Eighties

All In a Good Cause

degrassi-all-in-a-good-cause.jpgThere are some moments from Degrassi High that I have been able to picture even without having seen the show in a very long time. Toward the top of that list is Caitlyn Ryan getting caught on a chain link fence.

There’s a lot more happening in this episode, which is the major reason I picked it for a write-up, but I have to admit that it was a favorite of mine in junior high because this is the one where Caitlin dumped Claude (pronounced Clow-de) and I have to be honest, I always hated that guy. Then again, I don’t know if we were ever supposed to actually like Claude because he’s the person who came between OTP Joey and Caitlin. Plus, when I was 12, I had a pretty big crush on her, and my junior high school (and then my high school) was overrun by overwrought guys like Claude who spent every minute ensconsed in their angry young man attitude and Morrissey cosplay.

ANYWAY, the overarching topic of both the A plot and the B plot of this one is causes and community service. The B plot is about the freshmen challenging one another (although this is Canada, so I think it’s “niners”?) to see who can raise more money for UNICEF and it leads to Arthur Yick toilet-papering Mr. Raditch’s house. It’s a generally hearmless comical subplot that cuts through the seriousness of the Caitlin/Claude breakup and the C plot involving Kathleen that I’ll get into later. The Arthur-Yick friendship was one of the strongets when I started watching the show in the DJH years but had become strained. Seeing these two together and having fun was a reminder of that for both of us and them. Plus, the way Raditch busts them by asking them to stop by his house to “pick up some paper” is a great sitcom-y beat.

The Caitlin/Claude plot happens simultaneously with that one, as the same night that Arthur and Yick are going TP-ing, they set out to vandalize a munitions factory. This all gets set up a couple of days earlier at the office of People for Peace, the political movement they’re volunteering for. They’ve spent a lot of time making copies and stuffing envelopes–as teen volunteers tend to do–and Claude is frustrated by the lack of direct action. He wants them to take down a local factory that is supposedly helping to manufacture nuclear weapons. When their boss tells him that it’s not on their agenda and chuffs at the idea of throwing bricks through the factory windows, he decides he is going to spray paint the walls. Since Caitlin is so enamored by his dedication to all things causes (and since he’s not that idiot Joey), she goes along with him. But when they get caught by the night watchmen and she gets stuck on a fence while trying to escape, something that was telegraphed by her getting stuck on the same fence while trying to get in, but this time Claude runs off instead of helping her.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice–and Claude being afraid of what his parents would think if he’d gotten caught AND asking Caitlin not to tell anyone from People for People that he’s a huge chicken is the last straw and she dumps him. Not only that, since she was arrested she will have to go to court and this will come up a few episodes later in “Testing, 1-2-3.” That’s a particularly great scene because he tells her he can’t go to court to support her because the night watchman might recognize him and then his parents–who are much more conservative than Cailtin’s–would ground him. For that, she smacks him so hard that she makes his nose bleed (and gets detention where she runs into Joey and they wind up having it out with each other). So Claude’s dumped, he’s a total loser wuss, and there will come a point where we will never see him again.

But more on that in a future post.

Now, I mentioned the C plot, which is about Kathleen. It’s actually the most serious of the three and the only reason it’s not the A plot is because it’s a follow-up on an earlier episode, “Nobody’s Perfect”, which is all about how her boyfriend, Scott, was physically abusing her. For an Eighties show that could be Afterschool Special at times, itw as written slightly better than some of the other episodes of its kind because it relies on emotional manipulation over the course of nearly half the season as much as it relies on the moments where Scott is shown either verbally or physically abusing Kathleen. After literally getting beaten in “Nobody’s Perfect”, she broke up with him and now he’s decided to start stalking her. This all starts out with “I miss you” over and over until the point where Scott can’t take it anymore and physically attacks her. The end result is that she returns to school with her arm in a sling and a restraining order against Scott.

Kathleen Mead was set up to be one of the more unlikable chararacters in Degrassi. She is a high-strung wet blanket who is also competitive and a perfectionist. It is not without reason, as we have come to see that she is compensating for having a terrible home life (her father is pretty absent and her mom is an aloholic), and the fact that Scott is older than her ties right into her personality and her compensating for things.

