As I say each time, I am so pleased that interviews are now a legitimate part of this little blog of mine! When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the 80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Valerie Day and John Smith. They are best remembered by 80s fans as the husband-and-wife team that fronted the band Nu Shooz. Smith founded the group and was the songwriting force while Day became the lead vocalist. Nu Shooz is most recognized by their 1986 hit single "I Can't Wait" which helped earn them a Best New Artist Grammy nomination the following year and sell over a million records worldwide. I consider it one of the iconic 80s songs and a sound that helped define the decade. You will find out more about how Nu Shooz came together, the evolution of that special song as well as what they have been up to since then as we get on to some selections from my interview with John Smith and Valerie Day...
Q: How did you meet each other? Was there immediate chemistry between you two? When did you start performing music together? Were you married previous to forming Nu Shooz?
John: No, it wasn't love at first sight. It took about a month...after that I knew we'd be together forever. (Awwwww!)
Valerie: We met at a communal household in Portland, Oregon. John was hitchhiking back from Olympia, Washington (to L.A.) and met one of the people who lived there when they were both stuck on the same freeway onramp. We didn't start performing together until about four years later. I finally proposed after we'd been together seven years. He would never have thought of it!
Q: At what point and how was Nu Shooz officially formed? How and why was that name chosen for the group?
John: Valerie and I were part of the ethnic music scene in Portland, Oregon in the late 70s...this was before they called it "World Music". She was studying congas and I wanted to be an arranger. We went to music school together for a year. At the same time, we were hanging around a Calypso band called Felicidades. Eventually, they let me play piano even though I wasn't very good, and I started writing songs and arranging for them. This was around 1977. Felicidades had a horn section. After that, I always had to have horns. Felicidades started to phase out around 1978. I took a trip to New York. I thought I was hot s**t, you know, and I was going to be "discovered". So, like a lot of people, I got my butt kicked artistically and went back to P-Town with my tail between my legs. But I did figure out that I was done with Latin music. I'm not from Cuba. I wanted to do something American. During that same trip I got to see some early punk, at the Mudd Club and all that, and I thought, "this sucks!" I hated punk and thought maybe there were other people like me, who dug Philly Soul and Disco and Tower of Power. So I went back to Portland determined to do something American...a SOUL band. Nu Shooz was started by me and Larry Haggin who was the lead singer in Felicidades. Our first gig was June 21, 1979, as a four piece. And I have to tell you, we pretty much sucked. Larry left in 1980 and I added four horns, then we were off and running. [In May of 1983, percussionist Valerie Day became the lead vocalist.] As for the name, it was chosen in desperation because we needed something to put on the poster. Jim Hogan, our original bass player, was responsible for the spelling. He was a rocker and thought it looked more "rock".
Q: Please take us back to when "I Can't Wait" was conceived and written. What is the back story and what inspired the song?
John: By 1981, we were a nine piece band and we were one of the hot bands in town. Portland circa 1981 was the best music city on Earth. There were so many places to play, and rent was cheap. Anyway, I worked day and night trying to keep four hours of material fresh (an impossible task). I evolved a system where I worked on new songs in batches of ten, and tried to have two completed every week for rehearsal. Wrote a lot of awful, embarrassing songs. My old bandmates still kid me about them. Some of the stuff I wrote makes me cringe to this day. Anyway, I got a four-track recorder around 1983, a sturdy old Teac 3440, and really started cranking them out. "I Can't Wait" was part of the first reel of tunes written on the new four-track. It was a thing I'd been hearing in my head. It could have gone a lot of different ways, and maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation now.
Q: Were the lyrics the last part added?
John: I scribbled out the lyrics on the kitchen table in fifteen minutes as the band was loading their gear in for rehearsal. Flashed the piece of paper at Valerie and said, "How's this?" Valerie said, "Fine".
Q: When you first recorded it in the summer of 1984, did you feel you had something special? How did it feel when you first heard it on the local Portland radio?
John: Out of all the songs we were recording, that one sounded the most real. For a song to work, it has to be right for the singer and the band...all these factors have to come together. So yeah, I knew it was the best thing on the record, but you can never know what's going to be a "hit". All these other factors come in play, mostly having to do with the business.
