Shine on you crazy diamonds… What? I can like more than one band.
A.K.A. REALLY DISCOVERING MUSIC FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A VIDEO GAME OF ALL PLACES
With a title like that I’ve got some explaining to do. I’ve actually been wanting to write this post all week, but every post this week just seemed to be a huge rant that eventually morphs into a different rant, which I’d then use for tomorrow’s post. And in writing that, another different rant seems to crop up. Almost like some sort of cancerous growth filled with ranting that I’d have to regularly excise to prevent it from getting too big and killing me.
Just this morning, when I thought it was decided I’d write about The Beatles: Rock Band, I suddenly realized that the game company Valve is basically the George Lucas of the gaming industry. A once small and inspired independent artist who has since slowly become a fat greedy sell-out of a corporation, who milks people for all their worth, takes credit for other people’s genius and yet still have an entire legion of deluded Fanboys ready to rush to their defense. The only difference is they haven’t been selling out as long as Lucas. I could easily go on about that for several pages…
But fuck that. It’s almost the weekend, so I want to talk about something I actually really like for a change. Besides who wants to talk about Valve? Everyone (in my head) already knows their the George Lucas of the gaming industry. I want to talk about The Beatles: Rock Band, and a little bit about music in general, which I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t really appreciate enough until I played this game. So even though this may sound crazy, The Beatles: Rock Band really did change my life…
First I feel the need to justify why I marked this post “N0t Hyped”, which is the tag I used for things I feel didn’t get enough attention. The Beatles: Rock Band was indeed hyped, it’s even how I heard about it. I had a big showing at E3, the gaming press talked to the people who made the game, it got mostly great reviews, and it had a big advertising campaign. Yet I’m marking this “N0t Hyped” because almost no one really bought it.
It sold well, but no better than any other Rock Band game. I think in one part because it wasn’t really advertised any different than other Rock Band games. Which, yeah, it is another Rock Band game, but I feel there was something special about this one that actually pushed it a little bit beyond the genre. It’s also possible people were starting to grow weary of the Guitar Hero/Rock Band games. There had already been an Aerosmith Guitar Hero and an AC/DC Track Pack, both of which were actually from live shows. People probably just thought this was just another band tie-in.
Either way, The Beatles: Rock Band mostly sold to the same people who bought the last few Rock Band games. I don’t really blame people with being cautious with their money. Especially considering the rhythm music genre requires specialized controllers that cost extra money. But I was really psyched to try this game, even though I wasn’t a Beatles fan (yet). I guess this marks a rare occasion where I bought into the hype when no one else did. And by hype I mean this…
Yeah, I pretty much decided to buy the game based on just that video. Which I knew wasn’t the actual gameplay but couldn’t help being mesmerized by it just the same. Usually my instincts only kick in to warn me away from certain games. Like I’ll see a trailer for something and he’ll pop in to say something like,
“No, no. No good. Did you see that? That! Come on man, look at that. You’re not going to like that. Don’t buy it.”
And then I’d sneak out when my instincts feel asleep and buy it anyways. Then I’d realize I probably shouldn’t have done that.
“What did I tell you! Feel good now dumbass? Hope you like wasting $60 on this. I told you “that” would ruin the game for you, but you didn’t listen.”
I’m still looking for a pill that can shut my instincts the hell up when it starts chanting “I told you so!” for months at a time.
But after watching that video my instincts only keep shouting “BUY IT!” Which is odd because I wasn’t a Beatles fan. Nor was I really a music fan, I (ignorantly) just thought of music as what’s on in the background. And I wasn’t even the biggest Rock Band fan. I enjoyed the game, but mostly sucked at it. I’d usually stick to Bass and was pretty useless on Drums and Vocals. But I couldn’t ignore my instincts when in this rare occasion It told me to actually buy something, so when the time came, I bought the ever loving shit out of The Beatles: Rock Band!
How do you buy the ever loving shit out of something? LIKE THIS!
