I’ve stumbled across so many ads for unremembered bands in my journeys that I barely notice them unless they feature some vaguely familiar artist or evoke some odd bit of historical resonance.
This 1990 pitch for Tales Like These by The Wild Flowers fell into the latter camp.
It caught my eye because of its attempt to present demographic bracketing as a more significant virtue than, say, musical talent. They might as well have named themselves “Goldilocks’ Porridge.”
“We’re neither sad has-beens or ephemeral superstars! We simply exist!”
It fascinates me because it could be seen as a test build for the generational marketing on the horizon, thick-fingered fumbling towards the concept of “Gen X” as a lucrative brand. Forget those laughable acts pitched towards your parents or your kid sister — these dudes get you, or so the pitch would have you believe.
It took me a few minutes (and a quick internet search) to realize these were the very same Wild Flowers (save a change of guitarist) who released The Joy of It All during the dying days of the British postpunk scene. It was a decent, if generic, bit of early 1980s mope rock, but the band’s desire to break into the American market led to a deal with Slash records and not a whole lot else.
After listening to the title track from Tales Like These….
…I can say — with absolute certainty — that The Church’s Starfish album was a friggin’ masterpiece.
As great as I’m told my memory is, things to fall through the cracks on a regular basis. This is especially true when there isn’t a Big Event to help me fix the proper sequence of events, and I don’t notice the omission until some stray stimulus eventually jars it loose.
The early months of 1991 were fairly uneventful. I had a source of income, thanks to my scholarship, which also gave me an incentive to turn things around after a dismal first semester. The college Sci-Fi Club provided me with a new social circle to pal around with, but I still retained ties to my closest high school acquaintances. Apart from the utter absence of a romantic life, it was a comfy place to be in. That’s probably why I don’t remember much of the period before the disastrous AD&D run that inspired my Warhammer campaign and drew me into the club’s inner circle.
The only things I do recall clearly from that time were a short-lived comic shop that sprung up on opposite the corner of Main and Swanton Streets in Winchester and an equally short-lived Star Wars “d6″ RPG campaign I ran for Lil Bro and my buddy Damian.
Star Wars was one of Damian’s things, and one I didn’t share apart from childhood immersion and fond memories of the toys. Damian, on the other hand was one of the Truly Faithful who carried the torch through the wilderness years when most geeks referred to the franchise in the past tense. West End Games’ Star Wars RPG was made for people like Damian. Released to “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the first film, the initial trio of sourcebooks were handsomely designed hardbacks stuffed to the seams with rules, sample adventures, stills from the movie, and heaping gobs of fan service.
I won’t play the jaded card here. The books were a joy to flip through, and served as a nice distraction from Damian pitching a controller-busting fit over a “CHEAP! CHEATING!” boss-fight in whatever NES or Master System game he was playing at the time. As I mentioned above, Star Wars was the stuff of nostalgia at the time. The bits of trivia and esoteric callbacks were fascinating in an era before they became an all-consuming way of life.
Some it was a bit cloying and excessively reverential to the source material, but that was by design. The folks who crafted the game knew exactly what they were doing, putting together a product aimed at Star Wars fans in general, not just gamers who also happened to be fond of the franchise. (That was probably a matter of semantics in 1987, though.) What really caught my attention, however, was the game’s mechanics.
The designers, unlike too many contemporary fans, understood that Star Wars was a genre unto itself. It may have borrowed from old sci-fi serials and samurai flicks, but the thematic language and internal logic followed a proprietary formula. It’s fundamentally kinetic, epic in scope, and rooted in wide-angle spectacle. Everything is predicated on a constant sense of momentum, a gawp-inducing rush meant to keep the audience from dwelling on the thinness of the narrative and its many inconsistencies. Stuff happens because it’s required to maintain the current thrill-wave or set up the next one.
The little details matter, but not as points of some (ugh) canon. They’re set dressing and world-building on the fly, tantalizing suggestions of a depth which was never seriously meant to be elaborated upon.
