Video Saved the Radio Star
We are now spoiled when it comes to access to nearly any form of artistic expression, streaming music where and when we wish, we have television on demand and can view any piece of art with a simple Google search. It’s truly wonderful but it wasn’t always like this, back in the days when this was all fields consumption of any form of art was that little bit more difficult. There used to be a time when finding music was an extremely involved exercise, jumping on the bus to the music store and deciding between several albums before riding the bus home while reading your album inlay and trying to imagine what these words may sound like when you press play on your CD player.
If you are hearing a shrill noise somewhere in the background it is perhaps the old man klaxon that I’ve inadvertently set off with my whining about a better time. But it’s more than that, for me it was truly difficult to find exposure to new music, not having MTV, limited money and no access to the internet meant that my music consumption was fed purely from Top of the Pops and pop Radio. My musical tastes now do not reflect that minutia of genre exposure that was for many years a hindrance and I owe a lot of my now, obviously brilliant, musical tastes in a large part to video game soundtracks. Currently the notion of having licensed music in a videogame is nothing new and has become almost expected of any title. Between genres spanning from FIFA to Saints Row you will find a wide-range of music to be exposed to but there was a time that this was incredibly rare and became a real innovation. It was through this development that my musical palette began to increase and genres that were alien to me became, for better or worse depending on your own tastes, very common place and stay with me to this day.
Perhaps the earliest use of licensed music that I can remember that really complimented the aesthetic of a game and pushed me towards a particular and, until that point, unknown genre was Crazy Taxi on the Dreamcast. While that brand of American pop-punk is perhaps too commonplace these days, to my early-teen ears it was something fresh, new and exciting. How could you not love driving at insane miles-per-hour with The Offspring’s blistering ‘All I Want’ bursting from your speakers. That exposure as small, and seemingly trivial as it was, pushed me into a direction that would influence in small parts the friends I would make, gigs I would go to and experiences I would have.
Similarly, and off the same game soundtrack, was that my love affair with Bad Religion began with playing Crazy Taxi and to this day I can remember gradually learning the words to ‘Them and Us’ through multiple efforts at collecting all the colourful Californian punters. The purposeful and politically motivated lyrics of their songs exposed me to music that could be exciting and have something to say. This is not to say that I wouldn't have found these bands naturally as media became more accessible but at that time and in that place there was just no outlet other than videogames that would let me experience this type of music.
Another soundtrack that has stuck with me to this day was the initial entry in the Gran Turismo series. At that time it was an absolute benchmark in visuals for videogaming, there really was nothing that could touch what had been achieved. However, beyond the game itself I found myself finding new music, bands that were commonplace to many but utterly new to me. There was one band that was familiar to me purely out of geography as Ash were at that point one of Northern Irelands more well known exports. Their opening track from their 1977 album, ‘Lose Control’, featured on the soundtrack and began to expose me to the notion that not only could a band from Northern Ireland actually make it but that it might be possible for me to do so too. I did learn to play guitar and be in a band, alas we didn’t make it but it was the planting little seeds of thought like this that served to drive (no GT pun intended) me in that direction. These were things that were new and unknown to me but even the mere exposure to this music inspired and motivated me.
The Gran Turismo soundtrack also exposed me to other bands I hadn’t heard of such as The Manic Street Preachers, Feeder (I don't care what anyone says, they used to be great) and special mention must go to Garbage. The song that featured in the game, ‘As Heaven is Wide’, is a track that to this day, some nineteen years later, I am still returning to. Regardless of the music and whether it’s your taste or not there was something important about what the soundtracks of games were doing at that point, especially for me. Thanks to being exposed to those songs I can immediately be transported back to that time through listening to those tracks, in exactly the same way hearing the Streets of Rage 2 soundtracks takes me back to a summer mostly spent indoors repeatedly completing the game with a friend, and I do not regret it one bit.
There were other examples around that time that helped to broaden my musical tastes away from the guitar driven tracks of those previously mentioned. One such case was the original Wipeout, this moved me towards beats rather than riffs and gave me a real appreciation of electronic music. From the Chemical Brothers to Orbital it was a revelation, and the music could not have matched the aesthetic of the game any better than it did, sounding like music that actually came from the future. There was nothing quite like ‘Chemical Beats’ to get you in the zone for air-braking at high-speed and triple rocketing the pack leader into oblivion. This would later lead to other games like, the forgotten but brilliant, Rollcage and its Fatboy Slim inspired soundtrack dropping custom music for licenced ones. And when you are racing at high-speed, upside down with ‘Soul Surfing’ blaring you can see why it was perhaps preferable to throw money at a music contract than trying to develop a sound to match your game from the ground up.
Sometimes you hear people questioning the purpose of videogames, and even more so is the questioning of their value. These tend to fall into the morality camp or the ‘is it art’ camp but this is too simple a way to look at what videogames can offer. Music became important to me, it was something I aspired to and it was something that helped me, as a reasonably shy person, to reach out and find common ground with a number of people. So when I hear people myopically discussing videogames there are a number of things I can do: I can look back of photos from gigs, remember long drawn debates with friends over the best Bad Religion album or pick up the guitar that the exposure to these songs made me pick up and play. As with everything ever those types of arguments go round and round, the only thing that really matters is its influence on you and videogame soundtracks have been very important, so to those people I say...shut up and dance.
For those not completely affronted by the music mentioned you can listen to the playlist in the Spotify playlist embedded below, let us know if there are any other that should be included.