Armagideon Time

Sometime during the last few weeks of 1987, my pal Scott spotted something interesting in the back pages of the current issue of Dragon Magazine. Buried between the ads for custom character portraits and play-by-mail adventures was an ad for the Compleat Strategist, a small chain of stores specializing in role-playing and other games.

What set this retailer apart from the scores of others advertised in Dragon was the fact that one of the its stores was located in Boston, on Mass Ave not too far from the Auditorium T station. I’d never ventured past Medford’s (now-demolished) Meadow Glen Mall during my previous public transit excursions, but Scott had made a handful trips into the city proper and thus took the lead in planning our geek pilgrimage.

The trip involved a the 134 bus to the Wellington Orange Line Station, a switch over to a B, C or D Green Line train at Haymarket, and a five minute walk towards the Christian Science Center from the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Ave. It seemed pretty straight forward of paper (or, more accurately, the subway map on the back of the local White Pages book) but felt intimidating in practice, thanks to chatter from concerned parties about the store’s proximity to what city-fearing suburbanites have termed a “bad neighborhood.”

Our parents didn’t forbid the trip, however, so we spent a cold December Saturday jumping from bus to train to trolley car in pursuit of anticipated treasures. We got to the Back Bay without a hitch, but had some difficulty locating the shop itself, as it was located in the recessed retail concourse on the ground floor of a brutalist behemoth.

It was far smaller than we expected it to be, maybe half the size of the generalist hobby store in the Burlington Mall. What it lacked it floor space, it made up for in the utterly bewildering variety of STUFF on display. There was an entire wall of Warhammer miniatures and shelf after shelf of games and supplements that I’d never seen outside of magazine ads.

It was overwhelming to behold. We had planned and made the trip to the store without any specific purchase as an objective, and whatever subconscious wish list I might’ve had got drowned out by the array of choices laid out before us. In the end, I left with a handful of dice selected from a bin by the register and the Armies of the Night module for Twilight 2000.

I discussed the module in detail a few years back. It’s a blatant rip-off of Escape From New York, reworked with some really problematic racial politics for the game’s post-nuclear near future, and sporting some shamelessly derivative interior art. I’m also pretty sure the designers of The Division videogame liberally borrowed from it, because that ouroboros ain’t gonna eat itself.

Though I made only a dozen or so visits to the Complete Strategist in over the next decade, I can still clearly recall each purchase made there. The experience had other lasting consequences, as well. Unlike my suburban peers, whose “gateway” into the city was Harvard Square, the Boston of my teen years was the Mass Ave corridor of the Back Bay. Even after I discovered Cambridge’s wonders, I still gravitated back towards Newbury and Boylston.

The neighborhood was also where I saw my first genuine punk rockers, gawky kids with spiked hair and studded leather jackets. I laughed at their absurdity at the time, unaware that the contagion had started to spread to depths of my own subconsciousness.

I’m going to go out of sequence with this week’s entry, which is fitting because it was both my most recent record purchase and the second K-Tel comp I bought with my own money.

The album is Hit Mix, released in 1984 and originally purchased by yours truly from a cassette bargain bin at Bradlees a few months later.

The Bradlees store in Woburn was on the galactic fringe of my childhood’s retail galaxy. Up a steep hill from the Woburn Mall, on the opposite side of Washington Street by the Reading border, getting there (by bike or on foot) was a massive undertaking.

I willingly made the voyage on a regular basis because the place stocked all manner of rare treasures that put the easier-to-get-to Zayre’s inventory to shame. It was the main supplier for the bulk of early adolescent material obsessions and affectations. Bradlees sold me the clearance rack Hawaiian shirts I wore through most of junior high, as well as the Fighting Fantasy and Stephen King paperbacks I devoured with lurid glee. It’s out-of-the-way location also meant it was the best place to score the latest waves of GI Joe, Transformers, and Go-Bots toys.

It was during an afterschool excursion to the story that I saw the footage of the Challenger explosion, rebroadcast to a crowd of horrified onlookers on the electronics department’s wall of TVs.

This was also the time that my younger self was starting to “get into” music, and Bradlees assortment of cut-out bin cassettes supplied a number of my early purchases. My tastes were still in a state of flux, drifting between the pop metal fandom of my North Woburn pals and the pop fare pimped by V66 and the host of other short-lived music video shows created to cash in on MTV’s ascendancy.

If I liked something, I liked it. “Cool kid” cred was already beyond my grasp, so I surrendered to raw sentimentality and catchy tunes. When it came to actually purchasing music, however, I was limited by the expense involved. I didn’t have a turntable to play 45s and the price of a full album was too rich for my allowance and paper route funded blood. Instead I had to opt for midlist bargain deals and the deeply discounted compilations of the previous season’s chartbusters.

(It “helped” that my younger self had no concept of things going in or out of fashion.)

At three bucks (plus fifteen cents sales tax) Hit Mix was a slightly dated godsend.