Couldn’t be happier that I did, really, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, some unnecessary exposition. I’ll assume you’ve at least heard of The Beatles, and Rock Band is Harmonix’s brand of rhythm music games that revolve around playing along with popular music and pretending your rock star. The Beatles: Rock Band obviously is a Rock Band devoted to just the Beatles. It was released on the XBOX 360, PS3, and Wii September 9, 2009. (9/9/9. No relation to the Herman Cain tax plan or Nintendo DS game of the same name.)
The game had the same basic structure of the Rock Band games. Play or sing along with songs with fake plastic instruments and score points. The singing aspect changed to accommodate multiple singers on more than one microphone, allowing groups of people to sing the harmony sections in the background. Some of the more game like aspects were trimmed down. The freestyle drum fills that trigger overdrive were removed, replaced with a simple single crash (green pad). The squeaky notes that played for when you screwed up and other non-music sound effects were severely toned down. The songs also wouldn’t be exportable, which means you could never play them on any of the other Rock Band games.
The biggest change was replacing the customizable avatars that can look like you with in-game representations of the actual artists. Effectively replacing the “pretend you are a rock star” aspect with playing along with the actual rock stars who wrote the music. This in itself wasn’t original, as Guitar Hero: Aerosmith had done the same earlier this year. But I feel that there was something in Harmonix’s approach to this change that was more memorable than how Red Octane and Activison handled it. See for yourself. Here’s “Dream On” from Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.
Yeah, that’s Aerosmith. Sorta gives you the feeling of being in the crowd at one of their concerts, cool. Not sure why using star power causes a guitar to shoot orange lightning and winged red skull outlines. Anyways, here’s “Here Comes The Sun” from The Beatles: Rock Band.
Notice the subtle differences? Can you get a sense of how Harmonix is more invested in bringing the actual song to life instead of just showing you play along with the band? Now The Beatles: Rock Band does feature songs that don’t use the dreamscape (that’s what Harmonix named the trippy parts that play during the later songs), but even those serve to actually give you a better understanding of the Beatles.
Depending on which of their earlier songs you played, they could be at the Caravan (one of the dive bars they played at before hitting it big), the set of The Ed Sullivan show (first major appearance to an American audience), or the more famous big stadium shows at Shea Stadium and Budokan. The last set list actually takes place on the Apple Corps rooftop, which was The Beatles last live performance together.
So unlike Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Metallica, the game actually tries to help you get a feel for the artist’s and their music instead of just the sensation of watching the band during a live show. You see their appearance change as you move further along in their careers. Gradually going from the uniform mop top fab four look to developing their own unique senses of style. In addition to the LSD laced dreamscapes that play during later songs, there’s also actual photos of the Beatles which little trivia facts attached and videos of them you can unlock. When waiting for a song to load you actually hear little bits of the group talking to each other in the recording studio before they started playing.
Even some of the more mundane visual aspects help to convey things you might not otherwise catch. During the Guitar Solo for The End, you actually see the camera moving from Paul to George to John and back. It turns out each of them is playing two bars of their own solo and letting them all mesh together by picking up where the other guitarist left off. Not sure if I would have noticed that otherwise.
In an earlier post I accused Harmonix of forgetting the game part of the rhythm video game. But truth be told, I actually think they might be right in concentrating on connecting the player to the music instead of just making the game, it just took them this game to finally find an approach that works. Instead of trying to stress just how difficult some pieces of music are, by having a health bar that drains when you screw up, they put more emphasis on the creative process and even the musicians themselves. The switched no-fail mode from a cheat to just another feature. It didn’t even disable your score tracking or achievements anymore.
This kind of weakens the competitive element of the game, but it also made it easier for me to relax and really get lost in the music. I didn’t have to worry about one rough spot tanking the whole song and can just keep playing. Also hearing little sound bites of the Beatles talking before and after a song helped relate them as just human beings. Between all the glamor and showmanship, it can be easy to forget these famous musicians are still regular people under it all.
