Armagideon Time

Groovy times

August 9th, 2018

NEWLY DECLASSIFIED FROM THE SECRET VPL DATABASE:

THE POLYESTER FOUR PART PLAN OF 1975:

1. Trap the smell of sweat, body odor, and other environmental scents in the fabric to an eye-watering degree.

2. Cause your clothes dryer to burst into flames.

3. Realize how awful you actually look.

4. Donate the stuff to a thrift store where it will remain unsold until the mid-Nineties.

The late Sixties get flagged as an era of upheaval, but the Seventies are when society truly lost its mind. Faith in traditional institutions waned and previously marginalized groups began to assert their selfhood in force. These were grand developments to be sure, but ones that led to fumbling attempts at soul-searching and self-actualization on a massive scale. The consumer capitalist combines tacked into this wind and used it to fan the flames into truly bizarre intensities.

All teleological bets were off. The Devil became a celebrity, competing for face time with Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, and ancient astronauts. One’s future, as written in the stars, could be had by popping a few coins in a vending machine.

It was an era where boundaries of time itself broke — prairie chic and Roaring Twenties decadence and Space Age minimalism and Sock Hop slickness coexisting and intertwining in the space of a single suburban ranch home. If there were contradictions, they went ignored among the synthesized rustic and wood-grained solid state detritus that rushed to occupy the post-consensus, post-Aquarian vacuum.

If the material culture of the Seventies seems ludicrous, it’s because that garish absurdity suited the times. The decade was the cultural equivalent to the genetic radiation which occurs in the aftermath of a cataclysmic extinction event. With the status quo upended, a staggering variety of organisms rise up to populate the post-collapse biome. Many of these strange beasts lack the viability to go the long-term distance, but thrive within their transitory niche ecologies. What lasts, lasts. What doesn’t, finds its way into the fossil record to baffle future generations.

I picked up the Bubblegum Crisis and VOTOMS manuals more out of interest in the licensed source material than anything else. I picked up Champions: The New Millennium because it happened to be racked next to those other two games.

Okay, maybe there’s a little more to it than that. The third edition of Champions was one of the first role playing games I dabbled with as a teen. Its superheroic theme and robust character creation system better fit my tastes than fantasy-based dungeon crawls, and the campaign that arose out of it managed to eclipse the AD&D run which brought my original group of players together. Every dumbass adolescent superhero fan has fantasized at some point about creating their own not-at-all-derivative shared fictional universe populated with all sorts of costumed crusaders. em>Champions offered the means to make (debatably) practical use of all the world-and-character-building ideas I’d previously relegated to study hall daydreams and notebook doodles.

Unfortunately, Champions was also a massive pain in the ass to run. The basic resolution mechanics were simple enough, but fell off the rails when it came to efficiently dealing with the absurdly complex bundles of statistics and algebraic formulas passing for player characters. The rules tried to be as pragmatically functionalist as possible, concentrating on mechanical effects and leaving the specific details to the players to define (e.g. a single “energy blast” rather than separate entries for cold/heat/force/cookie dough projection).

Yet any system able to codify such a wide array of powers and talents is going to ripe for “meta” exploitation and cause headaches to keep track of around the gaming table. A Kirby-esque dust-up between a single hero and a horde of minion could take an evening to resolve and a full-on battle between superteams was the stuff of glacially paced nightmares. I spent the better part of a decade trying to find a superhero RPG that accurately captured the fast-paced action of the source material, only to return to Champions out of residual loyalty and the grudging acceptance that it had remained the best attempt available.

The New Millennium was based on the “Fuzion” system, a blending of the old “HERO” rules used by Champions and the “Interlock” system developed by R. Talsorian Games. The idea was to create easily scalable and streamlined core game mechanics with universal utility. The notion of a radically revised and simplified edition of Champions was enough to induce me to buy a copy of the rulebook, despite some immediate misgivings.