The Star Wars RPG rules system channeled this ethos into mechanics that were fast, loose, and easy for novice gamers to grasp. You threw a fistful of six-sided dice and hope to reach a fairly achievable target threshold. If you wanted to take multiple actions, you deducted a die from each successive go-round. While some RPG blue-noses dismissed it as being “unrealistic” or “childish,” it reflected the source material where a hip-shooting hero could down a half dozen Stormtroopers with a single volley before leaping across some bottomless chasm.
From my perspective, it resolved what had been my biggest problem with the the various superhero-themed systems I’d sampled and — thanks to the inclusion of “force powers” — provided an easily template for cross-genre translation.
It took a couple of years before that moment of inspiration manifested around the gaming table. As flexible as the system was, it didn’t quite lend itself to “traditional” superheroic material. What it needed was something a bit more scaled back, something equal parts space-opera and superheroic, something like…
…the “Five Years Later” relaunch of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which dumped the formerly squeaky clean superteens into a grimy, semi-cyberpunk dystopia. The series was a favorite of mine during my senior year of high school and first couple years of college, and its genre-blending style lent itself perfectly to the “d6″ system. It motivated me to pick up a copy of the core rulebook at Excalibur (I later swiped the Sci-Fi Club’s copy of the companion sourcebook) and start planning a campaign in earnest.
I ended up jettisoning most of the grittiness of the Legion comics in favor of a more generic space-opera with minor superpowers vibe. Even this proved too difficult for the canonically literal Damian to grasp. The repeated loop of “but you’re using the Star Wars rules” and eventually wore me down to the point of allowing him to run a bounty hunter with Jedi — excuse me, “sensei” — powers. It didn’t stop me from wanting to slap him every time he asked why we never visited Cloud City or Hoth. (Lil Bro, being on the same sibling wavelength as me, had an easier time adjusting and played a spy with powers inspired my Matter-Eater Lad.)
The campaign ran for a half-dozen sessions, and ended only because my Sci-Fi Club Warhammer run began taking up more of my concentration and time. It was easily the most painless experience I’ve ever had as a gamesmaster (Damian’s nonsense aside), thanks to the system’s straightforward mechanics and “if it sounds cool, why not” approach to spot calls. Unfortunately, my later attempts to return to the game all fell apart during the planning stages. The closest I ever got was writing up the rough notes for a pirate-themed run during one of my shifts in the campus library and modifying a Shadowrun figure for the anticipated protagonist.
Oh, well. At least this trip down memory lane made me want to pull my old Star Wars RPG books out of storage and give them a place on the Never-to-Be-Played-Again Shelf of Honor, as a reminder of some good times and a bygone era when there was “just enough” Star Wars floating around the popcult realm.
(Today’s topic has been rattling inside my skull for a few weeks now, but pal Rusty’s latest P-Swap entry moved to action with its magnificence.)
My buddy Damian was the only other kid in our junior high who owned a Sega Master System. It (alongside a shared love of Robotech and role-playing games) was the basis of our friendship. When he did finally succumb to the pressure and pick up a NES console in early 1987, I saw it an act of treason — especially since I was too cash-strapped to follow suit.
Despite the pangs of betrayal and envy, it did give a chance to see how “the other half” gamed. Very little of it impressed me. Outside Pro Wrestling and Super Mario Brothers, the games just seemed like cruddier looking and sounding versions of things you could get on Sega’s struggling little console. Arcade offerings still served as the medium’s platonic ideal in terms of graphics and gameplay. Console fare tended toward the flickering shadows cast by the coin-op realm, with imperfections offset by convenience of being to play in your rumpus room without needing to pump in another quarter every few minutes.
More ambitious and expansive diversions were talking place in the realm of computer gaming, but that world was far beyond our means to enter. Even among the handful of kids whose families owned such machines, access was under strict parental control and never involved having your greasy-fingered buddies participate in the festivities. We members of the have-not class had to get by with after-the-fact accounts of the awesome shit we were missing.
Then Metroid dropped.