Valerie: I'll never forget the first time I heard it on the radio. I was driving in my car heading eastbound on Weidler Street in Portland. I even remember the intersection! The song came on Z100. I started singing along and then had the realization that I was SINGING ALONG WITH MYSELF on the radio. It was crazy and wonderful and I wanted to roll down the window and shout out to the world about what had just happened.
Q: Please tell us about how the Dutch remix version by Pieder "Hithouse" Slaghuis impacted the song and band's ultimate success.
John: Pieder's remix made it a hit. The first time I heard it, we were on the road down in Southern Oregon. I liked it right away because he did things I never would have thought of, not in a million years. We brought him to New York to work on a couple other songs. Meeting him was strange, because he didn't speak English, and he had these weird guys with him. Even so, he taught me some awesome tape cutting tricks.
Even though they originally recorded it in the summer of 1984 and it became a regional hit in the Portland area in spring of 1985, it was that "Dutch Mix" which caught the attention of Atlantic Records which signed Nu Shooz to a contract in January of 1986. "I Can't Wait" was released as a single in February of 1986 and would reach the top of the Billboard Dance chart by the end of March. It would peak at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-June while spending 15 weeks in the Top 40. It was the first single from their album Poolside which was certified gold later that year. Here is the music video for "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz...
Q: Finally, in February of 1986, "I Can't Wait" is released as a single and becomes one of the biggest songs of that year. What changed for you personally and for Nu Shooz after the huge success of this single? Were you prepared for all of the attention and your shot at stardom by this point?
John: When our "overnight success" happened, we had been playing four hours a night five or six nights a week for seven years! We were road warriors! So we could get up there and play. What we weren't prepared for was the Entertainment Industry. I'll tell you, there's a lot of things I'd do differently now, but that's not the rules of the game. You get one shot, and you'd better be ready.
Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings about the song today 25 years later?
John: No, I'm proud of that song. It still sounds fresh and funky 25 years later. What's gotten a little boring is that it seems to be all people are interested in. That used to really overheat my circuit boards. Now I realize that's Show Biz, baby. They don't call it Show ART. Musically, I've moved way past synth pop. When I listen to music at all, mostly I like the French Impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy, and film score guys like Max Steiner. That's what winds my clock now. Oh yeah, and 60s psychedelia like "Incense and Peppermints".
Valerie: After all the years of playing in relative obscurity, it felt great to have an original tune that people would actually come up and sing to US! They still do, by the way. After all these years, it's like "I Can't Wait" has its own career. We're grateful - and astonished by its staying power.
Q: The music video for "I Can't Wait" was directed by Jim Blashfield who has created so many great music videos over the years. First, how did you decide to work with Blashfield on your video? How was the concept developed? Any insight on the meaning and/or some of the symbolism used in the video?
I got to work with Jim again recently for a show I created called "Brain Chemistry For Lovers" (www.brainchemistrylovers.com) about the neuroscience of romantic love. He created the video portion of the show, edited the script, and directed. He's the best. It was really fun to get to work with him again after all these years.
Q: Your videos received frequent airplay on MTV at that time which certainly helped to increase exposure and popularity. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the 80s? Also from an image and marketing point of view?
John: Is there anyone alive who remembers when MTV played music? Check it out. What kind of crazy world are we living in when MTV plays reality shows, and the History Channel does a series about long haul truckers? When I heard there was going to be a video music channel, silly me, I'm thinking I'm gonna get to see Louie Jordan, Miles Davis, then Hendrix at Woodstock, then maybe some Rick James. Instead, it went its serpentine way, and changed music forever. I swear to God I felt it from the stage! Back in nineteen-eighty-whatever, the day MTV went on the air [August 1, 1981], audiences got more passive.
Valerie: On the other hand, it added a whole new dimension to the music experience. I've always been into working the space where different art forms intersect. Not that all music videos are art, but so much creative collaboration between visual artists, filmmakers, animators, and musicians happened because of MTV. And for a while there, those artists even got paid to do it.
The band's second single, Shep Pettibone's re-mix of "Point of No Return", also had success once again reaching the top of the Billboard Dance chart in September of 1986 as well as peaking at #28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the music video for "Point of No Return" by Nu Shooz...
