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Cover Story

Moonwalk Down Memory Lane

'That '80s Show' Makes It Official--the 'Re Decade' Is Back. So Let's Crank the Boombox, Point the DeLorean Back to the Future and Party Like It's 1999.

March 03, 2002|Patrick J. Kiger

No one ever suggested that the Yugo was innovative, except maybe in terms of price, but it was the only Serbian-made car ever sold in America. "What do you expect for $4,000?" a headline in the trade newspaper Automotive Industries once asked rhetorically. Slapped together by hand by $1-per-hour workers, the boxy vehicles were so shabby that shortly after their 1985 U.S. debut, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration judged the Yugo to have the worst crash performance of any car it had tested. The car's underwhelming performance inspired scores of jokes ("What do you call a Yugo at the top of a hill? A mirage." And "Why do Yugos come with heated rear windows? To keep your hands warm while you're pushing").

The manufacturer's U.S. subsidiary went bankrupt in 1991, and the factory where the cars were built was damaged by U.S. bombs during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. A few years ago, students at the Manhattan School of Visual Arts took 39 junked Yugos and converted them for innovative new uses, including a church confessional and a portable toilet.

The Box Boom

Kaypro, Pac-Man and the Helix Wheely 5000

Though personal computers made their debut in the late '70s, that didn't stop Time magazine from picking the PC instead of a human as person of the year (well, "machine of the year") in 1982. Once the computer's supposedly miraculous labor-saving qualities freed the human mind from drudgery, Time wondered, "will it race off in pursuit of important ideas or lazily spend its time on more video games?"

Today, such ruminations may seem hopelessly quaint in an age when subsequent technological advances enable us to almost effortlessly download Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's honeymoon video. Back then, the technological cutting edge was the Kaypro II, which displayed headache-inducing fluorescent green characters on a nine-inch screen. The Kaypro's microprocessor ran at a snail's-pace 2.5 megahertz and stored information on pancake-sized floppy disks instead of a hard drive. The CP/M operating system required users to type in cryptic commands ("PIP B:=A:DB*.*" for example) rather than click on an icon. "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," indeed.

The portable personal stereo, better known as the boombox, actually first appeared on the consumer electronics market in the late '70s. But by 1980, when nearly 8 million of them were sold, they had become a deafening presence on city sidewalks across America. "My radio, believe me, I like it loud," LL Cool J rapped in 1985. "I'm the man with a box that can rock the crowd/Walkin' down the street, to the hard-core beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete . . ."

Boomboxes grew in size, as larger speakers, tape decks, 10-band equalizers, flashing disco lights and even burglar alarms were added to their design. Helix's Wheely 5000, produced in 1989, was perhaps the largest boombox ever, at 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall. It weighed a clavicle-crushing 41 pounds when loaded with 10 D batteries. It could be wheeled behind an owner who wasn't quite macho enough to carry it.

As legend has it, pioneering video game designer Tohru Iwatani looked at the empty space in a pizza after he'd removed a slice and got the inspiration for a game that stood out from Asteroids, Space Invaders and others on the market. In 1980, Iwatani's employer, Namco, and its partner, Bally Midway Manufacturing Co., unveiled the first video game featuring an identifiable character--a yellow circle who crawled up and down the pathways of a maze eating dots of light and fruit before he himself was consumed by pursuing ghosts. The character initially was dubbed Puck-man, but after the uncomfortable proximity to an English-language expletive was noted, its name was changed to Pac-Man.

Pac-Man was an instant hit in arcades across America, and the manufacturers sold 100,000 games in the first year alone. Within two years, Pac-Man had spawned an animated show, merchandise such as Pac-Man air fresheners and whoopee cushions, and even a female companion, Ms. Pac-Man. By 1984 the fad was starting to fade, but Pac-Man was eventually revived in the '90s.

Electro-Pap Playlist

Wham!, Wang Chung and A Flock of Seagulls

While the biggest hits of '80s music still get considerable airplay two decades later--songs by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, U2 and others--the works of the Little River Band and Night Ranger have receded into the mist. But from the theme to "Chariots of Fire" to Depeche Mode's paeans to nihilistic angst to Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," there's one unifying characteristic in the diverse styles--that odd, unnatural pulsating quality. Think of it as the aural equivalent of creme brulee made with aspartame.

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