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Eaten alive

Twenty years ago this spring, Atlanta duo infected the airwaves with "Pac-Man Fever." But don't hold your breath waiting for another videogame music hit.


Billboard's Top 10 singles chart of March 1982 neatly reflects the highs (J. Geils Band's "Centerfold") and lows (Air Supply's "Sweet Dreams") of the early-'80s pop music landscape. Sandwiched between Diana Ross' "Mirror Mirror" (No. 8) and Olivia Newton-John's "Make a Move on Me" (No. 10) was a snappy little number from Buckner and Garcia called "Pac-Man Fever." Launching with an instantly memorable lyric -- "I've got a pocketful of quarters and I'm headed to the arcade" -- the song is strikingly goofball and remarkably earnest all at once. While many of those who remember the tune have since filed it under "disposable pop arcana," others regard it as the ultimate ode to the classic videogame era.

Junior high school buddies Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were just "two bozos from Akron" (their words) when they moved to Atlanta in the mid-'70s. The songwriter/producers were recording commercial jingles and engineering the occasional high-profile track (including the theme song to television's "WKRP in Cincinnati") when they came up with the idea for "Pac-Man Fever" in the fall of 1981.

"We were recording every night in the studio, and we used to stop at this little pub on the corner of Marietta called Shillings," Garcia recalls. "They had a Pac-Man machine in there real early on, before anybody really knew what it was. We'd stop in there on the way home, have a couple of beers, and play the machine. We got hooked on it, and we thought, 'Hey, this might be something that we can make a song about.'"

Note to aspiring songwriters: It's just that simple. Released 20 years ago this March on CBS Records, the "Pac-Man Fever" single went on to sell 1.2 million copies across the United States, finally dropping off the Billboard charts in May 1982 after 14 weeks.

Buckner and Garcia wrote "Pac-Man Fever" in about an hour at Jerry's home in Doraville on his childhood piano. They took the song to a local artist management company, which sent them into the studio to record it. When none of the major record companies would touch the tune, the pair released the album in Atlanta only. Local radio latched onto the tune, and in a matter of days Buckner and Garcia had sold more than 10,000 singles.

Meanwhile, the son of a CBS Records executive got the tape and couldn't stop playing it. CBS signed the pair, and they recorded eight other tunes -- including "Ode to a Centipede" and "Do the Donkey Kong" -- for the first videogame music concept album. It sold 900,000 copies.

Buckner and Garcia found themselves at the center of the videogame zeitgeist virtually overnight -- and they had a hit record to boot. Interviews and TV appearances soon followed, including spots on "Entertainment Tonight," "American Bandstand" and "Solid Gold." In retrospect, it is incredible that a three-minute pop song devoted to the pleasures of the joystick could reach such a venerable position on the charts.

"There were a lot of great records out then, and people still like them," says Buckner. "But they didn't always capture the imagination of the kids and the people at the time."

The success of "Pac-Man Fever" is indicative of the hypnotic allure videogames held over the American public in the early '80s. But the appeal of videogames is perhaps even stronger now than it was in 1982. As the industry has grown, driving sales that challenge those of the Hollywood studios, video gaming has become more complex and, thus, more entertaining.

So one is left to ponder: Is it time for videogame music resurgence? After all, many of the same 25- to 35-year-olds busy making music in bands today were the same kids giving up their quarters for Frogger and plunking down money for "Pac-Man Fever" two decades ago. In other words, we've officially entered the age in which musical trendsetters have grown up in a world already populated by videogames.

While video gaming's presence can be witnessed occasionally in rock and pop, it's most clearly felt in hip-hop and techno music, where samples from classic arcade-era games and beyond are found amid beats and drum loops.

One need only turn to the Yosumi Records two-volume Game Over series to get a feeling for video gaming's influence on hip-hop. Featuring a diverse collection of artists -- including Masta Ace, Craig Mack, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One -- 2000's Game Over and 2001's Game Over II compile beats and rhymes semi-inspired by videogames. In most cases, the samples are subtle and hard to perceive, so as not to overpower the tracks. Other times, the technique is more in-your-face. The underground hit "Super Brooklyn," for instance, contains a prominent sample from Super Mario Brothers.

But the diverse world of electronic music seems to hold the greatest affection for videogames. Creatively speaking, the marriage makes sense. There is a great deal of crossover between the realms of DJ culture and gaming culture.

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