By focusing on the music and the artists who made it, and not worrying about the difficulty of the gameplay, I think Harmonix made a game that gives you a much stronger connection to music then previously possible on any of the other rhythm music games. I know some of the more diehard fans were annoyed at how easy some of these changes made the game, but I think it made for something better than just another score attack game. Changing no-fail mode to a regular option also made a lot of sense to me, as to say “Don’t worry about the score, just concentrate on the actual music.”
All these things so lovingly and carefully crafted together really helped me realize just how blind (err, deaf) I had been to actual music. Now I didn’t live in a vacuum (and probably never will now that the US’s manned space program is over), I did hear music all the time. On the radio, in movies, in games I played obviously. And I did have a few songs that I considered my favorites, but I never really stopped and really paid attention to music before this. Playing The Beatles: Rock Band made me realize just how much I was missing out on, and completely changed my perspective on music. I finally started sitting down JUST to listen to music. Not while working or with the T.V. on in the background, but giving my full undivided attention to the music itself.
Some of you may be thinking “So basically a game helped you make the realization that most people have as teenagers when hearing the right song.” Wow, some of you are kinda dicks, but you would be right. I’ll sheepishly admit it took beautiful imagery and the sensation of playing along in a video game to finally make a significant connection between myself and the music I listened too, something most people probably do much earlier in life without needing nearly as much stimulation (or if they do need stimulation they just took drugs). But hey, better late than never. And that’s not the only thing The Beatles: Rock Band changed either, I also finally started enjoying the drums for the first time.
Despite following the Rock Band series since its inception, I never really liked playing the Drums. I was awful at it and usually only did it when I was chasing some stupid achievement. On The Beatles: Rock Band I did the same thing, played the drums to get a damn achievement, this time it was have a career score of one million points. So I’d turn no-fail mode on and started playing on medium and I don’t know why, but something just seemed to click. Where as I usually hated playing on the drums, after a few songs in The Beatles: Rock Band I started enjoying it, A LOT!
I still can’t entirely say why either, it’s so weird. I had almost never played the drums on Rock Band but found myself suddenly wanting to do nothing more after I tried it on The Beatles: Rock Band. No-fail mode definitely helped, I didn’t think about beating the song anymore, just trying to do my best. Maybe the musical revelation helped me hear the drum beats better. Maybe it’s because Ringo Starr isn’t the best drummer, so the lowered difficulty made the actual drumming parts easier. Maybe it was because I was just playing Ringo Starr’s beats, and didn’t have to switch between a bunch of different drummers styles like on the other Rock Bands. It was probably a combination of all those things really, but if there was a single thing that sparked my interest in drumming, it was this.
That’s the short drum solo from The End, the last song on the last Beatles album. (Let It Be was recorded before Abbey Road, and was only released after Abbey Road. And “Her Majesty” was just a short cut song that some sound editor decided to tape back on the end of the album.) I don’t know why, but I always find something particularly mesmerizing about it. When I started enjoying playing the drums I’d almost always play The End as my last song. Even though I was terrible and would butcher the solo, I kept playing it. Before long I started playing the drums on Rock Band almost exclusively. I couldn’t stand playing on medium anymore because of being able to hear all the notes I wasn’t playing, so I switched to expert before long.
I blew past the million point mark and wound with over three million points on my career. I even bought a new drum kit for the XBOX so I could go back and start playing the first two Rock Bands on the drums. (That’s actually why I own two deluxe copies of The Beatles: Rock Band. I bought it for the Wii originally and after learning to love the drums I decided to get a new drum controller to play Rock 1 and 2 with and there was a good deal on The Beatles Deluxe Package.) But after a while I got annoyed with the game’s picky timing and dropping or counting extra notes (See my previous post on the subject), so I decided to take the next step. I got a real drum kit.
Just ignore the fact there’s a huge poster to the worst Batman movie ever behind it. And all those Star Wars cards from old action figure boxes, and that Black Cat thing… Look, I just tend to staple anything I find to my walls, sue me.
I also got myself a teacher. I know I said earlier you can’t learn how to play music from these kind of games, but that’s not 100% true. The Guitar/Bass stuff is nothing at all like the real thing. All the fast fretting in the world won’t prepare you for six strings and over a dozen frets of a real guitar. And the singing has always been just about pitch and nothing else. But playing Drums on the Rock Band isn’t that different a beast from the real thing that you won’t actually learn something.
