Monday, January 25, 2010

Acts of Shame

To celebrate January, a dull, cold and depressing month, we at Five-O-Rama have dedicated ourselves to the theme of Shame. Shame takes many forms. Sometimes it can even take the form of something that's supposed to be positive. Because the creator usually has the best of intentions but still winds up unleashing something truly terrible on the world. I'm sure that at least some of the parties that will be mentioned on this list still to this day feel absolutely no Shame for their actions. They may even stand up and attempt to defend themselves by either insisting that their creation does possess artistic merit or, at the very least, that they gave it their best. Whether or not they have a point is irrelevant. Because this is not Understanding Month or Redemption Month. It is Shame Month. So let's bring on the tears.

5. Rick Wakeman's The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Tour
For those who don't know, Rick Wakeman was the keyboardist for noted seventies progressive rock band, Yes. He's actually an incredibly talented individual and is a pioneer in the realm of piano and keyboards in rock music. With the help of his keyboard mastery, Yes were a pretty cool band. While still with Yes, Wakeman also forged a solo career. Again, he produced pretty good music.

A classically trained musician, he was very adept at arrangements and working multiple instruments into songs. His solo work reflected this as he successfully integrated things like an orchestra and choir into rock songs. His second solo album, a concept album released in 1974, was the first example of this. He was becoming more ambitious and experimental and by 1975, he'd already released his followup, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which was also, that's right, a concept album. It was very well-received and widely considered to include some of his very best work. So should he feel any shame for producing this album? Nope. None at all. In fact he should actually feel pride. But by now Wakeman was really thinking big and for the tour he conceived a lavish and dramatic live show. How lavish and dramatic, you ask? Well, as the album was supposed to be a telling of the Arthur Legend, that's what the show attempted to theatrically display in conjunction with the music. Oh, and also, it was on ice. Just take a look at Guinevere.

If you guessed that such a production would be extraordinarily complex, expensive and stupid, then you're a winner! (Cheque's in the mail) The cost of this live show actually ate into the income generated by the album not to mention being almost universally panned for being bloated and over the top. While it is true that Wakeman produced an album full of very strong music that is to this day one of the best fusions of classical and rock music, he's remembered more for trying to bring it to the masses through an endeavour that has to be one of the biggest failures in rock concert history to date. An example of creative vision going way too far.

4. Nintendo Virtual Boy
The Big N doesn't have a lot of blemishes on its track record but if you had to come up with at least one, I'll bet you'd mention the Virtual Boy. Released smack in the middle of the Nineties, this supposed gaming console resembled a red and black robot monster that would crawl up onto your bed and suck your brain out through your eyes while you slept. Seriously, imagine if this thing had somehow succeeded. You could walk into a room and see a bunch of people enjoying this "portable" gaming device and you'd swear you'd wandered into some horrific dystopian future where a master race of machines fed off our thoughts.

Using an effect known as "parallax" (doesn't that sound sinister? there's a villain in DC who is named this), it was supposed to deliver "true 3D graphics". Well, maybe you think I've gone overboard with the quotations there but whatever the case is, consumers quickly let Nintendo know the Virtual Boy "sucked". As it turned out, gamers weren't completely in love with more or less strapping this monstrosity to their foreheads so they could experience gameplay in a world of luscious, 3D, red monochrome.

The controller was sort of like a warped Gamecube controller only with a huge battery pack in the middle which made it heavy (hey, it only took SIX AA batteries) and, for reasons I can no longer recall, two d-pads - one on each side.

Possibly to counter Sega's in your face advertising style of the day, the Virtual Boy was marketed quite aggressively. Remember "A 3-D Game for a 3-D World"? Well, I do anyway. I also remember the headaches that came from playing the fucking thing for more than fifteen minutes.

Less than eight hundred thousand units were sold worldwide and only fourteen games were released in North America. Production of the Virtual Boy ceased only a year after its initial launch. These days it's only good as a collector's item and a source of Shame.