A1 Thompson Twins – Hold Me Now
A2 Huey Lewis And The News – I Want A New Drug
A3 The Romantics – Talking In Your Sleep
A4 The Pretenders – Middle Of The Road
A5 Dwight Twilley – Girls
A6 Genesis – That’s All
A7 Christine McVie – Got A Hold On Me

B1 Van Halen – Jump
B2 Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me
B3 Kool & The Gang – Tonight
B4 James Ingram with Michael McDonald – Yah Mo B There
B5 Shannon – Let The Music Play
B6 38 Special – Back Where You Belong
B7 Billy Idol – Rebel Yell

As Maura and I have grown older, our musical tastes have drifted in different directions. She has developed a stronger appreciation for Fifties doo-wop, Buddy Holly, and old pop standards. I, on the other hand, have moved back into the nostalgic murk, running my fingers across various scars to the beat of the cheese and sleaze of my childhood.

Maura is also three years older than me. It’s not a huge difference, but it does mean that her frame of reference for a lot this stuff is vastly different than mine. When I was still trying to figure out my tastes, she had already progressed into the punk rock realm.

What I’m getting at is this: She really, really dislikes this era of pop music, and has forbidden me from playing Hit Mix while she’s within listening distance.

Honestly, I can’t blame her. I’m not too crazy about it myself.

I bought the album on the basis of three tracks — Van Halen’s “Jump,” Blidol’s “Rebel Yell,” and 38 Special’s “Back Where You Belong.” The first two were in heavy rotation on Top 40 radio and music video programming, and the last one hooked me though a bizarre promo vid that reimagined the Wild Eyed Southern Boys as the cast of Hill Street Blues.

Concept videos were a hell of a drug, man.

Rockwell’s “Who’s Watching Me” is a fun slice of nostalgic fluff and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” is still a pretty powerful dance jam, but the rest of the material only serves to remind me why I gave up on contemporary music not too long after this time. Everything about Hit Mix, from the music to the cover aesthetic, exemplifies the plastic glossiness of “High 80s.” The apocalyptic dread and dimly-lit futurism the years previous were spackled over with brightly colored gaudiness and willful denial, and synths went from coldly haunting to canned horn-and-harmonica simulations.

It also doesn’t help that the music is so indelibly linked to my junior high years and all the existential nightmares tied to that transition. Whatever appeal the tunes once held has been overshadowed by memories of adolescent idiocy and hormonal angst. It’s the reason why I held off on picking up a copy, despite it’s personal significance as a historical artifact.

When I listen to Rock 80 or Radio Active, I get chills. When I listened to Hit Mix this past weekend, I felt like I’d eaten a bowl of styrofoam chips drenched in corn syrup.

Star Wars saved funnybooks as a mass medium.

Landing the licensing rights to the franchise gave Marvel a leg up at a time when some suspected the publisher’s days were numbered. Its success was able to turn things around long enough for the rebooted X-Men (and its DC counterpart, the New Teen Titans) to gain industry-defining traction and for direct market retail to emerge as a sustainable alternative to ever-shrinking newsstand sales.

Star Wars also functioned as a cultural tentpole for geeky shit as a whole. Star Trek and Planet of the Apes may have had dedicated fandoms, but nothing on par with Star Wars’ demographic (and merchandising) magnitude. Ralph Bakshi had wanted to animate The Lord of the Rings since the late Fifties and the Salkinds had been trying to get a Superman movie off the ground since the early Seventies. Neither were made because of Star Wars, but that film’s success created a conducive environment for both.

Geekdom’s post-Star Wars penetration into the mainstream was modest by present day standards, but it was a high water mark nevertheless. A host of imitators flocked to grab a slice of the action, shelved pitches and pilots were dusted off and sped into production, and merchandise manufacturers shamelessly attempted to get their knock-off product racked beside the flood of Lucas-approved wares.

Star Wars paved the way for Star Blazers as a foundation of anime fandom for a generation of American kids. It also set in motion the action figure craze and emphasis on narrative-based marketing which led to (alongside Reagan Era deregulation) the licensed toy cartoon phenomenon. It’s difficult to find any aspect of today’s “geek mainstream” that doesn’t tie back in some fashion to “a galaxy, far, far away.”

The comics industry, too, tried to get in on the deal, though with less of a grand strategy than its mass media peers exhibited. The official Star Wars comic sold like gangbusters, but that had more to do with the public appetite for Star Wars stuff and a scarcity of ancillary media featuring the brand. It was off-model oddness or nothing, and the public chose the former.

With only a handful of exceptions (Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, Conan, and The X-Men‘s emerging cult fandom), mass market comics didn’t have much to offer in terms of crossover appeal. The talent pool was there, but the effort was all but absent.

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely adore Bronze Age superhero stuff, but its insularity and extreme swings in quality aren’t the stuff of ambassadorial evangelism. Instead of rising to the opportunity as the Eurocomics and manga scenes did, Marvel and DC responded to Star Wars by offering a string of third rate riffs on its general theme.

