Keep on Truckin’!

Memory is a funny thing. With no intent to wax psychologically, it doesn’t take a Carl Jung to figure out humans do a better job of storing those memories that are satisfying and euphoric, rather than those that are upsetting or painful. And one thing that never failed to paint a promising picture of childhood jubilation was toys. Awesome toys. Monster truck toys!

It wasn’t only Bigfoot that reigned in the minds of impressionable young males in the 80s. Trucks as toys came in an endless array of shapes, sizes, styles, and functions. Before radio-controlled Hot Wheels became the rage, battery-powered vehicles dominated the toy truck market. Of course, they had to offer something other than simply ‘moving forward.’ A number of manufacturing companies offered variations, but Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. was the toy maker to beat.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s most likely due to the success of the Micro Machines toy line (a typical product of the 90s; small and unassuming). In the 80s, however, Galoob spurred more holiday-centric gift wishes with their Power Machines toy line than Bigfoot had burned-out station wagons to crush. These were big, aggressive, in-your-face toys that knew how to capture the attention and ingenuity (read: destructiveness) of little boys’ minds. One of the more inventive creations was “The Animal.”

A monster truck with tiger claws. Genius. If this product hasn’t been studied and dissected across collegiate marketing programs in every higher learning institution in the U.S., then I weep for the entertainment of modern youth.  It is amazing how a truck with claws could enhance so much for a child with little else but a free day and a stack of sofa cushions to play with. But if that wasn’t enough there was always this mind-boggling gem of the Power Machines line:

A truck with a built-in bridge. This was one of those toys that sadly made too many kids worry over what they might be missing from life’s great puzzle. Surely if there was a toy with the ability to cross over impeding land gaps with its own supplemental bridge, why don’t real trucks, traversing through real situations, employ this same technique? Perhaps the “Cross Boss” ended up in too many storm drains while navigating street corners.

The good old days

A number of other Power Machines enriched the Galoob toy truck line, including “The Flex” and the “Giant Command.” All truck toys that seemed to do the impossible: navigate immovable objects, negotiate land and water terrains, and even climb walls (okay, Giant Command couldn’t actually climb walls, but the commercials made it look like 90-degree treks were par for the course). But they’re were a few other toy producers out there that set their own bars with the youthful wonderment of trucks.

One of the most coveted trucks during the 80s was “Rhino” from Kenner‘s M.A.S.K. toy line.

M.A.S.K. filled a void between Transformers and Go-Bots. The vehicles changed, but they were still “man-powered.” Thus, the alien concept was eliminated and a human element lent a sense of credibility. Though I’ve yet to see a Camaro with functional wings, much to my chagrin.

And if all this is a bit too obscure for you, there’s always the ultimate 80s toy truck standby:

Wow; what is up with snarling kid halfway through the commercial? Lighten up; it is just a cartoon series.

When You Could Rock in the Free World

If there is one cultural component of the 80s that has suffered more unilateral derision than any other, it’s music. Okay, a case could be made for fashion, but the playing field is uneven; those who considered themselves fashionistas are decidedly outnumbered by music lovers. And those who woke up in the 90s and realized their Cameo fade wasn’t as bitchin’ as they thought quickly disassociated themselves from previous musical inclinations with denial, denouncement, and ridicule.

“Hey, you remember that band Extreme? What a bunch of candies!”

“Um, yeah; you were just listening to Pornograffitti for, like, three months straight.”

Despite what anyone would like to forget, the decade did make a rather significant contribution to the recording arts and sciences: the two best-selling albums of all time were released in the 80s.

The average contemporary music fan either knows or could easily deduce that Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. And more than a few are under the impression it’s the runaway leader. The race, however, might be closer than you think. Although so many people own it, AC/DC’s Back in Black isn’t widely recognized for being as hot on the heels of Jackson’s 1983 smash hit as it arguably is. Thriller is still ahead, but the gap’s disparity is questionable. Claims of Thriller sales in excess of 100 million copies are uncorroborated; the Guinness Book of World Records puts the number at 51 million, while figures for back Back in Black total about 50 million.*

Both albums are undisputed classics, having countless times been praised, commemorated, reissued, analyzed, and imitated. Yet while these lauded opuses share a common bond of success, their critical comparison is lacking. And originally that was the intent of this post – which is the better album: Thriller or Back in Black?