3. New Coke

What's most funny to me about this marketing epic fail
(did I say that correctly?) is that Coca-Cola didn't really have any good reason for trying it. It's true that by the mid eighties, Coke wasn't quite as dominant as it had been, thanks to the rise of Pepsi, but it still was the top of the heap in the world of Cola and a fantastically wealthy and powerful company and name brand. The main problem was that the people who were most loyal to the Coca-Cola brand were aging and Pepsi was more popular with young people (a fact Pepsi tried to exploit at every turn in their marketing). Apparently anything less than absolute dominance wasn't good enough for Coke and so measures were swiftly taken to combat Pepsi.

Another fun fact about Coke is that they don't do anything on a small scale. They conducted some market research through focus groups and surveys where a new flavour was provided. Results were relatively positive which I guess was all it takes for a global conglomerate with thousands of employees to tinker with their flagship product and drastically change their image. Because when the idea came up to simply introduce this flavour as an additional variety of Coke it was quickly shot down. No, they were going to do this all the way. CEO Roberto Goizueta was quoted as saying something like "It's New Coke or no Coke." Woot! Let's hear it for super aggressive 1980's decision making! Fight your way to the top and stay there, just like Cyndi Lauper!

Pepsi, which was actually much more known for this ballsy type of operating, took New Coke as a serious threat and moved quickly to spread skepticism and downright ridicule. They even gave all their employees a special day off to "celebrate their victory" over their old rival in the Cola Wars. The media fed directly off this and sunk their claws into Coke upon New Coke's debut (April 23, 1985). The official press conference was pretty much a fiasco, with Goizueta not exactly inspiring confidence with his lame description of the new flavour (you can find the hilarious quote on wikipedia), refusal to admit that any taste tests had even been conducted and his unforgettable declaration that New Coke was already a success, despite it being, um, Day One. But after the first few weeks it looked like maybe he'd been right. Coca-Cola gave away tons of free cans and soon sales actually picked up slightly.

But the fact is it's human nature to resist change to something that you already liked in the first place. It had actually been indicated by a minority in the focus groups that they resented the idea of Coke's formula being altered and soon this was repeated out in the real world. Angry letters and phone calls started flooding in, many of them quite hostile considering the focus of their grievance was a soft drink. As Coke had started in the South, people there felt like it belonged to them. And, being Southerners, they found a way to relate Coke's change to their loss in the Civil War (I'm not kidding) - to them this change to their beloved beverage felt like the "damn Yankees" were winning again. Soon the backlash spread to the rest of America and indeed, across the world. Even freaking Fidel Castro went on record to bash New Coke. Organizations were formed to lobby against the change. As it turned out, people really, really liked their Coke and did not like having it messed with. There were protests and boycotts and public displays of stuff like people emptying bottles of New Coke into the gutters.

There was plenty of turmoil within the company itself as many employees felt conflicted if not outright betrayed by the fact that they were working for a company that had always marketed itself as constant and "The Real Thing" that had now reversed that. A good percentage of them found themselves personally disliking the new taste as well. Bottlers, particularly in the South, were actually LOSING FRIENDS over their INDIRECT connection to New Coke. Lawsuits
suddenly were flying at Coca-Cola from every direction, merited or not. By slightly changing the flavour of a soft drink and sticking the word "new" in front of its name, they had opened the gates of hell.

Less than three months after New Coke's official unveiling, the announcement came that they would be returning to the original formula. There was already so much New Coke out in the world that it couldn't be recalled so it continued to be sold and was renamed Coke II in 1992. Old Coke was renamed Coca-Cola Classic and it sold like crazy. Everyone knows the rest of the story. It turned out that the colossal blunder that was New Coke actually helped significantly increase the popularity of the old one. Some people even theorize that the whole thing had just been a gigantic marketing ploy on Coke's part - that is, that they were COUNTING on New Coke bombing so that when they switched back, their sales would spike. But I'm fairly certain this was not the case.

It's highly possible that I have actually tasted New Coke in my life but I just don't know. I've asked people who can remember New Coke's launch if it tasted any differently but have never received a straight answer. The fact remains that the change made to the formula was actually a very minor one and the taste could not have been altered all that drastically. What it really came down to was Coke's own underestimation of people's emotional attachment to a familiar brand.

There were no huge consequences for Goizueta or anyone else associated with the change at least as far as keeping their jobs went. Blame was never officially assigned and no one was fired. But with New Coke still remembered as a complete failure, the Shame lingers to this day.