The trend was especially pronounced at DC. Marvel had secured the licensing rights to the real deal, and had no pressing impetus to whip up a homebrew imitation. DC, on the other hand, was left to its own devices in trying to come up with a compelling contender for a share of that sweet, sweet revenue stream.

That’s no easy feat when your competition is frickin’ STAR WARS. Wresting away even a tiny toe-hold would require a funnybook of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, what we got was Star Hunters.

The off-brand space opera made its debut in DC Super-Stars #16. The issue sported a September-October 1977 cover date, which suggests a frenzied rush to the post, the strategic advancement of a slush-pile project, or some combination of the two.

The concept was the brainchild of writer David Michelinie and illustrated by a roster of artists — including Don Newton, Bob Layton, Rich Buckler, and Larry Hama — across its brief run.

In the not-so-far-and-very-mid-Seventies future, corporations run everything! The totally-not-evil director of one hires a bunch of familiar archetypes to discover the extraterrestrial origins of humankind!

To ensure they stick to the job, they are shot up with a mutagen which will turn them into scaly green monsters if they stay on Earth too long!

The quest is actually part of a bigger battle being waged between the cosmic forces of good and evil! The series got shitcanned because of the DC Implosion and never received a proper ending!

There’s an unmistakable by-the-numbers quality that runs through the overwhelming majority of DC’s sci-fi and fantasy genre fare from the Seventies and Eighties, and Star Hunters is no exception.

The names, the situations, costume designs, and almost everything else evoke little surprise but oodles of deja vu.

You’ve got FLINT DONOVAN, the Irish-ism spouting font of Errol Flynn-like obnoxiousness, captaining an interstellar K-Car named the SUNRIDER (which blows up and gets replaced by the SUNRIDER II).

There are also the No-Nonsense Ice Princess/Love Interest in Embryo, the Burly Best Bud, Logical Scientist With Graying Temples, Asian Lady Who Knows Computers and Shit, and the Twitchy Guy Whose Inevitable Betrayal Can Be Timed to the Picosecond. They do have proper names, but there’s little point in learning them as the characters exist entirely to bask in their leader’s reflected glory.

It’s FLINT DONOVAN’S extremely derivative fictional world, baby. Everything else is just inhabiting it.

When I decided to return to the Nobody’s Favorites beat, I wanted to shift away from being too harsh on the subjects covered. This series has really put that to the test because familiarity breeds contempt — and familiarity is the core essence governing every aspect of Star Hunters. It is Bronze Age funnybook space opera at its most graspingly generic, a mercenary me-too effort capable of making Sun Devils feel like The Incal by comparison.

It’s time for the entry I’ve been dreading since I first embarked on this feature. It has little to do with the game in question and everything to do with the historical context.

In the latter half of 1987, my dad got busted for drunken driving. He wasn’t technically operating the vehicle when it happened. His car blew a tire, so he pulled off the road to remove the flat and install the spare.

A passing cop asked if he needed help. My dad said he had it under control, and the cop departed.

He returned an hour later, after my dad had knocked back a number of beers while struggling to get the spare mounted. Again he asked if my dad needed assistance, but this time my dad responded with “Leave me the fuck alone.”

Instead of going to jail, my dad was sentenced to a mandatory month’s stay in a local substance abuse program (which just so happened to be run by the wife of the judge, who also owned the town ‘s biggest package store). This left me and Lil Bro in the care of my increasingly unstable mom from mid-November to mid-December.

My dad may have been irresponsible and prone to wild outburst, but he knew how to maintain a facade of normality when it mattered. (Most of the time, at least.) My mom wasn’t nearly as centered or aware of the bigger picture. Her decline was a compulsive slalom into the abyss. She self-medicated with increasing amounts of industrial grade port wine, to a point where she developed “agoraphobia” — in reality, a terror of being more than a few footsteps from her gallon jug of garbage hooch.

At the time, we were living on the other side of my maternal grandparents’ duplex. My grandmother, who despised my father, used his confinement as an excuse to mail us an eviction notice. While my mom despaired (and drank), I entered Stupid Angry Teen mode and went over to confront my grandma.

I told her my grandfather would roll over in his grave if he knew she did this…which was a mistake, as my grandpa was actually in a vegetative state at hospice in Brighton. My grandma flipped out and physically threw me out her back door.

My aunt and her shitheel husband were living in my grandma’s attic at the time, and decided to further escalate the situation when they got home by smashing the glass in our front door and screaming for my panic-paralyzed mom to show herself.

There was a tussle on the front steps after I hurled myself at my uncle. Then the police got involved, after my mom somehow got the presence of mind to call them.

It was was the worst day of my life — at least, until my mom’s death a year later. My dad was incarcerated. My mom was slipping further into insanity. We were going into the holiday season with no idea if we’d even have a roof over our head

So I scraped together some paper route money and loose change and bought myself the Twilight 2000 box set from Eric Fuchs Hobbies in the Burlington Mall.