Rebecca Haines, by the way, owns this entire storyline and does a fantastic job of carrying her scenes with Byrd Dickens who plays Scott because his line delivery is horrendous*. It’s a challenging storyline that could very well tip too far into melodrama and even when it does, she is very good.

Next up: Check out episode 105 of the podcast, which drops in a week or two, to see how I cover “Stressed Out” and then come back for pot smoking and poker playing in “The All-Nighter.”

*I don’t feel bad for being so mean about this person considering his arrest record.

Sixteen

Degrassi SixteenI’ve always admired the way that Degrassi High was able to handle the long-term stories of its characters. Spike’s pregnancy and then being a single mom to Emma is probably the most famous (especially since it’s the foundation for the Next Generation series in the early 2000s), but when I rewatched the series, I noticed that the show as really good at following up on episodes and not just through the lens of ongoing relationships like Joey and Caitlin’s. Erica’s abortion, for example, comes back via the fight in “Everybody Wants Something” and then would come up again in “Natural Attraction”, where she starts dating again and Heather is plagued with nightmares about accompanying her sister to the clinic. And LD, who was one of Lucy’s best friends, was diagnosed with leukemia in “Just Friends,” the episode prior to the two-parter I’m looking at here.

“Sixteen” focuses mostly on Michelle, who had already begun dealing with her parents’ divorce in “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (she comes home to her mom walking out on her father). At this point, it’s been a couple of months and she is finding that her father wants her to be his wife, as Michelle is expected to cook and clean in a way that takes her mom’s place in the house. It leads to her moving out of his house and renting a room* but also having to find a job to support himself. It gets rough pretty quickly, as while she does manage to afford her rent while working at a donut shop, she barely has any time for her friends. Meanwhile, Joey and Snake struggle with their driving test (something Snake will continue to struggle with all the way to the finale of the first season of Degrassi High).

I should also note that this is LD’s last appearance on the show, and in a later episode she’s said to be out “sailing the islands” with her dad after the cancer goes into remission. Otherwise, we never see her again or ever find out what happened to her. Now, my guess is that Amanda Cook, the actress playing LD, was leaving the show and acting altogether (her IMDb page shows only the Degrassi series), so I can see why she never appears again. But the lack of a mention or a true resolution by the show’s end or even in Next Generation makes her one of Degrassi’s only offloaded “And we never saw them again …” people. I mean, I never wanted to see her die or anything like that, but there’s a lot of concern and pathos surrounding the cancer and there are several times in the series where Lucy is lugging around a video camera to “make videos for LD”, so a follow-up would ahve been cool.

Michelle, on the other hand, will go through several stages of maturity between “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Home Sweet Home,” which is an episode toward the end of the final season. The divorce, the job, and the strain on and eventual end of her relationship with BLT create a female teen character who is complicated and more fully realized than a number of others, at least enough so that she seems relatable. Unlike the more soapy shows of this genre, Degrassi, while it can definitely be melodramatic and even cheesy at times, grounds itself in reality and eschews the fairy tale. Yes, it kills off parents and has students sustain traumatic brain injuries due to drug use, but the writers at least tried to take the least convoluted path to those circumstances. Michelle’s stress will be followed up in a future episode (which I’ll be covering on a future podcast episode) and the resolution in “Sixteen” is less of a conclusion and more of a stopgap. It establishes a “new normal” that takes a long time to adjust to.

In my rewatch of the entire Degrassi High series, Michelle became one of my favorite characters because her storyline was more true-to-life about stress and what it can do to an honors student. I never had life pile on me like she did, but at least a couple of my friends were doing the best that they could to keep it together; furthermore, so many of us could (and even as adults still can) see ourselves in those scenes where work is clearly taking over her life, but she has to let it because she otherwise can’t support herself. Years later, 90210 would have Brenda sort of do this but it was more for cheap silliness and a one-and-done story. Here, someone is choosing adulthood and dealing with the consequences in the long-term. This two-parter was one that I remember for years without having seen it, probably because of this.

