Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre

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It was Atari money behind what was touted as the first family-friendly destination to combine, food, entertainment and lots and lots of video games. Like I said, it was Atari. The maestro of all this was a rodent that Nolan Bushnell dreamed would one day be bigger than Mickey himself. But rodents and food are never a very pleasant pairing.

In the beginning, it really did have a theatre. Every hour, the show would start and Chuck E. himself (was he named after a Rickie Lee Jones song? Or the other way around? History does not record) would strike up his band of animatronic animals to perform a rousing medley of songs and jokes. I use the word animatronic loosely. Disney World had the marvel of long-deceased politicians shuffling around the stage of the Hall of Presidents. The Pizza Time Theatre had a bunch of immobile, herky-jerky “things” that looked like they had been slapped together by 5th graders for a science project. Think of the pathetic, beak-snapping birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room and you’re just about there.

Some locations actually sold beer and wine for the parents and this could lead to trouble when disputes between kids on the arcade floor escalated into full-out brawls between their supposed “guardians.” Sometimes weapons were drawn. To expire by bleeding to death on a filthy carpet in front of a Dig Dug machine while a bunch of cheap robots sing “Happy Birthday” is an ignoble end for sure. And yet it happened a few times each year. Also, to watch your drunken mom make out with the pimply teenager collecting skee-ball tickets was never going to promote the healthy mental development of your average 8 year-old.

Once the video game era came screeching to a halt, this place became a three-legged stool standing on two legs and both those legs were pretty weak. The pizza was shit and the floor show as captivating as watching automated garbage trucks lift and empty dumpsters. And yet Chuck E. Cheese still survives to this day, with something like five hundred stores tucked away in small-market strip malls all over America. Mice can be so hard to kill.

 

 

 

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Blondie–Eat To The Beat

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Okay. This was released at the tail end of the 1979 but it’s my blog and Autoamerican and The Hunter kinda suck, so we’re going to let the decade drift backwards a couple months. “People” (our human collective, not the grocery store checkout line magazine) pretty much all agree that 1978’s Parallel Lines is the perfect pop album. It may even be, actually. But this one is even better. Because for once the group inject a little hard rock into those precious, arty LES veins of theirs.

I’m not a big fan of reviewing albums tracks by track, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, so let’s go!

“Dreaming” is dreamy–the best song they ever did. The group say hello to the 80s by having Clem Burke go berserk the minute the needle hits the first groove, while Debbie evokes such palpable saudade on top of the whole shebang you can’t help but wish she was “right there with you” as you listen.

“The Hardest Part” is either about robbing an armored car or a clumsy first-try at backdoor sex, but whatever the point is, it’s driven home just as forcefully as William Jefferson Clinton pushed Gennifer Flowers face into the cushions of a love seat somewhere in the antechambers of the Arkansas State House that very same year. It is a rock song.

“Union City Blues” is so good they made a movie out if it.

“Shayla” may or may not be about some Rosie the Riveter-type being swept up into a spaceship. Whatever the case, it’s real purty, as Michael Stipe once graciously described my lower middle appendage as we stood side by side in the men’s room of the 40 Watt Club.

“Eat to the Beat” yanks the listener forward as if on a chain once again, as that well-coiffed Brit drummer hits everything in sight in perfect syncopation and the lyrics lay out the blueprint for MF DOOM’s Mm..Food.

“Accidents Never Happen” and “Die Young Stay Pretty” are just Blondie being Blondie–a world class pop group treating hooks like they grow on freaking trees. For some, they do.

“Slow Motion” is pretty darn sublime, as Ms. Harry actually makes us laypeople believe we can “play with time” through sheer vocal timbre.

The next track brings us to the heart of the matter. “Atomic” piles on the atmospherics like a multi-colored dream coat and if it lasted four hours instead of four minutes, I’d be down with it. The soundtrack to a spaghetti western filmed deep inside the inner recesses of the Crab Nebula. Which is exactly where I’ve always wanted to dwell.

“Sound A Sleep” isn’t the most satisfying song, but it dozy pace leads neatly into the galloping “Victor,” which is basically a bunch of dicking around in the studio but the band pulls it off with no problem thanks to Debbie’s epically needy moans and a guitar solo that flashes like heat lightning.

“Living In the Real World” is a middle finger raised to our very existence and the band’s earned a little tetchiness by this point. Maybe they knew even then that they would only survive the first three years of the new decade, limping along most of the way.

In short, a great band at their peak!