I remember it because I remember holding the game on my lap on the ride back from the Burlington Mall. Damian’s mother drove us there, and I spilled everything to him in the backseat of the car. He listened without saying much, then asked if I wanted to hang out at his place and play videogames.

My friendship with Damian was one of convenience and marked by mutual irritation. Our aspirations diverged too much for the relationship to last past our teen years. When we finally did go our separate ways, it was with sighs of relief. Yet despite all that, Damian was a very solid pal when it mattered. He never remarked about my fucked-up family life, but always seemed ready to step up with some stupid distraction when things got heavy.

Then he got into LARPing, which was a bridge too far for me.

I bought Twilight 2000 because its “contemporary military” and “post-WW3″ themes fell comfortably into my adolescent wheelhouse. It was also the mechanical and canonical precursor to Traveller 2300, and yet I still bought it.

The game system was pretty robust and allowed for all sorts of offbeat character concepts drawn from NATO and Warsaw Pact backgrounds. Many sections of the rulebooks were prefaced by first-person fluff from the perspective of the world’s inhabitants. They read like a freshman creative writing student’s attempt to ape Apocalypse Now‘s narration, but were nevertheless fascinating to my teen self.

For all my reality-avoiding immersion in the game’s printed materials, we only managed to play a single actual session of the game. It ended with Lil Bro’s character, a former USAF pilot, dying from cholera in a muddy culvert after getting bitten by a rat. Twilight 2000 didn’t really work with just a couple of players. Its military theme was better suited for larger groups, where the wide array of specialties can better complement each other.

At the same time, the complexity of the mechanics meant that larger scale combats would resolve into hour after hour of dice-rolling tedium. That isn’t unique to Twilight 2000, but it is especially prominent in it.

My interest in the game faded fast once it had served its initial and unspoken purpose. I needed something to distract me and it fit the bill. Once my immediate traumatic shock subsided and I was able to get a clearer perspective of the situation, it became a reminder of a moment I’d rather forget.

Any residual interest I had in Twilight 2000 was killed by a White Dwarf discussion about the game I read a couple of years later. The (British) reviewer was utterly disgusted by the game’s blithe approach to the subject matter, using the real threat of nuclear annihilation as a springboard for Reagan Era re-treads of Kelly’s Heroes. It was a bit hyperbolic, but it wasn’t wrong. The game’s right-wing and militaristic leanings were impossible to ignore after they’d been pointed out to me, especially since I’d forsaken “YO JOE!” nonsense for punk rock iconoclasm by then.

So, yeah, not a whole lot of good memories there.

Sometime around my fortieth birthday, my interest in plastic crap took a steep dive. I’d like to say that a growing (if long delayed) sense of adult responsibility was the cause. The truth is I had a sad realization that these overpriced artifacts of arrested development would spend a couple of years cluttering up a shelf before I tossed them in a storage container which would then join too many similar containers tucked beneath the eaves of our attic. I’m sure my designated heir will get a couple of bucks for it all during the Great Estate Sale That’s Coming, but I no longer see the point of adding to the dubious hoard or plastic robots and action figures I’ve accumulated.

The money I used to spend on the stuff has mostly been diverted into the household budget. What remnant mad money I have left over tends to go towards retro-significant books and records, with an occasional videogame purchase thrown into the mix.

The allure of playthings past is a tough habit to kick, however. If I wasn’t going to shed myself of it entirely, I decided to channel it into something a bit more focused. The emphasis would be on quality instead of quantity, representative items rather than the basis of a “collection.” The items are bits of fondly remembered flotsam from my childhood, and all but one pre-date the all-consuming action figure mania which followed in Star Wars‘ wake. Together they form a long term wishlist. There’s no immediacy involved on my part. Some will eventually turn up in an acceptable condition and reasonable price, others will continue to be the stuff of nostalgic yearning.

The Heroes in Action were an evolutionary half-step between old school plastic army men and the action figures to come. The Heroes were burly Marine types with removable weapons and facial expressions reminiscent of a ‘roid-raging Don Rickles. Each one came with a special base with a lever that made the figure pivot in place while making a weak RAT-TAT-TAT noise (using the same principles as a baseball card jammed between a bicycle’s spokes). Toward the end of the line’s mid-Seventies run, the military theme and color scheme was changed to cash in on the popularity of the S.W.A.T. TV show.

What I remember most about them was their propensity for falling apart into a jumble of assorted bits that migrated to the bottom of the toy box (yet never enough parts to reassemble a complete figure). They were apparently huge in Italy for some reason, and most of the listings I’ve seen are for never-removed-from-box collector’s market extravagances. I’d settle for a single complete loose figure with its stand.

Mattel’s Flying Aces were foam-rubber airplanes stiffened by a hard plastic spine, designed to be sent soaring into the air through a variety of elastic-powered launching devices. I had both the aircraft carrier and Blue Angels flight deck playsets, both of which survived (minus the planes) the transition into the action figure era.