Its still a very remedial version of drumming, what with the different cymbals and toms being consolidated into four pads and there’s no high-hat pedal. And the feel for the controller kit is awful compared to the real thing, especially the cheap ass plastic pedal. But it does help you learn the basics, especially with moving your legs and arms independently. And on expert the note highways are often a perfect match to the real drum line. When Rock Band 3 announced a Pro Mode for Drums, Guitar and Piano, they also announced that the drum parts in Rock Band have actually always been programmed to know the difference between the toms and the cymbals which means the Drum’s pro mode actually worked retroactively with EVERY ROCK BAND SONG EVER RELEASED!
Even then there’s still no proper High-Hat pedal and the game can’t account for accents or flams, but yeah, playing the Drums on Rock Band isn’t a complete waste of a time, as my drumming teacher can attest. He was happy to see I could already bass kick on 16th notes and maintain a steady rhythm . In the time I spent learning how to play the drums for real I actually realized a few more things that I’d like to share. I realized that I’ll never really be the best at anything.
Yeah, quite a massive leap forward over Ringo’s little twenty second solo. That’s John Bonham, he was the drummer for Led Zeppelin. My drumming teacher seems to hold him in very high regard, probably because he’s among the greatest drummers ever to grace rock music, arguably the best maybe. My teacher even recommended getting every Led Zeppelin record and start listening to them on my first lesson. And listening to him, yes, Jon Bonham talent as a drummer is undeniable. With my teacher’s help I have actually learned some of the simpler (by Bonham standards) beats and fills he used. But I’ve also realized I could practice every day, all day, for the rest of my life, and I still wouldn’t be nearly as good as him.
The cold hard fact is that only a very few of us actually posses the natural talent to truly excel in any given skill. Try telling a man born without working legs he can be the best short distance runner in the world if he just works hard enough at it. Even amongst those with natural talent, even fewer realize that talent, and even fewer still will have the opportunities afforded them to hone and train those talents.
According to wikipedia, Bonham’s first experience drumming was when he was five and he built a drum kit out of coffee cans and other junk and started beating on them in attempt to imitate Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, two of the greatest drummers of their time. He was fucking five and just up and found what quite possibly was his purpose in life. It sounds like the kind of thing they’d make up for a movie (or a wikipedia article), but apparently that was his life (or someone is trolling Bonham’s wikipedia article). He got his first actual snare drum at ten and a full kit at fifteen. It sounds like no matter what he did in life he never stopped drumming. Its clear he found something he loved in life at an early age and never stopped doing.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be even half as good as him if I worked the rest of my life on it. And I wasn’t the greatest gamer and obviously will never be either now. Don’t think I’m on the fast track to being much of writer either. Despite what I was told, most of us really can’t be the best at anything, really only a select few will even have the chance, and it’s possible even they might miss it. You might think this sounds like defeatist, borderline nihilistic, talk trying rationalize why I suck at everything. But it’s not, because I realized something else. You shouldn’t worry about being the best.
Yeah, no. Statistically speaking I’d be striving for something that will almost certainly never happen.
I grew up in the 1990’s. The two messages I seem to remember the most from that time period in the cartoons I watched and what my teachers told me were; Don’t do drugs, and you can be anything you want if you work hard enough at it. Both those are bullshit, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just talk about the “be whatever you want” one.
I think when the baby boomers became parents, a lot of them wanted to help their kids avoid the hardships and discouragement they faced as kids. There was this big movement to help enable and encourage kids in the 90’s. Maybe I misinterpreted their message, but I always took the “be whatever you want to be” message to mean that if you didn’t achieve something, you didn’t work hard enough at it. Which my primitive child brain probably reasoned as “I should always aim to the best at something”. I even remember the Pokemon theme song containing the words “I wanna be the very best, Like no one ever was.” So I kinda become obsessed with being the best.