Journey

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There are YouTube video clips you (or anyone, really) can watch wherein jettisoned Journey vocalist Steve Perry uses some goofy hand towel to lead an entire baseball park of unbearably smug start-up yuppie bros, socially hopeless programming nerds and reeking, sidewalk-shitting homeless zombies in a rousing rendition of his former band’s FM radio staple “Lights.” By the “end”–meaning when it’s time for the pitcher to start the next half inning by throwing a pitch, meaning that the person running the PA is required to stop the music, he’s basically going berserk, desperate for the song, his song, not to end. It’s easy to see how much he misses it. The adulation, the cheers, the attention.

Meanwhile, his former buddies–still legally permitted to go out on tour using the instantly recognizable brand name “Journey,” are off somewhere at a casino theater or State Fair or outdoor package tour alongside bands like REO Speedwagon and April Wine and Bang Tango ROCKING OUT for hours at a time–driving people into a frenzy using electrified musical instruments and microphones and light shows and hell, maybe even scoring a quick BJ from some fiftysomething groupie after the show while being paid actual real money to do so. All this while Steve’s got maybe 90 seconds tops on the Jumbotron, waving around that hideous black and orange scrap of cloth in one hand while psychotically brandishing his Giants baseball cap in the other like it’s his very own ticket through St. Peter’s gate, his face a mask of neediness, his damaged soul already bracing itself for that terrible moment when the music cuts off like a light switch and that aforementioned pitch brings everyone back to the business at hand of World Series baseball–forgetting en masse almost immediately the pathetic sideshow he’d so briefly been the focal point of. It must be hell on earth for him. But such self-torture may, indeed, be poetic justice, because just think of the hell on earth both he and his now estranged mates subjected ALL OF US to for so many years back in the 80s.

Men Without Hats–Rhythm of Youth

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Everybody knows the song. Everybody loves the song. That’s not the problem. The problem rears its ugly head when you try to tell someone that the full-length LP from which the song “The Safety Dance” is taken from is a uniformly excellent record. I’ve been laughed at, kicked and even slapped across the face just for expressing this sentiment. And this is supposedly a free country!

Ivan Doroschuk is no Dave Gahan or Andy McCluskey. He’s better, in fact. His voice quavers and yelps like a friendly dog and with his flowing brown locks, he kind of looks like a shaggy dog. He also, and not many people knew this at the time–dressed like a 16th century peasant all the time, not just for the “Safety Dance” video. This sartorial stubbornness caused him all sorts of problems, especially at the funerals of family members and at the bank when he applied for a home mortgage, but he had a vision and he stuck with it.

The record, though, is 40 or so minutes of exuberant, infectious synth pop. He and his cohorts manage to make their Korgs sound both frosty and warm at the same time, not an easy trick to pull off. “I Got The Message” is a dance song, but also a telescopic view of a rapidly diminishing future that can make a person feel sad if they are sitting alone in bed drinking when they hear it. I’m not sure what the song delivered in French is about, but I do know that Celine Dion performed it for her husband at their star-studded 1994 wedding. If there is a misstep, it’s probably “Living in China” whereby Ivan presents what he thinks is a comprehensive overview of a country of over a billion people that seems to have been researched from the backseat of a cab kerb-crawling through Montreal’s Chinatown and tries to rhyme egg-foo-yung with ping-pong. Not their shining moment.

But, hey, check it out for yourself from one of the many sites that allow you to listen to music for free. How can it harm you? And also, next time you hear someone call Men Without Hats a “one hit wonder” don’t be afraid to remind them that “Pop Goes The World” charted almost as high only four years later.

Sources I know up in New Hampshire tell me GG Allin used to carry this cassette around with him everywhere–that must count for something…

8-Track Tapes

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

From our technologically-advanced perch here in 2014, 8-track tapes appear to us as a monstrous “bad memory”—a ridiculous object worthy of nothing more these days than being dragged out for a good laugh at some 70s retro party hosted and attended by yuppies of a certain age unabashedly smug about their ability to carry around their entire collection of Hootie and the Blowfish songs on a media player no bigger than the head of a pin. And while it is true the 8-track tape is more of a 70s phenomenon than an 80s one, the fact is this red-headed stepchild of music media managed to avoid extermination until 1988, primarily due to its continued production and sale via the Columbia House Record & Tape Club. Certainly you remember that highly selective, not-so-secret society based in Terre Haute, Indiana? For just a single penny new members would receive 13 cassettes or LPs or CDs or, yes, 8-track tapes, but these members would then be beholden to the club for the rest of their lives or at least until they bought a certain number more of musical recordings at the club’s regular price of $8.98 plus $14.95 “shipping and handling.”