Now, while I will get into how stress is affecting Michelle in the next episode of the podcast, the conclusion of Michelle’s storyline, “Home Sweet Home”, was not an episode that I chose for this series of blog posts because I didn’t see it on Channel 13 back in the early Nineties.  In that episode, there is a resolution between Michelle and her father because after she’s kept up for the umpteenth night by her partying roommates, she decides to move out of the apartment and back home, but will pay rent and she and her dad work out a contract for the rules of the house.  While it seems kind of dumb compared to the episode’s A plot (Wheels gets kicked out of Joey’s house after stealing from Joey’s mom, continuing the storyline of his troubles and leading to his eventual downfall of sorts in School’s Out), that’s because it’s terribly ordinary and almost Eighties sitcom.

Next Up:  Caitlin finally sees through Claude’s b.s.

*A side note that I wanted to mention but could not fit in here.  During the montage of scenes where Michelle visits rooms/apartments for rent, there is at least more than one person who turns her away when they see BLT with her because he’s black.  It’s not subtle by any means, but they do a good job of reminding us that this still happened in the Eighties (and let’s face it, still does).

Dawn of the Decade

It’s the end of 2019, so I think that every publication has been doing some sort of “End of the Decade” or “Best of the Decade” article during the last few weeks. Even some of my friends have been making lists of their favorite pieces of popular culture from the past decade. Meanwhile, I and a number of people who have settled into oncoming middle age have been legitimately surprised that we are on the precipice of another ten-year period. I mean, I am able to do the math, but it still feels like 1999 was ten years ago.

Anyway, rather than lament that I pretty much missed an entire decade because I was adulting or becoming more lame or something of that nature, I thought I would try and remember what it was like to ring in 1990, which was the first time I remember a new decade coming into being (I had been all of two years old when 1979 became 1980, so I don’t remember any of that). At the time, I was twelve and in junior high school, so I probably didn’t do much in terms of actual celebrating during New Year’s Eve. More than likely, I spent the evening at my grandmother’s while my parents went to their friends’ party, and at some point or another I listened to all 106 songs of 106.1 WBLI’s end-of-the-year countdown. I may have even made a list–I was really into cataloguing stuff like that back then. So the memories, at best, are spotty.

I remember feeling that 1990 was going to be a big year. It’s probably because the dawn of the Nineties coincided with my transition to junior high school and teenagedom, and when you have one foot in childhood and another foot in the quasi-adult world, everything can feel like some sort of benchmark or milestone. I was also watching way too much TV back then and there that feeling of the next decade being some how markedly different was a pretty common message.

I wish I would have been able to find articles, shows, features, or even commercials that reflected this, but the prepositional phrase that seemed to permeate so much of what I read, saw, and heard, was “…of the ’90s.” Even in 1989, it was code for less frivolity and more substance in your life. Granted, that would become a pretty harsh reality for a number of people within seven months of the new year when the recession that would last until 1992 took hold, but we were more or less being told that we had to take things more seriously.

Foreclose on a Yuppie 1

An image from the “Foreclose on a Yuppie Contest” promo where the cool guy in the leather jacket and jeans gets the douchebag yuppie’s money.

MTV, which had latched onto and helped define youth culture throughout the Eighties, even got in on this, sponsoring a contest called “Foreclose on a Yuppie”, which had a decidedly non-yuppie-looking guy getting into the apartment of a typical ’80s douchebag and taking all of his stuff, then making the douchebag yuppie his butler. The prize was $50,000 and a BMW.* But nothing is that simple, especially considering that throughout late 1989, MTV was still airing NKOTB and hair metal in heavy rotation and they gave more exposure to lighter, poppier rap/hip-hop acts like Ton Loc and Young MC than harder-edged stuff. In fact, as the Eighties closed, we still hadn’t seen MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice release their biggest singles.

 

But MTV would make sure it was showcasing the ‘now” as much as possible as 1989 ended by airing The Dawn of the Decade House Party at the Palladium in New York City. Airing live on December 31, 1989 (naturally), it used a setting familiar to viewers, as the Palladium was where the station’s daily dance show, Club MTV, was filmed; and the channel’s veejays and hosts at the time were the emcees. These included Club MTV host and all-around late-1980s MTV icon Downtown JUlie Brown, Remote Control host Ken Ober, veejay Kevin Seal, veejay and Headbanger’s Ball host Adam Curry, Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, and MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour host Mario Joyner.

