The Legacy of Ben Daglish

by Paul Morrison

I’ve already written about the sad passing of Ben Daglish, so I won’t repeat any of that here. What I will say is that Ben was one of the first people I interviewed for They Were Our Gods, and I was really happy about that. It wasn’t the best interview… in my newness and naivety, I didn’t really get as much out of it as I might. Still, it set me on the right path, I learned from it and I’ve interviewed countless people now, for this and other projects.

I decided that I didn’t want to hide this interview behind any kind of paywall (which is, effectively, what a book is). I’ll probably still include it in the book, because Ben deserves to be in there as much as anyone. But, I saw a link this morning to a fundraiser that has been set up in Ben’s memory and this has made me decide that putting the interview on the website, for free, is the right thing to do.

The aim of the fundraiser is, initially, to help Ben’s family with some immediate costs but after that, it will go towards setting up the Ben Daglish Young Performers’ Legacy at his beloved Stainsby Festival. I love that idea; it seems very fitting that Ben’s love of music should inspire people to play for many years to come.

If you read and enjoy this, and/or if Ben’s music had any impact on you in your younger years, then please consider donating to this fundraiser, which will ensure that Ben has an impact on present and future generations, as well as having meant so much to ours. Without further ado, here is my interview with Ben Daglish from 2012. You can donate to the fundraiser here:

TWOG: I know you got into the Commodore 64 music scene at an early age... when or how old were you exactly when you started?

BEN: 14 or 15 - I forget exactly. I was at school with Tony Crowther, and when he started writing games, knowing I was interested in music, asked me to write out some notes for him to transcribe - the Chopin's "Funeral March" for Potty Pigeon was first, I believe. Later on, I started composing my own stuff.

TWOG: Did you start making computer game music with the Commodore 64?

BEN: Yes. I'd played around with audio on the BBC before that, creating bird calls for an educational program we did at school, but the C64 was the first time I'd written for games.

TWOG: Did you consider yourself a musician first and a programmer second? I was always of the opinion that you guys were musicians first. It doesn't matter how good a programmer you are, if you don't have the ear for a tune then no amount of programming skills will change that.

BEN: In those days, definitely a musician first and foremost. Even now, making my living mainly from programming, I still regard the 10% of my time spent as a musician as important.

TWOG: As a lad, one of my favourite ZZAP! 64 articles was The Musician's Ball. You guys seemed to get on really well. Was there any kind of friendly rivalry, with you all competing for work, or was there more than enough to go round? For instance, you did a lot for Gremlin, Martin Galway had Ocean, David Whittaker had Codemasters, Rob Hubbard had... well, all sorts.

BEN: There was indeed friendly rivalry, but not for work - there was loads of it, and between the four of us, we handled a good 75% of the UK's output at that time. I was mainly freelance for the first few years, until getting a full-time job at Gremlin.

TWOG: Speaking of Rob Hubbard, you took on a couple of projects that were sequels to two of his most renowned tunes (Thing on a Spring and Monty on the Run, albeit in conjunction with Rob on the second of those). You came up with great efforts of your own... did you feel any pressure to come up with something special, or were you more than confident in your own ability?

BEN: Massive pressure - he was ROB HUBBARD for God's sake, and I had (and still have) enormous respect for him as a muso. Working with him on Monty was great fun.

TWOG: I always found it interesting that, much like the best musicians on any instrument, you guys all had your own distinct styles. You could pretty much tell who had written a tune within a minute of hearing it. Who did you listen to as a teenager, and did any of that have any bearing on your own music?

BEN: All sorts - I grew up listening to folk, classical and Jazz, then got into "rock" when I was about 15. That fed my style, I'm sure, but sheerly because of the sounds that were created, I started listening to a lot of Jarre and YMO etc., to get an idea of what you could do with electronic sounds.

TWOG: Not being remotely techy myself, I have to ask how you went about composing your tunes. Did you play them on an instrument first then use a program to replicate them?

BEN: No. I typed them from my head straight into a text editor, note by note.

TWOG: Did you guys swap programming tips, or did you keep to yourselves (I was thinking that as you had your own styles, you might not have needed to share information)?

BEN: The programming stuff was more to do with interesting creative things you could do with the sounds - glissandi, filters, "toggle chords" etc., but as soon as you'd heard somebody else do it, it was reasonably trivial to re-create, once you knew it was possible. Everybody had their own player routines, and kept them pretty close to their chest, but there was a lot of reverse engineering going on in the demo world.