2. Spider-Man: The Clone Saga
Here's proof that something doesn't have to be a complete financial disaster to qualify as an Act of Shame. You would think that since quite a number of people were responsible for this debacle, one could spread the Shame around and maybe it wouldn't look so bad. Well, you would think that if you never actually read this runaway story arc from hell.

Back in the mid nineties, what some people refer to as "The Dark Age of Comic Books", there were a lot of flashy trends going on as publishers competed for dominance. Marvel's chief rival, DC Comics had achieved a high level of success with their epic and controversial story arcs, The Death of Superman and Knightfall. The bigwigs at Marvel hoped to release something similar for one of their own major characters. Spider-Man, come on down!

Considering the aforementioned event stories featured one major hero being actually replaced by another character (um, temporarily) and the other being killed (again, temporarily), nothing was considered out of bounds for this Spider-Man project. Eventually writer Terry Kavanagh was coaxed into mentioning his clone idea, which at that time, while quite radical, was still fairly simple and straightforward. The arc that was originally conceived was short and ended with Ben Reilly being revealed as the original Peter Parker. Then he would take his place as Spider-Man, while "Peter" would retire and live a quiet life with MJ (who was pregnant at the time). But if you know anything about comics, then you probably know this is not at all what wound up happening.

Instead we got Spidey, Ben Reilly, his supposed clone, Kaine, who is another clone, The Jackal, who is the creator of the clones and Spidercide, who is yet another clone, all running around trying to sort the whole business out. Add seemingly all-powerful and seemingly randomly inserted character Judas Traveler, who states his motivation as trying to determine the true nature of "evil", and stretch it all out over many, many months. Throw in the mysterious and pointless Seward Trainer and you've got a full-blown comic book clusterfuck.

But it sold. Either because faithful readers remained confident that no matter how messed up things were getting, the resolution would be satisfying and entertaining or it was a case of that thing where you're just unable to look away from a violent car accident - people were curious to see just how bad it was going to get. I suppose it was probably a combination of both. As time went on, the story kept going, adding more and more layers of ridiculousness. Eventually there were DOZENS of clones (Maximum Clonage), a new good guy Green Goblin, a female Doc Ock and Kraven's son (The Grim Hunter) all tossed into the mix. And every once in awhile, Traveler, who still wasn't being explained in any way, would teleport Peter Parker into weird little side dimensions where they could discuss concepts like good and evil, life and death, mac and cheese, and so on. It was hard to believe this was actually Spider-Man.

Where it all was going was anyone's guess. Direction changed several times as editor in chief (and one of the contributing writers to the arc) Tom Defalco left the post and was replaced by Bob "I Named Optimus Prime" Budiansky. Defalco later stated his intention was to proceed similarly to Knightfall (my words, not his) by establishing in "Act One" that Peter was the clone and Ben was the real Parker, having "Act Two" follow his adventures and then having Peter return in "Act Three" as the one true Spider-Man with Ben starring in his own ongoing title afterwards.

But Budiansky wanted things to...go on. This was no three act story. Although he also planned to keep Ben as Spider-Man and have Peter quietly retire as a new father. Scarlett Spider was meant to replace every current Spider-Man title before Ben FINALLY took over as Spider-Man. Of course, this would stretch things out even longer. By this point, the marketing department was calling all the shots (sales were booming after all) and the creative team pretty much had to do what they were told (hence Maximum Clonage etc.) Keep in mind this was in the age of the super star artist, over the top anti heroes and holographic cover variants. Not to mention Marvel's own financial implosion.

Suddenly, Budiansky seemed to sense that fans didn't really want to see Peter Parker replaced. (maybe it was the hundreds of angry letters, I don't know) Now it was his mandate, get things back to normal? Oh yeah, since Peter was going to be a superhero again, Budiansky didn't want him tied down as a father so THAT had to be taken care of too. Then Marvel fired him.