In short time, however, the incompatibilities of this battle became obvious. Both albums serve polarized functions. What one album does, the other doesn’t. The few similarities are superficial. Nonetheless, they’re worth noting:

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Back in Black:

Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Highway to Hell).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Robert John “Mutt” Lange).

Thriller

Thriller:

Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Off the Wall).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Quincy Jones).

And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The differences, though, range from the obvious to the interesting. Obviously, these are two distinct artists from unique backgrounds. Jackson was a child prodigy and American product of 50s and 60s do-wop, soul, and R&B. He incorporated elements of disco, motown, and rock music to create his signature, dance-friendly style of pop. Later albums would develop an edgier pop-rock sound, but Thriller was favorably R&B.

On the other side of the world, AC/DC found its genesis at the hands of guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, two Scottish brothers who immigrated with their family to Australia in the 60s. The Brothers Young were almost exclusively inspired through the blues and rock idioms, but they’re tastes were not as contemporary as their Jimi-Hendrix-and-Led-Zeppelin-loving peers. The Youngs cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and the boogie-woogie rockers of the 50s. Thus, AC/DC’s sound developed an elemental timelessness few associative acts have successfully captured. Back in Black is often praised for not only aptly showcasing AC/DC’s raw fundamental appeal, but also exhibiting remarkably balanced production and sound engineering. Simply, it is one of the best aural experiences in recorded music.

That these two masterpieces were released only two years apart and have gone on to dominate album sales in their nearly 30-plus year lives is telling of the era that welcomed their releases. There will never be another album that will reach either level of success. The recording industry has adapted to the digital age, and the single has replaced the album as the preferred musical delivery device. The fervor that once accompanied the album – a book of songs that detailed 40-60 minute narratives – is gone. The 80s were the apex of the album’s popularity. And that Back in Black and Thriller are so different might suggest they sated two distinct palates. There’s no point in arguing which album is “better.” People who bought Back in Black were not as likely to buy Thriller, and vice versa.

But one thing is certain: that’s a lot of album sales for a decade that produced “terrible” music.

*Defining worldwide albums sales is not an exact science. Various recording industries record sales by copy or disc differently. General estimates for Thriller put total sales around 51-65 million. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly has sold close to 50 million copies, but Back in Black has a distinct advantage in established RIAA sales.

 

Hard as Hell – the Heroines Arrive!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Things take time. Good coffee takes time to percolate. Fine wine takes time to mature. A good blog post can never be rushed. Although the genesis of women’s liberation can be traced back some twenty years in time, it wasn’t until the 80s that we really got to see women not just portrayed heroically, but ferociously. Not to take away anything from Lynda Carter, or Ursula Andress, or any of a number of strong female stars from the 60s or 70s. Undoubtedly this was the era that blazed a path for prominent female characterizations. But the 80s took things a step further. It wasn’t enough to simply be tough. This was the time of Star Wars (the strategic defense initiative), advancing technology, soaring crime rates – you had to be on par with your enemy, or be dead.

In selecting the criteria for this Top Five list, there’s was only one reasonable principle to adhere to: no “heroines.” Heroine implies a specific qualification of hero. No one on this list is heroic… for a girl. This is a honed collection of some of the most enduring characters of the decade. And although they transcend their gender, it just happens to be the one bond they share. At the end of the day, bad ass is still bad ass. These girls just happen to be extra bad ass.

5.) Aunty Entity – It’s a stretch to use the term “heroine” to describe Tina Turner’s character from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Even anti-heroine seems restrained. If it weren’t for her sparing Max’s life after the film’s climatic showdown, Entity would remain irredeemable, and be remembered solely as the villain. Thanks, however, to her admitted admiration of Max’s valor, we forgive her earlier ruthlessness and tactical conspiring. But not “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” There’s no forgiving that.

