Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'm Hooked, I'm Hooked, My Brain Is Cooked - Two Pieces of Video Game Radio Ephemera

Today, I cover a couple of little discussed radio relics of the golden age of video games – one a pop song and the other a radio drama.

 Space Invaders by Uncle Vic
 
The pop song is the 1980 novelty hit "Space Invaders" by Uncle Vic, one of a number of songs related to the game Others include “Disco Space Invaders” by Funny Stuff, released in 1979 on Elbon records; “Space Invaders”, another 1979 song by the Australian band Player 1/Playback and The Pretenders 1979 instrumental “Space Invaders”. Those songs will have to wait for another day. Today, we’re talking about Uncle Vic. Before we get started, here's a link to a YouTube video of the song
     Uncle Vic was Victor Earl Blecman, a 27-year-old musician, nightclub owner, and DJ for WGCL in Cleveland. Blecman's music career has started in Elyria, Ohio in1965 when he formed a band called The Cavemen with three junior high school classmates. The band continued through Blecman's high school and  community college years under various names, including Flight, Pennsylvania Crude Oil, Revolver, and Izz, playing at various local clubs like Pickle Bill's and Big Dick's (in 1971, Izz shared a bill with Black Sabbath). Vic would often inject his oddball sense of humor into the band's sets and before long he was doing more joking than playing. He eventually landed a job as a disk jockey in Elyria, while performing disco-themed comedy as "The Fantastic and Intergalactic Uncle Vic" at Elyria's Rathskellar Club (where, in 1976, he tried to set a Guinness World Record for continuous joke-telling). In January, 1977 he opened an adults-only disco club in Elyria called Uncle Vic's Night Club along with two partners. Meanwhile, Blecman had patented a keyboard instrument called the "talking machine" that made use of recorded sounds. In June of 1978, he attended a Chicago trade show trying to find a manufacturer for his device when he ran into the Bradley Brothers, an English trio who had invented another keyboard instrument called the Novatron and signed up to distribute the machines in North America. He also recorded a record called "Baby, Now That I've Found You", scoring a minor local hit.

Uncle Vic in his high school days (from Elyria Chronicle, 1970)



From Elyria Chronicle, 1969

Izz - From Elyria Chronicle, 1971


The idea to create a novelty record based on a video game came around May of 1980 when Vic was playing a show at his night club and noticed that his audience was distracted by the blooping and bleeping of a Space Invaders machine in the back room. Annoyed, Vic's band began playing along with the game, imitating its sounds. The audience loved it and Blecman soon decided to record a song based on the game. 

[Vic Blecman] That's where I saw people line up for the machine. Cheering and yelling and completely lost in playing. So were the watchers. Then I read about the space machines in magazines and heard about tournaments in Europe, South America, America, and Japan. It's international. I decided something that popular deserved to have a song written about it. <Jane Scott, "'Space Invaders' 45 could blow your mind', Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980>

 
Uncle Vic's Night Club - birthplace of "Space Invaders"

Then Blecman found out that the Pretenders had included a song called “Space Invaders” on their debut album and almost dropped the idea, until he found out that the song had nothing to do with the game. Blecman then assembled a group to record his song (which he claims he wrote in his bathroom in about half an hour) and recorded it at 3 A.M. at Kirk Yano's After Dark recording studio in five hours at a cost of $4,000. Backing up Blecman (who played bass and sang vocals) were Kirk Yano on guitar, Jose Ortiz on drums, and Pete Tokar (who duplicated the machine's sounds on a synthesizer[1]). 
       "Space Invaders" opened with the lines "Well, there it is in the corner of the bar / I tried to run, but I didn't get far / Those weird little men; I blow 'em away / Id' sell my mom for a chance to play", followed by the song's hook, sung in an alien voice: "He's hooked, he's hooked, his brain is cooked". The chorus featured the words "Space Invaders" sung over and over as the synthesized sounds of the game played in the background. As the song ended, it got faster and faster (like its coin-op inspiration) before ending with a loud explosion.




Blecman pressed 2,000 copies of the record on his own Partay Label and negotiated with Progress Records to distribute them, mailing copies to a number of radio stations. The song quickly became the most requested song on Cleveland area stations (though Blecman, who was also a disk jockey at Cleveland’s WGCL, wasn't allowed to play it on his own show due to FCC regulations) and also became a hit in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. Blecman then struck a deal with Prelude Records, who'd also released the novelty classics "Ahab the Arab" by Ray Stevens and "My Ding-A-Ling" (shamefully, Chuck Berry's biggest hit) to release "Space Invaders" nationally as a single (b/w "Ode to Slim", an homage to Slim Whitman). While "Space Invaders" failed to crack the national charts, it became a Dr. Demento staple and, for those who heard it, a fondly-remembered relic of the golden age of video games. Two years later, Uncle Vic tried again with another video game song based on Pac-Man titled "It Won't Beat Me". The song went nowhere.