Yeah, I was young and impressionable. Combine that with the fact that I grew up playing a lot of video games, which tend to punish you for every little mistake, and I seemed to develop an “A-type” personality. You know, the type of kid who always had to get straight A’s in school? Which I did, and in any video game I played, I always tried to go out of the way to beat it completely and unlock everything. Didn’t matter if I really liked the game anymore, or if the game really was cheap and unfair, I still felt the need to finish, to best it. Naturally I was the type who took losing way too hard as well.
At some point I think I just kept playing video games because it was something I was actually pretty good at, even if it wasn’t anything important. But if I could be the best at something, I figured that was better than nothing. Pretty pathetic I know. My ego was so fragile that I had to constantly prop it up with make believe accomplishments in video games.
But somewhere after The Beatles: Rock Band, learning to play the drums, and discovering a lot more music, I stopped thinking like that. I stopped being obsessed with the best, or being great and just become more content with what I had. And you might think this is weird, but I actually think Ringo Starr was the one who inspired me to change my way of thinking.
He was the Ringo one.
In case you didn’t know, Ringo was the butt of many jokes even when he was in the Beatles. He only had two and half song writing credits from his entire time with the them and, by his own admission, knew he wasn’t a particularly great drummer. He say that anytime he heard another drummer, he’d realize he’s no good.
I’ve heard at least one person call him the luckiest man in show business, and allegedly when John Lennon was asked once if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, he chuckled and said he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles. When he got sick just before a tour during 1964, he was afraid the rest of the band would just up and replace him, not unlike how he had replaced Pete Best, the Beatles’ first drummer.
But despite his limitations and having actually listened to a lot more bands with better drummers, I actually still find Ringo Starr to be more of an inspiration to me. You could joke that I just relate better to someone who was mediocre, but I honestly love a lot of fills and beats. Even if they’re simple, there’s just this kind of sublime beauty to some of them. And I don’t think it’s just me either.
Remember that drum solo from The End I mentioned? Well I played it so many times in the game I found I could actually play it on my actual drum kit. It’s, like most of Ringo’s stuff, pretty simple. I think it’s even easier on a real drum kit then in the game, because a real kick drum actually has some bounce, and it’s easier to keep my timing with that. But when I played this solo for my teacher, who is an exceptional and infinitely more talented drummer than me, who seems to idolize John Bonham and be somewhat dismissive of Ringo Star, who’s been watching me play for several lessons over a few months, you know what he said?
He said it was awesome. He literally just blurted that out the moment I finished playing, the same man who’s been trying to teach me John Bonham fills for months was impressed by Ringo Starr’s only drum solo, and I don’t think just because I could play it either.
I think it was that moment I started to realize it’s more important to strive to achieve just something you can personally look back on and be proud of, instead of worrying about how it stacks up against someone else’s standards. That doesn’t mean you can’t still strive for greatness, or that you shouldn’t still work hard to improve yourself and do better. But what you shouldn’t do is strive to be better just for the sake of being the best at something. It’s better to be okay at something you love then amongst the best of something you don’t care about. And if you truly love what you do, you can still find ways to be great, even if you’re not the greatest.
I’m a lot happier now as a clumsy drummer and a crappy blogger than I ever was as a diehard gamer and straight-A student. I don’t know if Ringo ever felt the same way or not, but the other Beatles seemed like they felt that way about him. The quote about John Lennon joking how Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles? John has also said Ringo is a damn good drummer who was underrated. When Ringo got mad and quit the band for a couple of weeks, he came back to find George Harrison had decorated his drum kit with tons of flowers. And the day after their final performance together on the Apple Corps rooftops, Paul sent Ringo a postcard that read “You are the greatest drummer in the world. Really.”
…So yeah, that’s how a silly game and an old rock band brought about some pretty significant changes in my life. I guess for everyone else it’s just a game. But if you already have the instrument controllers to play a Rock Band game and don’t hate the Beatles, you should really consider trying it. You don’t even have to be a big Beatles fan to actually appreciate it, all though that does help. It may be another Rock Band game, but there definitely seems to be something special about this one. I think Harmonix outdid themselves in trying to really help create a connection with the band and the music. All the attention they put into every detail really adds up. I don’t even think it’s so much the Beatles as just how lovingly crafted the game was that draws people in. Pretty much every person I’ve played it with it just blown away, even ones that are just casual Beatles fans…except my sister Jean-Luc.