Q: Your follow-up single "Point of No Return" was not quite the same sensation, but it did top the Dance charts again and reached the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100. What is the back story and inspiration for this song? What are your feelings regarding this single?
John: Well, "Point of No Return" wasn't as well-crafted of a song, (Not that "I Can't Wait" is "Firebird Suite" or anything) and the same care wasn't put into the recording. I always felt like it was never finished. Hey...it got to number 28, higher than some of my favorite songs. Higher than "Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao". We did a new version of it on Pandora's Box [called "(The Return of) Point of No Return"] and it came out cool.
Valerie: I like "(The Return of) Point of Not Return" better, too.
Q: Who did you tour with back in the 80s? Any particular stories or memories from while out on tour back then?
John: Morris Day and the Time, Billy Ocean, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sisters, The Fat Boys blew us off the stage in Minneapolis. They also ate all the bread.
Valerie: We played 70 cities in 71 days. I mostly remember trying to find food after the gig and trying to get my gig clothes cleaned on our one day off. Ah yes... the glamorous life!
In Spring of 1988, Nu Shooz released their next album titled Told U So which had one single reach #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and another reach #2 on the Billboard Dance chart. The album itself made it to #93 on the Billboard Album chart, but seemingly could not keep the momentum going. The follow up album to that, titled Eat & Run, was completed in 1992 but never released. After that, Nu Shooz disbanded to focus on new projects until Smith and Day reformed the group as Nu Shooz Orchestra in 2007.
Q: Please discuss the circumstances surrounding Atlantic in 1992 and why your third album for them was not released at that time. At that time, did you feel like Nu Shooz would ever record again? Will the Eat & Run album ever be released?
John: There's a lot of turnover at record labels. We probably spent too much time making the third record. By the time it was done, the people who signed us were long gone. So there was nobody at Atlantic who cared about us. By then, we were tired of submitting songs to deaf ears. And we were not trying to make another "I Can't Wait", which of course, is what they wanted. By 1988, I wanted to write songs like Lowell George (Little Feat). We aren't going to release Eat & Run, which we don't own, but there were so many songs that came out of those four years, and we're going to release a batch of them this summer. The album will be called Kung Pao Kitchen.
Valerie: In 2006, we released a slowed down jazz/soul acoustic version of "I Can't Wait" to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It was a chance to put new clothes on the song and record it with a bunch of our favorite jazz musicians in town. We had a great time doing it, and the response was positive - so we decided to do more. That's how the NU SHOOZ Orchestra came into being.
Q: Some 80s pop superstars "run away" from the 80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the 80s alive and in perspective?
John: Let me say first of all that I always thought the shoulder pads were heinous. I loved the eighties, except maybe for Ronald Reagan. A lot of the culture seemed silly even at the time. Go watch Road Warrior. We had a great time in the 80s, a fabulous time, but we were total misfits, alien jazz hippies landed in a world of plastic fashion. We came out of the Jazz and Latin scene of the 70s. So we weren't punk rockers who discovered synthesizers or new wave pop tarts. We were listening to Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and the Fania All-Stars, and then- Bam!- we've got this popular dance band. I have nothing but gratitude for the legions of fans who love "I Can't Wait". They've made my music career possible, but no way could I keep sounding like I did when I was 25. It's not even possible.
Q: I have to ask you about being married and working together like you do. Has this ever been a challenge? Has it gotten easier or harder over the years? It certainly is unusual (and admirable) for a couple like you to make it work for so. If you don't mind me asking, what is the secret to maintaining both your professional and personal relationship at the same time?
John: I adore this girl. That's the secret to a long relationship. I'm just as thrilled as I was back in 1975. How could a guy like me end up with a girl like that? Miracles do happen. Working together has gotten easier over the years. Part of it was that we both went out and did our own things after the Shooz. Valerie became a jazz singer. I scored films and commercials. So when we came back together to make Pandora's Box, we had both lived a lot more.
Valerie: The secret? Mutual admiration, respect, and a sense of humor - which John has in abundance. I always felt lucky to be with someone who's a musician too. It's not always easy working together, but it's worked because we understand what the motivation to do this crazy thing is all about.
Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? How do you see the future?
John: We live in a time when everybody can create, and that's good in a way, but it also means that the audience is fragmented. Everyone's plugged into the internet and the iPod. It's harder to get people's attention these days. You know, I could go on a rant about the modern world, but who cares. Let me tell you about a conversation I had with my son today. I said, "I wonder what the next big thing is going to be, the thing we can't even see now? Think about it. Back in the 30s and 40s, in the swing band era, they wouldn't have dreamed of rock and roll, or 70s funk, or hip hop." And I think we're ready for a new thing because frankly, hip hop is tired. If you think about it, it really hasn't gone anywhere in 20 years. The best stuff is still Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Whodini...but you know, I'm tired of hearing people talk over music. I'm like shut up already! What's the new thing? I actually like the music my son listens to. He's into Linkin Park and Tool, bands like that. There's some real innovation going on in the world of Nu Metal.
Q: How have your priorities changed over the years compared to back in the 80s? How has this affected your music, if at all?
John: I thought I'd have a band when I was 60 years old. (Not there yet.) I'd love to be out there playing still, but it's not my dream to be up there "chunkin'" out the oldies. I call it the Elephant Graveyard. That said, I understand that the music you grew up with will always be important, and it's an honor that we were able to make a permanent piece of pop culture. Listen, people get into music for different reasons. We take the personality we were born with and run with it, right? I always lived to hear my band play whatever the newest song was that I just wrote. What's my favorite song? The next one.
Valerie: We have a 15 year old son. I read once that when the opera singer Renee Fleming met with opera diva Jessye Norman that Jessye told her to have children, that it would help to put her career in the proper perspective because performing wouldn't be the only thing that she would live for or die for. Our son has been an incredible influence on us, both personally and professionally. He's a wonderful artist and human being. I think we both feel like his presence in our lives has given us a new perspective on what life is really all about.
Q: Nu Shooz just released a new album, Pandora's Box, in 2010. Can we continue to expect more new music from Nu Shooz? Where do you feel that Nu Shooz fits within the contemporary musical landscape?
John: Well, the obvious answer is that Nu Shooz has endured. As of this writing, "I Can't Wait" plays somewhere on earth every eleven minutes, and that's just radio. That's not counting iPods and YouTube. We've been sampled by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Naughty By Nature, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, some jazz girl in Italy, NuFuture in London. Most recently, this guy called MANN wrote a great song called "Buzzin'" over the "I Can't Wait" rhythm track and then 50 Cent did a remix of it. I dig it. As for us, we're going to continue making music. We've never stopped.
Q: What else are Valerie Day and John Smith each up to now? Musically and otherwise?
John: Our son, Malcolm, is an amazing artist. He's the talented one in the family. I'm working on a graphic novel called Evolution, a sixteen volume epic. And of course, there's a whole batch of Eat & Run era songs to throw in the oven.
Valerie: I'm on a quest to become a better musician and improviser. There's always something more to learn - that's what makes music (and life) so interesting! I get to play and perform with some incredible jazz musicians and am looking forward to making more records with them. I'm also working on taking Brain Chemistry For Lovers (that concert/cabaret/science lecture about the neuroscience of romantic love I mentioned earlier) to the next level and have become a neuroscience geek in the process. And I can't wait (sorry, no reference to a certain song intended) to make the next Nu Shooz Orchestra album and see what happens next.
I am thrilled that John and Valerie took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. It's pretty amazing to think that at least once every 11 minutes "I Can't Wait" is playing somewhere on this planet. It is certainly one of my favorites from that decade and the unplugged version they released more recently is fantastic as well. Please be sure to visit the official Nu Shooz website to keep up with everything they have going on: www.nushoozmusic.com. I want to take this opportunity to again thank both John Smith and Valerie Day for their contributions to 80s pop culture through Nu Shooz and, even more, for going back to the 80s for a little while with us here as well. Thanks for taking a moment to "tell us what it's all about."
