It may seem far-fetched, but a tiny blue hedgehog and an affable plumber from Brooklyn are turning our youth into illiterate psychopathic zombies and re-instating the generation gap. All the things, basically, that rock can't do any more. So is this rock 'n' roll RIP.? The Stud Brothers ask Manic Street Preachers, Jesus Jones, Levitation and Dominic Diamond (Channel 4's Gamesmaster) if the game is really up, and report on the music/ videogame crossover
This week, computer giants Sega release their Mega CD player - an add-on which basically turbo-charges your Mega Drive console, making for high-resolution graphics, faster play and infinitely better sound. Sega estimate they'll sell the machine to 25 per cent of existing Mega Drive owners. That means they'll be shifting 300,000 of them. Mew people in the record industry, including Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers, reckon this could be the final nail in the coffin of rock 'n' roll.
"Bands form," says Richey, "they come to London, they play the provinces to 100 people at a time, and it's dull. That's the nature of bands, they're mundane! Ina videogame you can murder, maim and impoverish thousands, you can create and destroy whole populations! Put four people playing guitars next to that, and it has to be boring! Rock as we know it is on the way out."
If this sounds like the kind of apocalyptic claptrap the Manic Street Preachers have made their stock-in-trade, then perhaps you should think again. Record company bosses, witness to dangerously decreasing sales, are beginning to suspect the music industry is in terminal decline. What they've as yet failed to realise is that those responsible are a tiny blue hedgehog and an affable plumber Tom Brooklyn. Not for the first time, Richey may well be right. Videogames, having slaughtered the toy industry, might now be killing rock 'n' roll.
If you care about rock 'n' roll, and since you're reading this paper you probably do, then you'll find the following statistics extremely unpalatable.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2, a lightning-fast psychedelic platform romp, made more money on its day of release than Simply Red's "Stars" made all last year (and "Stars" is the UK's best-ever-selling CD). In the months before Christmas, Sonic took an astonishing 27 million nicker. Research commissioned in the USA by Virgin confirmed what many had long suspected. The disposable income of an American aged between 12 and 24 is now almost equally divided between clothes and games cartridges. Records, if they feature at all, rank an extremely poor third. In Britain, pop music fares slightly better, though the industry has little cause for optimism. Recent surveys, carried out by the computer trade weekly CTW, revealed that a teenager with a disposable income of £600 a year spends half that on videogames. The rest is fairly evenly divided between clothes, records and other teenagers (and this research was carried out six months ago, a full three months before the post-Christmas video boom).
Meanwhile "Top Of The Pops"' viewing figures are so bad that to axe the show would be an act of mercy, while Channel 4's excellent Gamesmaster goes from strength to strength. The two fastest-growing magazines in the UK are both console magazines, while Smash Hits' sales have fallen by a grievous 13 percent, Fast Forward's by a humiliating 22 percent, and Sounds, Rage, ReVVolution, Number One and others have vanished entirely.
Meanwhile, American record company bosses estimate they've lost as much as 34 per cent of their sales to the games industry. This kind of negative equity would, in any other industry, see high-ranking executives leaping from high-ranking windows. But generally, the music industry prefers to see videogames as a faddish aberration, as inconsequential and unthreatening as BMX bikes, skateboards and hula hoops were.
Virgin, under the ever-astute stewardship of Richard Branson, did react quickly, setting up their own software division and stocking stores with games. All other record chains (HMV, Our Price etc) have since followed suit. Record companies, however, have been far slower. Rhythm King founded the small software house Renegade, and Sony (remarkably for a Japanese company) have only recently jumped on the bandwagon, teaming up with designers Psychognosis to produce the soon-to-be-released CD game "Dracula". So the wilier companies are making somewhat tardy efforts to save their own necks. But what are they doing for rock 'n' roll? Not much. Unless of course you're one of those people who think videogames are rock ‘n' roll.
