Friday, April 11th, 2014
Song #14: “I Ran (So Far Away)” — Flock of Seagulls (1982)
I’ve really enjoyed the rise of Future Islands, a Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina band that recently hit critical mass — if for no other reason than I always feel like I’m back in college when I hear them. The time I first saw them, I jokingly described them as A Flock of Seagulls… if Tom Waits had been the lead singer. While Future Islands’ style has since become distinctively their own, they still sound like a they just came through a wormhole from the 1980s.
Hopefully they will avoid the fate of A Flock of Seagulls, better remembered (and mocked) now for their hair than the droll synthpop of their New Wave hits. “Space Age Love Song” and “Wishing (I had a photograph of you)” ensured they wouldn’t be one-hit wonders, but so what — it is “I Ran” that will be played again and again (as it was just about every hour on MTV in 1982). My freshman year at IUP the local automated radio station played it so religiously you could set your clocks by it, and there wasn’t a dorm you could walk through without hearing it echo down the hallway.
As with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” I could listen to the bionic reverb that makes up the backbone of the song on an infinite loop. Forget about the hypnotically-bad haircut; “I Ran” is mesmerizing all by itself.
Bonus North Carolina connection: After their last hit in 1984, A Flock of Seagulls went into a slow spiral over the next decade or so. The breakup, when it came, was painful, and created a rift between the two brothers at the core of the group. They reportedly didn’t talk to each other for years. It turned out that Alister Score, the drummer, now lives just north of here, one county over. When lead singer Mike Score formed a new version of the band for an ’80s oldies tour in 2008 with Naked Eyes and Human League (cripes it hurt to type that line), and played at nearby Koka Booth, he invited his brother to sit in and play the drums for “I Ran.” Awwww.
Monday, September 30th, 2013
I watched too much television growing up. My dad always warned us that if we didn’t stop, we’d turn into one giant eye — like the CBS logo. And he was right. TV is a drug, a powerful narcotic, and I was an addict. I wasted many many hours on really stupid shows, hours that I wish I had back now to waste on something important.
That said, there was one thing I loved about television, and that was the strange modern custom American networks developed around the launch of the fall season. The TV Guide preview, the annual handicapping of new shows, the ritual sacrifice of the first cancellation. Even if I didn’t watch all the shows (and you couldn’t back then), I loved looking at the programming grid.
Head over to wikipedia and check out the grids for every TV season back to 1946: it is a fascinating time capsule, especially when it comes to shows, concepts and entire networks you’ve probably never heard of (Rhumba dancing in prime time! Something called the DuMont Network!)
It wasn’t just me — there were actually several different board games in the ’60s and early ’70s where players would compete against each other in creating successful programming lineups for fictional networks.
While I generally agree with Marshall McLuhan’s famous assessment of TV, there are a few shows I could watch again (and again in summer repeats) that I have fond memories of, or are just truly great on a literary, cultural or entertaining level. So with that in mind, I give you the perfect Fall Schedule for JPTV.
[click on grid to enbiggen]
Thursday, June 6th, 2013
Video Game #2: Tempest (1981)
Is Tempest the most relentless video game ever created? It is certainly the most intense vector graphic title ever designed — pretty good considering it is composed of a handful of lines and basic shapes. And yet this simple set up reduces players to pure reaction, unable even to catch their breath between levels. All you have to do is shoot the pointy opponents sliding up the walls of a pit, and clear all the obstacles in your path before you plunge into the abyss.
In other words, it was exactly like high school.
Originally envisioned as a “3-D” version of Space Invaders, Tempest quickly mutated and surpassed its digital ancestor in every way, especially speed. As you danced on the edge of a dizzying vanishing-point perspective, slings, arrows and things were flung at you in quick succession. Just as soon as a pit was cleared of moving targets, you were fired like a bullet through a gun barrel to the next level (better hope you blasted all the spikes in your way, or your trip would be a short one). Each level the shape of the pit became more elaborate, and the objects flung at you more deadly. No music, no cute cartoon characters, just pure digital rush.
Thursday, April 25th, 2013
Video Game #8: Cyclone (1988)
“We have a winner!”
Considering how many quarters I dropped in pinball machines over the decades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one. This is no token appearance, however; this game earned its place on this list. Pinball, once a reigning symbol of juvenile delinquency, was dethroned as king of the arcade when video came along in the 1970s. Thanks to a revival lead by a handful of designers at Williams Electronics, the pinball game came roaring back in the late ’80s with digital interfaces and elaborate Rube Goldberg-like structures in titles like Bad Cats, Pin*Bot and Comet.
Williams’ follow up to Comet, Cyclone, was that rare sequel that’s better than the original. The roller coaster/carnival-themed game was so popular and so widely distributed — and so well constructed — you can still find working machines in many places today, the digital voice of its carnival barker announcer calling out insults as patrons pass by.