If you can’t tell by the cover art, The New Millennium is very much grounded in the post-Image school of superhero tropes and aesthetics. Previous editions of Champions had held themselves to a generic “Bronze Age” take and presentation style which left the EXTREME! EDGELORDY! heavy lifting to the end users (and they were more than up for the task, trust me). Seeing the system embrace that level of contemporary kewlness was unsettling to behold. I felt like George Bailey visiting Pottersville or perhaps just a geek dude edging up on thirty and realizing exactly how much the world had changed while he was distracted by other things.

To further drive home the point that The New Millennium wasn’t your elder sibling’s SUPER roleplaying game, the manual opens with a short comic to dispel any doubts about what one should expect from it.

This is then followed up by a multi-page gallery of “Baby’s First Watchmen” mock-up news clippings explaining the background of this new rude and ‘tudey universe of superhero roleplaying.

Previous editions of Champions held back on establishing a specific background canon for the game. What existed was doled out in the form of default archetypes which could readily be adapted to fit or fill in for HYDRA or Doctor Doom or Batman or whatever — a logical and legally safe consequence of being a superhero RPG without ties to the big two publishers of superhero funnybooks.

New Millennium‘s in-game canon is flogged ceaselessly right from the starting gate. I understand publishers feeling the need to throw in a pre-made foundation for folks who might not be willing or able to indulge in heavy worldbuilding, but the one the game provides is a lumpy stew of every unfortunate trend in the superhero genre up through 1996. Take a dirty chamberpot and throw in every convoluted X-book storyline into it, stir in the first wave of Image offerings, sprinkle with “shit got real” grimdark swiped from Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, season with painful misreads of Astro City and Starman. Serve on a bed of Jim Lee inspired art with a garnish of pendulous breasts and shoulder pads…and you’d still have something slightly more palatable than New Millennium‘s in-game universe.

Maybe there was an audience out there for this kind of thing. All I know is that audience did not include me, and it is tightly wound through the entire rulebook.

As for the game rules (which don’t appear after a hundred pages of amateur hour riffing on the type of stuff which nearly killed the comics industry), well…let me put it this way. No matter how much the you revise or streamline the Champions rules, as long as even a single element of the traditional mechanics remain the game is still going to be ten times more complicated than it needs to be.

The fourth edition rules (my gold standard for Champions) were complicated, but comprehensive and consistent. The transition to Fuzion didn’t make things any less complicated, but funked up the consistency by shoehorning “simplified” workarounds for things like power mechanics. Character creation is heavily linked to the in-game canon, but with little in the way of explanation outside another opportunity for the writers to indulge in “clever” quotes. It also includes “lifepath” and “origin” flowcharts for some reason.

The Fuzion system is flexible enough that a motivated gamemaster could theoretically make the mess into something workable, but it would a bit like using paper towels to wipe your ass when there’s a roll of Charmin right there on the shelf.

When it came to deciding what stuff from my old RPG crate would make the transition to the House on the Hillside and which would remain in the attic of my grandmother’s soon to be torn-down home, Champions: The New Millennium was one of the few non-magazine items that almost didn’t make the cut.

I fell into the punk thing fairly late in my adolescence. My teen years were the back half of the Eighties, and were mostly spent in a self-imposed bubble of Sixties pop and soul music. The life-altering epiphanies of the Repo Man soundtrack didn’t happen until the spring of 1989, when I seventeen years old and trying to forge a sense of purpose in the wake of my mother’s death.

Even after I made that leap, the scene’s puritanical disdain towards “posers” and “artsy types” continued to insulate me from anything that wasn’t three-chord bursts of righteous aggression. There were a handful of exceptions — mostly involving girls I awkwardly pined for — but the bulk of the “classic” alternative-slash-college-rock scene of that era flew well outside my radar.

An example: During my sophomore year in college, a high school pal and I drove up to Vermont to visit his off-again-on-again girlfriend at her school. When we got there, my friend pointed to a weedy dude with a shaved head in a flannel shirt and said “Hey, it’s Michael Stipe” and I nodded because it seemed like the correct response.

After a half-hour of trying and failing to locate my buddy’s girlfriend, I told him that maybe he should ask that guy he knew.

“What guy?”

“Michael Stoop? The one you pointed out when we got here?”

“MICHAEL STIPE? FROM R.E.M? It was a j — forget it.”