That will do it for another special issue of Kickin' it Old School. Thanks as always for reading and hope you are enjoying the interviews as much as I am. If you want a summary of all of my Back to the 80s Interviews posted thus far, please click on that link. If you are interested in reading any of my other 80s related issues, please click there for a summary of those. You can also always click on the Archives in the upper left hand column or use the Google Search Box at the top of the right hand column to find any other issues you may have missed. If you are a fan of Kickin' it, PLEASE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK LOGO in the upper right hand column. This will take you to the Fan Page where I ask you to then click on the "Like" button. Even if you are not a Facebook member yet, please consider joining and registering as a fan at that page. You can also follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter by clicking on the FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER LOGO also in the upper right hand column. This will take you the page and you can just click on the box that says "Follow". I am sending daily 80s tweets, so sign up to get those. Let other 80s fans know about it as well! Peace and much love.
Check this out: I shared this on Twitter already, but thought it was also worth sharing here. It is the beginning of an episode of The Office with some minor adjustments made to give it the feel of an 80s sitcom. In addition to the laugh track, you may recognize the theme song used from the sitcom Family Matters. Very well done!
Quote of the day: "In dreams and in love there are no impossibilities." -Janos Arany
As I say each time, I am so enjoying that interviews are now a legitimate part of this little blog of mine! When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the 80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Jerry Buckner. He is best known to 80s fans as one half of the songwriting and musical duo Buckner & Garcia who had a huge hit in 1982 with the song "Pac-Man Fever". After the single's incredible popularity, their label had them create an entire album of songs based on video games. Nothing else from the album or their work since has yet captured the attention of "Pac-Man Fever". You will find out more about how the duo got their start, their hugely successful hit single, an ill-fated E.T. song and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jerry Buckner...
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician and songwriter? How did you get your start in the music industry? Please discuss your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired your voice and career when you were starting out.
Jerry: As a child, I realized I could play songs on the piano just from hearing them and enjoyed the reaction I got from entertaining my parents and kids in the neighborhood. When my father saw that I could do that he arranged for me to take private lessons. That helped me progress, but it was classical music and I wanted to play Rock and Roll. I wrote my first song around the age of 12. It was a simple instrumental called "Hold Tight". A neighbor by the name of Harvey Russell heard me and thought I might have some talent. He was known as the "Singing Policeman" and had a lot of success in the music business. He taught me a lot about the business and produced the band I formed in high school, called The Rogues, in the studio on a song I wrote called "I Want To Be Free". It sounded a lot like the Turtles song "Let Me Be". In 1970, I formed a band called Wild Butter. Eric Stevens, a well radio program director and record producer in Cleveland, liked us and was responsible for getting us signed to United Artist Records. We released an album called Wild Butter that did okay locally but failed to break out nationally. Interestingly, most critics even today like the album and give us good marks for production and songwriting.
I can't really pick out particular artists that inspired me. Certain groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones stood out but I was inspired by pop music in general. I have always loved a great pop record. I listen to the lyrics and arrangements and especially the hook. I could sit for hours and listen to song after song of great pop hits. I know that helped me to learn how to write and produce my own songs.
In 1973, a musician friend living in Atlanta, Edgel Groves, convinced me to move there. At the time, there were a lot of hit artists and songs coming out of there (Joe South, Billy Joe Royal, Classics 4, Tommy Roe, etc). I moved there and nothing happened right away, but I got an education in writing and production working with some very talented people that would help me down the road.
Q: When and how did you meet Gary Garcia and how did you begin making music together? Did you just click together musically right from the start? When did you officially become Buckner & Garcia?
Jerry: Gary and I met in junior high school, but did not hook up musically until after high school. He had a very successful band called "The Outlaws" who were very popular in high school. After high school, we ended up working together in a few club bands and then as a duo. After I moved to Atlanta, I eventually convinced Gary to come there and that is when things started to click for us. It was natural partnership. We complimented each other musically and found that together we could write some pretty good songs. To make a living we started writing and producing jingles which helped hone our production skills. In 1978, we met Arnie Geller. He was partners with Buddy Buie who produced The Atlanta Rhythm Section. Meeting Arnie would be a turning point in our career and be the missing ingredient we needed to move to the national level.
A little song called "Pac-Man Fever" would take Buckner & Garcia to the national level and beyond. The single based on the most popular video arcade game at the time became an instant hit after airing on a local morning show. After selling over 10,000 copies in a week they were able to get the attention of previously uninterested record labels and the single would be released nationally in December of 1981. By March of 1982, the single was certified Gold for selling 1 million copies and it would ultimately sell over 2.5 million as well as even make it all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ranked at #98 on VH1's "Top 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80s" list broadcast in 2009. There is no official video for the song that I am aware of, but you can still listen to "Pac-Man Fever" by Buckner & Garcia...
Q: Please take us back to when you conceived and wrote "Pac-Man Fever" and tell us all that you remember. What inspired it? How long did it take to write? Was it intended to be novelty?
Jerry: During the early 80s, Gary and I built up a decent jingle business here in Atlanta. That enabled us to work on original songs on the side. Like so many others, we got caught up in playing Pac-Man in the fall of 1981. We decided it might be a great idea for a song, so we wrote "Pac-Man Fever" and took it to Arnie Geller who liked it. Within days, we recorded it and Arnie started shopping it to the major labels. Unfortunately, none believed it was a hit so Arnie put it out on his independent label, BGO Records and convinced a local DJ to play it. The radio station's phones lit up like a Christmas tree and the song immediately took off and sold several thousand copies locally within a week. It was at this point that CBS Records got excited and purchased the master and released it on their Columbia label.
It was inspired by playing the game and seeing how much everyone was hooked on it. It was a unique situation where you had something that all ages were into. It took about 2 hours to write, but we changed the original verses just before going in the studio but kept the chorus.
We approached "Pac Man Fever" and all the songs on the album as individual pop songs first and then we added the special effects. We felt it would give the songs a longer life and sound better. Most critics agree the songs themselves are good pop songs in their own right.
Q: So it sounds like many record companies made the mistake of passing on the single until CBS finally decided to release it. Would I be correct to say that Arnie Geller played a large role in the ultimate success of your song?
Jerry: As I mentioned, all the majors passed on the song but in their defense they really didn't know what Pac-Man was at the time. Fortunately one of the vice presidents, Mickey Eichner I believe, took a copy home and his kid heard it and went crazy for it. That and the sales from the BGO release helped in securing the deal with CBS.
Arnie worked tirelessly to bring "Pac-Man Fever" home. It took a lot of promotion in the beginning to keep the record alive. During Christmas 1981, we thought the record was over because the music business traditionally shuts down for two weeks, but it turned out to not be the case. Without Arnie the record would never have made it.
Q: Talk about perfect timing, your single, "Pac-Man Fever" was a sensation. When you recorded "Pac Man Fever" did you have a feeling it was going to be something special? Could you have ever anticipated the incredible reaction this song would have?
Jerry: Yes, our timing turned out to be perfect. We were blessed. What really sent the song soaring was when it hit TV. I remember Arnie calling and saying that Entertainment Tonight was going to do a story on the song. After that, it really took off and we did interviews for every major TV news show there was including 60 Minutes. They wrote about us in all the major magazines including People and Time. We were a Daily Double question on Jeopardy and even ended up as an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It got really crazy.
There was an air of electricity in the studio, but no, I can't say that I believed it was a hit for certain. I did feel we were doing something special but I couldn't have imagined what was going to happen. As time went on though, you could feel the momentum building and then it just exploded. I honestly could not anticipate the reaction it would have. I was overwhelmed by the success of the song and I am still amazed as to how much people still love the album and love to contact us with personal stories.
Q: What changed for you personally and for Buckner & Garcia after the song huge success?
Jerry: The first thing for me was the validation I felt. Getting a hit record is so difficult to do. You are turned down and rejected for years and finally you get that hit, so it was great sense of accomplishment. You finally feel like you are a part of the business. The money was great too, but that was temporary. It also opened a lot of doors closed to us before but I don't think it really changed Gary or me much except to feel more confident about our ability to write and produce (and we got to drive nicer cars).
Q: Were you an arcade game fan yourself at the time?
Jerry: Yes, we weren't fanatics but we enjoyed playing. When we appeared at an arcade they always had us play the best player who would of course beat us. Everyone thought they were the first to think that promotion up, but it happened everywhere.
Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it?
