The Beatles On Rock Band: You Don’t Know What You’re Missing

Last week’s New York Times magazine had an article about the upcoming release of Rock Band: The Beatles. A while back I posted about my one and only experience with Rock Band’s competitor, Guitar Hero, which left me not only unimpressed by the game but depressed at the thought of kids practicing for hours to flap a flipper when they could be learning to play real music.

This article made me think a bit about that, although it doesn’t really change my mind. Apparently Rock Band is a little more cooperative than Guitar Hero — you play with other players, not against them — and the Beatles version in particular has no scoring or points mechanism.

In some respects I’m intrigued by the game. Giles Martin, an original Beatle once-removed (he’s the son of George Martin, their producer) has worked very carefully, under the direction of The Shareholders (Paul and Ringo, along with George’s son and widow, and Yoko Ono) to decompose the Beatles’ songs into playable parts and map them to the fake instruments. Decomposing these often-intricate songs like that is interesting.

One game developer says, “Ringo is going to earn a lot more admirers when this gets out in the world and people see how sophisticated and challenging some of his drumbeats actually are.” Of course, the drums are the one instrument in the game whose controller actually resembles the real instrument; I doubt anyone will gain an appreciation for George’s guitar skills or Paul’s (prodigious) bass skills.

But overall I still think it’s a waste of time. Changes like that are probably necessary to make the game enjoyable; my issues with it are much more basic. This is not playing music. One of the game’s designers says it “gets you maybe 50 percent of the way [towards the feeling of playing music] with 3 percent of the effort.” I don’t think that’s true; I don’t think it gets these kids any closer to playing music than I got flailing at a piece of wood lathe in time with Beatles songs when I was a kid. It has the same relationship to music as pornography does to sex; I’m sure the day is not far off when we’ll have interactive sex toys, but they won’t be anything like actual sex.

It sounds like Ringo is in my camp on this. His experience with it was like mine with Guitar Hero: “It’s impossible. I cannot watch the line going down and play at the same time.” Stating the obvious, he says, “they’re playing a game, they’re not making music. The music is already made.” And like me, he sounds perplexed: “The kids are getting really great at the game, but they couldn’t suddenly go out and play the Staples Center.” Neither can I, of course, but I can play my local coffeehouse.

McCartney says that while he can’t play it, he sees the appeal of it, and compares it to the time he and many kids spent playing air guitar. “Miming was always fun,” he says, admiring the way people “had to learn every little nuance.” The game is, at least, miming with feedback, and to that extent it probably will help players listen to music differently or to hear how individual parts work together.

It interested me that the game designers originally set out to create a way for people to more easily make music; while they were trying to end-run the hard work of learning to play an instrument, their shortcut was aimed at making it easier for people to be creative. But, it turns out, most people don’t want to be creative. They want to mimic their heroes. And the Beatles version of the game won’t even allow the most minimal contributions by the players — you can’t even add your own fills or flourishes to the sacrosanct music.

And, like most things to do with the Beatles, a lot of the game is fantasy or mythology. Quite a few famous Beatles songs are more or less solo efforts, with one or more Beatles complete absent from the recordings, or recording separately. But in the game, they’re all together. They play “live” versions of songs the band never played in concert, and for songs they did play live, studio versions are reworked since their live performances were generally awful. George plays lead on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Some of my reaction to it is personal. I wish I had spent more time playing music when I was the age of these gamers, rather than pretending to play music. Rock Band and Guitar Hero could do something very very important, something that would have helped me: They could help players along the pathway from playing (having fun with no skill), to playing music (having fun with skill). That’s a much easier path for people like me to follow than the music-lesson path, which is practice and exercises (having no fun with no skill) leading to playing formal music (having less fun — for me at least — with skill).

Kids in big musical families tend to learn this way. Everyone plays music together, and someone hands a child a simple instrument and encourages him or her to make enjoyable sounds along with everyone else. But those kids are playing real instruments that make real sounds in response to what they do, and more importantly, doing so with other musicians. A plastic controller with a flipper bar does not teach you how a guitar feels, or how it feels to make music, and flashing lights on a television most certainly do not teach you how to play music with other people. (Guitar Hero, as I said earlier, seems worse in this respect than Rock Band.)

Now, if you could connect a Guitar Hero controller to a synthesizer, then it would be a musical instrument. Perhaps not terribly sophisticated, but that’s what people said about harmonicas and autoharps and turntables. You don’t need to be terribly sophisticated to make great music. Maybe some of these kids will head that way, and we’ll have a genre of music made with plastic guitar controllers. I’d like to hear that.

The game could also evolve. Towards the end of the article there are hints of a more promising future — allowing players to çhange songs or improvise with them. As the writer said, that would require licensing music from more adventurous musicians (or record companies), but that would make for a more interesting and musical experience.

But as it stands now, it’s a waste. The article’s author questions some of the scorn about the game, saying, “People who play Halo or Gran Turismo are rarely asked why they don’t pick up a real gun or race real cars.” Duh. As I said a few months ago, guns and race cars are expensive and dangerous. If you screw up with them, someone dies. Musical instruments are not dangerous, and for the price of these games you could buy a starter guitar and a few lessons from a real teacher.

But hey, it could be worse. At least they’re not entering air guitar competitions. Meanwhile, I am counting the days to the release of the remastered Beatles catalog.

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