4.) She-Ra – There were a lot of dumb people doing dumb things in the 80s (shoulder pads; seriously?), but the guys at Filmation weren’t some of them. What better way to secure financial backing than create cartoon series’ to promote toy lines. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe proved this strategy with its runaway success. Filmation, the show’s producer, backed up its winning formula in 1985 with She-Ra: Princess of Power. As He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra shared virtually all the same powers as her brother, which is largely what set her apart from other animated female warriors. She-Ra pummeled her opponents with the same brute force as He-Man. While she often displayed intelligence, she was not merely resigned to cerebral negotiation of combat. For a children’s cartoon, this was bold. She-Ra: Princess of Power’s run was short-lived – the show had only two season – but left a strong enough impact that 20 years later all 93 episodes from the series were released on DVD.

3.) Zula – No one would argue 1984’s Conan the Destroyer is a much campier affair than the original Conan the Barbarian (1982). Although softer in tone, Conan the Destroyer doesn’t lack in action, and much of that action’s ferocity is thanks to tribal warrior, Zula. With the exception of an aversion to rats, Zula presents an early prototype of the relentless female fighter. She approached every aspect of characterization with the same aggressive disposition. No more evident is this then when Princess Jehnna asks Zula how she would acquire a male partner. “Grab him, and take him,” is her response. It’s humorous but apropos, as was the casting of Grace Jones in the role. The lithe and agile Jones presented a stark contrast from the muscle-bound spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this worked to her advantage, giving Zula a swift and serpentine lethality.

2.) Sarah Connor – There have been a total of four Terminator films. The first two are considered watershed treasures within cinema history. The latter two are typically derided. An argument could be made for the absence of writer and director James Cameron, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the series lost its main character. Contrary to the suggestive titles, the first two films are not about the Terminator. The character whose arc the audience is supposed to identify with is Sarah Connor. And it’s an impressive arc. It requires both The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) to reach its completion, and is one of the richest ever captured on the big screen. Linda Hamilton receives universal acclaim for her physical transformation in T2, but her character’s evolution in the first Terminator is commendable, yet often overlooked. The Terminator is darker in tone, and Hamilton displays the occasional “Final Girl” attribute here and there, but in the moments leading up to their ultimate confrontation, she begins to demonstrate a cold brutality that virtually matches her cyborg component. This would go on to be an essential plot point of the second movie. Unfortunately once it was resolved, the series lost its importance.

1.) Ellen Ripley – In space, no one can here you scream. But if anyone could, you’d want it to be Ellen Ripley. Resourcefulness kept Sigourney Weaver‘s Xenomorph-plauged character alive in Alien (1979). Being a stone cold, unflinching, vengeful bad ass did in 1986’s Aliens. It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Weaver navigating the role’s delicate balance between sensibility and all out militarism. Matching her hatred for the Xenomorphs, and a lack of faith in the people around her, Ripley displays a penchant for successfully piloting every obstacle by keeping a cooler head. And when cooler heads cannot prevail, Ripley goes for the flamethrower. The magic touch here, though, is still Weaver, who unlike virtually all other female protagonists, is removed from the archetype feminine fearfulness. Distinct from “final girls,” who exist to showcase a level of terror that is considered inappropriate in a male lead,  we never once see Ripley fall into hysterics. It’s not part of her makeup, and that’s what makes Ellen Ripley the ultimate sci-fi action hero.

Do you believe in miracles?

U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A.!

How many times have your heard this chant roused by a conglomerate of beer-in-hand compatriots settled into your local watering hole, awaiting imminent, televised crowning of red, white and blue champions of some fill-in-the-blank international tournament? Probably more so lately if you’re a woman, as American female national teams continue to expand their global dominance outside of basketball – although we’re still pretty good at that, too.