My favorite of the lot, and the one I’ve specifically been searching for was a MiG fighter jet. It had an oh-so-Seventies beige body with orange and yellow trim. I found it while playing in a brownfield next to the car wash in Wilmington while my dad vacuumed out the interior of his T-Bird, and my five year old self felt like he’d won the lottery.

The Hot Wheels assortment of military vehicles has seen several reissues, including a desert camo Gulf War re-deco and a partial inclusion in Mattel’s licensed Megaforce line of die cast vehicles. The original “redline” versions are what I’m interested in, though I only managed to acquire the van back in the day. Other vintage Hot Wheels on my “if the price is right” list are the faux General Lee “Dixie Challenger” (which originally sported a CSA battle flag on the roof before Mattel got woke) and the original version of the EMT truck inspired by Emergency.

A complete and functional SSP Smash Up Derby car had been by retro holy grail for decades, and the cause of so many failed bidding wars during eBay’s early days. That covetous pressure eased up a good deal after managed to score a working gas station promo “mini” racer complete with a “t-stick” to stroke its gyroscopic guts. I still scan the listings for acceptable Smash Up sets, but I’m at a point where I’d settle for vanilla full-size SSP car. No worries about losing pieces and my cats will be just as scared of it.

The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer was a very sturdy plastic “camera” which accepted equally sturdy cartridges containing short film loops of kiddie fare. Point it at a light source, turn the crank on the side, and — BAM — upwards of a minute of entertainment. It sounds low tech and limited, but it seemed like magic back in the days when a “portable media devices” meant a battery-hungry transistor radio.

I never owned one, though it felt like every one of my childhood friends did. I’m sure that has added to the mystique and my continuing fascination with the device.

Tomy’s series of Pocket Games are another example of analog portability in a less advanced age. Most were some variant of pinball, pachinko, or slots, but there were a few attempts at innovative complexity like the “Speedway” racing game. As simplistic and repetitive as they were, you felt like a golden monarch if you managed to smuggle one along on a family road trip.

I had an off-brand roulette one I used to keep in the pocket of my army jacket in junior high. I got yelled at by a teacher for letting some classmates use it to bet cash money during study hall.

Despite that less-than-fond memory, I’d still like to pick up a couple of the more interesting offerings in the line for nostalgic shits ‘n’ giggles.

This week we’re taking another trip back to the heart of the Me Decade as chronicled by overstuffed mid-list music compilations of dubious production quality.

The album is K-Tel’s Hit Machine, covering the mellow pop thrills which graced the chart in late 1975 and early 1976.

Here’s the track list:

A1 K.C. & The Sunshine Band – (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty
A2 Maxine Nightingale – Right Back Where We Started From
A3 Starbuck – Moonlight Feels Right
A4 War – Summer
A5 Linda Ronstadt – When Will I Be Loved
A6 Pratt & McClain – Happy Days
A7 Frankie Valli – Our Day Will Come
A8 Paul Anka – (You’re) Having My Baby
A9 Billy Ocean – Love Really Hurts Without You
A10 Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots – Disco Duck (Part 1)

B1 Elton John – Island Girl
B2 Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band – A Fifth Of Beethoven
B3 Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Love Flow
B4 John Sebastian – Welcome Back
B5 Electric Light Orchestra – Evil Woman
B6 Rick Springfield – Take A Hand
B7 Kiss - Rock And Roll All Nite
B8 Jessi Colter – I’m Not Lisa
B9 Four Seasons – Who Loves You
B10 Johnnie Taylor – Disco Lady

They really don’t come more Seventies than this. The record’s twenty trimmed tacks cover orchestral soft rock, pop-country crossovers, the decadent phase of pre-Saturday Night Fever disco, a Kiss anthem, Elton John, and two — count ‘em — two TV themes turned Top 40 hits.

I pulled the trigger on this one because of the Maxine Nightingale and Linda Ronstadt selections, two of the more persistent earworms that have plagued me over the decades. “Evil Woman” provided a bit of value added, though it isn’t one of my favorite ELO tracks by a long ways (but I will still sing along to it in a horrible falsetto to irritate Maura). I bought it assuming that I’d give it a couple of spins and consign it to the bottom-of-the-pile purgatory the similar Right On now inhabits.

In an unexpected twist of fate, Hit Machine ended up becoming one of the most played records in my K-Tel collection, ranking just behind Radio Active and Rock 80.

The odd pull it exerts on me is a combination of content and timing. The album is extremely light on the rock content, containing only two tracks — three, if you count Rick Springfield’s pre-Noah Drake attempt to sound like a bubbleglam Doobie Brother — that fall under the AOR rubric. The rest of the tracks are, by and large, the type of stuff my parents would’ve listened to in that era, and that’s where the timing angle comes in.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, a momentous marriage between patriotism and marketing. That was especially true up around these parts, where landmarks and reminders of the Revolutionary War are woven into our regional identity. The non-stop schedule of parades, re-enactments, and festivals made for cheap and easy family day trips. My memories of the Summer of ’76 are a long blur of marching bands and doughy guys wearing frock coats and tricorn hats trying not to pass out from the heat. Every weekend there was something to venture out to, and Hit Machine‘s list of tracks matches the playlist which blared from the radio of my dad’s cherry red Cutlass convertible.