Jerry: I never got sick of playing or hearing it. I only wish I had another just like it now.
Q: What are your feelings regarding "Pac-Man Fever" today almost 30 years later?
Jerry: Well, when you write and produce a record and in our case are the artists too, you spend a great deal of time working on it hearing it over and over again so you never really get to hear the finished product like a listener does for the first time. I remember a couple years ago, I had not heard any of the album for some time and I decided to play it one day. I could honestly enjoy it much more than when it was originally out. A friend, Bruce Blackman who wrote "Moonlight Feels Right" said to me one time, "Did you ever notice how better somebody else's record sounds than yours?" I laughed, but it's true. You are so close to your record it's hard to enjoy it like other records.
Q: CBS ordered an entire album of video game themed songs. Please tell us what you remember about how those additional 7 songs were written and recorded. Did you have fun with it or did you just get it done as quickly as you could?
Jerry: CBS wanted the album very quickly, so we ended up going out to arcades every night and finding a new game and then watching the best players. We would then go home and write the music and lyrics and record it the next day in the studio. It was a tough project but a labor of love. "Mousetrap" and "Goin Berzek" were actually two other songs recorded for the album that we ended up converting to game songs for the album at the label's request. We still have copies of the original songs and may release them one day.
We didn't have much time for fun but we were really energized so we enjoyed the excitement of it all. We did get a little squirrelly at times from lack of sleep but by then we had a national hit and knew we needed to get the album done.
The album which was also titled Pac-Man Fever had songs based on arcade video games like Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede, Asteroids, Defender, Mouse Trap and Berzerk. Like the title song, the album itself went on to receive a Gold certification from the RIAA, with over a million records sold.
Q: I know you don't pass up an opportunity when it presents itself, but were you concerned about being pegged as a novelty act and not taken seriously as musicians?
Jerry: Yes, we absolutely were concerned about that. In fact, it was an issue for a few days when the CBS VP came here to monitor the album's progress. We had already cut the two non-novelty songs I already mentioned and he told us they wanted all game songs. We resisted as long as we could, but CBS wouldn't budge and we didn't want to lose the opportunity. They promised us they would be open to new material on the next album, so we gave in but that next album never came about mainly because we opted to get out of the contract after what happened with the "E.T. I Love You" track.
Q: Please tell us how you ended up writing and recording the song "E.T. I Love You".
Jerry: I saw the movie and was touched by it. I had just lost my dog, a beautiful Irish Setter that I adored, and the emotion of movie with the boy losing his best friend felt similar and really got to me. I had written some music to help deal with my grief and it seemed to suit the feelings the lead character in the movie had for E.T., so Gary added lyrics and we stayed up all night cutting it. Everyone thought it was smash but the problems began after the Neil Diamond record surfaced.
Q: Did Spielberg commission the song or give his permission? Did you have contact directly with Spielberg or ever receive his specific feedback on the song?
Jerry: No, he did not commission it and ultimately denied us permission to release it. Arnie flew out to California and had a meeting with Spielberg's people. He said Spielberg played it over and over several times in his office was heard to say... "Why couldn't John Williams (who scored the E.T. film) write a song for the movie like this?"
Q: Please tell us about how the label decided to go with Neil Diamond's "Heartlight" instead and the legal issues that resulted.
Jerry: Neil was still a very big star for CBS and had tremendous clout there. They wanted their song released instead of ours and that's what happened. They eventually released our song in the fall but by then the E.T. movie and "Heartlight" had run its course. There were no legal issues for us but Neil ended up settling out of court with Spielberg for $25,000. We would have given him five times that amount for the rights.
Q: I know Michael Jackson also had a song inspired by E.T. which went unreleased for a long time.
Jerry: Yes, it was scheduled to be released on MCA Records which was part of Universal/MCA which distributed the E.T. movie. Jackson was a CBS artist, so supposedly CBS tried to use that as a bargaining chip to get Spielberg to give up the rights for our record to get Jackson on their E.T. project but that didn't happen. The whole thing to this day is a very bad memory that none of us like to talk about.
Q: What are your feelings about your own "E.T. I Love You" then and now? What are your feelings about Diamond's song?