Ok. So then Bob Harras took over the mess and moved very quickly to resolve things. Basically, the storyline had become so fucked up and nonsensical that only some sort of deus ex machina could salvage it. The idea of using Mephisto for this came up but was then dismissed as having too little to do with Spider-Man and his "world" despite the fact that said "world" had spun out of control long ago. (Interestingly enough, the Mephisto idea was used fairly recently for the One More Day storyline). Harras then came up with the plan to resurrect a major Spider-Man foe who had been dead for over twenty years in real time, Norman Osborn. It was a bold move but probably the best possible given the circumstances. Osborn finally revealed himself as the mastermind behind the entire affair, having manipulated all the players, including Judas Traveler, from the shadows. Peter and Ben fought him and Ben died saving Peter's life, his body dissolving in death proving once and for all that he was the clone. MJ's baby is born stillborn (yay!) and so things went back to the way they were. Sort of.

When the smoke cleared, the Clone Saga had taken just over two years to complete and all the story really amounted to was a massive, confusing epic that Marvel had to more or less "take back" to save face and not completely ruin their most popular character. The shockwaves of Shame are still felt to this day. Just try saying the word "clone" to any Marvel fan and see what happens.

1. Washington Capitals 1974/75 Season
There's a great line from an episode of Futurama (not affiliated with Five-O-Rama) about the major league baseball team, the New New York Mets, where the sportscaster says "And welcome back to the game as the Mets close out a season that will rank among mankind's most awful crimes." That team was fictional. This team, sadly, is not. While they were, at least, an expansion team in their very first year of existence, I really don't know if that can even begin to make up for the levels of Shame they produced. Read on.

Since they were a first year team, they received the number one overall pick in the draft the summer before their innaugral season. They selected standout defenceman Greg Joly from the Regina Pats. He was the number one pick in the WHA draft too (the Phoenix Roadrunners had that pick by the way) but he opted to sign with the Caps. While the WHA certainly didn't compare to the NHL in terms of playing level and recognition, its players actually made more money than their NHL counterparts. Now I'm not saying Joly should have gone where the money was; all I'll say is that the Roadrunners were no where near as bad as the Capitals turned out to be that year.

It's pretty much always the case that players picked number one overall not only have the pressure of their lofty selection on them but also the pressure of helping a weak team improve. You have to be bad to get first pick, you know. The Caps got first pick by virtue of being brand new as opposed to bad. But all expansion teams are expected to be bad in their first two or three seasons. The Kansas City Scouts joined that year as well and got the second pick (Wilf Paiment). But it's not their name you see on this list.

With two new teams entering the league, an expansion draft was held. This is a draft where every existing team has to leave a couple players from their roster unprotected so they can be picked up and added to one of the new teams. Needless to say, it's not exactly a draft full of talent. The Capitals held the second pick in this draft and selected goalie Ron Low from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He would be the backbone of this "professional hockey team", being in the net for all eight of their wins that season.

Yeah. I said eight wins.

The 74/75 Washington Capitals staggered through a season of epically awful proportions, finishing with a record of 8-67-5, which, any way you look at it, is just fucking tragic. Their record on the road was 1-39. They only won in another team's building ONCE! Their point total in the standings after an eighty game season was 21, only half that of the Scouts and the NHL record for lowest ever. In the "New NHL" these days, ties no longer exist and teams receive one point for a loss in overtime or the shootout. So if we're generous and pretend that the Caps' ties were all overtime or shootout wins, their point total would amount to 31. They also set the record for most road losses (duh), longest road losing streak (thirty-seven games!) and their winning percentage of .131 is still the most pathetic in league history.

Let's delve into the numbers even further.

They were led in scoring by winger Tommy Williams, who finished with 22 goals (first), 36 assists (not only first but more than any teammate's entire point total) and fifty-eight points (well, you know). I can think of several teams who featured leading scorers with less points than that so it's actually pretty impressive. Williams was one of only five Capitals to play over seventy games that year. So unfortunately this meant he finished with a plus/minus of -48. Yikes.

