Branded in the 80s is an unapologetic, love letter to everything that I adore about the 80s, in particular the stuff from my childhood. That being said, I was one of those kids that never really “grew up” a whole heck of a lot over the years, and I managed to keep a connection to my inner childlike sense of wonder and fun. So there are a number of things that I experienced in the heyday of the 90s that sometimes feels very much like my experiences as a younger kid and every so often I get the urge to write about some of those times on the site. I try not to dip into this realm too much, but considering we just passed the 30 year threshold for 90s era anniversaries and nostalgia I can’t help but slide into some 90s talk from time to time.
Case in point, as we’ve all been dealing with quarantine in our day to day lives of late, I’ve used what ever free time I’ve had to organize a bunch of stuff in my collection and I stumbled on one of my favorite pieces from the mid-90s. Back in 1995 I was a nerdy 17 year-old kid who had just graduated from high school and was starting his first real job stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at a supermarket. Though I was mainly stuck slinging stock up on the detergent aisle shelves (new stock crew members were always given this aisle as it was literally the worst job), every so often I’d get called over to help on one of the busiest sections of the store, the cereal aisle. Customers seemed to buy their weight in cereal daily, so the shelves always looked like a war zone with most of them bare. Because cereal boxes are so bulky, the aisle would always have multiple pallets of stock each time we got a truck in and it took a minute to get everything full and looking nice again by morning. But I never minded getting the call to come over and help because of all the aisles in the store, the cereal aisle spoke to my inner kid the most. I loved the idea of stocking boxes of Cap’n Crunch and Frosted Flakes, of take a second to scope out all the current promotions and freebies in the boxes, and to generally just have a good time working. I have a very clear memory of helping out in the cereal aisle, early on a Saturday might (early for us was like 11:00pm or midnight), and stocking boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats. The shelf was completely empty, so we’d always put up any backstock first (product leftover from previous shipments that we kept in the back) before moving on to a new case of cereal. After I threw up five or six older boxes of cereal I opened the new case and to my absolute joy there was a new promotion on the box for a mail-away cassingle of the music from The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
I immediately set two boxes aside for myself. I was and am a Nickelodeon kid, and in the early to mid-90s I was addicted to the live action shows that were hitting the station. Appointment television at the time were shows like Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, Fifteen, Clarissa Explains It All, and of course my favorite, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I feel like there are only a few shows that have ever existed that felt like they were written specifically for me, and Pete & Pete was one of them for sure. The odd, awkward comedy in the show, the actors, the situations and format all felt like a someone took all of my interests, stuck them in a blender and created a sitcom just for me. On top of that, I adored the soundtrack of the series (bands like Luscious Jackson, the Drop Ninteens, and the Apples in Stereo), but I was in absolute love with the theme song and original songs provided by the band Polaris.
The thing was, Polaris wasn’t the kind of band that was releasing albums. See, the band was an offshoot of another act, Miracle Legion, three members of which agreed to record music for the series under the new name Polaris. Led by front-man Mark Mulcahy, and filled out by bassist Dave McCaffrey and drummer Scott Boutier, Polaris recorded 12 songs for use in the series, but it was never intended for this music to be considered the new Miracle Legion album, and the three weren’t planning on touring or doing any other recording under the Polaris moniker. It was just a one-time gig that gave birth to one of the most perfect albums of the 90s that for the most part no one ever heard. Sure, there were super fans of the show that appreciated the music, but most of us were kids (or kids at heart) at the time and we weren’t doing a ton of leg work to try and figure out who the band was, let alone trying to find the album in a local Sam Goody or Media Play.
But then, there on that Saturday night, on a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats, there it was. A mail-away cassette promotion where one could get their hands on three Polaris songs from the Adventures of Pete & Pete. All you needed to do was mail in two proofs of purchase (UPC symbols) from boxes of 18oz to 24oz Frosted Mini-Wheats or Bite-Sized Frosted Mini-Wheats to get the free cassette. Not only did I end up eating that cereal for lunch that evening (and for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next week), but I also snipped both proofs of purchase and mailed off my order form before I left work as well (I distinctly remember having to buy the stamps at the same time I snagged the cereal, and I stole an envelope from the manager’s office as well.) In one of the longest stretches of 4 to 6 weeks I’ve ever experienced, I waited patiently for the cassette to arrive and when it did I promptly played it so much I snapped the tape!
Not only did Miracle Legion re-brand for the Pete & Pete gig, but the band members also went by pseudonyms as well (I think there were some legal issues with Miracle Legion that possibly forced the members to not attach their legal names to this gig.) So Mark Mulcahy (who wrote all of the songs) went by Muggy, bassist Dave McCaffrey went by Jersey, and drummer Scott Boutier took the name Harris. The cassingle contained three songs, the show’s theme “Hey Sandy”, and the songs Staggering and Coronado II. The tape had a bits of opening and closing narration by Big Pete (Mike Maronna) where he introduced the band and thanked folks for listening. Both sides are the same too, so as soon as I was done listening to one side, I’d flip the tape and be right back where I started. It was genius (well, simplicity, but I like to call it genius.)
Eventually the entire 12-song album from Polaris was released on CD and vinyl, which is awesome and I love that release, but this tape has become one of my most treasured pieces from my collection because it intersects so many portions of my life from the 90s, Nickelodeon, my first job, and it came at a time when I really had a voracious appetite for music. Listening to this tape immediately transports me back to that place in my life, and honestly, half of that is the intro and outro. But it’s also the fact that I heard these three songs in their entirety first and in this format. As much as I love the full album, and it is a damn fine album that you should totally buy right now, something always feels off when I listen to it. It’s because instead of Staggering blending into Coronado II, the CD takes a different path, its own path. It’s like how if you first heard an album on vinyl or tape and then you listen on CD and when the midway point comes and you automatically reach for the Walkman or start to get up to flip the disc and then the next song just starts playing and it feels weird. It’s like that.
This tape was purely a piece of marketing to get cereal eaters to potentially tune into Nickelodeon, or specifically to catch episodes of Pete & Pete. But the folks working on this promotion probably had no idea that they were doing something so much more important. Connecting a bunch of on-the-ball nerds and weird kids with some music that was already in their hearts, but now was at their fingertips whenever the mood stuck. When ever they felt love struck and had to absolutely hear Staggering so that they could sync up their feelings with the woeful singing of Mulcahy. Whenever they wanted to freak out to the theme of the show and pretend they were Artie striking super-weird hero poses in their yard at midnight. Or when everything was going all right and they just wanted to get up and dance to Coronado II. This tape was everything to some kids. I was one of them.
Though the CD is long out of print, and the special Record Store Day vinyl album is fetching well over $100 on ebay, the 12 Polaris songs are still available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, or you can listen to them on Spotify. But the opening and closing narration on this tape and the order of these songs, that memory has almost evaporated from this Earth. Searching high and low I could not find them in any of the usual places on the internet. So I don’t feel bad about ripping them off the tape (I’ve since replaced my original copy as it broke sometime in 1998.) Here for maybe the first time, and maybe (hopefully) for some of you reading this for the first time in years, here is the Happily Deranged Pete & Pete EP, this lost bit of audio that will hopefully transport you back to another place. Another time. The time when anything was possible and everything could happen. So let this music be your moral compass and never get lost again.