the artists and producers behind the classic one hit wonder records of all time.