I was too young and easily distracted to remember it in any detail, but enough of it lodged in the crevasses of my subconscious to make listening to Hit Machine feel like meeting a ghost — a polyester-clad, cologne-scented phantom who is thrilled you’re having his baby after some oily sex on his yacht moored in Chesapeake Bay.

Thank God for the obliviousness of youth.

The standout track on the compilation turned out to be one I had no recollection of hearing prior to buying the LP. When I saw Billy Ocean’s name on the sleeve, I assumed the associated cut would be an early prototype for the synthetic soul jams he rode to prominence a few years later. I was not expecting to hear a bouncy throwback to the classic Motown sound.

It makes a nice companion piece to “Right Back Where We Started From,” and is equally infectious.

By the tale

July 6th, 2017

“As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” – Donald Rumsfeld

Pretty Boy took some shrapnel to the face from a booby trap in the Happy Valley. He married his high school sweetheart in the chapel of the hospital where he underwent his series of reconstructive surgeries. They divorced two years later. He hasn’t spoken to his son since 1997.

Bugle Ben found work as a session musician after the war. His uncredited horn work can be heard on scores of Seventies smooth jams and funk tracks. His solo album was well reviewed but sold dismally. He passed away from throat cancer in 1993.

Most folks thought Big Ears got his nickname because he was a radioman. His squad-mates knew the truth, as they’d watched him string the grisly new additions onto his “special” necklace. One of the fellas said he’s been permanently locked up in a VA psych ward. Another said he was shot to death during a botched liquor store robbery.

Machine Gun Mike doesn’t want to talk about it, although lately he’s been spending a lot time sifting through the locked box of old photos he keeps in the back of his sock drawer. His wife has learned to take the grandkids to the park during these episodes.

Representative Horatio “Tiger Tex” Hood is serving his tenth term in the Texas House of Representatives, where he chairs the Homeland Security & Public Safety committee.

The Rock’s big moment of fame came after the war, when he was photographed tossing his medals on the Capitol steps in 1971. After retiring from a two decade career as a licensed social worker, he now lives in a cabin with his husband and their three dogs outside of Taos.

Combat Kid got a job in his family’s machine shop, married a friend of his cousin, raised three kids, and became the president of the local Rotary Chapter. No one knew about his heroin addiction until his teenage daughter found him dead from an overdose in the basement rec room.

Sarge stuck it out for another ten years, then joined the Idaho State Police after leaving the service. He died from a heart attack on the porch of his survivalist community bungalow in 2006.

Faced with the dilemma of having a free block of writing time and no particular topic I felt like writing about, I opened Armagideon Time’s request line for suggestions. There were a lot of great suggestions, some of which will (hopefully) be the seeds for future posts.

In the end, I selected pal Ben’s request as it hit the sweet spot in terms of required effort and level of interest.

Ben wanted to hear my take on the notion of “a Golden Era of Television.”

Technically speaking, a “golden age” is supposed to represent a mythic past, an Edenic ideal to juxtapose against the fallen world of the present day. The notion has been vulgarized to include any formative and prolific period, but the bygone aspect is essential to the metaphoric concept. Golden Ages only exist in hindsight, never in the now.

For example, the “Golden Age of Funnybooks” was an after the fact designation applied to the stretch of time between Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the creation of the Comics Code Authority in the early 1950s. Other Golden Age designations — cinema, radio, muscle cars, whatever — follow similar patterns of temporal bracketing. The specific start and end dates may be hotly debated, but the general timeframe is acknowledged.

All of there are backwards-gazing assessments meant to contrast against the diminished luster of current times. Nostalgic longing looms large, along with a tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses. Stuff like The Jack Benny Show and Superman are put on pedestals and cited as pinnacles of since-lost craftsmanship, yet shit like “Rufus and Rastus’s Watermelon Minstrel Hour” (starring Patrick Muldoon and Abe Schwartz as the leads) or “Mr. USA punches the Shifty Slant-Eyed Japs” gets shoved into the margins — even though that stuff was far more prevalent and indicative of their eras.

Under those parameters, the real “Golden Age of Television” took place between the late 1940s and the debut of the Dick Van Dyke Show — a formative and dynamic period when creatives drew from vaudeville, live theater, film, and radio to empirically craft a distinct language for the medium. It was also an era where pundits and critics constantly complained about how television’s vast promise has been squandered on tawdry nonsense and local affiliates would fill gaps with fifteen minutes of an old coot showing off his model train layout.

It’s all about the hindsight, man.

