The Commodore 64 music scene is a remarkable thing. It’s incredible to think that the music that was written 30-odd years ago for computer games held in files the size of your average email could still be worth listening to today. In fact, not only do they sound as fresh and inspirational today as they always have; they’re taking on new life in incredible forms and transcending their original medium.
Ever since Chris Abbott started his Back in Time project, C64 music has had a massive renaissance, with people taking it and running with it in all kinds of interesting directions. The renowned rock band Fastloaders do an amazing job of reworking pieces into their hard rock format. Marcel Donné takes another route, evoking shades of Jean Michel Jarre with his moody synth efforts. And C64 music legend Matt Gray falls somewhere between those two stools, producing new versions of his own original pieces, as well as covers of other C64 tracks, in his own well-honed style.
Probably the most ambitious of all, though, is Chris Abbott’s own orchestral project, 8-Bit Symphony Pro. This remarkable venture sees the original three channel C64 pieces reworked for an 85-piece orchestra, fully fleshed out to become almost the film score versions of the soundtrack to our teenage lives. These pieces were aired for the first time in Hull on 15th June 2019 to a rapturous reception, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible for the concert to be recorded.
It would be a real shame if these versions were lost to us, but fear not! A solution is at hand. Chris has organised a Kickstarter campaign to have these pieces recorded by the world-class Czech Studio Orchestra. They’re renowned as being right up there among the very best in the business, so you know that they’ll do an incredible job of performing these pieces and preserving them for posterity. Once they do, we’ll have a superb double CD set for our collections, and some amazing, uplifting music will be preserved for all time. But which pieces will they be recording, what do they sound like and why do they matter? I attended the concert in Hull, and what follows is partly a concert review, and partly an imagined CD preview, so read on or click through to the Kickstarter campaign first…
Track 1 - Imagine Ocean
The perfect start to any 8-bit music anthology, featuring as it does an excerpt from one of the Ocean Loaders. It opens, though, with a quiet section from Comic Bakery before segueing into the most famous of all the Ocean Loaders. This builds in epic fashion before transitioning into a rousing Rambo finale… three of Galway’s finest covered in just one track. What a start!
Track 2 - Green Beret
More Galway, as his Green Beret loading theme is transformed into something that would have sounded perfectly at home in a Rambo movie soundtrack. Better still, the CD version will be expanded to include the title track too. It’ll make your friends green with envy if they don’t back this!
Track 3 - W.A.R.
It’s perhaps surprising to see this here, given that the original piece, although superb, is rather clanky and experimental. You might not think it would be suited to an orchestra, but this truncated version works very well indeed, becoming a space opera which could make a great TV sci-fi theme… although the show would have to be better than the game!
Track 4 - William Wobbler
Ben Daglish makes his first appearance in the Symphony, but how many among you would have guessed it would be this piece that made it? Having said that, it was one of the first pieces where Ben really started to flex his musical muscles, and its upbeat, light-hearted nature make it the perfect piece to lighten the mood, coming after a trio of brooding epics. A surprise highlight of the concert.
Track 5 - Forbidden Forest (and Beyond)
Anyone who played Paul Norman’s blood-spattered creature features will know that the soundtracks already sounded like they’d come straight out of Hollywood. This project puts them right back there, by producing a medley of the best pieces from Paul’s two Forbidden Forest games and invoking thoughts of Harryhausen stop-motion and epic monster battles. I’d always felt that these soundtracks could belong in a movie like Jason and the Argonauts. The orchestra proved me right. Listen with the lights off for the full effect!
Track 6 - Kentilla
I don’t know about you, but I was rubbish at text adventures. I could never figure out the commands and I soon turned them off. I’d have been more likely to stick with them, though, if they had an epic soundtrack accompaniment, rather than having to listen to A-Ha on the radio while I played. That was part of Rob Hubbard’s genius… he didn’t skimp on the quality purely because the game he was writing for was going to be sold in petrol stations. Kentilla received the soundtrack it deserved and now its music receives the treatment it deserves, as the orchestra turns it into a seven-minute masterwork full of twists and turns. Magnificent.
Track 7 - Ghosts n’ Goblins
Mark Cooksey couldn’t be bothered with all that arcade conversion rubbish, and wrote his own music for this C64 classic, rather than converting Capcom’s original soundtrack. Just as well, as the original was somewhat weedy whereas Mark took full advantage of the SID chip to produce a beefy, spooky classic. Now the orchestra takes its turn at the track, adding layers of bombast to create a journey as varied as the one Arthur takes through the Demon Village.
Track 8 - Flash Gordon
FLASH! AAAH-AAAAH! ROB HUBBARD IS BACK AGAIN! Sounding nothing at all like Queen, and almost certainly as Rob envisioned it when he wrote it, this epic, seven-minute plus rendition could quite easily be the theme for a serialised radio version of Flash Gordon. In fact, why isn’t it? Come on, radio stations, get your fingers out!