It wasn’t until I started hanging around with my punk rock pal Leech that I finally started to understand jokes about Morrissey and Suzanne Vega, thanks to his endless capacity to ramble on about music trivia. Even so, I was just a couple of months shy of my twentieth birthday when I listened to the Cure for the first time.

I had just starting dating Maura. I knew Maura had liked the Cure. Therefore, I somehow came to the conclusion that listening to the band would grant me some crucial insights about her inner life. A used copy of the Staring at the Sea singles compilation showed up at In Your Ear’s new arrivals bin, so I dropped three bucks on it and brought it home to analyze.

What I did not grasp (among so many other things) was the Maura’s use of past tense when describing her love of Robert Smith and company. She’d given up on them after The Head on the Door, some seven years prior (back when she was a sixteen year old punk rocker and I was a shaggy thirteen year old grooving to Dire Straits and the Blues Brothers soundtrack two towns over).

Still, I liked enough of what I heard to follow up on that initial purchase. Starting at the Sea is simultaneously the best and worst introduction to the Cure, as it covers the band’s furtive lurchings from punk-inflected pop to post-punk minimalism to claustrophobic apocalypticism to glum dance pop to semi-psychedelia to marketable self-caricature. The only common threads between the collection’s tracks are solid songwriting and Robert Smith’s idiosyncratic vocals.

I gravitated toward the later end of the spectrum, which led to further cutting remarks from Maura but didn’t stop me from buying a copy of the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and spinning it during fits of overwrought romantic angst. The phase didn’t last long, and I eventually moved on to less contentious mope music.

My Cure t-shirt was handed down to Lil Bro, I took the “Boys Don’t Cry” poster down from the wall of my room, and any thoughts about the Cure remained on the mental backburner up through the second half of the Nineties.

After the comedy troupe I was part of exploded on the launch pad, another former member and I stayed in contact through weekly Warhammer 40k games. We usually gamed at his apartment, but there were a few times when his roommate had other plans or the place stunk past the limits of human tolerance. On those occasions, we’d set up at his girlfriend’s place while she was out taking classes at Boston University.

The dig were exactly what one would expect from a upscale goth with well-off parents — bay windows with a benches for a black cat to nap on, bookshelves filled with tomes of gloomy poetry and occult lore, framed Aubrey Beardsley prints (with French captions, natch) on the walls, the inescapable scent of incense and cloves. She also had a high-end stereo system and a decent music library, so my gaming buddy would toss in some random disc to play while we waged war with our miniature armies on the hardwood floor.

One of the albums he picked was Seventeen Seconds, the Cure’s 1979 sophomore effort in which the band hit their chilly postpunk peak. It was part of the band’s discography I’d overlooked during pervious flirtation with the band, but one that synced perfectly with the drift in my listening habits from aggro to atmospheric. Chilly and somber, it put me in mind of the Euro-minimal museum exhibits my mom used to drag me to when I was a kid, or the silent monochrome winterscapes of the North Woburn woods after a blizzard.

It epitomized the concept of stark beauty.

There was a used CD place on the walk back to the Green Line, which happened to have copy of Seventeen Seconds in stock. I picked it up and it entered heavy rotation on the Sony boombox that replaced my ailing component stereo system up through the new millennium. It also became the inspiration for a (mostly) jovial ongoing debate between Maura and me over the “best Cure album.” (She swears it’s Pornography. I swear it’s Seventeen Seconds. We do agree that both albums are great and that Robert Smith since has devolved into self-parody.)

Seventeen Seconds was near the top of my list of “essential albums” to seek out on vinyl. Unfortunately, the days when one could buy the Cure’s entire LP output to 1990 for under twenty bucks were well and truly over. Both the original pressings and 180g reissues skirted the limits of what I’d be willing to spend on a single album. After a few months of grumbling equivocation, I finally gave in and bought the Rhino Records re-release.

I couldn’t help myself. A cool autumnal breeze blew through the bottom floor and the house, some primordial impulse stirred within me, and the next thing I knew I was staring at a confirmation of purchase page.

