There are plenty of quintessential albums that every music fan should own. And it’s safe to assume opinions as to what those are will differ depending on whom you ask. But if you grew up splitting time between your home stereo and the arcade, then Buckner and Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever is something that should be in your K-Tel Record Selector.
First, a little backstory…
Video games during its early years was an industry that thrived on being formulaic. By the late 70’s, you could walk into an arcade and play any game you wanted – so long as it was a space shooter. Or some variation of Pong.
Perhaps it is a slight exaggeration. But by and large, space battles reigned supreme, represented by games like Taito’s Space Invaders and Atari’s Asteroids. And while incredibly tame by today’s standards, many of them were seen as somewhat violent, appealing more to males. As a result, arcade floors were quite the sausage fest.
This would change by the end of 1980. Toru Iwatani, a young Namco employee with no formal training and only a few years experience, envisioned a game about eating. The cute design and nonviolent game play, he hoped, would attract more female players. No doubt you know the game we’re talking about: Puck-Man.
In May of 1980, Puck-Man hit Japanese arcade floors. While it performed admirably, it did little to dethrone the standard space-themed games like Space Invaders and Namco’s own Galaxian.
Nonetheless, Midway Manufacturing secured the rights to release the game here in the states. A quick name change to deny clever vandals a cheap laugh, and Pac-Man was born. America fell in love almost instantly. Standing as a unique entry in a room full of noisy spaceships exploding into fire and shrapnel, Pac-Man proved Iwatani’s concept correct. The simple game with its jaunty jingle, eye-catching colors and non-violent action brought new players (and their quarters) to the arcades, including women.
Soon everyone knew exactly what that yellow circle minus a wedge was called. With 100,000 cabinets sold, all together earning four billion quarters in just its first year, Pac-Man became more than just a game. It became a pop-culture phenomenon.
It didn’t take long for the license to appear on anything and everything. You name it and Pac-Man appeared on it: lunch boxes, clothing, board games, puzzles, Colorforms, books, coffee mugs, glassware, school supplies, TV trays, stickers, Coleco Tabletops, plush toys, yo-yos, breakfast cereal, vitamins, novelty telephones, roller skates, even a Saturday Morning cartoon. And courtesy of the songwriting team of Buckner & Garcia: a hit record.
Hailing from Akron, OH, Jerry Buckner began his music career as part of a psychedelic rock band called Wild Butter. They released only one self-titled album in 1970, producing the single: Roxanna (Thank You For Getting Me High). The song earned the band some regional airplay, but they were otherwise unknown.
Gary Garcia, meanwhile, was also part of the 1970’s Akron rock scene, a distinction shared by not only his future creative partner, but also Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders, The Waitresses and Devo. Although Garcia was not credited on Wild Butter’s eponymous release, he played with the band until their break up a short time later.
Soon afterwards, Buckner and Garcia turned their attention to songwriting. The duo relocated to Atlanta, GA where they penned a few catchy commercial jingles, providing them with steady work.
A song written in frustration gave them their first brush with fame. “Gotta Hear the Beat”, released under the name Animal Jack, generated some attention from radio stations. While the novelty tune didn’t achieve the same kind of recognition enjoyed by songs like C.W. McCoy’s Convoy”, it was popular enough to an official release by Laurie Records in 1977.
In 1980 came another novelty song and another pseudonym. “Merry Christmas in the NFL”, released under the name Willis “The Guard” & Vigorish and released on Handshake Records, managed to hit No. 82 on the Billboard Charts. Though it never enjoyed the longevity of many other Christmas singles. Rumor has it that Howard Cosell was none too pleased with the impression of him used in the song and may have been behind the limited airplay.
By 1981, Buckner and Garcia were doing quite well for themselves. They weren’t household names but they had steady songwriting gigs. And as fate would have it, they happened upon a Pac-Man cabinet while at a restaurant taking a break from their work. Having only heard of the game, they decided to give it a try since it was the thing everyone was doing at the time.
That night, instead of working on music, they stayed at the restaurant and played Pac-Man for two straight hours. The time was not wasted, though, considering it gave them their next great idea.
Buckner & Garcia realized that a catchy song about the newest national obsession (and their new favorite addiction) could serve as a catchy calling card to sell their services. This is why they went with the decision to forgo pseudonyms and, instead, release it under their own name. For the song, they incorporated actual sounds from the arcade machine. And since it was located in an active delicatessen, rumor has it sounds of customers ordering sandwiches far in the background leaked into the mix. (Personally, I’ve never been able to hear it. Perhaps someone with an expensive turntable and keen ear can confirm.)
“Pac-Man Fever”, as the song came to be called, was shopped around to several record labels, all of whom rejected it. Luckily, they had a connection at Atlanta, GA’s 94Q, who gave the song the love it deserved. It didn’t take long for “Pac-Man Fever” to find an enthusiastic audience. Thanks to frequent requests, the song became practically inescapable.
Copies of the Pac-Man Fever 45 were hastily pressed and released on their own BGO label. They sold out almost immediately. News of the song’s success caught the attention of CBS Records (Columbia in the US), who wasted no time granting Buckner & Garcia’s song a wide-release.
The major-label release of Pac-Man Fever hit stores in December of 1981 on seven inch, twelve inch, even a square picture disc. With the single’s strong performance right out of the gate, CBS Records insisted on a full album.