Neither Damian or I knew what to make of its odd title or its “adventure pak” designation. Prior to popping the cart into the slot, we thought it was just some unlicensed spin on the Formation Z co-op at the Bowladrome — a side scrolling twitch shooter played out over dozens of identical levels. It didn’t take long, however, before we realized that this game was something entirely different and utterly mindblowing.
What we’d assumed to be just another side-scrolling shooter was something much, much more complex. Back-tracking? Permanent upgrades? Hidden rooms? A sprawling maze with distinct environments? It was everything we loved about Contra married to everything we loved about pen-and-paper RPG dungeon crawls. It was something beyond a downsampled arcade port, so huge and sprawling that it featured a password save feature for multi-session play. It offered a new paradigm for console gaming, and was soon followed by host of similarly involved offerings.
The Legend of Zelda was released around the same time as Metroid and offered a top-down take on the action-exploration theme. While it eclipsed Metroid in terms of sales and public reception, its sword-and-sorcery theme didn’t grab me the same way as Metroid‘s spooky sci-fi aesthetic did. The gameplay and graphics also felt messier even by NES standards, and that initial impression has kept me from warming me to the franchise even since.
River City Ransom spun side-scrolling beat-em-up gameplay into a wonderfully weird open-world roleplaying experience. Metal Gear used a sprawling game world, massive arsenal of equipment, and rudimentary stealth mechanics to combine James Bond, GI Joe and Eighties action flicks into an immersive interactive experience. (It was also the game that did convince me to buy a NES when finances finally permitted it.) Sega also got into the act with Zillion (an anime-inflected answer to Metroid) and Golvellius (a Legend of Zelda clone that I vastly prefer to the real deal).
While some of these attempts at innovation came across as unitutive cross genre mash-ups (see: Goonies II or SpellCaster), they collectively marked the console scene pulling away from its arcade port/clone roots and developing its own platform-optimized parameters. The trend was somewhat overshadowed by the rise of “genuine” console role-playing games which incorporated the stat-crunching and turn-based combat of their tabletop cousins into a familiar-yet-novel package that my pals and I found irresistible (and worth dropping absurd amounts of cash on).
RPGs occupied the “most favored” slot in my videogaming experience from the late Eighties through the early years of the new millennium. Yet when I look back on the games that made the most enduring impression on me, the majority fall in the action-exploration camp — Zillion, Golvellius, Metal Gear, River City Ransom, Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, the Mega-Man Legends games, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Salt & Sanctuary, even the first Destiny game. There’s something about that mix of twitchy action, explorable vistas, and grindy contemplation that hits my gaming sweet spot.
Our weekday evening routine tends to be fairly consistent.
We get home around seven, scoop any mail or packages from the front porch, flip some lights on, and make sure the animals haven’t caused any mischief. Maura sets about prepping the critters’ food (I do the morning shift) and I grab a cold tonic from the fridge and scan the internet for any recent developments before we figure out what we humans are going to have for dinner.
This is also where I throw on a record to aid in the post-workday decompression process. Because Maura is in earshot and has her own strong opinions about music, the album I select has to be one that’s compatible with our differing tastes. Over the past year, I’ve built up a short stack of acceptable choices — mostly new wave or oldies compilations and a smattering of selections by mutually agreeable artists. At the top of the latter category is an import release picked up in the wake of the 2016 holiday season.
The Very Best of Buddy Holly and the Crickets is a double album retrospective of the man — and band — that pioneered the classic rock combo. It covers the entire spectrum of his too-short career from rockabilly rave-ups to dreamier slow jams, which is why I chose it over the budget collections I’d originally planned on settling for.
I’ve been a Buddy Holly fan since middle school, where his “geeky Elvis” style carried almost as much weight as his transcendent tunes. He wasn’t a pin-up poster child or a sneering firebreather, but a dorky looking dude with an idiosyncratic (and thus instantly recognizable) voice and jangly guitar riffs. Maura is an even bigger fan of Holly’s, and her appreciation has been further deepened by the close relationship she has with a developmentally delayed nephew who also loves his music.
And that’s pretty much it — a legendary artist, two LP’s worth of amazing songs, and a strong personal connection to the material by both parties involved. Consensus listening doesn’t get much better than that.