What was once fundamental to rock 'n' roll is now fundamental to videogames. It's not just the thrills and spills that pop used to provide and videogames now provide in obscene abundance: it's something more profound. Rock gave us a generation gap, and moral panic. Politicians and church leaders, both here and in the States, really believed that a generation dancing to Elvis, Chuck Berry and the Stones represented the end of civilisation as they knew it.
In rock this is no longer the case. You may like the Black Crowes or R.EM., but it's difficult to love them when Mum and Dad are jigging nostalgically in the background remembering The Faces and The Byrds. Even the most left-field rock is often a contemptibly post-modern mish-mash of whimsical quotations and borrowed attitudes. It's just not bad enough. Would the Guardian's Education supplement spend three pages condemning the pernicious influence of rock in '93? Would it ballads. But on April 13th it did precisely that with videogames.
Videogames elicit in the older generation the same resentment, fear and mistrust that once made rock 'n' roll such a sublime irritant. Rock 'n' roll was once accused of damaging the hearing, videogames are now reckoned to ruin the eyesight. And just as rock was once suspected of turning teenagers into illiterate, hostile beasts, so now are videogames.
Get this. Psychology professor Cary Cooper of UMIST, a vociferous anti-gamer, reckons that "Britain is breeding a nation of teenagers who will become aggressive and anti-social. Kids who play videogames show more aggressive behaviour than those who do not."
A new advertising campaign for the Church Of England, made by the Gold Greenlees Trott agency, goes further. One poster, an ingenious but hysterical reworking of Michelangelo’s "Creation", has God's life-giving hand replaced by Sonic The Hedgehog's white-gloved finger. Another shows Christ standing next to Super Mario and wonders if "your child want(s) to grow up to be a carpenter or a plumber" (Mario is a plumber, Nintendo virgins). But these are mild next to GGT's tour de force. Beside a picture of a digitalised globe being nuked, aggressive futurist typography reads: "Your children have spent all week zapping, destroying, maiming, squashing, blasting and killing. Don't they deserve a day off?" The message is clear: the only thing that can rescue the family and society from mesmerised, moronised, demoralised videogame kids is God Almighty Himself.
And when videogames aren't turning kids into drooling psychopaths, they're actually killing them. "Nintendo killed my child" was a Sun headline a few months back. How bad can you get? It's extraordinary. But no more extraordinary that what was once said of rock 'n' roll. "The videogames industry," says Gamesmaster host Dominic Diamond, "has hijacked all the reasons rock 'n' roll was so powerful with young people. Your parents disapprove, it's your own world, a world the older generation knows nothing about. Take that advert With Road Rash 2 and Lotus Turbo Challenge you can play head-to-head with your dear old Dad. Well, whoopee. Videogames have given kids a whole new reason to be kids again.
"I mean, I think music's great right now. Suede, The Auteurs, Therapy?, they're brilliant. But it's only people our age, and young girls into Take That, who are into music. Sixteen year-old kids don't give a shit about it. Sonic The Hedgehog is more colourful, it has more spice than the music they see on TV, and they're not prepared to buy the music press to seek anything else out. It was for us, but for them rock 'n' roll is not the only alternative."
"Videogames may well be the new rock 'n' roll," says Jesus Jones' Mike Edwards, a games player of some 15 years standing and one of rock's sharpest prophets of doom."
"There's the Cyberpunk thing, and you can still have that ghoulish complexion and hang around at 4am. That's very Cramps, very rock 'n' roll indeed."
Of course, it's all too easy to blame rock's imminent demise on a blood-stained hedgehog. There are equally strong arguments to suggest that rock has conspired to facilitate its own ruin. While the videogames industry is young, vibrant, dynamic and (unsurprisingly given the money it's making - it's now worth £9 billion) optimistic, the music biz is clueless, bungling and geriatric: press officers who've never heard of Neil Young, managers couldn't manage the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, promoters who seem to believe that paying gig-goers should be treated like cattle, and groups who think that tunes, decent lyrics and the ability to play an instrument are at best occupational hazards and at worst real obstacles standing between the band and their message. Then there are rock's more subtle difficulties. At one end it relies on a star system, where were expected to be constantly impressed by the wit, style and out-and-out genius of the likes of Prince. At the other there's rock's belief that it's something infinitely more important than simple entertainment. Videogames undermine the star system: when you play "Street fighter 2" you are the street fighter, you are the star.