Jerry: I believed it was great song then and I still do. I also believe it would have made a difference for helping move Gary and I closer to acceptance as regular pop songwriters and producers.
As a record, I thought "Heartlight" was good. Well written and well produced as always, but of course it interfered with our record so I wasn't happy about it.
Q: Some 80s pop superstars run away from the 80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the 80s alive and in perspective? What are your thoughts on music in the 80s and its place in pop culture history?
Jerry: I loved the 80s. It was a great time for us and I have fond memories, but honestly I don't dwell on it. I do feel that the 80s get more negative press then it deserves. People talk about cheesy music and all, but I think there was some great music in the 80s (Huey Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, Bryan Adams, Duran Duran and on and on). I think 80s music will be appreciated more as time goes on.
Q: After 30 years in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?
Jerry: The music business has changed dramatically, but the record companies have been slow to change with it. The internet changed everything and in some ways set the music business back 40 years. In the 50s and 60s, the single was king. If you heard a song on the radio you went out and bought the 45rpm for 99 cents. Then in the 70s, record companies started pushing the album sales over singles for greater profits which over time got very expensive. Now with iTunes, you can go buy a single song for 99 cents again like back in the 50s and 60s. Many people believe record companies won't survive, but I disagree. You still have to spend a lot of money promoting a new act and the record companies have the money. You might be able to put your own record out on the internet but you still need radio play and promotion to make it happen and that takes a lot of money. Most independent artists do not have the money to do that themselves.
Q: Please bring us up to date with what you have been up to since your big hit in the early 80s. Have you continued to maintain a close friendship and work directly with Garcia regularly over this time?
Jerry: Gary and I have continued to work together producing various projects and have no plans for slowing down until they put us in a home. We have been friends since junior high and have only gotten closer through the years. We love writing and performing and may start playing live again. I did get into radio for a while and now do voiceovers, but my true love is still in writing songs, recording in the studio and playing in front of a live audience.
Q: Can we expect new original music from Buckner & Garcia? What inspires you to continue writing new music after all these years?
Jerry: We both enjoy writing songs and performing and will continue to do that. Years ago, when we were still living in Akron, Ohio, our hometown, we used to go out to local malls and restaurants and play for free just because we loved performing, so yes, we will keep writing new music.
Q: What else is Jerry Buckner up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Jerry: I continue to write songs and I am thinking about writing a book about the whole Pac Man phenomenon and our role in all of that. I also love collecting records and Civil War letters. Gary enjoys his boat and sitting in with various bands singing the blues.
I would love to have another hit record. As far as regrets go, on a business level, Gary and I both feel in retrospect we should have moved to California right after "Pac-Man Fever". There was just too much opportunity there that we could have capitalized on, but you do what you do at the time and we made decisions based on the moment so I don't dwell on it. We have been blessed in many ways, so we have no complaints.
I am very pleased that Jerry took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Please be sure to visit the official Buckner & Garcia website www.bucknergarcia.com. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Jerry Buckner for his contributions to 80s pop culture especially with "Pac-Man Fever" and, even more, for going back to the 80s for a little while with us here as well.
That does it for another special issue of Kickin' it Old School. Thanks as always for reading and hope you are enjoying the interviews as much as I am. If you want a summary of all of my Back to the 80s Interviews posted thus far, please click on that link. If you are interested in reading any of my other 80s related issues, please click there for a summary of those. You can also always click on the Archives in the upper left hand column or use the Google Search Box at the top of the right hand column to find any other issues you may have missed. If you are a fan of Kickin' it, PLEASE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK LOGO in the upper right hand column. This will take you to the Fan Page where I ask you to then click on the "Like" button. Even if you are not a Facebook member yet, please consider joining and registering as a fan at that page. You can also follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter by clicking on the FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER LOGO also in the upper right hand column. This will take you the page and you can just click on the box that says "Follow". I am sending daily 80s tweets, so sign up to get those. Let other 80s fans know about it as well! Peace and much love.
Check this out: Here is some creative work I came across by Fabian Gonzalez (Lishoffs) on Flickr. Each letter represents a video game character, at least some of which are from the 80s including Pac Man. Can you figure them all out? My best guess at the answers are below the picture, but no peeking...
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