 


Space Invaders
©1980 by Uncle Vic

Well, there it is in the corner of the bar
I tried to run, but I didn't get far
Those weird little men; I blow 'em away
I'd sell my mom for a chance to play

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

They start off slow, but they don't play clean
It's tricky and low; it's a mean machine
There's lots of them and one of you
When the walls are gone, they'll get to you

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

Faster and faster all the time
An hour of this will blow your mind
Gotta get them before they get you
and you'll be broke before you're through

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

As the gang looks over your shoulder in awe
They don't believe what they just saw
You slid to the left and slid to the right
You're the Space Invaders king tonight

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

A feeling of power comes over your hand
Row by row, you're in command
There's one last devil movin' real fast
One single shot (shot noise); got him at last

Space invaders (game sounds)
(Hey, wow, man!)
Space invaders
(I'm gonna get me one of these)
Space invaders
(Yeah!)
Space invaders
(Got it going now!)
Space invaders
(I'm on my fourth row!)
Space invaders
(Gee, they almost got me.)
Space invaders
(We're in trouble now!)
Space invaders
(Oh, wow, really cosmic, man!)
Space invaders (pace quickens)
Space invaders
Space invaders
(Too fast for me, man!)
Space invaders
(high incomprehensible squawking)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders....
(explosion)


Uncle Vic in 2008

Nightfall – No Quarter
While Uncle Vic’s hit is far from well-known, I’m sure a number of readers will remember it. I can’t say the same for my next bit of radio ephemera. Actually, I’ve already written about this one, but it was way back in the second post I ever did, so some of you may have missed it (for those who didn’t, this part will largely be a repeat of my earlier post).

 

This one isn’t a song, but a bit of radio drama, an art form that has become increasingly rare, but was a bit more common back in the 1970s and 1980s (remember the NPR production of Star Wars?). This one, however, wasn’t an NPR program. In fact, it wasn’t even American. It was an episode of Nightfall, a Canadian horror anthology series broadcast on CBC from July, 1980 to May, 1983. I am actually a longtime fan of “OTR” (old time radio), particularly radio horror. Nightfall isn’t OTR, but it is one of the finest radio horror anthologies ever produced, IMO.
Unfortunately, the subject of this post wasn’t one of the program’s finest efforts (though I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway). . It was, however, a rare (if not unique) example of a video-game-themed radio drama. The episode I’m talking about is “No Quarter”, which aired on March 4, 1983. You can download it from many places on the web. Here is a link to an internet archive page with “No Quarter” along with most of the other episodes of the series (if you have any interest in horror or radio drama, check out some of the other episodes)
"No Quarter” tells the story of Paul Weaver, a poor shlub who becomes obsessed with video games after playing Donkey Kong while waiting for a delayed flight at the Vancouver Airport.  On a drive home from dinner, he and his wife get into an argument over the time he's spending on the games. She is concerned that the games promote anti-social behavior in violence. He replies that the games are educational ("The Defense Department uses Armor Attack as a simulator for tank training." he argues). After he loses his job when he misses an important meeting because he's busy playing Defender ("It you want to beat Defender, don't use the smart bomb in hyperspace”, the arcade owner dubiously tells him), his wife launches a public crusade against video games. One day, Paul gets a mysterious package containing an ultra-advanced arcade game called Death Ship in which an intergalactic slave laborer tries to escape his "Robotron masters". Paul begins playing the game, drawn in by its incredible graphics, voice synthesis, and hyper realistic action. As his score mounts, the game becomes even more lifelike, until it eventually becomes a little too realistic (you’ll have to listen yourself to find out how it ends). Almost unknown today, the episode contains a host of video game references. Death Ship’s digitized voice intones "coin detected in pocket" ala Berzerk. At one point, the arcade owner tells Paul "Some computer science student in Buffalo blew the brains out of a Pac-Man. You know it only stores six figures. Well, he turned it over three times and the screen split the maze on one side and this electronic gibberish on the other."




[1] Jane Scott, “’Space Invaders’ 45 could blow your mind”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980.  Other sources report that Blecman played all of the instruments except keyboard.

4 comments:

  1. "Space Invaders" by Uncle Vic
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_gbT7WqExs

    ReplyDelete
  2. There's apparently another! The lyrics are pretty good!
    "Australian electro-disco one-hit-wonder group Player One", also in 1979
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmgkvvrmpf8

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You mention both, and include the YouTube link for the first. Man, I have not had my coffee today.

      Delete
  3. I remember listening to Uncle Vic growing up in Cleveland. It is amazing sometimes looking back at what made us laugh when we were younger.

    ReplyDelete