My wife and I were watching VH1's One Hit Wonders the other night and noticing how diverse all the songs were. Toni Basil, Dexys Midnight Runners, and A-Ha all had hits within a few years of each other, and they all sound so different. Figure in hip-hop coming into the mainstream, and the early to mid-'80s start to look like an unparalleled rich vein in pop music. Was it? Or did it just seem that way because we were growing up in it?
Noel Murray mines the vein:
There's an old saying, attributed to multiple authors, that the "golden age" of anything—comics, science fiction, pop music, TV—is when you, personally, were 12 years old. For me, as much I try to keep my ears open to modern pop music and my mind open to its target audience, I find I just don't enjoy the rock schlock of today the way I enjoy the rock schlock of yesteryear. (My Chemical Romance? Eh. Journey? Yeah!)
That said, some eras are more fruitful than others. The nature of pop music and pop charts is such that the Top 40 at any given time contains a mix of styles and genres. Consider some of the songs that topped Billboard's singles chart in 1972: Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold," Harry Nilsson's "Without You," The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." And that's not even mentioning less-reputable but still enjoyable artists like Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis Jr., Three Dog Night, and America. On the other hand, a scan of the number-ones from 1992 and 2002 isn't as impressive, what with Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy," Mr. Big's "To Be With You," and The Heights' "How Do You Talk To An Angel" in the former, and Nickelback's "How You Remind Me," J. Lo's "Ain't It Funny," and Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" in the latter.
So were the '80s "unparalleled?" No. But even taking into account generational bias, it's fair to say that in the last 25 years, the pop charts have fallen into the dumperoo. That doesn't mean pop music as a whole has gotten worse—in fact, in some ways, it's far better. It's just that the mainstream is getting narrower, while the tributaries are multiplying.
'Til Our Heads Fall Off
I remember reading two creepy short stories when I was in grade school, both of which were excellent, but neither of which can I find now. I'm hoping someone can help me remember what book(s) they were in. One was called something like "The Yellow Ribbon," and was about a woman who always wore a yellow ribbon tied around her neck. At the end of the story, someone unties the ribbon and her head falls off. In retrospect, that sounds hilarious, but I remember it really freaking me out as a kid. The other story was about a building that had the clichéd "13th floor," and in the end, it turns out that the 13th floor is a black hole or something. It's possible that both stories were in the same book, but for some reason I don't think so. I'm pretty sure the yellow-ribbon story was in a book of ghost stories, and the 13th floor one was from a compilation of stories that were weird and kind of unnerving, but not exactly scary. Any ideas?
Literary fan Donna Bowman is halfway to an answer:
We can help you with the first one, Margie. (Maybe our readers can identify the second.) It's a campfire tale that's usually told as "The Green Ribbon." Probably the original version of this scary tale is Washington Irving's "The Adventure Of The German Student," in which a young traveler in Paris during the French Revolution encounters a beautiful woman wearing a jeweled velvet choker. (Spoiler: She's a victim of the guillotine.) You may have encountered the 20th-century version in Alvin Schwartz's "I Can Read" collection In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories. This early elementary collection was published in 1984, and was especially popular in a read-along cassette edition. In Schwartz's retelling of the folktale, a young man falls in love and marries a woman who never removes the green ribbon from her neck. He learns the grisly truth only after she sickens and dies.
A more recent version is found in 1994's Diane Goode's Book Of Scary Stories And Songs. Alvin Schwartz, by the way, is famous for his Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series—the most frequently challenged books in public libraries during the '90s, according to the American Library Association. There's a whole generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings whose dreams are haunted by Steven Gammell's disturbing illustrations. Defy the book-banners and childhood sanitizers; pick up a copy, if you aren't too chicken.
A Man Called Pregnant Horse
I remember very clearly reading a book when I was a kid about a girl who lived with a group of (this is where my memory gets fuzzy) bandits, or Vikings—definitely people doing something illegal. Her parents were part of the group, her father was the leader. There was a rival group, and a boy of about the same age was the son of this rival group's leader. The children become friends and run away to live together in a cave. I also remember there being a pregnant horse involved (I think it belonged to the girl) that they milked. And somewhere along the line, the girl's mother raised objections about them living together, because of what would happen when they got older.
I've tried Googling keywords, which has worked for other books, to no avail. Granted, "girl boy pregnant horse bandits" does not generate very accurate results. I'm not sure if it was by an American or British author, because I live in Asia and I belonged to a library run by expatriates from both parts of the Atlantic, so it could have been either. I really want to know what this book is… I think it was very romantic to my 8-10 year old mind. Thanks for any help.
