In the mid 80s, an album came out that has come to be known as the "Sgt. Pepper of the 80s", or the "Kid A of the 80s", depending on whether you want to reference it to something that came before it or after it.
The quintessential "concept album", Pac Man Fever hit the charts in 1982 and has stayed on for a colossal 23 years and counting, minus a short absence when the recently-divorced Miss Pac Man acrimoniously attempted to sue for child support. Following a court settlement, the album promptly re-entered the Billboard charts and sat there like a pet rock until the present day.
edit The Sounds
The first thing people think of when they think of Pac Man Fever is all the sound effects that give it its particular aura. Mastermind Jerry Garcia explains:
"I don't know how the idea came up, but for some reason it was extremely important to get all these video game sounds on the record. So I had a bunch of 3 x 5 cards, and wrote out a question on each card. Starting out with simple questions like 'what is your name?', 'what is your quest?', and 'what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?', and eventually going into darker questions like 'have you ever thumped anybody?', 'were you in the right?', 'did you get off on it?' and 'can I watch next time?'.
"I would walk up to each game in the arcade, put a quarter in (I went through a shitload of quarters that day), and ask it the questions on all the cards. One of the best responses to the question 'are you frightened of dying?' was given by Berzerk: 'INTRUDER ALERT, INTRUDER ALERT'. That was just magic."
edit The Story
Opening with the title track, we are introduced to the protagonist's world from the detached perspective of a boy playing a game. The boy is broke, suffering from an addiction of some kind, and living vicariously through our schizophrenic and sex-crazed ("I'm gonna eat the cherries up and take them all for a ride") hero. There is however no mention of him being deaf, dumb, or blind.
As the album progresses, we cycle through the various personas fighting to take hold of the protagonist, apparently named "Froggy". "At times I wish Froggy had wings", says the boy. We then meet Froggy's enemy, code named Centipede. In a not-so-subtle swipe at mega-corporate sweatshop culture, Froggy lets rip with a scathing "go ahead and run your little legs off/ do you have Nikes for all of them?"
On the surface, Do the Donkey Kong seems like a mere break in the tension, and not a moment too soon; however, it does challenge us to question our sexual preconceptions, inviting us to "do it with a partner" or "do it all alone", culminating in the next song in which Froggy is "shooting my rockets all over the place". Now well into the second side of the LP, Froggy is not out of the woods. His submission to an addiction, which we now realize to be a sexual one, has left him in Hyperspace, where he is saddled with the responsibility of being The Defender.
The Defender has been accused by some critics of falling short of the glory of the rest of the album, due to having such mundane and thrown-together lyrics that I can't even come up with a decent joke about them here. This is, however, subjective, and rarely do I hear of anyone saying that The Defender brings the whole album down with it.
Mousetrap, which for some reason I'm going to refer to as The Defender part two, is the next song.
Finally, Berzerk leaves us with a haunting message. "I'm berzerk over you", Froggy tells us. But is he talking to a significant other? Perhaps he has found love? Or is "you" the audience, all of us, a man driven to insanity, schizophrenia and sexual addiction resulting from an unhealthy relationship with his audience? Maybe he's singing to the boy "playing" him via the joystick. Or perhaps the "you" refers to himself -- perhaps Froggy is coming face to face with narcissism. It's this kind of ambiguity that leaves us eager to give Pac Man Fever yet another spin, to hear it from yet another angle, to see another of its facets sparkling, and to look yet deeper into our own hearts and minds.
edit The Fever
Pac Man Fever itself is a potentially fatal contagion related to Mad Cow Disease with symptoms similar to Tuberculosis. It is usually spread through the unsafe handling of Ghost Monsters. It was because of the epidemic nature of this illness in the early '80s that the South Korean government approached Mr. Garcia about making this album. "Please, Jerry Bear," said the South Korean ambassador, looking almost like a cadaver himself in his stern black suit. "The planet needs you. Help us to warn everyone of this terrible disease before it is too late."
In that spirit, here are some tips that will help you avoid catching Pac Man Fever:
- Avoid shooting, handling, or gobbling a ghost monster that appears sick.
- Wear latex or rubber gloves when field-dressing or butchering ghost monsters.
- Be sure and remove all the ghost monster's internal organs, assuming it has any.
- Remember to bone the ghost monster. Again, assuming this is anatomically possible.
- Do not use household knives or utensils to gut your ghost monster.
- Avoid jumping aimlessly over A Pair of Spring shoes.
- Never eat a ghost monster’s brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen, or lymph nodes.
- Always wash hands and instruments thoroughly after dressing and processing ghost monster meat.
- Use a 50/50 solution of household chlorine bleach and water to disinfect tools and work surfaces.
Some tell-tale symptoms of Pac Man Fever are:
- Persistent spasms of the left or right hand.
- Spontaneous evaporation of coinage.
- Suspicion that large, colorful ghosts are coming to get you.
- The feeling that you can transport from one end of a room to the opposite end by simply walking down an "endless" hallway.
- Hunger pangs for cherries, strawberries, oranges, and white dots.
- Solid walls are perceived as solid, blue lines.
- All names of family members and friends have been forgotten and you now refer to them as "Dumbass", "Retard", "Numbnuts", and "Chuck".
If you believe you have caught Pac Man Fever, swallow at least two Power Pellets and seek immediate medical attention.
It is a testament to the visionary genius of Jerry Garcia (and his collaborator, Ted Nugent), that what started as a simple public health service was transformed into what is surely the greatest album of all time.
It should be noted that the only cure for Pac Man Fever is more Pac Man cowbell.
edit The Nuge
Although masterminded by famous fingerless hairy man Jerry Garcia, Pac Man Fever was, of course, performed and produced by the one and only Ted Nugent shortly before he was strangled to death by a sasquatch (or, more likely, Jerry Garcia).
edit The Film
The album proved to be so popular that the film rights were snapped up by MGM in a bidding war with Sony. Then Sony bought MGM, so it really doesn't matter.
The film, entitled "Ted Nugent's Pac-Man Fever" because of a copyright dispute with Pack Man Suitcases, was released January 12th, 1983.14. It starred Haley Joel Osment as Froggy and Oprah Winfrey as Centipede, and was directed by Alan Parsons (To keep secrecy for filming, the working title of the film was The Alan Parsons Project). The film was met with considerable approval (It is Roger Ebert's favorite film), though the film was too artsy for the masses. It has since become a staple of art-house theaters and midnight movies.