Day One hundred and seventy: "Pac-Man" from Medium Rarities
Al’s career is full of happy accidents. It’s littered with rejections and other bits of seemingly bum luck that turned out to be fortuitous. When Michael Jackson declined Al’s request to parody “Black or White” as “Snack All Night”, for example, it left room on Al’s next album for “Smells Like Nirvana.”
And when the half-wits over at Atlantic nixed the James Blunt “You’re Beautiful” parody “You’re Pitiful” for impressively idiotic reasons, it led to the explosive release of “White & Nerdy”, Al’s top-charting single to date. “White & Nerdy” made it all the way to number nine on the Billboard Top 100 charts.
In an appropriately weird coincidence, Buckner & Garcia’s 1981 smash “Pac-Man Fever” similarly broke out of the novelty song ghetto, Kool-Aid Man style, and made it all the way to number nine on the pop charts. Overcome with a serious case of Pac-Man Fever, Al recorded his own tribute to the ghost-gobbling sensation sweeping arcades throughout the nation.
With drummer/right hand man Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, guitarist Joe Nipper and bassist Tim Matta, Al parodied The Beatles’ “Tax Man” as “Pac-Man” and sent the ensuing magic to Dr. Demento, who was overjoyed to play the timely parody on his show until he was hit with a cease and desist letter that instilled in the young and impressionable Al that it might be a good idea to receive clear permission before recording or releasing parodies.
So while the monsters in Buckner & Garcia had astonishing success with their musical tribute to Pac-Man it was back to the drawing board for Al, who would not be able to release the would be single until decades later as one of the main attractions of Medium Rarities.
In hindsight, it’s miraculous that Al managed, like Buckner & Garcia, to break out of the novelty music/funny music ghetto and conquer the mainstream. If “Pac-Man” had been released, and hit the charts, it would have made it harder for Al to prove himself as a recording artist with a future, not just a zany kid from The Dr. Demento Show with a couple of silly songs. Pac-Man mania was undoubtedly a passing fad; being permanently associated with it could easily have led to Al being pigeon-holed as a wacky opportunist, a singles artist at best, not someone we’d be discussing reverently four decades later.
“Pac Man” is yet another early tongue-in-cheek ode to obsession, this time sung from the perspective of a reformed pinball maniac pathologically obsessed with Pac-Man. The humor in Al’s hymns to consumer obsession often comes from the incongruity of someone experiencing life-changing enthusiasm for something as ridiculous and unlikely as Ed McMahon’s personality or the popular garbage television program Gilligan’s Island.
But I am old and lame enough to attest that people, particularly kids and teenagers, went absolutely insane for “Pac-Man.” It became a preeminent fad of the early 1980s, with addicted video game players pumping quarter after quarter into the slots in a mad frenzy to get the high score and beat the game.
In that respect, it’s like cable TV, the subject of the early Al song “Cable TV.” People, and by “people" I of course mean myself, were really transformed by their exposure to cable TV and its myriad wonders. So with “Pac-Man”, Al was essentially taking something very real in the culture—a wild mania for video games in particular but one annoyingly addictive game in particular—and exaggerating it to a comic extent.
Al sure sounds hazily, happily hypnotized by his new God here as he sings about quitting his job, selling his home and having all of his mail forwarded to his new, permanent in front of a Pac-Man arcade game.
Lyrically, “Pac Man” finds Al on the familiar, fertile ground of pop-culture/consumerist obsession. Musically, “Pac Man” boasts a confidence and swagger understandably missing from homemade recordings of just Al and his accordion. There’s nothing tentative about the performances here: “Pac-Man” just plain rocks, possibly because The Beatles were a really good band. One of the best. If you have not heard their stuff you should really check them out. This might sound ridiculous, but I can totally see some obsessive doing a project like this one, only with The Beatles instead of “Weird Al” Yankovic. They’re that good.
“Pac-Man” may very well have marked the first time that Al took an idea that looks lazy and hack on paper—a timely Pac-Man themed parody based on a classic song with a very similar name—and made something special and overachieving out of it. It certainly would not be the last.
Al might have lost the “Pac-Man” battle to Buckner & Garcia. The song was such a hit that the album of the same name went Gold despite every song being video-game based, including the follow-up semi-hit “Do the Donkey Kong” and “Ode to a Centipede.” But if Al lost that particularly silly skirmish, he ended up winning the war. Buckner & Garcia might have scored the hit song but Al went on to have a hit career.
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