The consensual and codified approach to defining a “golden age,” tends to overlook the fact that nostalgia isn’t a temporally fixed constant. Time moves ever forward, and generational touchstones shift with it. In terms of input, impact, and internalization, my personal “golden age” was the mid-to-late Seventies and early Eighties. (A quite shocking revelation, I know.) One generation’s treasures is another one’s trash. Appreciation can (and certainly does) bleed through the generational boundaries, but the frames of reference remain distinct and inform how a given work will be perceived by a given individual.

What I get out of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is not identical to what my father gets out of it or a friend who was born five years before me or ten years after me might, even though we may all adore the song. And that’s precluding any specific personal context it might have accrued in each case. Each one of us backfills our own golden age, which too often resembles a prison cell with gilded bars.

As for labeling the current era of “prestige television” a Golden Age? It’s marketing jargon for an era where everything has to be a Significant Event. The phenomenon it describes is the culmination of media consolidation, the shrinking marketplace for mid-budget movies, and proliferation of new technological platforms. TV has been accused of being an inferior medium for so long that any buzz about a newfound respectability will have a similar effect as a fourteen-year old’s first can of hard cider (or Boone’s Farm or Everclear or Purple Passion or whatever pop hootch marked your personal golden age).

Honestly, it strikes me as a lateral repeat of the 1980s miniseries mania, when the airwaves were jammed with expensive artifacts of ephemeral “importance.” Sure, there’s a more cinematic sensibility to the current crop of prestige offerings, but folks also thought the same about Winds of War and North and South back in the day. That’s not a dig against what I hear are some pretty solid programs, but a reminder that almost everything gets graded on a temporal curve in the long term.

If this a Golden Age, it’s also one that gave us The Bachelor, Two Broke Girls, Richie Rich, and TLC’s Let’s All Gawk At The Human Trainwreck to Feel Better About Ourselves.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go back and watch some 1971 episodes of Laugh-In on basic cable.

As the stack of compilations on my shelf grew larger, it was time to adopt a methodical approach to my collecting. I tabbed on over to the utterly invaluable Discogs database and spent the better part of a week working my way though the entire chronology of K-Tel releases, with a specific emphasis on the years between 1975 and 1984. Promising entries were jotted down on a ream of post-it notes — too many of which still litter my workspace — and prioritized for future purchase.

The determination of what to buy and when hinged on a number of factors. Availability and price point played a significant role, given the current overheated state of the collector’s market, but the decision really boiled down to the presence of a certain “critical mass” in the song selections. This could either be a handful of killer cuts or a broader evocation of historical or nostalgic atmosphere. The music matters but it can be obtained — with less hassle — from plenty of other sources. I’m more interested in the contextual intangibles.

Of the dozens of compilations flagged for possible interest, only one elicited a get-that-fucker-right-now response on my part —

The Beat, a 1982 showcase of the “sound wave of the 80′s.”

The album was an attempt to cash in on the revived fortunes of “New Wave” music, whose dimming chart prospects had experienced an astonishing turnaround thanks to the advent of MTV. A scene that had been pronounced dead in the water at the end 1981 had made steady inroads into Top 40 format radio by the summer of 1982, thanks to the magic of music video. Even though MTV’s national reach was still fairly limited, its impact in those scattered markets were enough to spur a nationwide shift in record sales and programmers’ playlists.

Never one to pass on a potentially profitable trend, K-Tel readied its own New Wave omnibus for curious souls on a midlist budget.

A1 A Flock Of Seagulls – I Ran (So Far Away)
A2 Kim Wilde – Kids In America
A3 Haircut One Hundred – Love Plus One
A4 Sparks – I Predict
A5 Split Enz – I Got You
A6 Graham Parker – You Hit The Spot
A7 The Waitresses – I Know What Boys Like

B1 The Go-Go’s – We Got The Beat
B2 Bow Wow Wow – I Want Candy
B3 Duran Duran – Girls On Film
B4 Thompson Twins – In The Name Of Love
B5 Depeche Mode - Dreaming Of Me
B6 Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Joan Of Arc
B7 Billy Idol – Hot In The City

The compilation sports an incredibly solid fourteen track playlist, thanks to being free from the “hot hit” curation dynamics that governed K-Tel’s more familiar offerings. The selection balances familiar radio fare with interesting cult/novelty cuts and lesser known material from the college radio fringes. It has Sparks at the height of their new wave phase and features a Depeche Mode a couple of years before Some Great Reward brought the band serious stateside attention, which is pretty remarkable for a mass market effort.

Even the weaker choices aren’t particularly weak. Some of the tracks aren’t what I would’ve used to spotlight the respective artists and others have lost a bit of their luster after decades of repeated listening, but those are entirely personal and subjective quibbles.

All in all, The Beat is tied with Rock 80 for the favorite K-Tel compilation in my collection. It’s the type of record I could easily spend an Saturday afternoon spinning and flipping repeatedly.

I haven’t done so because my copy has a pair of scratches which have turned the last two tracks on side one and the first two tracks on side two into an unlistenably skipping mess. Typically, I’d replace the damn thing, but The Beat (along with Rock 80) is one of the few K-Tel releases that commands big money it the collectors’ market.