Regardless, that truest of blue sports cries, if you’re wondering,  is the offspring of the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century (as declared by Sports Illustrated in 1999, in case my authority is insufficient). And what better time to bring up this monumental topic? It’s February. The NHL lockout is over. Play has resumed. And for those embittered sports (and culture) fans who have forgotten, or have never been inclined to engage hockey (lockouts are as common in hockey as steroids in… well, pretty much everything else, and the perennial player/owner rivalries have dropped hockey to the bottom of the “big four”), this month marks the 33rd anniversary and perfect time to fall in love with the “Miracle on Ice.”

Great sports moments are all about peculiarities coming together. Curt Schilling pitching through a bloody ankle to lead Boston’s stunning comeback in the 2004 ALCS. Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” win over George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. It only takes one unpredictable yet serendipitous step for the underdog to secure an immortal victory. But for the 1980 U.S.A. Olympic hockey team, all the pieces could not have been better placed.

For those unfamiliar with the Miracle on Ice, here’s what you need to know: there’s is absolutely no way the United States of America should have beaten the Soviet national hockey team. No way. In truth, the United States should barely have beaten anybody in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Back then, the Olympics were for amateur competitors. Professionals weren’t supposed to compete. That said, communist countries technically did not have “professional” players. What they did have, at least in the case of the Soviet Union, were state-of-the-art training programs and facilities, highly sophisticated national leagues, and several players of active military duty… whose only job in the Red Army was to play hockey. Coming into the Lake Placid games, the Soviets had an undefeated record and gold medals from the last four Olympics. As noted by sports commentator, Jim Lampley, hockey was to the Soviet Union then what Basketball is to the United States now. It was their sport.

In comparison, the United States National Hockey Team was a bunch of kids.  Team U.S.A. Coach, Herb Brooks, put together a rag-tag team of mostly collegiate players from the University of Minnesota, Boston University, and a few outlying amateur leagues. They lacked the speed, discipline, and cohesiveness that Soviet head coach Viktor Tikhonov had had years to develop – if not mercilessly pummel – into his team. So underwhelming were the Americans, the Soviet team took them of virtually no consequence.

Leading up to the Lake Placid games, the U.S.S.R. displayed their dominance for all the world to see. In late 1979, The Soviets beat the NHL All-Star team in the three-game Challenger Cup series. They later crushed Team U.S.A. 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden on February 9, just two weeks before the Olympics. A demoralizing loss, it echoed the tone of a nation and its frustration at the height of the Cold War.

Threats of a U.S. boycott of the impending Moscow summer games had already been levied in response to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, increasing tension between the two superpowers. Additional disillusionment in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis put American spirits at an all time low. A beacon of hope was in desperate need, but given the Soviet’s might, it seemed no where to be found.

Enter Herb Brooks, a national team hockey player whose career prior to the 1980 Olympics would best be described at respectable, if not blase. Brooks set a record by playing on eight US National and Olympic teams between 1960 and 1970, but he missed his opportunity at glory after being cut from the 1960 U.S. gold medal Olympic hockey team. He later went on to lead his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, to three NCAA championships as head coach. Looking for something beyond just good, Brooks saw hope in the 1980 Olympic team he was tasked to assemble, and he cultivated that hope with brutal, tactical training. From the moment they were put on ice, Brook’s players received no quarter. In order to match the cohesion of the Soviets, Brooks taunted and bullied his players, driving them to solidarity through a mutual enmity. Immediately after the embarrassing loss to the Soviet club in their exhibition game, Brooks threw his team back on the ice, forcing them to do drills even as the lights were shut off inside MSG.

But if Brooks’ ambition to etch a name for himself in the annals of hockey was harsh, it was not without its benefits. Team U.S.A. entered the first round of Olympic play with a 2-2 tie against Sweden, followed by an upset win over Czechoslovakia – the only team considered a viable rival to the Soviets. Wins over Norway, Romania and finally West Germany put the U.S. team into the medal round against the U.S.S.R. Little did anyone know, the outcome of this game was already being set into motion.