Although pretty indefensible as a medium for high-fidelity musical playback, there was something solid and permanent-feeling about 8-track tapes. They were fairly big and bulky. The clunk between tracks resonated about the listening room with the significance of a Mercedes-Benz S Class door slamming shut. Plus, listeners had the added bonus of having all the songs rearranged from the order the artist originally intended. Even better, who didn’t enjoy hearing a few moments of dead silence IN THE MIDDLE of a cherished song followed by that familiar ker-chunk, and then the abrupt continuation of the song. Best of all, a lucky few with money enough to install a Sparkomatic or Kraco 8-track tape player in their car could take their tapes on the road for some truly mobile jammin’! Although if you left them on the dashboard for too long the label would fade into illegibility and the plastic case warp like a slice of melted Provolone.

Rebel Yell (the record)

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Billy Idol had already provoked the question “Who is that creep?” from my father as he peeked over his Wall Street Journal one evening during a Radio 1990 broadcast of the promotional video for the song “White Wedding,” but at that point not too many people knew enough about the guy to really say.

“White Wedding” was a minor MTV hit from Billy’s self-titled first album with a low-budget video that had been shot in some Home Counties churchyard. For his next album, Rebel Yell, William threw all his chips into the pot and hightailed it out to Hollywood, where there were endless rows of Yank birds to shag, endless lines of coke to hoover up, and endlessly energetic videos to make. His pursuit of video immortality was so dogged, he was even willing to blind himself for the sake of recording some memorable imagery, ironically for a song called “Eyes Without a Face.” For three days after this particular shoot Billy was literally a “face without its eyes” as the 30 straight hours of posing and sneering in front of smoke machines had fused his contact lenses to his corneas!

With four video hits and two additional tracks notching tons of AOR airplay, Rebel Yell was a monster record that perched Billy pretty much near the top of the pile during 1983-1984 and the dude sure looked like he was enjoying it. Of course the “secret sauce” to all this popularity had those very same initials. His name was Steve Stevens and he wrote just about every note of music on an album that stayed in the charts for 70 weeks.  But Billy, ever the egotist, immediately started easing his partner out of the picture. Stevens would only receive songwriting credits on roughly half of Whiplash Smile and then he was gone. And so was Billy’s career. Within ten years he’d be releasing something called Cyberpunk, a whacko reinvention about as convincing as that time George Herbert Walker Bush “dropped in” at J.C. Penney’s to buy socks.

Today, the “rock of youth” mentioned in “Catch My Fall” is a pillow of pebbles, pebbles that are getting smaller with each passing day. Before we know it, it’ll be a pile of dust. For all of us. So make sure you head out onto that Blue Highway as much as you can while you still can…Billy sez so!!

John “Cougar” Mellencamp

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When I was growing up in the Midwest, I never seemed to like any of the bands that actually came from there. My favorites at the time hailed from places much further afield: California hotshots Van Halen, English country squires Pink Floyd, London wastrels The Clash, NYC LES pin-ups Blondie, Dublin deities U2, and on and on. What on earth did I need Joe Grushecky, Donnie Iris or Michael Stanley for? It all seemed hopelessly derivative of Bruce Springsteen to me and I didn’t really like The Boss, either. In any case, those previously mentioned fellows and their respective bands were all small potatoes compared to the biggest “Little Bruce” of them all. His name was John “Cougar” Mellencamp, and he pretty much took the gospel Bruce was preaching in New Jersey some 700 miles inland to Bumfuck, Indiana to start a whole new platinum-selling religion.

I wasn’t buying it and my aversion to John and his hymns to a life lived in the middle of nowhere lasted for years, until about 1985, in fact. It was around that time that, while thumbing through some “rock yearbook” at B. Dalton Bookseller one day, I came across a picture of the guy wedged into one of those wire mesh trash cans that used to be on every city street corner. He was grinning like a bandit, obviously having some fun with his image at his own expense—the critics had, from day one, disliked him even more than I did, so there he was, basically saying both he and his musical output were garbage. Hahaha. But what caught my eye about this picture wasn’t John’s cheeky self-deprecation, but the fact that he was shod in Tretorn sneakers! Classic canvas Nylites, white with the blue stripe! What kind of rock and roller, let alone a self-proclaimed “biker,” wore preppy shit like that?

I’ve followed his work ever since…