"One of the key things about rock at the moment," says Mike Edwards, "is that the people making it, the people commenting on it and, to a lesser extent, the people listening to it are actively involved in accepting and preserving the status quo. If you look at the amount of revivalism -a punk revival, a Sixties revival, a Seventies revival - and the deification of mediocrity going on, then it's clear that videogames have come along at a very opportune moment to attack the record industry. There's a recession, 1: an innate conservatism and a tiring of the medium, and rock can't fight back because no one's really interested in fighting back."
Dominic Diamond agrees: 'There just aren't enough personalities in rock music. I know people are always taking the piss out of them, but you need people like the Preachers, people who say things like they hope Michael Stipe dies of AIDS. You need personalities. That's why Andre Agassi is the biggest tennis player in the world, and why more people watch and play the game because of him. It's because he shows off his belly button every time he takes a shot. If music is only Whitney Houston and Undercover, all that bland stuff, then it's not surprising that kids say 'There are no heroes so I'm gonna be my own hero on the console'. Sonic and Mario are not rock stars, regardless of how much Sega and Nintendo would like them to be. The players are the stars - it's a very narcissistic thing."
"I've often been quoted as saying that rock will become a minority interest in the same way that classical music and jazz have," continues Mike Edwards. "One reason is that rock is essentially a passive experience where you're asked to idolise the creator. With videogames, everyone is a star. If you can get too certain level of Sonic then you have talent, you're a worthwhile human being, rather than just one person in a big crowd who's expected to clap and cheer on cue. I actually believe there's a very great sense of boredom with rock at the moment, portly because there's not a lot of good music about, but people are also bored with the stance of the industry and the whole star system. What good are Madonna and Prince to a young kid who can control on environment of their own making? Rock music simply isn't entertaining enough."
Videogames are, by necessity, pure entertainment. If they fail to entertain then they don't sell. (Neither, by the way, does unentertaining rock music, but this doesn't stop record companies throwing good money at bad rubbish).
"If videogames are killing rock 'n' roll," says Richey Manic, "then rock 'n' roll's got to take some of the blame. If you have the choice between going to a gig when it's pissing with rain and you'll have trouble getting home because the buses stop running, or stooping in wit, a videogame which is more personal and almost certainly more earth shattering, which would you choose? Well, it depends on how good the gig's gonna be, and most gigs just aren't that good."
REPRIEVE OR REQUIEM?
So can anything be done? Inevitably, perhaps, the music business is making some efforts to align itself with the games industry. Kriss Kross, C&C Music Factory and Marky Mark are all set to release 'Make-Your-Own-Video games (the idea being a race against time to cut a video to their track) on the Mega CD system, though they're all dismissed by the console mass along the lines of 'Too little action, too much Kriss Kross." Prince is planning a similar venture, while U2 are even developing a bona fide Zoo TV game (doubtless a Populus-style God simulation). Others such as Betty Boo, Motley Crue, Bomb The Bass and Ultravox's John Foxx hove been less ambitious (but perhaps more realistic) by contributing to videogame scores.
Eventually though, even these efforts sound like the kind of shoulder-shrugging, if-you-can't-beat'em-join'em complacency that characterises the industry. Or the final, none-too-musical death rattle of a dying man.
Mike Edwards, however, believes that rock will have to become as interactive as videogames in order to survive. "I think dance will go from strength to strength because it's interactive. And rock has to learn from that. The next thing will be a CD Rom where you buy an album of songs you can mix yourself. In other words, you'd get the next Jesus Jones album where it has a number of samples, it has the sequence programme, all available on your television via the Sega, and you interact with that music. You can put the vocal in a different place, you can use a different drum sound, you can move one sample from one track to another. Make your own songs, basically."