Title CardI only know of this show’s existence thanks to YouTube, where someone uploaded the entire special, including commercials, and my train of thought was, “Oh wow, I can see how people rang in the Nineties and it’ll be this great time capsule of the era and it’ll be so different than what I’m used to seeing on New Year’s Eve!”

Well, part of that is true because what you get in this house party is basically a two-hour special that is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with just the performances and no Times Square ball drop. Now, I’m sure that there are people who absolutely love NYRE and crack up at the antics of Jenny McCarthy’s street-level interviews and dance in their living rooms to yet another performance from Pitbull or the Black-Eyed Peas, but in recent years, I’ve found that this is something you endure until midnight rather than look forward to. MTV’s Dawn of the Decade House Party wasn’t much of an upgrade, either.

On paper, it looks way more appealing than ABC’s programming. Excepting Clark, who was live in New York, NYRE ’90’s pre-taped Hollywood segments were hosted by Kirk Cameron and Lori Loughlin and featured performances by Michael Damian, Martika, Expose, and Dion**. MTV had the B-52’s, Young MC, Richard Marx, Neneh Cherry, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz, so they definitely had the edge when it came to cool. Granted, I’m not the best arbiter of cool, but I would take Living Colour belting out “Cult of Personality” rather than Michael Damian’s cover of “Rock On.” The show also ran through the top five videos of the year, which the show prior had led into with the other 95 videos of the year, so while we didn’t get to see Madonna perform, we got to see some of her video for “Like a Prayer”.***

So, considering the show was basically a “cooler” version of NYRE, would it have been worthwhile alternative programming? Assuming it was aired live, if you were actually in the audience, I think that it would have been something to brag about, if your friends cared about those things. Being twelve at the time and not having access to the channel (or such parties), MTV had the allure of looking in on the cooler older kids. I never emulated them by getting into the blazer with turtlenecks and Cavariccis or the huge cardigan with a turtleneck and Cavariccis or the sweater vest with a turtleneck and Cavariccis, though.

Neneh Cherry

Neneh Cherry performs “Buffalo Stance.”  Her outfit consisted of a Han Solo on Hoth parka over a bra.  I don’t know how comfortable that would have been considering the club was probably pretty hot.

Anyway, the hosts do a capable job for the show’s two hours and probably did some partying themselves****, and the acts feel very “in the moment” of that time. The B-52’s are in the prime spot, on the stage for the countdown to midnight and then ringing in 1990 with a New Year’s version of The Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” followed by “Love Shack,” a song I keep telling myself that I don’t like but then sing along to whenever I hear it. Young MC does “Bust a Move”, of course, and all I the highlight of Neneh Cherry’s performance is that she was singing to a tape (as has been and is still done on TV) and kept singing after the tape ended. Even though the rock acts–Marx and Living Colour–give some really solid performances–it all seems so normal for a channel that prided itself on smacking down those norms*****.

This wound up being the general problem that MTV would have for the next couple of years as it tried to find its footing in the early 1990s. Throughout the show, there are advertisements for something called “MTV Part 2: A New Beginning”, which isn’t a show or a channel as much as M2/MTV 2, but a slate of programming that would include Unplugged and Liquid Television. And I only know this based on the short clips in the ads along with thirty years of hindsight. I’m not sure if I would have found any of it enticing back then, because anything called “… Part 2” sounded like it was not going to be worth the price of admission.

MTV Part 2 Promo

New year, new decade, new block of programming.  Part 2: A New Beginning doesn’t sound very promising.

The decade would take a little while to become “The Nineties”, and we’d have an Eighties hangover for a couple of years. Even so, there is such a difference between the early and later parts of the decade that it is hard to define in simple ways. The people who put together MTV’s show at the Palladium weren’t thinking about any of this and were probably just looking to throw a cool party that hopefully skimmed some of the ratings off of Dick Clark’s stalwart of a show. But they inadvertently provided us with a snapshot of the decade-to-decade transition we were about to go through. Lenny Kravitz closes the show. This was a few years before “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, so his closing slot was the dead one–most people watching the show had probably already gone to bed. He finishes his set with “Let Love Rule”, a song that has its roots in the Sixties but with its stripped down aesthetic is less slick than Whitesnake or Motley Crue. Of all the songs I heard and all the moments I saw, this last one felt the most Nineties.