After scoring the full set of Bubblegum Crisis RPG supplements, I decided to splurge on another of R. Talsorian’s anime-themed licensed efforts…

….the Armored Trooper VOTOMS: The Roleplaying Game published in 1997 and still warming a shelf at Pandemonium Books half a decade later.

VOTOMS was one of the bigger entries in the mecha-themed space opera boom of the Eighties, though its popularity and ancillary merchandise didn’t extend past Japan’s borders to the extent that Gundam or Macross did. Apart from a few imported model kits, the franchise’s North American presence was limited to the fragmentary flow of tantalizing fanzine articles and word-of-mouth gossip that governed pre-internet “Japanimation” fandom.

This aura of mystery was part of the appeal for me, especially as it also involved giant robots blowing the shit out of each other. I’ve always been a mark for classic anime mecha epics, and VOTOMS had a rep for having a “darker” and “more realistic” approach compared to its peers. The series was set in a distant galaxy devastated by a war between two rival empires, where a fugitive commando named Chirico Cuvie finds himself tangled up in a vast conspiracy involving rogue military officers and an ancient alien civilization. The visual style had that sweet 70s/80s transitional aesthetic (think “bubble organic” versus “utilitarian angular”), the mechs were chunky and distinctive, and the theme tread the line between Starship Troopers and sentai.

The VOTOMS RPG was released as form of cross-promotion for the domestic release of the original TV series on VHS, an ambitious (and somewhat doomed) venture for a 52-episode run when each tape ran twenty-five bucks a pop. I only sprung for one of the volumes before realizing the folly of trying to score the entire run, but I was fine with dropping fifteen dollars on the softcover rulebook.

Much like the Bubblegum Crisis RPG, most of the VOTOMS rulebook is given over to scene-setting fluff. In addition to the typical overview of the VOTOMS universe, it included extended galleries of the principal and supporting cast, a detailed roster of the various armored suits, and a comprehensive episode guide covering the entire original TV series. Most of the material is annotated with the appropriate states for in-game use and illustrated with official cel and production art.

It’s more “mook” than manual, and the actual rules section feels like an abbreviated afterthought. The game employed the Fuzion system, a hybrid of R. Talsorian’s “Interlock System” and the “HERO system” used in Champions and other Hero Games releases. The idea was to create flexible, universal mechanics specifically tailored towards anime-themed campaigns, but mostly emphasized the weaknesses of Fuzion’s parent systems. The addition of HERO’s derived stats and point-based personal equipment just made things messier than they needed to be. The combat lacked the precise pyrotechnics of Mekton, throwing in time-consuming complications which served no practical purpose.

Even the less onerous revisions carried a strong vibe of pointlessness about them. Sure, the adoption of the HERO system’s method for gaining additional character points by taking on personal “limitations” didn’t hurt the game, but not at the expense of the melodrama generating “Lifepath” flowcharts which were one of the most ingenious aspects of the Interlock’s character creation mechanics.

VOTOMS real value as a RPG sourcebook had less to do with the actual rules than with the conceptual package as a whole. It does an exceptional job at describing and fleshing out a consistent and compelling campaign setting, while establishing reasonable and thematically appropriate parameters for overall scale. That’s something that unfortunately eluded me back in my feral fanboy days of trying to organize a suitably epic Metkon II campaign, only to crash and burn under the weight of my excessive ambition. The worldbuilding material in VOTOMS serves as a perfect template for keeping things on a consistent, workable level.

It’s a shame it arrived a decade too late to help me out in that regard.

Sic transit gloria Nineties

July 31st, 2018

Looking back, you wonder if any of it was real.

Of course it was. You can find ample physical evidence in any thrift store or the few sad remnants you’d elected to hold on to all this time.

There’s a part of you that whispers how these were your best years — a halcyon daze of short-term thinking and affected irony. The party to end all parties.

Yet confronting the material leavings of the era induces a profound sense of queasiness, as if you washed down a bowl of styrofoam packing peanuts with a quart of vegetable oil.

There’s a stink of burnt plastic you don’t recall, but then there’s a lot you can’t quite remember.

The iconography is both utterly alien yet intimately familiar, a language willfully erased from memory.

