That’s how it started. The ZX Spectrum port of Out Run. When you grow up with an eight-bit home computer you learn to make concessions, particularly where racing games are concerned. In the arcades, Out Run was a slick, fast-paced (and, it must be said, somewhat repetitive) racing experience, all sun-kissed beaches, billowing palm trees and beautiful girls. It was the American coast bursting onto a CRT in all its glory, and for a young boy living in suburban Reading this was as glamorous and exotic as it gets.
The Spectrum port, on the other hand, is like driving through treacle.
(And that’s the 128 version. Some of us didn’t even have in-game music.)
As if to concede the crushing sense of disappointment that would-be racers must have felt upon getting to that wretched bridge sequence and then having to pause the tape again so the multi-load could find the right block, the distributors saw fit to include a cassette of the soundtrack for your listening pleasure: extracts from ‘Passing Breeze’, ‘Splash Wave’ and ‘Magical Sound Shower’. Original versions and mods and remixes are all over YouTube and I will not link to them here: if you’ve played them, you will right now be humming your favourites. Those of us with a particularly glossy setup could cue a separate tape player next to our TV and arrange to have the music playing in the background, determinedly fast-forwarding to your particular favourites when you get to stage three. I couldn’t work out how they got the sounds, whether that guitar was real (it wasn’t) and why the constant ocean samples didn’t annoy me, but thus it was that my love affair with digital music was born.
Fast forward two years: it’s 1989 and I’m watching Black Box perform ‘Ride on Time’ on Top of the Pops. ‘Perform’ may be stretching it a bit. A more accurate description is that Davoli, Limoni and Semplici are gyrating awkwardly round their keyboards, bashing out something that almost syncs to the backing track, even if they’re jumping up and down octaves like Fry and Laurie performing ‘Hey Jude’, while Katrin Quinol is waving her arms and trying to make it look like her vocal track was actually recorded rather than heavily stitched. The cut-and-paste job is one I will grow to admire, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that my eleven-year-old self is thoroughly oblivious to it. My eyes are on the Roland that’s being used to bash out that famous piano riff. “Do you wish you could play the keyboard like that, James?” my mother asks. One day I will, although I will never play Black Box.
Fast forward. It’s December 1989. I’m listening to a cassette that Sinclair User gave away with their November issue. It contains music from Silkworm, Gemini Wing, Continental Circus, Double Dragon II, Shinobi and Ninja Warriors. I am thrilled beyond belief as I go to press tonight to find this on YouTube. I remember listening to the cassette that evening and having a furious argument with my mother halfway through the Double Dragon theme about why I’m not listening to it on my Walkman, which leads to accusations that the Walkman is missing. It is not, but she refuses to believe me. These days, shortly after my eldest has lost his mobile and will not admit it, I understand why she was so angry. Next time (and every time) I listen to the tape, I skip Double Dragon.
Fast forward. It’s 1990. I wander into the music department one lunchtime – my not-quite friend Ewan is playing ‘Magical Sound Shower’ on a Casio and HE DOESN’T HAVE MUSIC. He’s playing it brilliantly and he has a samba rhythm going and HE DOESN’T HAVE MUSIC. I make a vow that I will learn to play it in the same way. I annoy him by doing this remarkably quickly. It turns out that picking things up by ear is one of the few things I can do really well. Ewan is cross with me and then we get along. It’s the start of a friendship that spans over twenty years.
Fast forward. It’s 1991. Ewan has got me listening to a synthesizer outfit called Project D. My favourite songs on there are the Jarre ones, and also one called ‘Autobahn’. Years later I will listen to the original and wonder at how stripped down it is in comparison, but eventually learn to appreciate it. I hear songs for the first time that I will eventually discover in their inceptive forms, which is what happens to everyone when they are growing up, and I do not judge them for it.
Fast forward. It’s 1991 and as far as we are concerned. KLF is the biggest thing on the planet. Ewan has me listening to American hip hop and Californian rock and to Jean-Michel Jarre. I am taken aback by the orchestrations in ‘Rendezvous II’ and bored stiff by ‘Waiting For Cousteau’: I am an impatient thirteen-year-old yet to discover Brian Eno. Revolutions is my favourite album, with its industrial clanking and bleeping and general eclecticism.
Fast forward. It’s later in 1991 and War of the Worlds is my latest discovery. Ewan has the idea of writing a sequel. We team up with a few others and vow to keep it a secret until it’s done. I spill the beans to some of my friends. Ewan does not speak to me for days.
Fast forward. It’s 1995. Blur are huge. Oasis are even bigger. I start listening to stuff with guitars. Ewan is in Chichester but we still talk. I fall in love, out, in, out again. I discover jazz; Ewan is by and large disgusted. I discover Eels; he concedes they’re quite good.
Fast forward again. It’s 2002 and I’m re-listening to The Concerts in China. I am taken aback by the difference in tone between the muted applause of Beijing and the cheering in Shanghai. I ask Ewan about it. He says “They hadn’t had any western musician playing there in decades. That concert was all ageing politicians and rich businessmen. They didn’t know what to make of him. What the fuck did you expect?”
Fast forward. It’s 2011. For some reason or another, I stop speaking to Ewan.
Fast forward. It’s 2012. On a cold winter’s evening I listen to Autobahn. It leads to a surge of interest in Kraftwerk. I do a little downloading. In January 2013 I have the idea of mixing up ‘Showroom Dummies’ with ‘Rose’. It just about works.
Fast forward. It’s 2013. I extend a couple of half-hearted olive branches to Ewan. I get nowhere and concede that’s probably it.
Fast forward. It’s early 2016 and I find this.
Fast forward. It’s June. I am playing through Grand Theft Auto V. I am enjoying the soundtrack – unintrusive ambient electronic music with a distinctive eighties vibe, as befits the listening tastes of one of the game’s protagonists. I make a note to research Tangerine Dream. I discover their back catalogue consists of over a hundred albums. I decide not to swim in this particular pool at the moment.
Fast forward. It’s August this year. I’m at a festival in Northamptonshire. We are hanging around in the kids’ area; Lego spills out of the nearby tents, the nursery gazebo resembles a Little Tikes showroom, and junk modelling festoons the lawn. We’re early for the family talent show and they’re prepping the venue. The chap on the desk is doing his sound check: it’s the Revolutions album. I have not heard it in almost a decade. But today I hear Hank Marvin playing the guitar solo on ‘London Kid’ and I nearly burst into tears.
Fast forward. I come home. I rationalise that a marriage between ‘Revolution, Revolutions’ and Doctor Who will probably work quite well. I listen to it again and remember the fun I used to have with my friend, translating the lyrics into French: “SEX….PAS DE – PAS DE – PAS DE SEX!”. I go through twelve years of Who. And, eventually, I make the video you see at the top.
It’s for Ewan. And he’ll probably never know.