Track 9 - Barbarillax
As mashups go, this is one of the more surprising ones you could imagine but only because you’d never put the two games together. A muscle-bound hack ‘em up and a sci-fi space epic, pulled together in the name of musical magnificence? Yeah, why not? Plus, Richard Joseph’s Barbarian II score sounds not unlike something from Rocket Ranger, so you’re going from one stirring piece into another with Martin Galway’s Parallax high score music. A fusion of styles, both gameplay and musical, melded perfectly and pulled off with aplomb.
Track 10 - International Karate
Another huge epic, although again slightly cut down from the original game music’s running time. This version covers both parts from the original as the slow intro transitions perfectly into the livelier second half, hitting you like a roundhouse kick to the head before kissing it better with a reprisal of that intro. Full Point!
Track 11 - Aztec Challenge
Paul Norman returns, this time with this powerful soundtrack to one of the most epic of early computer games quests. Nothing spurs a player on to overcome the greatest of adversity more than a stirring musical accompaniment, and that’s what we have here. Fortunately the orchestra will be able to record it without having to avoid snakes and poison darts, so a faithful rendition is assured.
Track 12 - The Last Ninja: Wastelands
Two legendary tracks for the price of one here as Ben Daglish’s gentle introductory loading music gives way to the incredibly uplifting in-game theme. These are some of the most beloved gaming soundtracks of all time, and the orchestral arrangements do them full justice. The music speaks louder than any of my words can, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the orchestra went silent… you need this in your life.
Track 13 - Monty on the Run High Score
The magnificence of Rob’s in-game them for Monty on the Run often overshadows the beautifully haunting high score music, which is an incredible and emotional piece in its own right. Here, it becomes something else again as the orchestra adds layer upon layer to make this a piece that will never be overlooked again.
Track 14 - Firelord
There aren’t many SID tracks that you could call “lovely”, but with Ben Daglish’s Firelord that is genuinely the case, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It’s a glorious little piece of music, and very well suited to an orchestral reworking. It ebbs and flows beautifully with the main theme remaining the catchy centrepiece that stays in your head for ages.
Track 15 - Trap
More Daglish, and though The Last Ninja is his most well-known work, Trap is his masterpiece. A massive, truly epic piece, it’s more synonymous with the game’s stunning hidden demo than it is with the game itself. It’s something for any orchestra to really get their teeth into, and once the thudding of the orchestra’s timpani has finally dissipated, you’ll need a lie down in a darkened room.
Track 16 - Monty on the Run
Rob returns, and so does Monty and this time it’s with the piece that truly lifted computer games music about a hundred levels and whacked it firmly on the map (whacked… Mole… geddit? Oh, never mind…). It’s a fitting (almost) ending to a glorious Symphony, with Rob saving his best-known until last. It’s an orchestral thrill-ride, culminating in a massive finale appropriate to the piece, the Symphony and the occasion. It takes the whole project from the sublime to the even more sublime.
Track 17 - Encore - Stifflip & Co.
After an experience like this, of previously unimagined orchestral proportions and epicness, you need to send the audience home with a spring in their step. This is done, Last Night of the Proms-style, with the jaunty, rousing Stifflip & Co, as Richard Joseph closes out Disc 2 as he did Disc 1. It’s guaranteed to leave a smile on your face as you come to terms with what you’ve just experienced.
Track 18 - Bonus track - Zoids
As brooding, epic tracks go, there are few, if any, as brooding and epic as Rob Hubbard’s Zoids piece. It’s a very dark piece, in keeping with the setting of the game, but here Rob throws all kinds of light and shade at it and transforms it into something truly majestic. It’s a superb way to not only close the project, but to show what could be possible in the future. Take a listen for yourself.
How to make it happen, and why you should:
An epic project such as this needs help, and in this case, it needs up-front financial backing from its potential listeners - you! With the right level of support, this incredible 2-CD set will happen. Without it… well, I’m sure that Chris and Rob will regroup and give it another go. Why, though, you might be thinking, should you spend money on hiring a world-class orchestra when these orchestral previews already exist? Can’t you just have them on a CD instead?
Well, that’s not really the point. The pre-recorded versions are simply intended to be a guide as to how these tracks could sound. There’s no substitute for the sound, skill and experience of a world-class orchestra, and they will bring these pieces to life in a way no computer software could. Also, this is intended as a tribute, not just to Rob Hubbard but also to all the C64 composers we’ve known and loved.
This will stand as a lasting monument to their work, and their genius. It will add a whole new level of legitimacy to their work, and will open up the prospect of seeing these pieces performed across the globe by any number of world-class orchestras. You’re not just buying an album if you back this; you’re opening a door that many others will walk through. You’re also putting Rob Hubbard where he belongs… supervising and orchestrating incredible versions of our favourite 8-bit music. When you think about all the joy his music has given us over the years, and the inspiration he provided to so many other C64 musicians whose music we also love dearly, is it really too much to ask?
Back the Kickstarter campaign here:
Listen to more examples of what you can expect here: