When Star Wars exploded across movie screens in 1977 the world of pop culture was caught off guard. After all, the latter half of the seventies had defined pop entertainment with a trio of gun-toting slinky vixens and a pair of bionics-endowed super-sleuths. But Star Wars struck a resonant chord with the public that had long been dormant in its common subconscious. Beyond its effects-laden eye candy it had a classic narrative that stood firmly upon mythical, epic underpinnings. Keeping with this tradition, George Lucas sought to merchandise Star Wars with the same quality standards and timeless grace which he had established with his celluloid monument. For the most part he was successful, thanks to a team of scrupulous copyright lawyers and a personal interest in the products that would bear his company's namesake.
But a handful of wayward ideas would be passed and produced, some officially, many not. These few items are gold to lovers of Star Wars kitsch. Items falling into this catagory are those with a semblance to Star Wars that are hopelessly trapped in the era of seventies' camp. These items came from all fields of merchandising: Music, toys, apparel, decor, etc. It's due time we recognize these often forgotten relics of the galactic boogie-wonderland, whose lot until now has been relentless mockery, disgust, or at best, ignorance.
ELECTRIC MOOG, GALACTIC FUNK, AND A BAND ON THE RUN
It must have been dealt in the cards of fate that Star Wars should share its formative years with that shameless fad of the seventies, disco. It seemed every moog synthesizer this side of the galaxy was peeling out cover-versions of John Williams' classic score. Meco Monardo's Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk would prove the most endurable of the bunch, with his "Star Wars" disco single topping the charts in July of '77. Those clinging to his polyester coattails included the likes of Patrick Gleason's Star Wars "performed on the world's most advanced synthesizer" and Music from Star Wars performed by the Electric Moog Orchestra. Don Ellis and Survival would do an all-brass interpretation of the "Main Title" and "Princess Leia's Theme" while Ferrante and Teicher would follow up with their usual grand piano pastiche. These and others are still listenable today depending on the hardening of one's senses. There is one exception, however, that will bring the most devoted of Star Wars audiophiles to tears: Living In These Star Wars by the Rebel Force Band. With track titles such as "Don't Fall in Love with an Android", "Chewie the Rookie-Wookie", and "A Respirator for Darth Vader", one finds it hard to believe that this album was produced as a sincere homage to Star Wars rather than a mockery of it. Here is a sample of lyrics from another cut entitled "Leia":
"Leia - Oh -Be my lady, tonight
Be my lady, I love you
Over the planets
The places we'll see
We'll fly on forever
Then we'll be free"...
This album represents a pinnacle to the Star Wars kitsch lover: It's a saccharine perversion of a modern masterpiece which has fermented into a scathing 100-proof shot of pure camp!
Of course, any review of disco-era Star Wars would be incomplete without mentioning its healthy contribution to the 8-track format. Star Wars-related 8-tracks are the gems of the Star Wars kitsch collection. Their appeal is four-fold: They are an obsolete format that is quintessential-seventies; they exhibit funky label art; they contain groovy looping tracks; and there are handfuls still waiting to be found in the dark recesses of basements and attics. What's more, several variations may exist for a single recording, be it in the color of the plastic cartridge or the layout of the paper label. The original soundtrack and the Story of Star Wars recordings garnered the most case variations, due to the fact that each went through several printings. Cartridge colors might include white, blue, gray, charcoal gray, or black, with an indefinite number of label variations. Most collectors will probably not be able to play these crown jewels of the hopelessly out-moded, but a stack of them can really set off that stainless steel quadrophonic gathering dust in the den!
One would not suspect that the venerable Star Wars toy line would fall victim to the dated darkside of seventies pop culture, but thanks to some early well-intentioned missteps we are blessed with some fine examples of mainstream kitsch. Among Kenner's earliest ventures into their decades-long affair with Star Wars was a set of SSP (Super Sonic Power) vans depicting graphics of either the empire (baaaad van) or the heroes (good van!).
These were an obvious attempt to cash in on the custom van craze of the late seventies, which in itself had adopted Star Wars styling as a rampant theme among adult custom van enthusiasts. But the toy versions had features that could only be dreamed of in custom van nirvana: "Blazin' Sparks and Sonic Sound" with a T-stick to boot! These were sold either seperately or in a set, the latter being the more valuable today.
Kenner was not the only licensee to jump on the Star Wars van bandwagon: MPC models was quick to shell out three of its own custom Star Wars van kits, which featured more "spacy" styling than its Kenner counterparts. There were the Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and R2D2 versions, each identical except for the color molding and graphic detailing that graced their sides. The R2D2 version takes the kitsch cake, however, as some inspired designer plopped the astromech's domed head on the van's rooftop. Priceless.
Lionel would produce what has become the most beloved toy among Star Wars kitsch enthusiasts: The Duel at Death Star Racing Game. This set was produced as part of Lionel's popular Power Passers line, which had pioneered the lane changing car and slotless track. What makes this game so endearing beyond its novel seventies appeal is that it's truly fun to play! The set consists of a Darth Vader Tie Fighter Car and a Luke Skywalker X-Wing Crash Car that breaks apart when struck from behind. To heighten the excitement there is a lap counter that counts down to the Death Star's imminent demise and funky Star Wars graphics that trim the outer edges of the track. Crank up John Williams' "Battle of Yavin" on the hi-fi and experience nine minutes of unbridled seventies Star Wars bliss!
What was a star-struck kid to do in the late seventies when he suddenly started feelin' groovy? Why,he'd put on his Star Wars struttin' duds and cut a line down the homeroom hallway. Star Wars apparel defines the era from whence it came better than any other line of merchandising. Most notable among Star Wars fashion afficionados is the line of shoes marketed by Clarks in the late seventies. Each pair was designated by a character whose likeness was occasionally stitched or branded into the side of the shoe. What sets these above the rest of its fashion companions are the lifted star-studded heals that reach near platform-level heights. What's more, the wide rubber treads feature an abundance of stars, loops, and the title to your favorite film, should the sidewalk like to know.
If the shoes and the added inches to your height weren't enough to impress the schoolyard socialites, then perhaps a glitter-emblazoned Star Wars t-shirt was your answer. Factors, Etc. of Deleware steamed out multitudes of Star Wars iron-on transfers, sold both on and off a variety of colored t-shirts. Today these are hotly collected for their retro-seventies graphics, which have found a contemporary market among t-shirt savvy Gen-Xers. These great pieces of kitsch art are once again hitting the streets after spending twenty years in pajama palookaville.
Anyone will tell you that the centerpiece to any swingin' Star Wars outfit is the bright shiny brass belt buckle. These were forged in the days when the big belt buckle was the trademark of the individual, from the trucker who drove a Peterbilt to the used car salesman named TEX. The Leather Shop of San Francisco was the major carrier of the Star Wars brass buckle license, but that didn't stop multitudes of bootleggers from casting direct copies off their Star Wars, Darth Vader, R2D2, and other galactic gold buckles. With the right buckle cinched around your polyester bell-bottoms, you were sure to turn some heads when you hit the playground in your happening Star Wars threads. You'd just hoped the hulking sixth-graders loved Star Wars as much as you did!
If you couldn't eat or breath Star Wars in the seventies, you could at least find the means to sleep it. That is, between Star Wars bedsheets! It seems every major department store chain had their own matching sets of exclusive Star Wars linens and draperies, which has provided textile kitsch collectors with bolts of blended-fabric bliss. A personal favorite is a line put out by Montgomery Ward, which features the Star Wars characters and hardware against a backdrop of marmalade space and puffy white marshmallow clouds. Of course, the Bibb Company of New York held the major Star Wars linen license and produced many if not all of these for the department store chains.
If you chose to cover your walls with locales from a galaxy far, far away you could do so with the attractive Star Wars wallpaper made by Imperial Chemicals of England. Today these scarce rolls are sought out by fanatical parents who want to paper their child's bedroom with the stuff, paying no mind that the predominant colors are seventies' mainstays caramel and tangerine. And what better to set off these mouth-watering hues than a bright red poster of Princess Leia donning a look to kill with a hairdo to match. Luke Skywalker's pin-up is no less flattering, as he sports a moppy brunette haircut atop a somewhat faded Tatooine tan. Factors would put out a handful of commercial posters, but these two stand out as the most comically camp. What Star Wars fan wouldn't have traded in his bicentennial bedsheets to spend one night surrounded by walls like these?
EVERYTHING THAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
What seems to make Star Wars kitsch so irresistable is its shameless irreverence for the timeless appeal of Star Wars. For a film that strives to break free of an era, these items firmly ground its humble beginnings in the decade of disco. With quality-control on overdrive for the new Star Wars films, it's unlikely we'll ever see the kind of endearing hokum that reared forth from the seventies' affair with Star Wars. But thanks to a few mischievous ideas in an era of freakish fads, it looks like we'll never be short of props for an intergalactic Star Wars gong show!
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