Still, enough traces remain to evoke sentiments better left buried.

The best parts were a long time ago. The worst parts are forever.

Self-delusion or survival method? Either way it dies hard.

The rose-tinted lenses crack, revealing an unending expanse of variegated puketones.

Youth is for the young and, baby, that train has well and truly left the station.

Don’t lament it as a reminder of frail mortality. Embrace it as a liberating epiphany.

You can finally see the truth. Let it set you free.

As mentioned a couple of entries back, I’ve been seeking out period soundtrack LPs with a punk and/or new wave slant. There weren’t nearly as many of them as the youth-marketed cinema of the era would lead one to believe. Outside of some cult outliers and scene-focused documentaries, the licensed soundtrack thing for teen flicks didn’t really pick up steam until the mid-Eighties — and even then in a slow roll marked by an emphasis on forgettable session musician jams.

Individually checking for every likely candidate was a tedious (and generally fruitless) process, so I decided to put Discogs robust search tools to use to get an overview of what exactly had been released. Starting with a fairly broad set of parameters — soundstracks, pop, new wave, 1978 through 1986 — I fiddled with the extremely handy custom filters (release format, nation of release, etc) until things had been narrowed down into a list of a hundred or items.

At least half of these ended up being duplicate entries or stuff with which I was already familiar. There were also a sizable number of selections which stretched the definition of new wave or made the cut because of a single token Police or Talking Heads track. Discounting those left behind a pretty slim list of releases. I’d expected as much, but had still be hoping out for at least a few timelost gems.

Mark Spitz...and pogos, too.

The only intriguing entry was for the soundtrack to That Summer, a 1979 British coming of age flick set at a seaside resort town. I’d never heard of it before, but the release date the country of origin sounded promising enough to click through to the tracklist…

A1 Ian Dury And The Blockheads – Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
A2 Mink DeVille - Spanish Stroll
A3 Elvis Costello – (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea
A4 The Boomtown Rats – She’s So Modern
A5 The Zones – New Life
A6 The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet
A7 Wreckless Eric – Whole Wide World
A8 Patti Smith Group – Because The Night

B1 The Boomtown Rats – Kicks
B2 The Ramones - Rockaway Beach
B3 The Undertones – Teenage Kicks
B4 Eddie And The Hot Rods – Do Anything You Wanna Do
B5 Ian Dury And The Blockheads – What A Waste
B6 Nick Lowe – I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass
B7 Elvis Costello – Watching The Detectives
B8 Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation

…which then sent me scrambling to find a copy on Discogs’ marketplace.

It was astounding I’d never heard of this soundtrack before, but I also didn’t really get into most of the featured artists until I’d started the switch from records to compact discs as my format of choice.

One of my earliest and most significant CD purchases was Rhino’s D.I.Y. set of early punk and wave comps. The material and artists featured on That Summer were heavily represented on both the “UK Pop” and “NYC Scene” D.I.Y. collections, adding to the weirdly recursive loop of retroactive nostalgia. I’d be hard pressed to name another compilation of such uniform high quality.

Four top-notch cuts are usually enough to motivate a purchase on my part. Ten out of eighteen is absolutely unheard of. Hell, I would’ve bought it on the strengths of “Another Girl, Another Planet” and “Teenage Kicks” alone.

That Summer has become one of my go-to records for, well, this summer. It arrived on the same morning I started putting together the new entertainment center and spun the entire thing at least three times while I struggled with Ikea’s shittly little hex wrench tool and pictogram instructions, stopping only when I had to disconnect the turntable. It’s an easy listen for lazy afternoons and weekend chores, and pairs perfectly with K-Tel’s equally excellent The Main Event comp if you’re looking for an extended jaunt in to the mythic realm of 1979′s punk/pop crossover moment.

For some reason I’ve never been able to work out, the John F. Kennedy Junior High School used to hold an “Hat Day” event. For a single day each school year, the draconian rules forbidding headwear were lifted, and students were encouraged to don their wildest choice of chapeaus.