Lenny Kravitz

This embodies “transitional.” The saxophone is very 1980s while Kravitz would go on to be one of the biggest mainstream rock acts of the 1990s.

* In a look back at crazy MTV contests of the 1980s, Rolling Stone said that according to the Chicago Tribune, the winner of the contest, 23-year-old John Rogers, crashed the BMW and his resulting partial paralysis led to him spending most of the cash winnings on medical expenses.
**Yes, as in 1950s frontman of The Belmonts. According to Wikipedia, he had a comeback album in 1989 that was well-received.
*** The clips were cut to make room for the live show, so we got a little bit of each. The other four, starting from the bottom, were “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, and “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals.
****The look on Adam Curry’s face is that of a designated driver, or at least someone who had to stay sober enough to be the last veejay standing around 1:00 a.m. when he announced Lenny Kravitz.
*****Marx finished his set with “Edge of a Broken Heart”, which was a hit by all-woman heavy metal group Vixen. I then did some googling and learned that he wrote the song for them in the late 1980s.

When Billy Joel Was Homework

We Didn't Start the FireIt’s been derided as one of the worst Billy Joel songs ever written, maybe even one of the worst ever, and when Christopher Bonanos of Vulture put it second to last in a comprehensive list of all of his songs*, he called it, “The biggest problem for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is so highly popular and inescapably bad.” But for me, a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is important—while Billy Joel was inadvertently summarizing the entire Cold War in three minutes, I was taking my first steps into the world of collecting music.

Released on September 27, 1989, the song, which was the first single off of Storm Front, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the weeks of December 9 and 16 of that year and came on the heels of his monstrous 1980s grand slam of An Innocent Man, Greatest Hits Volume I & II**, The Bridge, and the Russia tour. That prior success and the chart-topping first single helped Storm Front go quadruple platinum, outselling his prior studio album, something that’s impressive for what is half of a good album, although the singles, especially “The Downeaster Alexa”, “I Go to Extremes”, and “And So It Goes” have gotten many a replay over the years.

Of course, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” overshadows all of those. Its verses are laundry lists of events and people from his then forty years, which Bonanos trashes by saying, “So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state area-news myopia (‘hypodermics on the shore?’ ‘Bernie Goetz’?), the iffy rhymes (‘James Dean’ with ‘winning team’ and many others), the double mention of the Dodgers.” But the appeal was the challenge of memorizing every single  reference, which while not as tough as, say, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., was still a task, especially since Joel was not known for his ability to enunciate and it was years before I realized that “Dien Bien Phu falls” was not prnounced “Din din foo falls.”

To do so, I would need a copy of the song and while I was content to wait until I heard it on the radio and had a tape ready to record, but fate intervened in the form of Saturday Night Live and my junior high school.

In late September, NBC aired a huge prime-time special to celebrate SNL’s 15th Anniversary (which I covered in episode 45 of the podcast). It was, as these shows tend to be, a huge retrospective of the characters, comedians, guests, and sketches from the show’s history, and just about everyone in my grade wound up watching it, or at least that is what I could tell from the number of times we repeated lines in class for weeks after. This ultimately led to the last time I ever really dressed up for Halloween—my friend Rich and I wore gray sweatpants and sweatshirts and weight belts and went as Hans and Franz.

The costumes were a hit and we won “Funniest costume”*** and a $25 gift certificate to Record World, a record store in the Sun Vet Mall that even in 1989, when mall record and tape stores were still important destinations for teenagers, seemed like a relic of the decade before. The décor was deep brown shelving with gold carpeting that might have at one time held years’ worth of nicotine tar. The cassettes were locked behind glass cases, and the disaffected employees working the register stood in a perch, nearly inapproachable. Think Empire Records, but with paneling. Rich and I walked in and almost immediately saw the cassingle for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, snatched it up, and then grabbed other tapes we were interested in. I can’t remember what else we got, but the minute I got home, that cassingle of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went into constant rotation on the boom box with its partially broken antenna that sat on my bedroom dresser.