Greg "Number One Pick" Joly got to jump straight into the NHL since the Caps were, um, hard up for talent. So he got to experience the thrill of playing 44 games. There must have been a win or two in there, I figure. He scored one goal and seven assists and accumulated what I'm sure must be the worst plus/minus for a rookie ever, a -68. To give you an idea of how woeful the Caps were defensively, the highest plus/minus of any player to appear in at least forty games was Steve Atkinson's tidy -26 over forty-six games. The kicker: defenceman Bill Mikkelson played in fifty-nine games that season and took home a mind-boggling -82. The worst rating of all time. He has the honour of that record standing to this day. Before I leave the plus/minus stuff behind I'll just mention that defenceman Jack Lynch only appeared in twenty games that season and yet still managed to register a MINUS FIFTY-FOUR.

If the preceeding paragraph didn't clue you in, the Caps were brutal on defence and their goaltending was abysmal. They allowed 446 goals that season. Low, the only goalie to record a win for them, finished 8-36-2 with a goals against average of 5.45. 2588 minutes of what I can only imagine as disappointment, frustration and humiliation. The other two goalies, Michel Belhumeur and John Adams, combined for thirty-one losses, three ties (all by Belhumeur) and zero wins. Just how bad were the Caps at keeping the puck out of their net? Well, they would allow ten or more goals against in a game seven times. They were beaten by the score of 12-1 twice and 11-1 once.

But there was more to the Capitals than just horrendous defence and worthless goaltending - they couldn't score either! That season they found the back of the net 181 times - this in an era when even the lousiest teams managed to top 200. Denis Dupere was the only player besides Williams to top twenty goals (he had 20). Six players finished with more than ten goals and only eight topped twenty points. Their highest scoring defenceman was Yvon Labre who had 27 points. The next highest scoring blueliner was Gord Smith with a paltry 11 points.

Several trades were made over the course of the season but nothing helped. Dupere, the team's second highest scorer, was shipped to St. Louis after 53 games. In fact, four of their top seven scorers were traded before the end of the season. While rookies like Joly and nineteen year old Mike Marson got their first taste of the NHL by being embarrassed every night, forty year old veteran Doug Mohns also slogged through the whole thing. You'd think if there was ever a good reason to retire, that would be it. So I suppose one has to respect him for not leaving the sinking ship. Although calling that team a "sinking ship" is way too generous. It was more like the Hindenburg smashing into the Titanic with the wreckage then being sucked into a black hole.

The Caps have a history filled mostly with mediocrity which seems to finally be on the verge of something more. But in 1974/75, they put forth a season that will live on in the annals of Shame forever.


Sam said...

The parallax was actually a real creature that was both delicious and useful.

It was like a cross between a parrot and a battle-ax; its flesh was sharp and deadly or soft and succulent as willed by he who held it aloft and whispered the beast's name. After so doing, the parallax could be used to slay your adversaries or tide you over until dinner.

It occupied both normal space and a parallel dimension, which was easily accessible, so you could devour one while sullying the other in blood. The parallax itself had smokey, delicious barbecue sauce instead of blood, which was handy for stinging in the wounds of those who foolishly opposed you, or for self-marination.

Naturally, we hunted the tragically multi-purpose wretches to extinction in both dimensions.

Something to add to our collective shame...

Cole D'Arc said...


Sam said...


Shane Patenaude said...

Great list, man. What a range of shame!

The virtual boy is so stupid in hindsight. I distinctly remember wanting one when it was announced and then being at the mall and having a chance to try it. I played maybe five minutes of some flying game where all the objects were wire-frames and brain tumor red. The whole experience made my eyes and head hurt. And I suddenly didn't want something that Nintendo had made, and that was a shock to my young mind.

I really wish I could try some new coke and see what the big deal was. I'm sure some collector has dozens of cases in his/her basement somewhere. When you said that new coke was aggressive 80's decision making, I couldn't help but think of the 80's business guy from Futurama. Roberto Goizueta is that guy! "My only regret ... is that I ... released New Coke."

King Arthur on ice... didn't that happen in the movie "King Arthur" where they all fight on a frozen lake? Look's like Wakeman's vision doesn't die easily.

Anyway, the list blew my mind. Five stars!

Cole D'Arc said...

thanks, i put a lot into it. The Cyndi Lauper quote is taken from that episode, spoken by that guy. but i also used a Futurama quote in my number one so didn't want to draw too much attention to it.

RyHo said...

That was possibly the most epic List of Five summoned yet. Well done, my friend.