Teen Andrew lived for moments like this, a time to cut loose and show off in zany ways which provided fodder for a fresh round of taunts and jeers from my classmates. Those complications were strictly long-term concerns, and therefore alien to my adolescent self. Tragedy tomorrow, Hat Day right now.

For my initial foray into the Hat Day festivities, I came to school sporting a WW2 Era M1-1-5 Optical Gas Mask flipped backwards on my skull.

The chemwar relic was one of a staggering number of bizarre artifacts that drifted down through the Weiss family over the decades before finally ending up in one of our toy boxes. (My best guess it that originated at the military surplus warehouse down the hill from the Weiss family manor, and was either purchased or swiped by my old man or uncle during their younger days.) It also came with a carrying satchel made of canvas fortified with an aluminum plate, which functioned as my bookbag up through my first year of high school.

The mask smelled like the guts of an inner tube and weighed a ton, thanks to the bulky filtration tank that dangled with bruise-inflicting aplomb. Wearing it, even backwards, for an entire schoolday was an ordeal but the stares and attention it generated in the halls made it a (literal) burden worth shouldering. For a single day, I’d become King Shit of Turd Mountain, savoring the envious glares of kids who’d thought Grandpa’s old Tyrolean hat or a Stetson left behind by their parents’ Urban Cowboy phase would earn them the crown.

Fifteen minutes before the final bell, the principal got on the school PA system to announce “this year’s Hat Day winners.” Winners? Nobody told me it was a contest. I was just doing it as a goof.

Mr. Tryolean and Miss Stetson nabbed third and second place, with the top honors going to “Andrew Weiss, 7th Grade.” Our prizes (PRIZES? HOLY CRAP!) could be picked up from the housemaster after the bell. What wonderful universe had I accidentally fallen into?

The prize was a six-pack of tonic chosen from the party stash. I went with Ramblin’ Root Beer because it was 1984 and they didn’t have any cream soda or Mello Yello, and I savored every drop.

I didn’t participate in Hat Day during my eighth grade year. My memory is a little hazy on the subject, but it either wasn’t held that year or I missed it during one of my many sick days. (Eighth grade was especially brutal for multiple reasons and I got into the habit of feigning illness whenever I needed a break or if important episode of Robotech was being aired during school hours.)

The final Hat Day of my middle school experience presented a challenge. As a former champion, all eyes were on me to outdo my gas mask stunt yet nothing suitably grand came to mind — until I spotted the remnant half of Fisher-Price “Little People” town playset that now served as a setting for our GI Joe battles. The process of transforming it into an actual “hat” was overseen by my craft-handy mother, who hit upon the idea of mounting it on top of a head-sized cardboard box with some spare speaker wire. She also helped me secure a couple of disposable action figures to appropriate locations and hit upon the idea of stringing up a wire-and-construction-paper laundry line across one of the roofs.

Even with all the work, the resulting masterpiece was almost impossible to wear and the stuff of severe neck pain. (It only occurred to me some thirty-three later that we should’ve fixed the liner of my dad’s surplus army helmet inside the box for extra support and the benefit of a chinstrap. Live and learn.) It also made a really tempting target for asshole classmates to twist sideways, blocking my already shitty vision as I navigated the halls between classes. (It did go better than the time I stuffed my head inside a Fisher-Price barn and ended up with a still-prominent v-shaped scar on the left side of my head, however.)

Did I pull off another walk-away Hat Day victory? You bet your ass I did.

The principal made the announcement, I went down to the housemaster’s office to pick up my score, and discovered that the first place reward had been upped to an entire case (four six-packs) of tonic.

“Oh, wow!” I said to the housemaster as I helped myself to twenty-four cans of lemon-lime and orange Slice.

“Oh, fuck,” I said to myself in the campus courtyard, as looked at the case of tonic, the oversized headpiece, and my shitty store-brand BMX bike.

Bringing the hat in on my bike had been difficult enough, never mind trying to balance that unwieldy object and twenty pounds of canned soft drinks. The art room where I had a personal work station was locked up for the day, as was the wing where my locker resided.

