Our Games Lounge features a dozen or so fully playable authentic old school video game arcade consoles. I was inspired to write this blog post upon rediscovering the peculiar and fascinating (and mostly forgotten) genre of pop music which accompanied the debut of arcade video games.
In the late 1970s, revenue had dropped across the music industry, and this trend was blamed directly on the arrival of arcade video games. Were they displacing the traditional jukebox as well as pinball machines? It seemed like video games were having an obsoleting effect on pop music.
Perhaps this contributed to the unique series of songs and music videos exploiting the video game craze around the time – the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy.
The songs began appearing in 1978, and the trend had fizzled out by 1984. During this time, a number of musicians and music producers became fascinated by the new electronic sounds, background stories and the changes to youth culture. Sounds from the games were integrated into the rhythm and melody of songs, often complimented by the latest synthesisers; graphics and characters inspired by the games appeared in album artwork and music videos.
Here are ten of what I think are the best-written and best-performed songs representing this genre.
1. Computer Games, Mi-Sex, 1979
Mi-Sex was a New Wave rock band from New Zealand. Computer Games became an instant hit when it was released in Australia and New Zealand. The promotional video was shot on location at a computer facility in Sydney.
2. Space Invaders, Player One / Playback, 1979
Australian electro-disco group Player One (also known as Playback) had a medium-sized hit with this song. Other songs of the time inspired by Space Invaders included Disco Space Invaders (1979) by Funny Stuff, Space Invader (1980) by The Pretenders, and Space Invaders (1980) by Uncle Vic.
3. Video Games, Ronnie Jones, 1980
Ronnie Jones is an American soul singer who was based in Germany in the 1970s. Video Games appeared on his album Games. This song was sampled by Daft Punk for their song Technologic in 2005.
4. Pac Man Fever, Buckner & Garcia, 1982
Pac-Man Fever was a hit concept album recorded in 1982 by Buckner & Garcia, a musical duo from Akron, Ohio. This song was the title track and their most famous song, selling over a million copies.
5. Hyperspace, Buckner & Garcia, 1982
This catchy song describes the experience of playing the game Asteroids. ‘Hyperspace’ was the “oh no I’m about to get hit” button that would teleport your ship randomly to somewhere that was safe – at least for the moment – from asteroids.
6. Ode to a Centipede, Buckner & Garcia, 1982
The story behind Centipede was that the centipede and the spiders were originally your friends, but a wizard made them hate you and made them want to kill you. This may explain the tragic tone of this song.
7. Donkey Kong, R. Cade and the Video Victims, 1982
R. Cade and the Video Victims produced a video game inspired album called Get Victimized. The album cover features aliens playing an arcade video game with the humans as helpless ‘victims’ inside the game.
8. The Climber, Kid Stuff Records, 1983
This song was from an entire album devoted entirely to the game Donkey Kong. Yes that’s right, an entire album. It also features a female voice (unusual for this genre).
9. Galaga, Haruomi Hosono, 1984
In 1984, former Yellow Magic Orchestra member Haruomi Hosono produced an album almost entirely from Namco arcade game samples entitled Video Game Music, recognised as the first video game music album.
10. Happy Up Here, Röyksopp, 2009
This video was directed Reuben Sutherland, a British VJ, director and visual artist who specialises in mixing up live action and animation. Sutherland has also made music videos and has directed a number of TV commercials.
Coming to grips with technological change
About 200 pop songs were recorded about video games from 1978 – 1984. While they range in quality, there is something special about these songs.
To come to grips with television’s merger with the computer chip, 20th century society initially placed this technology into cultural contexts that it was familiar with – games, and science fiction. But to engage a wider audience, why not write songs about it?
Technologies which force us to change our way of life can be irritating. The lyrics of Player One’s song, Space Invaders (1979) can be interpreted this way…
Through dark sunken eyes
I see another pale sunrise
surrounded by soldiers
glued to the screens
hold back the invaders
their infernal machines
Video games are a part of us
Today we are no longer fighting the ‘Space Invaders’; in a sense we have become them. We watch digital television, video games are commonplace, and music is written for video games rather than about them.
Our visitors perceive the old arcade consoles in the Games Lounge very differently from how people did then. For all but our younger visitors, a sense of novelty is now long passed, replaced by a sense of nostalgia.
BAF Game 2013
If video games are your thing, consider a trip to Bradford Animation Festival in November. We have a dedicated gaming strand which explores the overlaps between the world of video games, animation and film. Passes for BAF Game 2013 are now on sale, and the full programme will be announced on 17th September.