Buckner & Garcia were a couple of musicians that perhaps dabbled in the novelty song business and also happened to enjoy Pac-Man at the height of its popularity. The duo hope hoped that the album CBS wanted would allow them to showcase their wide assortment of songs they’ve amassed since they began playing and writing in the 70’s on a wider variety of topics. CBS nixed that idea right quick. They wanted more songs about video games, especially since Pac-Man’s success led to a slew of imaginative new cabinets pulling in mountains of quarters. It was the height of the arcade’s Golden Age and CBS was looking to capitalize on it.
Even though they feared being pigeonholed into one genre (rightfully so) Buckner & Garcia reluctantly complied. Over the next 10 days, the songwriters churned out seven more songs about popular video games, such as Frogger, Defender, Berserk and, the arcade’s newest sensation, Donkey Kong.
The album, also entitled Pac-Man Fever, was released in January of 1982 on vinyl, cassette and 8-track. The title track’s single continued selling quite well, hitting #9 on the Billboard Top 100 by March and eventually selling 1.2 million copies by the end of the year. It’s success earned Buckner and Garcia television appearances, including American Bandstand and Solid Gold.
Do The Donkey Kong was also released as a follow-up single in 1982. It just missed the Billboard Top 100, peaking at 103. It’s lackluster performance didn’t hurt album sales. Pac-Man Fever (the album) eventually earned Gold Certification from the RIAA.
As an added bonus, the vinyl version of Pac-Man Fever doubles as a mini-strategy guide. The inner-sleeve contains some patterns players could use to go further in the game and improve their scores. And since having a high Pac-Man score was an accomplishment you can put on a college application back in the early 80’s, it was a welcome addition.
After Pac-Man Fever, Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia were ready to move on from video games. Inspired after watching a movie about a lovable alien, the duo recorded “E.T. I Love You” in 1982. Their manager brought it not only to CBS Records but Steven Spielberg himself. The feedback they received was overwhelmingly positive. The song was set to see a wide release with Spielberg’s blessing. Unfortunately, Neil Diamond got in the way.
Neil, also moved by E.T.’s lovable big-screen antics, wrote “Heartlight”. Since he was also a CBS artist, the label made the decision to lend their full support to Diamond’s song instead of Buckner and Garcia’s. Even though they had to pay a $25,000 settlement to Universal Studios for Diamond’s unauthorized use of the film’s ideas in the song.
“E.T. I Love You” was shelved for almost six months, long after the movie’s hype had died down. While seeing some airplay, CBS themselves offered no promotion as they only put it out to avoid a lawsuit. The original single never saw release on any album. CBS dropped Buckner and Garcia from their roster the following year.
By the late 90’s, a lot of casual music fans had long since tossed their turntables and cassette decks aside for digital recordings – either via compact disc or soon-to-be-devastating MP3s. But those who wanted to enjoy Pac-Man Fever in modern formats were left hanging, as the album never saw an official CD release. Sony Music, having purchased CBS Records in 1987, refused to release it. Facing no other solution, Buckner & Garcia chose to completely re-record the album. The official (but not original) CD version of Pac-Man Fever was released in 1999.
While purists may be disappointed, the duo did manage to capture the original as closely as possible. The song that suffered the most was “Mouse Trap”, as they had no access to a working machine and had to settle on real dog and cat sound effects to replace the originals. (Too bad they didn’t have access to MAME. Mouse Trap was working in the emulator by then.)
By the way, if you hear Pac-Man Fever being used in a movie or a TV Show, you’re likely hearing the 1999 recording.
The CD version of Pac-Man Fever was soon followed-up by an MP3-only album entitled Now & Then. While “E.T I Love You” is included, it is once again a new recording as opposed to the Sony-owned original.
The duo continued working through the 2000’s while also embracing the respect and appreciation showered upon them from the retro gaming community. On September 9, 2011, they released “Found Me The Bomb” as a free MP3 for the gaming website Giant Bomb. This would be their last release together. Gary Garcia passed away on November 17, 2011 at the age of 63.
In 2012, Jerry Buckner recruited many of the surviving band members from the original “Pac-Man Fever” sessions to record a new track for Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The track, entitled “Wreck It Wreck It Ralph” maintains the style and enthusiasm of Pac-Man Fever and was well-received. And in honor of his departed friend and partner, the track was still credited to Buckner & Garcia.
The “Pac-Man Fever” single still remains iconic in retro gaming circles, a group that grows larger everyday. In 2012, Monolith Productions founder and internet personality Jace Hall recorded a hip-hop re-imagining of the track for his self-title web series. In 2015 elements of Jace’s track, along with Gary Garcia’s original vocals, were reincorporated into a modern recording of “Pac-Man Fever”, titled “Pac Man Fever (Eat ‘Em Up)”, to coincide with the release of the film Pixels.
There is actually quite of bit of great material courtesy of Jerry Buckner and the late Gary Garcia. So much so, that Jerry compiled much of it on pacmanfevervault.com. While it does cost a one time fee of $4.99, it does give listeners access to two versions of the Pac-Man Fever album, as well as Now & Then, older songs like “Christmas in the NFL” and other rare and unreleased goodies.
What you won’t find on Jerry’s site, sadly, are the original early 80’s Columbia/CBS recordings of Pac-Man Fever or “E.T. I Love You”. For that, you will need to bust out your turntable or tape deck and hit those used record bins. You may have trouble finding E.T. but you’ll come across Pac-Man Fever easily.