Dismissing Team U.S.A. entirely, Tikhonov chose to rest his players prior to the medal round, while Brooks increased pressure, attempting not to lose the momentum of victory the U.S. had built. As a result, a much more physical and strategic Team U.S.A. skated onto the ice on Friday, February 22. Although they dropped early to 1-0 by a goal off LW Vladimir Krutov at 9:12, U.S.A. answered less than five minutes later with a goal by Buzz Schneider. Sergei Makarov struck back with a goal at 17:34, putting the Soviet’s up 2-1. As the final seconds of the first period wore down, the Soviet’s made a second crucial mistake: waiting for the buzzer to sound and leave them with a one-goal lead going into the second period, the Soviet defensemen neglected a deflected shot by Dave Christian that bounced off goalie Valdislav Tretiak and was rebounded by Mark Johnson, who shot right between the two defenders to score with a second left in the period. The game was now tied 2-2.

Following one gaffe with another, Tikhonov executed arguably the worst decision possible. Perhaps it was spite, perhaps anger; the world may never know. Tretiak, at the time, was widely considered the greatest goaltender in the world, but evidently for Tikhonov, two goals was two too many, and so he replaced Tretiak with second-stringer Vladimir Myshkin. Myshkin shutout the Americans for the second period, and although they outshot the U.S. 12-2, the Soviets were held to one goal in the second period.

With the Soviets up 3-2 in the third period, Mark Johnson scored his second goal of the game on a power play at 48:39. One minute and 21 seconds later, team captain Mike Eruzione fired from the high slot off a pass from Mark Pavelich that went past Myshkin and gave the United State a 4-3 lead. It was their first lead of the game, and a definitive turning point in the history of sports. All Team U.S.A. had to do now was hold the Soviets down for ten minutes.

In a game where players can travel in excess of 20 mph, firing pucks at over 100 mph, ten minutes provides a lifetime’s worth of scoring opportunities. But instead of retracting into a defensive mode, Brooks kept his players on the offensive. The pressure wore on the Soviets, who filled the remaining time with uneven, uncharacteristically sloppy play. Having never used a sixth attacker, Tikhonov kept his goalie in the game during the final minute of play, eliminating any chance of a comeback. As the last seconds on the clock ticked away, sportscaster Al Michaels – along with the attending crowd and presumably anyone able to catch the game on local T.V. (it was pre-recorded for a later national broadcast) – counted down the final seconds and delivered his famous call, “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!

Team U.S.A. met each other in embrace on the ice. Herb Brooks returned to the locker room to sob. The mighty Soviets had fallen. And America had a new team of heroes to believe in.

The gold, however, wasn’t secure. Bear in mind, this was a round-robin tournament, and thanks to their earlier draw to Sweden, U.S.A. still had to beat Finland to take the gold – which they did with a 4-2 victory, two days after their impossible win over Team U.S.S.R.

Weeks after their win against the Soviets, Team U.S.A. was highlighted on a cover of Sports Illustrated that featured only the jubilation of their inconceivable triumph, and not a word of explanation. None was needed; the Miracle on Ice was a triumph for every American, and every sports fan searching for that ultimate home team win. The Miracle on Ice demonstrated for a country, if not the world, the value of determination and what it means to never succumb to doubt. If you can find a better sports story, in any decade,  I’m all ears.

Sports_Illustrated_Miracle_on_Ice_cover

And besides, it gave us this two years later.

superchexx

Bubble hockey: if that’s not worthy of the Greatest Sports Moment of the 20th Century, I don’t know what is.

Sure, you can borrow my shuriken!

You got to hand it to Cannon Films. Along with Carolco and New World Pictures, they led the pack in low-budget B-movie production during the 1980s. Sadly, these studios are defunct now. Like so many stalwarts of the Eighties, these were devil-may-care, hair-in-the-air, nose-on-the-mirror exploitation grindhouses. They burned bright (Carolco did launch The Terminator and Rambo franchises), and burned quickly. But Cannon, however, had its own marketable niche – the ninja.