Oh, go listen to Nickelback or something. Freakin’ philistine.
But what does she know? Plus, the game’s like twenty bucks now, so it’s not even a major investment at this point. But it’s definitely for people who like Rock Band more for the music than the game part and racking up a big score. My biggest disappointment about The Beatles: Rock Band is the realization we’ll probably never get another band game with this much loving attention paid to every detail (Well maybe Green Day: Rock Band, but I have a feeling that didn’t get as much of a budget or attention as The Beatles game). The Beatles Rock Band sold okay, but obviously cost a shit load of money, so okay didn’t cut it, which means we’ll probably never see anything quite like again. It was like Icarus flying too high. For a moment he got to touch the sun, only to be swallowed by the sea a moment later.
Too bad, because Harmonix has showed hints that they really care for this kind of stuff in other games. Far back as Guitar Hero 2 in fact. In that game, when you finished the setlist that ended in a Spinal Tap song, your drummer would explode! Also the downloadable song from Rock Band, Clint Eastwood by the Gorillaz, has a section about a minute in where the camera goes to a negative swap and the drummer starts singing instead. This is actually an attempt to mirror the actions from the Gorillaz animated music video of Clint Eastwood.
Imagine if they actually had money and time to render every song from Rock Band with the same level of care of insight as they used in The Beatles: Rock Band. You’d always see your favorite artists performing instead of avatars the vaguely resemble you. And there’s always in front of stylish animated set pieces inspired by their music or actual historical venues where they played that music.
But that’s not going to happen. The amount of time and money it’d take to painstakingly animate every song they released with meaningful images and the actual artists playing them would be astronomical. If I ever become a crazy billionaire (as opposed to just crazy) I’d take all my money…and remake all six Star Wars films as beautifully rendered animated movies. Think Hayao Miyazaki beautiful, and with the prequels rewritten to not be terrible…
Sorry, long time Star Wars fan. I figure if something like that turned out well, maybe people would stop dissing on George Lucas, and comparing him to awful companies like Valve. But he’s such a control freak, he would never let anyone else touch his movies unless he was allowed to further ruin them afterwards. So my back up plan would be to fiance a new Rock Band game.
I was thinking British Rock Invasion. Have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Pink Floyd. Render each Band in their own unique art styles that compliment their music. They each have their own story mode, that has short animated snippets in between setlists showing how their careers progressed. Pro Instrument for everything. Even add the option to play Rhythm guitar for the songs that have it. That way you can play with two guitarists and a bassist, which is good if no one feels like singing. Then, since this is clearly an impossible fucking pipe dream, just give the damn thing away for free to everyone.
With that kind of thinking I’d never be rich. Oh well. I’d actually kill for just a Pink Floyd Rock Band these days, literally, just so long as I could play it in prison in between beatings and routine sodomy sessions… Anyways, I should wrap this up.
But seriously, I’d murder your entire family to make this a reality…
Remember, you may not always get to be a super star, or the president, or an astronaut now that the manned space flight in the US has ended. (Ah, didn’t think I was going anywhere with that, did ya?) But you can still do something you love and be proud of, and that’s the best, even if you’re not. Even when what you love is complaining on the internet on a blog that only has three or four people reading it, it still feels better than stressing yourself out over something that you don’t love. I guess I should thank Harmonix for helping me realize that. (But I’m still pissed at them over Green Grass and High Tides, Visions, and Llama from Rock Band 1, 2, and 3! =P ) And I guess I should thank Ringo Starr for being an inspiration to me…but my favorite Beatle is still George.
Yeah…Kinda hard to compete with George.
I mean Ringo does inspire me, but George gave us “Here Comes the Sun”, “Within You Without You”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. It was like every time Paul and John let him do anything it was brilliant. Anyways, HIT IT!