I ended up tossing all the cans in the pillowcase I’d used to transport the hat, then tying the improvised sack to the crossbar of the bike. With my satchel thrown across my back and the hat wobbling unsteadily on my noggin, I walked-rolled the half mile (across two busy intersections) back home. Fortunately, I was too preoccupied with trying to maintain my balance to notice the chorus jeers and mocking laughter from passing cars.

To this day, I can’t travel down the stretch of middle street between the school and Mishawum (mish-yoo-wahm) Road without having a weird out of body experience where I can see my scrawny, rat-tailed fourteen year old self wobbling down the sidewalk trying to simultaneously steady his overloaded bike and the Fisher-Price townscape on his head.

And then I wish there was someplace that still sold lemon-lime Slice.

On the heels of yesterday’s grab for low-hanging gigglefruit, I must admit a genuine fascination with budget knock-offs of currently popular toy lines. It’s not strong enough to compel me towards seeking out the actual items to own, but the mercenary logic behind their existence falls squarely in my cultural history wheelhouse.

These cheapjack imitators have long been a staple of department store toy aisles (back when such things still existed) and still do a brisk business in dollar stores and other low-end retail establishments, but I’m particularly interested in their roles as perennial filler in the pages of holiday season “Wish Book” catalogs.

As a starry-eyed kid, these thick tomes were holy texts, Bibles of Unbridled Avarice to study with single-minded intensity as one finalized their annual demand of tribute from that Right Jolly Old Elf. Now that I’m older and hipper to the consumer economy jive, it’s easy to pick out certain patterns and methodologies at play on the pages. Nothing is random in the risk-adverse realm of marketing. Every line of copy, page layout, an juxtaposition was implemented for very specific reasons.

Toy manufacturers bank massively on holiday season sales. They effectively support the entire industry. That’s as true for the major players as well as the farm league purveyors of molded plastic diversions — except the latter don’t have the advantage of brand recognition, popular IPs, or huge marketing divisions. The best case scenario for these firms was to coast on the Big Players’ slipstreams, diverting a small slice of a take for themselves.

Holiday catalogs offered a perfect opportunity to ride those coattails. Kids may have salivated over the listings, but adults were the ones doing the actual purchasing. Most of incessant chatter about a plaything du jour tends to get lost on older folks. Yes, parents and maybe a close grandparent or two might gain some basic familiarity about a current obsession by way of brute force osmosis, but kids are fickle and the bewildering crap they ramble about starts to blur together over time.

Often the best that could be managed was a vague awareness about “Pumpkin Patch Babies” or “Sgt. Joe” or “Thunderdogs” or “Hot Box” cars and a general idea what they were kinda-sorta about. If you’re talking about a great-aunt in Sarasota, you probably wouldn’t even get that.

It’s not for nothing that the listings for these knock-offs flitted around the margins for the lines they bit from. Their entire deal was to leverage the befuddlement of adults and a cheaper asking price into a respectable revenue stream. One plastic castle with a skull on it should be as good as another right? Especially when one you went for is ten bucks cheaper and seemed to come with a lot more in the box.

What the hell, the brats are just going to break the thing in two weeks, anyhow.

None more real

July 24th, 2018

🎶 SIXTEEN ACTION FIGURES! 🎶
🎶 JUST LIKE THOSE OTHER ONES WE CAN’T NAME FOR LEGAL REASONS! 🎶
🎶 SIXTEEN ACTION FIGURES! 🎶
🎶 THANK GRANDMA FOR HER THOUGHTFUL GIFT, YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE SHIT! 🎶
🎶 SIXTEEN ACTION FIGURES! 🎶
🎶 THEY’RE MASTERS OF THE BAIT AND SWITCH! 🎶
🎶 SIXTEEN ACTION FIGURES! 🎶
🎶 DON’T SUE US HASBRO 🎶

In an age fraught with diminishing returns and rampant inflation, Sixteen Action Figure force is there to take on the tough missions nobody else wanted.

