High Score

2008-07-22 08:02
But now the Crüe are reclaiming the charts, and a quaint little video game is number one on their thank you list. In its first week of release, sales of their new single "Saints of Los Angeles" reached 47,000 downloads through Harmonix's blockbuster game Rock Band, compared to 10,000 conventional downloads on iTunes.

Rock Band and its competing franchise Guitar Hero are rhythm games, which challenge players to strum or beat plastic instruments in time with their favourite tunes. It doesn't sound very rock 'n roll, but once you add Judas Priest, Sting or Iggy Pop to the mix, rhythm games become an almost transcendental music experience.

How it looks vs how it feels

And it really can't be judged from the outside. Everyone, barring perhaps an air guitar world champion, is going to look a bit silly twiddling brightly coloured buttons on a plastic axe to the tune of "I Love Rock 'n Roll". But doing it yourself feels a whole lot different. By mimicking the look and feel of real instruments and through a little bit of digital trickery, these games can convince you that you're actually producing a melody. In reality, your strokes on the controller are only signals for a pre-recorded track to keep playing. And yet the sense of musical prowess is uncanny.
The earliest of these games (Guitar Hero I & II) leaned heavily towards classic rock and heavy metal, genres that traditionally favoured virtuoso musicians and long, mind-scrambling guitar solos. Not only did they revitalise interest in the careers of artists featured in the games (classic rockers Kansas reported hordes of teenagers attending their shows for the first time) but older, edgier rock is gaining ground on its prissy modern variants across the board. So, who cares if some pimply gamers now like Deep Purple more than Kanye West? In short: everyone.

The now-famous "Guitar Hero" effect is a serious moneymaker in digital music distribution. Kiss, Dragonforce and the Pretenders have all seen conventional digital sales of their featured singles triple with their debut on game consoles. And the sale of so called "downloadable content" packs (DLC) containing extra songs is already a multi-million dollar industry. Predictably, an arms race is now brewing between rival rhythm franchises Rock Band and Guitar Hero, with both paying excessive fees to secure song exclusivity from the biggest bands in the business, including Aerosmith, Metallica and The Beatles.

But despite enthusing record executives with a new source of revenue, the rhythm game trend also has their R4,000 pants on damp alert. The next generation of rhythm games are set to feature intelligent song creation tools, bypassing the need for actual instruments in the recording process and opening up the rock genre to legions of instrumentally-challenged amateurs. Not that Mötley Crüe have anything to fear from four geeks in a living room, but what about four million of them? The democratisation of rock 'n roll could raise the curtain on a new order where anyone can and might be a star, without even breaking a sweat.

That day might never come, though, and in the meantime forgotten bands can relive their heyday and we can feel like Jimi Hendrix, plastic instruments in hand.

- Niel Bekker

Glam metal bad boys Mötley Crüe probably felt like they owned the 80s. At the height of their powers, they could write hits at will and seduce groupies with the wink of an eye. Then the 90s happened, and drummer Tommy Lee had to make homemade skin flicks with his girlfriend to get any attention at all.

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