TWOG: What sort of reference material were you given when you were composing music for a game? Did you get pre-production copies of the game, concept notes and stuff like that, or did you sometimes just have to go off the title?

BEN: Both. Sometimes, a full copy of the game. At other times, I had just a title and a brief phone-call describing the gameplay.

TWOG: You composed a number of tunes for TV and movie tie-ins. How did you approach these, knowing you'd have to try and replicate a well-loved theme tune?

BEN: I just listened to them and transcribed as best I could. It wasn't as fun as writing my own stuff, but it was interesting from a technical and educational point of view - honed my transcription skills - especially having to re-arrange the tune for just 3 voices.

TWOG: You were notably half of W.E.M.U.S.I.C. with Tony Crowther. How exactly did that work? Did you split duties on game music (thereby rubbishing my "you all had your own sound" thing), or did one compose and one program?

BEN: Tony wrote the player - I wrote the music. (Later on, Tony did a few tunes himself, but he'd be the first to admit that he's primarily a programmer :) )

TWOG: How did it feel to be part of that scene? Did you feel rock-star-ish at all? Was there a sense that something genuinely exciting was happening?

BEN: Reasonably, but I think we were all aware that it was a very limited *scene* . Even today, I enjoy feeling a bit famous when I turn up to conventions etc., but am glad that it's only a couple of days a year :)

TWOG: Do you have any particular favourite tunes that you wrote? Anything that you feel fitted a project particularly well, or that you can still listen to and think it's a damn good tune?

BEN: Trap. Big theme, big game, big demo. A few others as well, like Last Ninja spring to mind, but Trap was always the thing I was most proud of.

TWOG: What did you move on to after the Commodore 64? What have you done since, and what are you doing now?

BEN: I moved into "proper" music for a while, composing for theatre etc. for many years, until kids / mortgage / real life forced me to settle down and get a proper programming job :)

TWOG: I’m going to throw the names of some of your more well-known works at you now - I’d like you to respond with your immediate thoughts on each game’s music.

Bobby Bearing

BEN: Bouncy, but a bit random, I always thought :)

TWOG: Bombo

BEN: I enjoyed writing that - "it was in Baghdad, where my mother met my dad..." Obviously just a matter of arrangement, but yes, I think I managed to get the feel that was needed.

TWOG: Death Wish III: it's a good job this game had good music, because my mate was obsessed with the game and would play it every time I went to his house, specifically to see how far he could propel grannies using a machine gun (he’s OK now, after years of appropriate therapy). I heard this music a hell of a lot, so it stuck with me.

BEN: Yes - again, I think this fitted the "brief" pretty well - "gamey" , but with the slight air of menace and movement.

TWOG: Firelord: I loved this kind of game, and the medieval-style tune was lovely and really went well with the game.

BEN: Thanks. Yes - that was definitely the result of 'O' level music :)

TWOG: Gauntlet: you must have been on a hiding to nothing with this - the sound was one of the most memorable features of the arcade game, so as soon as everyone knew the speech wouldn't be included in the C64 version they were already a bit deflated.

BEN: I just wrote down the notes, squire :)

TWOG: Hades Nebula

BEN: I always loved doing the Space stuff - big open tunes and floaty arpeggios.

TWOG: The Last Ninja:

BEN: Still the one I get the most mails about to this day.

TWOG: Trap: what was the thinking behind that "movie"?

BEN: “Let's do a film with animation synced to the music, because nobody else has!" I'm pretty sure it was the first proper "demo".

TWOG: Finally, how do you feel about the enduring scene and the continued reverie of work that is now 25 years old?*

BEN: Amazed. Really, truly amazed. I suppose that's to do with being part of somebody's childhood, but it never ceases to surprise me when another email pops in the box from an old-time fan.

I’m sure Ben had a lot of those emails. One thing is clear: his enthusiasm for music was clear, and his talent evident. It was great to see how much he embraced his musical past, playing his most famous pieces on stage with various bands, but the fact that his legacy can be extended beyond his past works in a real, tangible form is something that would be hugely fitting. So, again, here is the link to the Ben Daglish Legacy Fundraiser. I could have saved this for my book, so you could consider a donation to be payment if you wanted. Let’s all help to make Ben’s name live on in more than just our memories.