Top row, l-r: Creepy Neighbor, Early Adopter, Sgt. Scatman Crothers; Bottom row, l-r: Acid Wash, Armadillo Furry, Aging Crustpunk

Top row, l-r: Cosplay Overkill, Fidel Blastro; Bottom row, l-r: Safe Word, LARP Master, Beau Hunter

Top row, l-r: Chromium Agent, Gruff Diver, Village Person; Bottom row, l-r: Jungle Action Phil Collins, HAZ-Matt

Sixteen Action Figures is the code name for a set of off-brand military action figures featured in the 1994 JC Penney Christmas Catalog. Its purpose: To offer an easy low cost gift option to older relatives, an easily baffled bunch of folks whose eyes glaze over when the younger crowd rambles on about some hot new toy line.

Did I mention I was taking a vacation for a week?

Because I did and it was great, but now it’s time to get back to the grind.

Up until the beginning of this year, I never owned the US version of the first Clash album on vinyl. It’s a startling admission, I know, but one that tracks with the course of the earlier phase of my record collecting days.

I first bought the album on cassette at the tail end of the Eighties and it played a huge role during my transition into punk rock. By the time I started crate digging in earnest, however, it had been shunted aside by newer (to me) and more exciting (at the moment) acts. There was no pressing need to buy a copy — even though they were easily and cheaply obtainable — because I already had one available on another format.

When my Clash fandom did come roaring back in the latter half of the Nineties, I’d already transitioned into the realm of compact discs and their ever-expanding catalog of retro reissues and obscurities. From there I jumped into digital files and never considered there’d ever be a situation where I’d want/need the album on vinyl. Besides, I already owned an original pressing of the UK version of the LP, bought for the princely sum of a buck thanks to a clueless Looney Tunes employee. It was one of the biggest gems of my collection and one of the first (if not the first) platter spun when I sprung for a budget turntable in the autumn of 2016.

It was a great (and lucky) a find, but was it wasn’t the US version. The album as originally released was deemed too crude sounding for tender American ears accustomed to KC and the Sunshine Band and Fleetwood Mac, and thus didn’t get released on this side of the pond until 1979 as a reworked jobber which swapped out some of the rougher cuts in favor of some later non-album single/EP tracks. It’s the type of move that would be pure anathema to the “warts and all” historian in me, but in this case it elevated a great album into something utterly transcendent.

Every single one of the additions showcased the band at their creative peak and two tracks in particular — “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” and “Complete Control” — are the best songs the Clash ever recorded. The label politics which led to it’s existence may have been misguided, but resulted in the epitome of what I consider “essential albums.” There isn’t another album I’ve completely internalized the way I’ve internalized the US version of The Clash. Every note, every one of Joe Strummer’s extemporized (and indecipherable) vocal bits, every one of Mick Jones nasally stabs at harmonizing, every misunderstood lyric that persist despite having looked up the real deal have been permanently engraved into my psyche.

It is the album I turn to when I can’t think of anything else to listen to, and serves up a visceral thrill every single time.

If this was 1990, I could’ve walked into any of the dozen record shops on my regular route and picked up a sealed “Nice Price” copy of the LP for a fiver or a good condition used one for under half that. In the shit-encrusted free-for-all hellscape of 2018, however, it was nigh impossible to find even a beat-to-shit one for less than twenty-five bucks. I would’ve settled for a reissue, but years of music jouno whining about the missing out on the “real version” of The Clash created a situation where the UK release got the 180 gram honors and the US do-over got consigned to limbo. (Supposedly there is one floating out there somewhere, but every retailer listing I checked had the UK tracklist in the description.)

Honestly, twenty-five bucks wasn’t too rich for my blood. I’ve spent more on nostalgic nonsense which didn’t carry a fraction of the album’s personal resonance, but the whole idea of yesteryear’s cut-out bin fare being sold at a premium hit me in the part of the cerebral cortex that gets pissed over twelve-dollar hamburgers and ten dollar action figures. It’s not so much a principled stand than the inability to accept the passage of time, but such is my row to hoe.

Eventually, after months of scouring various listings, I found a fairly clean copy for fifteen bucks on eBay. It was still a bit steep, but not so much that I hesitated about buying it. Any regrets I might have had regarding the price vanished the instant I slipped it out of the packing sleeve and threw it on the turntable.

And when I’m finished writing this, I’m going to spin it again.

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