Ninjas were to the Eighties what superheroes are to the Aughts.* Boyhood, action-packed  fantasies come to life on the big screen – some minimal outstanding work, and a lot over-bloated crap. Yet what the ninja film never fails to demonstrate is its durability – even a bad ninja movie is still pretty good. But Cannon didn’t care either way. They made a habit of snatching scripts out of the dustbin and watching the results with tongues firmly in cheek. It may seem all harebrained to the sophisticated minds of the cinema elite, but if you were a kid growing up in the 80s, the death-defying, acrobatic, martial arts sorcery of the ninja made total sense – at least until you realized covering yourself in black doesn’t make you invisible to anyone.

How the wave of the ninja entered the global film market began with a book. Eric Van Lustbader‘s The Ninja introduced the world to martial arts’ lonely master, Nicholas Linnear, in 1980. A success, the book stirred an appetite for the nearly superhuman ninja assassin. One year later, enter the ninja… literally that is the name of the movie.

Although not directly based on Lustbader’s novel, Enter the Ninja does pit the “western ninja” against the old, rival nemesis – a consistent them throughout ninja culture. Like The Ninja, Enter the Ninja gained a popular following and became the first in what is now regarded as Cannon’s “Ninja Trilogy.” The films are not directly related by storyline, but all contain the martial arts majesty of Sho Kosugi.

A former All-Japan Karate Champion, Kosugi is a criminally overlooked action star that filled a much-needed gap between Bruce Lee and Jet Li. Along with the Ninja Trilogy, Kosugi starred in a plethora of low-to-mid-budget martial arts movies during the 80s, including Pray for Death and Black Eagle, an early Jean-Claude Van Damme co-starring vehicle.

Now for those who’ve never seen or heard of the Ninja Trilogy, here’s the inside tip: the second film is the runaway star of this series. Revenge of the Ninja (1983) single-handily set the bar for the modern myth of the big-screen ninja, and is virtually unmatched in its balance of over-the-top action and realism.

Revenge

Revenge of the Ninja either established or developed many of the stealthy-near-supernatural skills that separated the anti-heroism of the dark ninja from the nobility of the devoted samurai. Poisoned shurikens, chained whips, flame throwers, smoke bombs, and even life-size ninja decoys are all part of the arsenal used to unprecedented effect throughout the film. And 20-foot leaps through the air are easily broken through superior ninja ankle strength.

Okay, it’s a little stupid. But it’s a ninja movie, and as far as ninja movies that don’t force you to suspend your disbelief too far go, you could do a lot worse than ROTN. The acting is respectable, the plot is solid, and at 90 minutes, its lean on self-indulgence. Yet what truly makes this film so laudable is the climatic battle atop an L.A. high-rise between our good ninja and our bad ninja. Before their grand duel, the two adversaries share meditative gestures that seem to reflect honor and code, which becomes ironic moments later when they leverage every opportunistic advantage to kill each other. Again, it doesn’t have to make sense.

The final film in the trilogy, Ninja III: The Domination, took the series in a much more mystical direction, which may explain its modest reception compared to the first two films. Other ninja movies were released as part of the Cannon catalog throughout the 80s and early 90s, including the American Ninja series and a bevy of Chuck Norris flicks (these sorta count). Few, if any, however, received positive critical responses. The popularity of the ninja movie began to wane shortly after 1990. A number of guesses exist as to why, but it’s reasonable to speculate the sub-genre suffered a similar fate to the video game crash of the early 80s. The market became over-saturated. Often when a niche market has too many so-bad-they’re-good items it reaches a plateau when each fan has his or her one so-bad-its-good item and a myriad of options is not needed. Ninja films may be consistently entertaining, but without enough ROTNs to keep audiences reeled in, well, sometimes bad pizza really is bad pizza.

*I’m including Aughts as 2000 – 2012. It’s just easier this way.