Ironically, a rocker's reaction to this is best typified by Dominic Diamond: "The 'Make-Your-Own-Video' games are crap! It's like you can make your own video, but it's just o bunch of blocks that bear a vague resemblance to those two annoying little shits from Kriss Kross. As far as making your own records goes, changing the vocals and all that, I say if you don't like the vocals, don't buy the bloody record! What a ridiculous idea!"
Then there's the very real possibility that so record companies will realise they don't really need groups at all. Why not just switch to games? "
That," says John Preston, chairman of BMG records and a member of the BPI Council "is certainly one response you could make to the market realities. I prefer to think that the phenomenal growth of the videogames industry has given rock 'n' roll a good kick up the arse. I think people like Suede are returning to what I would call Entertainment-Oriented Rock. Watching Suede perform feels, for the first time in ages, like a matter of life and death. I think the whole industry-not just the majors and Indies but also the bands themselves-have been lacking that intensity for some time."
Preston, quite naturally given his position, believes that videogames will never replace rock 'n' roll.
“One of the great, unchallengeable things about music is that it can provoke in the listener an infinitely variable series of responses, from an instant kick, like dancing round your handbag, to something almost spiritual. And while I accept the satisfaction people gain from videogames, I don't believe the responses are anything like as complex. I'm not one of those people who believe videogames are a fad, that'll go away like skateboards did, but I do wonder whether your responses to them mature as you grow older, in the same way that your responses to music do." "Music is a spiritual thing," says Levitation's Terry Bickers "but it's difficult to feel that when you're being charged £8 to see some guys do the same old thing on the same old stage. I'm more interested in what those guys ore doing in San Francisco, combining music with computer images, making music part of a multi-sensory experience. That's the way forward."
"Music changes people's lives," says Dominic Diamond, "and it always has done. Videogames are just entertainment, pure and simple. As far as I'm concerned, you could take every game ever mode, every console, and bury them in a big hole, and I wouldn't give a shit. But if you took away my copy of 'Generation Terrorists' I would die. But then again, I grew up on The Clash and Paul Weller, when music actually said something, and I've never lost that sense. For me, although my career’s based on them, videogames could never replace music. They have no personality, no soul."
Perhaps. But does a generation reared on pop tarts, PCs and flying plumbers really require personality or soul? And, even if it does, -you have to remember the videogames industry is still in its infancy. The "infinitely variable series of responses" talked about by John Preston may well be provided by the imminent arrival of the 32-bit consoles and Virtual Reality machines Sega are planning to release within the next year.
John Preston again: "I absolutely accept there's a serious danger of that. Obviously videogames are at the beginning of their life, the beginning of what's technologically possible. The ability of videogames to grow and mature, and elicits more complex series of responses, may wel I be greater than I'm currently giving them credit for."
If you remain entirely unconvinced by what you've read, remember that the paper you are reading began life as a jazz paper. Melody Maker's jazz correspondents dismissed rock 'n' roll as a cheap, passionless fad. So where are they now? Lurking in Soho's seediest alleyways, seeking out their records, their antiques.
Remember that line in the futurist thriller "Blade Runner"? WAKE UP! TIME TO DIE!
The Stars' favourite game
MIKE EDWARDS: "It changes all the time. At the moment it's 'F22 Interceptor, 'Desert Strike' and 'Streetfighter II'."
MANIC STREET PREACHERS: Richey - "Mickey Mouse" and "Castle Of Illusion" Nicky - "PGA Tour Golf" Sean - "NHL Hockey" ("With all the blood"). James - "Spiderman"
DOMINIC DIAMOND: "Sensible Soccer", "John Madden '93" and "PGA Golf".
TERRY BICKERS: "I don't actually have a TV."
MIKI BERENYI (LUSH): "Road Rash 2"