Later that winter, Rich and I, along with my sister, would set my parents’ camcorder up on the washing machine and record a music video of us lip syncing the song, using the mallets of a croquet set as guitars and microphones, which is something we’d been doing for a while****.  And while my peers and I had no context for the majority of the song, we belted out the lyrics and many of us had to research them.

Now, I was never asked to do a research project on one of the song’s many allusions, but more than a few of my friends were, and it’s even Bonanos writes that he didn’t place the song last in the list because it made him learn something.  I’m pretty sure that Joel didn’t intend to hand junior high teachers a lesson plan, but he did and even to this day, you can find online lessons available. Most of them haven’t changed much in 30 years—I don’t care if you add multimedia, you’re still looking up a song lyric and doing research. So whereas Boomers could wax nostalgic, their kids could be forced to learn about all of the important things in their generation’s lifetime. And for a generation as notoriously narcissistic as the Baby Boomers, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was perfect fuel for the nostalgia that had been started by American Graffiti, ramped up with The Big Chill, and was chugging along with The Wonder Years.

Over the years, Joel has been asked about adding extra verses to the song but has declined, which I can respect, because he doesn’t need to.  Future generations can take it upon themselves to follow it up, like Matchbox 20 did with “How Far We’ve Come”, a Gen-X spiritual sequel that has a similar sound (superimpose the final verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” over the song’s bridge, it fits perfectly) and a video that is flashes of events from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And I guess it’s appropriate that a band whose Greatest Hits album is called Exile on Mainstream is paying tribute to an artist who practically defined mainstream during their youth.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the first cassingle I ever bought.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment. Up until that point tapes were something I flipped through as TSS while my mom was shopping***** and I only had the few that I put on birthday and Christmas lists–Thriller; Born in the U.S.A. (which I wore out and had to replace); and the soundtracks to Footloose, Over the Top, The Karate Kid Part II, and Top Gun.  Songs were something I heard on the radio and taped onto a blank cassette. As I made my way through junior high and then into high school, I’d start a music collection. And while my taste could be–and has often been–called into question, to this day I will still loudly proclaim, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”

* Last on the list was “The Mexican Connection”, a piano instrumental off of Streetlife Serenade that isn’t bad per se but is certainly a very deep cut.

** At some point in the mid-1980s, just about every household on Long Island was issued a cassette copy of Greatest Hits I & II and I can imagine those cassette copies of the album circulate in the area’s garage sales like currency.

*** I remember someone yelling at me that it wasn’t fair because the prize was supposed to some guy named Emil who dressed in a toga and I honestly don’t remember why he didn’t get it but it just sticks out at one of many “You didn’t deserve this, loser” moments from my formative years.

**** A video that no longer exists because I threw the tape away years ago.

*****When I wasn’t staring at Samantha Fox posters.

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 1

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 1 WebsiteIt’s the first chapter in a brand new podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War.  To start us off, I look at the watershed event from 30 years ago that marked the beginning of the end of four decades of conflict and tension between the super powers: the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.  I look at the history of the wall, talk about Berlin’s importance in the Cold War, and go in depth about what brought about the wall’s eventual demise.  Plus, I talk about songs inspired by the wall as well as my featured piece of pop culture, John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

After the cut, here are some extras from this episode …

(more…)

Brand Me! (My Favorite Non-Toy and Giveaway Merchandise)

So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures.  We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.

Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.

signallight

The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)

1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.

But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.

2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.

These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.

My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.

Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.

Return of the Jedi Party Favor

Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.

3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.

Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.

I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.

4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.

These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.

This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.

Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.

Voltron Lunch Box

The 1984 Voltron lunchbox.  Kind of makes me wish that I had it now.  I’d be the king of the break room.

5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.

Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.

I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).

Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.

400201_orig

When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together).  Image: 3Djoes.com

6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.

Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.

Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.

To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.

Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 100: Deeds Not Words

Episode 100 Website CoverAfter nine years of blogging and 99 podcast episodes, it’s time to take another look at the movie that started it all:  MEGAFORCE!  In this episode, I take a look at the 1982 Hal Needham film, which stars Barry Bostwick as Ace Hunter, the commander of a super-elite international military unit.  I give a summary of the movie, talk about my Megaforce origin story and re-evaluate my opinion of it.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

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