Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Beatles Rock Band

When I was a kid I always had a Beatles Christmas, getting an album or an EP I didn't already own. A few decades later, I bought myself The Beatles Rock Band, and felt nostalgic because it turned 2009 into another Beatles Christmas.

The Beatles video game is a great product in itself, but it also marks a new phase in the Fab Four's long tail.

When I saw a Beatles beach towel and velcro wallet set in K-Mart some years ago, it seemed the transition from sanctified and protected brand to fully exploited cash cow had been completed. The reaction against the crassness of Beatle wigs from the 1960s was forgotten. The Fab 4 were back in the trash market in a big way.

The release of the Anthology CDs was another departure. The Beatles had left this type of thing to the bootlegers for years, the accepted wisdom being that all the good stuff was released in the 60s. The value of the Anthologies was as a kind of "making of" documentary, rather than a revelation of unreleased classics. It was good to hear a professionally mastered copy of That Means A Lot, touted by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn as the closest thing there was to a lost gem in the archive. But it also proved the Beatles had been telling the truth in the decades between their split and the release of the Anthologies. Finding other reasons to open the vaults was also a new phase in the Beatles extended story.

The anthology project seemed to be officially sanctioned and tightly controlled by the Beatles themselves. The Love mash-up album saw the next generation take a hand in creative interpretation, with the involvement of Giles Martin, son of producer George. He has also overseen the production of the music in The Beatles Rock Band, and the Cirque du Soleil show which was tied in with the Love album. I have read that Dhani Harrison, George's son, was instrumental in getting the Rock Band project going, making the leap into the world of video games another generational shift.

The TV documentary about the circus show had one telling moment, when Yoko Ono complained to the producer, that what she had seen was contrary to the spirit of what the Beatles were about. I applaud her for that, because she was right. It was a shite concept that should never have been approved. Mixing the Beatles with a circus failed, and that made it interesting to see whether the video game experiment would succeed for the gen X members of the Beatles dynasties.

It does succeed, about as well as could be expected. The basic idea of the gameplay is not substantially different from previous music games. The software scores the players on how well they can sing and synchronise the playing of instrument-shaped controllers along with Beatles music. In one major respect it improves on previous music games: it offers the chance for multiple singers to compete by singing harmonies, which removes some of the disappointment that The Beatles Rock Band has the same fundamental gameplay mechanics as do Singstar Abba and Guitar Hero, to name but two.

Of course the extraordinary quality of the music lifts it above those previous games. You can be guaranteed that every song on The Beatles Rock Band will be a killer.

The other big plus is the supporting material: the eye candy loaded with treats for the lifelong Beatles tragic. I couldn't afford the custom controllers, shaped like Paul's Hofner violin bass, George's Gretsch or John's Rickenbacker guitar. But the graphics on the screen have many more touches of authenticity mixed in with the Beatles fantasy.

The songs from the first part of the Beatles' career are illustrated with graphics based on concert footage from the Cavern, the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium, and the Budokan. The game designers take liberties with this, using the settings for songs which were never played at these venues. But they were recorded around that time, and the contemporaneity is laudable. The animators had other opportunities to pay fastidious attention to detail. I've read, for example, that George Harrison played a light blue Fender Stratocaster on Nowhere Man... and there's his CGI version, with the correct guitar in the game. I also knew that Paul played some of the lead breaks, e.g. on Taxman, and that the three guitarists took turns to solo in The End. All that is rendered in the game. I even learned a bit more Beatle lore from the game, that George played 6-string bass in several songs, when Paul was playing piano or guitar.

The game's fantasy sequences draw on other visual material: the Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour films, and the Sgt Pepper packaging. At times the original graphic ideas are great too, like the hazy visual distortions during an imaginary Apple rooftop rendition of I Want You (She's So Heavy), and the blooming of giant flowers over London at the conclusion of The End. But there are glaring inaccuracies too, like George playing Eric Clapton's parts in While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Billy Preston being airbrushed out - or more accurately not rendered - in the Let It Be rooftop sequence. And the stylised rendition of the Beatles and other people in the game might not be to everyone's taste, but it's grown on me.

The extra features - photos, videos, the Christmas fan club records etc. - are all worthwhile. They can be viewed as one progresses through the game. If you know the songs, then vocals in particular, are easy to perform to the game's seemingly low standard. You can get a five-star rating warbling roughly in tune, if you select the least challenging mode, and that lets you unlock the bonus media.

So the young Beatle Princes have done well.