You thought I was gone, huh? Well, I’m sorry I haven’t been here lately. Things have been happening lately. However, I do have an interview for you with Dean Friedman. If that name sounds familiar, it should be. If not, you’ll soon find out why. I had a chance to interview him via e-mail, and he sent me the answers right here.
Greg Palmer: Hello, Dean. First off, I’m reading your Wikipedia page. You got your first guitar in 1964 and started writing songs at the age of 9. However, you really didn’t get your big hit until 1977, with your #26 hit “Ariel” (stayed on the chart for 5 months). I like that song, especially the reference to WCBS. Sadly, that was your only Top 40 hit in the States. Did you ever anticipate that becoming your signature song?
Dean Friedman: I knew as I was recording it, that Ariel had the potential to be a chart hit. When it went top-20 (#18 in Cashbox; and #1 in dozens of regions across the US), it was a satisfying confirmation. However, other songs of mine have been bigger hits in other territories, including “Lucky Stars” in the UK, “Lydia” in Germany and “McDonald’s Girl” in Norway. Songs are like little kids; they always grow up and surprise you.
GP: There’s also this story about “McDonald’s Girl“. The BBC banned it because it sounds like a commercial. As I’m listening to the song, it sounds like a cross between a commercial and a love ballad. Pretty light, I think. The Blenders have a version that’s a bit more polished. What’s even better is that version is used in a McDonald’s commercial. So, that begs the question, did you originally intend for this to be used for a McDonald’s commercial?
DF: It was always meant as a teenage love song about a guy smitten by the girl behind the counter. Only in retrospect was it obvious to me and almost anyone else that heard it that it would make a perfect commercial for McDonald’s. Although it took them thirty years to figure that out.
GP: Most people don’t know this, but you are also a video game designer. I’m reading here that you were impressed with a virtual reality demonstration in 1986. However, going from American Top 40 to virtual reality is a big jump, especially in the 80s. Where did you have to go to learn all this technology, and why did you decide to get involved in this?
DF: I got involved with VR inadvertently via a circuitous route beginning with the first generation of MIDI synthesizers. I’d been given a chance to play around with a Synclavier, which a[t] the time was one of the most powerful (and expensive) synths available. Working with the Synclavier led to my landing a gig writing the first consumer guide for Synthesizers, Sequencers and Drum Machines, and reviewing lots of music and video software. And it was at an Amiga computer convention that I first witnessed camera-based VR. It seemed like magic!
GP: Some of your best-known work was used on the 90s Nickelodeon game show, Nick Arcade. First off, how did you get involved in this show?
DF: After witnessing a camera-based VR demo by the Vivid Group, I purchased one of their developer kits and designed and produced a game called, ‘Eat-a-Bug’. I spent 4 months and about 100 phone calls pitching it to Nickelodeon and eventually they licensed it for a show called, Total Panic. ‘Eat-a-Bug’ was the very first VR game to appear on national TV. It served as the prototype for the games created for the show, Nick Arcade. Subsequently, I was hired to program games for the first season of Nickelodeon’s Nick Arcade.
GP: According to your InVideo page, you developed “Gold Rush” and a few custom environments. What other games did you develop for the show?
DF: The Nick Arcade games were designed by James Bathea and Karim Miteff who had worked on Total Panic when my game, “Eat-a-Bug” debuted. I programmed and composed music for all of the following games…
- Jungle Fever
- Alien Moonbase
- Ancient Tomb
- Runaway Rail Car
- Haunted House
- Nile River Raft
- Mayan Maze
- Food Frenzy
GP: What was it like working for Nickelodeon? Do you have any stories you’d like to tell us?
DF: After being personally responsible for introducing VR to Nickelodeon when they licensed my game, “Eat-a-Bug”, it was frustrating realizing that Nickelodeon didn’t fully realize what they had with the VR games I’d delivered to them. The company was still a few years away from their big licensing deals with Mattel and video game companies and they were still very self-conscious about being too closely associated with video games, games which were still viewed warily by the parenting and education communities. As a result Nickelodeon never promoted the VR games on Total Panic or Nick Arcade in the way they would certainly have just a few years later.
GP: Did you have any other hands-on roles in production?
DF: Having programmed all the games, I was responsible for the initial technical integration of the VR games within the video production studio. The video engineers didn’t fully appreciate how compelling the VR experience would be for the kids playing. On one occasion the physical ladder on set didn’t correlate exactly to the graphic ladder – it was missing a rung. I warned the producers that the kids would orient themselves within the VR world – not the real world -and was ignored. It wasn’t until a kid almost fell off the ladder on set that everyone fully understood that the kids really were orienting themselves within the virtual world. And they let me fix the graphic.
4e. As I’m typing these questions, I’ve thought, “If I was in your shoes, I’d use this to relaunch my music career.” Did you ever consider going that route?
DF: Maybe in the virtual world. The real world doesn’t work that way. 😉
GP: The show only lasted for 3 pilots and 84 episodes between 1992 and 1993. A 2-season wonder, much like “Ariel”. It shouldn’t have been, because it had everything going for it. Revolutionary technology, an interesting and unique concept, and somewhat interesting gameplay. Melissa Joan Hart played in a celebrity episode, for pete’s sake. The main reason I’m going to ask you this question is because so much of your technology went into this show. So in your opinion, Dean Friedman….. why did Nick Arcade fail? What went wrong? Was it just a matter of ratings?
DF: Two reasons: One, as I said before, Nickelodeon was conflicted about promoting a show that featured video games; they were still trying to present a benign educational face to parents and video games were not yet accepted as having any educational value. But, two, the main reason I think the show failed was because although the games themselves were fun and compelling – they were always the highest rated segments on the show – the show, itself, provided no real compelling context for the games; in many ways it offered conventional quiz play and very little true entertainment – comedy, adventure, drama… James and Karim were decent game designers, but they didn’t know how to tell a compelling story that could have involved viewers in a much more visceral way. Maybe next time.
GP: NA is considered by many to be a cult classic, and according to one page, was in reruns for many years (as late as 1996). It was also on Nickelodeon Gamesand Sports for many years as well. Why do you think it’s continued to stay so popular for so long?
DF: The VR game segments are really fun.
GP: I’m curious. Do you still watch Nick on occasion? The reason I ask is because there’s this show called BrainSurge. Have you seen that?
DF: I love the early animated series on Nickelodeon and I’m a huge SpongeBob fan, but I can’t stand most of the live-action shows. BrainSurge is kinda fun, though.
6. So, I understand (according again to your Wikipedia page) that you’re still touring and you released an album, Submarine Races. Have you considered writing for other artists? What’s your impression of current top 40 radio?
DF: The Canadian band, Barenaked Ladies did an infamous cover version of my song, “McDonald’s Girl” and their are dozens of covers of my songs up on Youtube. My impression of top 40 radio is that it relies too much on syndicated, computer generated playlists and not enough on the personal taste of music-loving dj’s. There used to be a lot more diversity on the radio. Not so much these days.
GP: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone who wants to enter your career path?
DF: Follow your muse, and she’ll usually reward you. But you might have to spend 4 months making 100 phone calls to collect that reward.
GP: Are there any upcoming albums or concert tours you’d like to promote?
DF: Always touring all over the world, so join the email list at my website and check out some videos and tunes. http://www.deanfriedman.com
Thank you very much. As you can see, you can do it all. Major catch-up later today.