Most K-Tel releases can be had for under six bucks. The brutal edits and iffy audio quality scare away serious audiophiles, leaving behind only niche enthusiasts and other retro-damaged souls. I paid two sawbucks for my copy of The Beat, and that was because the seller was (mostly) forthright about the condition of the record. I took a chance because the next lowest asking price was double that and I’ve had decent luck in the past with supposedly damaged vinyl.

I once paid a buck for an original UK pressing of The Clash’s first album that looked like it had been excavated from a landfill, but played fine apart from some expected hisses and pops. So, y’know, some overconfidence on my part is understandable.

Eventually a reasonably priced, VG grade copy of The Beat will cross my path, but until then I will-

-to-

-man-

-ciate-

-ric document.

Oh, for fucks sake.

While the start of my sophomore was an academic shitshow, my routine outside school hours remained unchanged from my junior high days. I continued to spend a lot of time with my pals Scott and Damian (though almost never simultaneously). We were all still into role-playing games as a concept and cash sink, but our actual playing sessions grew fewer and further between.

Numerous attempts were made to put together an ongoing campaign, yet they all fell apart during the planning stages. We were teenage fanboys living an era of geeky riches and the number of distractions to choose from was staggering. No amount of preparation or anticipation could save a scheduled session of Champions or D&D from the irresistible call of “My mom said she’d drive us to the arcade this afternoon” or “my cousin lent me his VHS copy of Aliens” or “I just got Castlevania if you want to try it out.”

Ironically enough, we continued to parse this stuff in role-player game terms. Everything was a source of inspiration for a new campaign setting or sourcebook purchase or character concept. “This would make a really rad [insert game system] adventure!” Countless “AWESOME” concepts came and went, but nothing could stick within the endless churn of immediate excitement.

We’d watch/play/read something nifty, get all het up about adapting it for the gaming table, let our enthusiasm carry us through the initial planning stages (and purchases), then drop the whole thing once another shiny objected drifted into our field of vision.

Though all these passing fancies, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons remained our system of choice. My affection for it was blunted by exposure to more modern game mechanics, but I kept on buying sourcebooks, modules, and new issues of Dragon Magazine. Flawed or not, AD&D was the lingua franca of the RPG realm. Everyone was familiar with the rules and setting up a simple dungeon crawl adventure took little effort. Rulebooks didn’t have be loaned out for a weekend or precious time spent explaining some novel game mechanic.

The biggest hurdle was overcoming the lingering effects of the previous summer’s Wagnerian hack ‘n’ loot campaign. The players loved it and I learned a lot from running it, but it made it difficult to scale things back towards a more restrained low level campaign. How do you keep players on the farm once they’ve decapitated Orcus with a Vorpal Blade?

That didn’t stop me from making an effort, which manifested in a half a dozen aborted campaigns that got lost in the above-mentioned churn. The adventures were a mix of homebrew scenarios and adventures pulled from the (relatively) newly launched Dungeon Magazine. The publication was a bi-monthly companion to TSR’s Dragon Magazine. Unlike its long-running elder sibling, Dungeon focused exclusively on providing semi-pro and fan-created adventures for hard-pressed Dungeonmasters. Each issue featured three to five scenarios of varying lengths and level requirements, and for a couple of bucks cheaper than a single official module would set you back.

It was an exceptional deal in a hobby populated with publishers who’d sell a hand to consumers one finger at a time, and I purchased a number of issues during the first couple years of Dungeon‘s run. I’m pretty certain I still have most of them, too, buried within some storage crate in my grandma’s attic. Only one managed to register in my long term memory, however — issue #8, with a November/December 1987 cover date.

I remember it for once scenario in particular — John Nephew’s “Mountain Sanctuary,” a compact dungeon crawl in an abandoned wizard’s workshop concealed along a narrow mountain trail. It was a follow-up to an adventure published in Dungeon’s first issue, but could also function as a standalone scenario.

It was created for very low level (1-3) players and did a remarkable job at keeping the hazards and rewards scaled toward such an adventuring party. No rampaging hellbeasts or balance-busting magic drops, just some illusion-casting mice, enough loot to feel rewarding, and oodles of atmosphere. (My favorite touch was the couple of pieces of better-than-average treasure stuck to the bottom of an old chest by a broken vial of magical superglue. It’s the type of thing that infuriates players while spurring them toward some wildly creative solution.)

There wasn’t much to “Mountain Sanctuary” but it was an incredibly instructive lesson in how to create satisfying low-level challenges without risking a total party wipe or giving in to the temptation to force-buff the players’ arsenal and experience rewards in order to move on to “the good stuff.”

I ran the adventure as printed a couple times and used its template for several homebrew scenarios. It even ended up making a slightly-adapted appearance during my first Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign in college, as its restrained approach lent itself perfectly to the system’s hyper-lethal nature.

All in all, that was some pretty great value for a $3.75 impulse purchase.

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