Thursday, April 4th, 2013
Video Game #9: Spy Hunter (1983)
What’s better than watching James Bond? Driving his gadget-filled sports car … or at least the arcade version of it. In the most obvious idea ever for a video game, Spy Hunter put you behind the sexy sexy wheel of a sleek hi-tech ride and sent you out to make the world — or at least the street — safe for democracy.
Seriously, who hasn’t been stuck in traffic at one point or another and wished they had a machine gun to clear the road ahead?
Spy Hunter armed you with all the clandestine classics — machine guns, oil slicks, smoke screens, surface to air missiles — to neutralize wave after wave of nefarious opponents in dark sedans trying to run you off the road, slash your tires, or blow you up. Of course it was a huge smash.
According to something I read on the internet, the designers at Bally originally wanted to use the James Bond theme for their game, but when the rights proved too costly, they went with another brassy soundtrack from the height of the Cold War: Henry Mancini’s theme to Peter Gunn. A now-forgotten ’50s TV show about a tough gumshoe — forgotten except for Mancini’s cool compositions — the pick was a perfect for Spy Hunter, and single-handedly reintroduced the Mancini song to a new generation … at least until Art of Noise came along.
Numerous attempts have been made to update, reinvent and sequelize Spy Hunter (every few years there’s even a threat of a big screen movie), but nothing has been as remotely successful — or fun — as the original arcade game. Like the Peter Gunn theme, it’s a classic all by itself.
Friday, March 22nd, 2013
Comedy #12: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)
“That was my skull!”
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” came out the summer I graduated high school. I went to see it with my good friend Lisa Calkin, who had shared most of the same classes as me since 6th grade. It was a week before the both of us left for different colleges. Coming out of the theater afterward, I was stunned. I said something like ‘you know, except for the sex and drugs, that WAS our high school experience.’
Okay, I may have wrecked my car a little differently.
30 years later and this is still one of the best depictions of high school life — albeit now a lovely time capsule of life in the early ’80s — and still one of the best comedies out there, period: forget prefixes like “teen-” or “sex-” or even “teen-sex-” comedy. (Although, thanks to changing technology, some jokes need to be deconstructed to the youngin’s … like the time we watched it when Bettina was living with us, and we had to explain to her teenage son why it was funny when all the students sniffed the mimeographed tests … trust me kid, that killed in 1982!)
This movie is tight, too — not an ounce of fat on it, and yet it is full of relatable characters moments, cringe-inducing memories of awkward adolescence that are dead on, and an awesome soundtrack (most of which, alas, is not on the official soundtrack album.) It’s the kind of movie that, a quarter century later, compels someone to create this trailer mashup:
Friday, March 1st, 2013
Video Game #14: Karate Champ (1984)
My brother texted me last week that the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was closing after its rent was suddenly raised. It may eventually open elsewhere, but in the meantime he took his girls down for an afternoon of arcade classics. We talked later about how, as much joy a great pinball game can bring, there’s never been a two-player version, where you can go head-to-head against an opponent. Like your brother.
Enter the fighting games. Player v. Player. While the graphics and gameplay have grown more sophisticated over the decades (in most cases intimidatingly so), there is something to be said about the simple joys of the first fighter game, Karate Champ. No special weapons, no power moves, just pixilated karate. Because there were only a few controls and combos, the match really came down to knowing your opponent. In other words, it was the perfect game for two brothers to go slap happy on each other.
Plus, it was the first game you could take out your opponent by kicking him in the nuts. Ahh, technology.
Friday, March 1st, 2013
Song #44: “88 Lines About 44 Women”— The Nails (1984)
Mais oui …
Friday, February 22nd, 2013
Song #45: “Girl U Want” — Devo (1980)
I think high school would’ve been more fun if I had listened to more DEVO.
That is all.
Friday, February 22nd, 2013
Video Game #15: Xevious (1982)
In retrospect, this is just a really good scrolling shooter where you (again) shoot down hordes of invading aliens intent on conquering Earth. (This seemed to happen a lot in the early ’80s.)
At the time however…
Xevious came out at the very peak of the first great wave of video games — Atari even produced TV commercials announcing its arrival (unheard of at the time) — and incorporated every lesson Japanese and American companies had learned up until then about what made a successful and addictive arcade game. It was fun, challenging, rewarded successful hand/eye coordination, and its oversized cabinet came with booming speakers that bathed the player in an array of mesmerizing, cascading sound.
Xevious also introduced a number of concepts — such the idea of defeating a “big boss” to win the game — that have been thoroughly incorporated into other game designs over the last 30 years.
What I remember most though is the strange joy my brother and I felt whenever we walked into the Space Port (the arcade at the Colonial Park Mall) and didn’t see anyone playing Xevious. The game was hugely popular when it first came out, and for the longest time you had to queue up to play. It was in the prime spot at the front of the arcade entrance, and you would hover about hitting lesser games, trying not blow your precious horde of quarters on something you really didn’t want to play while waiting your turn. So if, after riding your bike all the way out to the mall, you turned the corner into Space Port and saw the machine was free, you knew it was going to be a really good day.
Speaking of free, you can apparently now play Xevious here online — no quarter, and no queueing, needed.