Tasha Robinson knows all about your pregnant horse bandits:
Actually, the author is neither American nor British—she was Swedish. You're thinking of Ronia, The Robber's Daughter, a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren. You've remembered the book pretty thoroughly—it's about the enmity between two rival bands of robbers living in a mountain fortress, and the friendship between the bands' two children, which causes chaos and eventually brings the groups together. Sounds like a standard-issue Romeo And Juliet story, but it's a bit less depressing, though it's unusually dark and savage for kid-lit. Much like the Pippi Longstocking books, it's about a child who knows her own mind and won't let adults tell her what to do. Unlike Pippi, though, Ronia nearly gets killed on a regular basis as a result, though good does come from her rebellion. Also unlike the Pippi books, Ronia is a complete and very serious novel, rather than a bunch of choppy little adventures.
As a personal note, Ronia is one of very few beloved books from my childhood that I went out and re-bought because it was fun to read even as an adult. (Virtually all the other books in that category for me were written by Roald Dahl, for what that's worth.) I'm curious about the film version made in Sweden in 1984, but as far as I can tell, it was never translated into English, and the VHS tape that seems to constitute its only public release is out of print.
STUMPED NO MORE!
Last week, we asked you to help us identify some obscure video games we'd been asked about recently. Here's how you did:
cAS asked about a game that "consisted of a guy who was sleepwalking, an older gentleman in constant danger of being crushed by red and blue pipes or columns, which you had to navigate him through." This was apparently an easier question than we thought, since several dozen people wrote in to identify it as the Nintendo game Gyromite. From helpful reader "Dailey": "The sleepwalking was only one of two or three different modes in the game. In the main game, the mad scientist was awake. The best part of this game, however, (other than its fascination with turnips) was that it was compatible with R.O.B., the tiny robot friend Nintendo developed for only-children. R.O.B. could control the red and blue pillars for you while you moved the scientist around. Awesome, lonely fun." Curiously, virtually everyone else who mentioned R.O.B.—which most people did—said that it was a terrible peripheral that rarely worked, was only supported by a couple of games, and basically tanked. Maybe Dailey was the only suitably lonely only-child who responded.
Annie asked about a game from around 1994 which "involved using your arrow keys to drive a car into tiny little men on the screen. When you did this, a cross/grave marker would show up where they died. You continued on like this until the screen was filled with crosses (or until you had unwittingly blockaded yourself), and your car couldn't go anywhere anymore." Far fewer respondents chimed up about this one, but the consensus was that it was probably Death Race, and Wikipedia's screenshot certainly looks like what she's describing. An e-mail from "Dominic" included this interesting link to an article on videogame controversy, which talks about Death Race's legacy in far more detail than the Wikipedia listing.
Matt was looking for "a side-scrolling game with graphics that were a step above Game Boy quality. The first level was a large area with the boss in the top left corner. The boss swallowed you and you had to fight in his stomach. The final thing is that when the timer ran out, the game sent out a little devil/imp with wings that came at you until you either finished the level, or it killed you." A very few people identified this as The New Zealand Story, also known as Kiwi Kraze in its American NES release. New Zealand Story definitely had that killer imp that came after slower players. The game came out on a ton of platforms—Amiga, Atari, Commodore 64, Genesis, NES, and more—but all the versions apparently featured the main character getting swallowed by a whale and fighting his way out from the inside. Reader "William": "I was only about 6 when I played it too, but for some reason, that first-level boss fight that takes place inside said boss' body has been seared into my memory. You played as a kiwi that went around the world freeing his friends. It was made by Taito, the dudes who put together the inimitable Bubble Bobble. Cheers."
Daniel asked about "an old Apple II game called Runaway or Escape or something like that, and the point of it was that you were a slave trying to escape to the North." Here, we have a difference of opinion: "leeharvey43" on our comment boards insists that the game was definitely called Underground Railroad, and gives extensive details about how it worked: "I remember it started with a goofy single-tone replica of some field song… The game started in Mississippi or Alabama. It always started with you meeting Harriet Tubman (unless you woke up your master escaping), and the game kept flashing a line-drawing screen of America where the goal was to get to Canada." But even with a helpful name in hand, we couldn't find any corroborating evidence online. A few other people insisted that the game was called Freedom! Here are a few major reasons to believe them, both from reader "Darren": First, a Court TV link to a legal brief about the game Freedom!, regarding an Arizona case where a school was sued for opening up an African-American student to ridicule by making the game available. The game-design company was also named in the suit: "Defendant MECC was negligent in designing the game Freedom and in distributing that game to schools throughout the country without adequate instruction to school officials regarding proper supervision of students while the game is played." And second, this transcript of a 1993 article from Compute magazine about the controversies surrounding the game. That article does note that Freedom! was very difficult, which is one of the things Daniel remembered most strongly about the game.
Finally, Peter Smith asked about "a vaguely educational game that involved wandering through a toy store or maybe just a department store in general, but the cool thing about it was that it had kind of pseudo-3D; when you walked forward, it would show three or four frames of pre-drawn vector-style graphics showing a progression across the room." Unfortunately, no one stepped forward to identify this one. Sorry, Peter, but we all apparently remain stumped.
Next week: The history of gay TV characters, a freaky film featuring paper puppets, and Donna Bowman on the hunt for yet another scrap of obscure music. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.