The day the music died, part of me did too.
It was late in 2008 and I was excited. More excited for a videogame than I had ever been before. I picked up my pre-order from a games shop (that no longer exists) and hastily drove home - it was one of those games that I had taken a day off to play.
I giddily unboxed and set-up what would claim a large part of my life and my money for the next five years: Rock Band.
I had the full kit, with drums, fake Fender Stratocaster, and a mic stand. You can’t properly rock without a mic stand. In later years I added: a new wireless drum kit, full cymbal kit, a replica of Paul McCartney’s bass, two more microphones, a keytar, and the fake Fender Mustang “pro” guitar that was supposed to teach me to play the real instrument. I even have a tambourine so the singer can have something to play. I own Rock Band 1, 2, and 3, the AC/DC track pack (a collection of live songs), and Rock Band Beatles - and I have downloaded 195 additional songs, plus two full Beatles albums.
That’s almost $2000 on one game. Totally worth it.
Since buying the game, I have hosted multiple Rock Band parties, even set it up in Wellington’s San Francisco Bathhouse where me and my friends rocked out on an actual stage to a small but energetic crowd waiting for their chance to pretend to be rock stars.
This is the reason why Rock Band is better than any other game I have ever played. The illusion of musical competence, cemented by the instruments in your hands. Yes, they are crappy replicas, and anyone who has performed music before laughs at them, but while you’re playing no one would be able to convince you that you weren’t truly rocking out.
More than once I’ve had to stop myself from smashing the real wooden drumsticks through the plastic drums during an epic solo.
Rock Band also gave me a new appreciation for songs and bands I already liked and introduced me to a while new range of bands. Thank you, Rock Band, for introducing me to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
But it had to come to an end.
The constant list of new songs - both through the official store and the self-submitting Rock Band Network - have trickled to nothing. The last song was the rather apt American Pie by Don McLean. It’s amazing how sad it was watching the video made by the game creators, as they said goodbye to the game they loved as much as we all did.
Unlike other games that have a lifespan of a year at most, Rock Band kept going. It wasn’t replaced from year to year, it was enhanced. There were new games that came out obviously – each allowing you to download the music from the previous version – but they were simple updates, implementing features you had wished for, like multiple audio tracks or simpler systems to join and drop out of games. If Rock Band was a product launched today its sequels would be downloadable.
Rock Band was a product of its time. 2008 was the height of the party game boom, before PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect would come along and try and tell us we were all doing it wrong. It was also the time when Guitar Hero was pretty much the only plastic instrument game on the market. The original creators of Guitar Hero - Harmonix - had been bought by MTV, so Activision gave Guitar Hero to Neversoft. Harmonix began work on Rock Band, the first game to include drums and vocals with your guitar.
Guitar Hero would eventually come to the party (so to speak) with World Tour. While the drum kit for World Tour was amazing, the guitars were still using large chunky buttons that somehow made the Guitar Hero guitars feel more plastic. The song list was also lacking. For a long time, the two games competed with exclusive songs. It was in this race that MTV shone through.
Where Guitar Hero had interesting but obscure metal, Rock Band was offering a brilliant mix of indie, classic rock, and alt-rock. They would soon offer full albums from bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Guitar Hero simply couldn’t keep up.
The download race is ultimately what won the war for Rock Band. The sheer number of songs was astounding. My 195 songs is a drop in the bucket of total number of available songs, which is now 4,254. Everything from James Brown to DEVO to Wolfmother to Carly Rae Jepsen to Jonathan Coulton (and that’s only including the official store.)
How Rock Band treated the music was important too. When the Beatles sold the rights to tell their story through a videogame, it was not only a financial coup but also validation that Rock Band was doing something right. Remember, this was before Beatles’ music was available to purchase digitally anywhere. You could buy Abbey Road on Rock Band a full year before it was released on iTunes.
Somehow, Rock Band captured the mood perfectly. You weren’t a 3D cartoon on the screen lip-syncing to classic rock hits, you were actually performing in front of thousands of people who were screaming for your rendition of Call Me by Blondie. Afterwards, you’d bounce around your living room because you just nailed 99% on Hard for Queens of the Stone Age’s Go With The Flow while your drummer is slumped over the drum kit because that is a punishing song (true story.) The next day, you’d wince and then look affectionately at the blister on your thumb, not from Helter Skelter but from Weezer’s Buddy Holly.
Thank you Rock Band, you let me rock all night and party every day. I got down with my bad self, and with a little help from my friends. You let us know that we got the beat, and even flow (sic) you’re gone, we’ll always remember the day the music died.