Music and video games have always gone together. Whether via tie-in games like the new Iron Maiden game or the Journey game for the Atari 2600, or simply through, well, playing Space Invaders while listening to your all-Rush mixtape. But you couldn’t just take home a record and play a game with it… unless you happened to be a fan of Chris Sievey and his power-pop act The Freshies.
Chris Sievey was one of the most creative musicians overlooked by the industry and the public. Not only did he write excellent songs like “I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-Out Desk“, he also liked to code for the Sinclair ZX. The Sinclair ZX was an early British home computer that was very popular: Programs could be written in a language similar to BASIC, and they could be stored as audio on standard cassette tapes.
Sievey realized that since the Sinclair ZX stored programs as audio, it was at least conceivable to put a program on the B-side of a single for the user at home to dub off on to their own cassette tape to play on their computer. His 7″ Camouflage featured a song on the A-side, just like any other record, and the B-side featured a music video for the A-side along with a cute game called Flying Train. The premise of Flying Train was that it was possible to travel into space on trains — but before you got to do that, you had to prove your ability to land trains on the track, avoiding birds as you do it. The game itself was very simple — you only needed two keys to play — but the loopy premise and the text hectoring you when you fail gives the game a cracked sense of humor that makes it stand out. (The site World Of Spectrum features the program, and you can play it with one of these emulators.)
Camouflage was the very first record to feature both music and software, and as cute and fun Flying Train is, it’s the music video that’s the star of the release:
While the visuals are simple, it’s a very clever video — not to mention that the song itself is a pretty great single about hiding who they really are.
Unfortunately, as cool as this was, it was often difficult to get the programs to work right; any surface noise on the vinyl, any pops or clicks would cause errors. This YouTube video was only recorded from an unplayed copy of the single, and even then, only after a heavy-duty cleaning of the record… and then removing hiss and other unwanted audio frequencies in audio editing software. (Sievey later released the Flying Train game as a stand-alone cassette.)
Despite the trouble with transferring Sinclair ZX software from vinyl, there were a few other releases that experimented with software. There was a Thompson Twins adventure game, but the most famous was ex-Buzzcock Pete Shelley 1983 solo album XL-1, which provided visuals for the entire album.
This wasn’t Chris Sievey’s only experiment with bundling music and games — though he did learn from over-estimating the capabilities of vinyl. In 1984, Sievey released a cassette called The Biz; the A-side featured alternate performances and remixes of eight Freshies singles (including “…Virgin Megastore…”), and the B-side of the tape was the game itself.
The Biz (available via emulation) is an addictive text-only game about the music industry. Players give their band a name, and make decisions about when and where to gig, recording demos, doing promotion, all in the service of the goal: Getting a #1 hit single. The game is more difficult that it sounds; in an interview, Sievey said that even though he wrote the game, he still hadn’t been able to reach the Top 10.
Sadly, The Biz wasn’t a hit, and was, according to Discogs.com, the second-to-last Freshies release. Chris Sievey did eventually find a certain sort of fame — in comedy. Near the end of the Freshies, Sievey started performing as Frank Sidebottom, a character with a huge papier-mache head that sang off-kilter songs in a nasal voice. (Frank actually appears on The Biz‘s audio side, interviewing Sievey.)
Frank Sidebottom ended up becoming a cult star: Not only did he ultimately get his own statue in his home of Timperley, Frank Sidebottom was the inspiration for the film Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, written by Jon Ronson and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose new film Room comes out this weekend). Chris Sievey is also the subject of the upcoming documentary Being Frank. Sadly, Sievey died of cancer in 2010.
Previously published October 16, 2015.
(Featured image via Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story)
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