62: Elec Man’s Journey

The third installment of Singing Mountain’s look at how VGM interacts with mainstream music focuses on the Elec Man theme from the first Mega Man game. It sounds a lot like a track by Journey, but also like tracks from REM, Cheap Trick, Bon Jovi, Human League and more. What’s going on here? I talk to some songwriters about why this one melody might seem to be a 1980s mainstay.

Listen to all the episodes in Singing Mountain’s VGM+POP music here.

Cover art designed by Jude Buffum, pixel artist extraordinaire.

 

Track listing:

0:11: Bomb Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae 
1:50: Cut Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae 
4:02: Elec Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae 
6:11: Faithfully / Journey
7:10: Fire Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
8:28: Guts Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
9:55: All the Right Friends / REM
11:15: Way of the World / Cheap Trick 
11:53: Marianne / Human League
12:21: Change / John Waite
12:42: She Don’t Know Me / Bon Jovi
13:14: On the Edge / AWOL
13:58: Back to ’80s / High NRG Man featuring Domino
14:23: Never Surrender / Giant
14:49: Follow Your Heart / Sunstorm
15:15: Every Priase / Hezekiah Walker
15:44: M.A.S.K. Theme / Shuki Levy
16:18: Steal My Girl / One Direction
17:03: Select Screen / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
17:35: Runaway / Bon Jovi
17:54: Ice Man / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
19:38: Main Theme / Space Harrier / Hiroshi Kawaguchi
21:27: Wily Fortress 1 / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
24:01: Wily Fortress 2 / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
26:34: Ending Theme / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae
29:39: Elec Man / Mega Man: Powered Up / composed by Manami Matsumae but arranged by Toshihiko Horiyama

Show Notes:

Let’s say you live in North America, and let’s say you go to Australia. If you’re taking in some nature there, there’s a chance you might see what looks a lot like a hummingbird. It has a long, slender beak that it uses to suck nectar out of flowers. It has a brightly colored, iridescent head, just like hummingbirds do here. And it can even hover, helicopter-style, like a hummingbird. If I just showed you a picture of this bird, I’d imagine most of you would say, “Yes, that is a hummingbird. I know a hummingbird when I see one.”

But it’s not.

The bird you’d be seeing out in the wild in Australia — or other parts of the world, but let’s say Australia, because this is a real story that happened to me — is actually a sunbird, which isn’t particularly closely related to the hummingbirds we have in the Americas. Not only are hummingbirds and sunbirds not the same species; they’re not the same family or order. You have to go all the way up to the class Aves, which is all birds: hummingbirds and sunbirds but also owls and flamingos and ostriches and parrots.

The reason why these two types of birds seem so similar is that they are an example of convergent evolution. A niche existed in nature, and separately two different creatures evolved to fill it because that just happened to be a good strategy. There are tons of examples of this in our world. Do you know what sago palms are? They are plants you see in a lot of yards here in Los Angeles, and just looking at them, you’d have every reason to think they are palm trees. They’re not. They’re not remotely related to palms. We just call them palms because anyone who’s seen a palm would see one of these and say, “Yep, that’s a palm tree.”

To give you an example that’s kinda, sorta video game-related, there are hedgehogs and echidnas. Being covered in spines is a pretty unique look, and a person who grew up around hedgehogs would have to be forgiven for seeing an echidna and saying, “Oh, we have those where I’m from,” even though the animals aren’t related beyond both being mammals. But when Sega was trying to pick a rival for Sonic, they decided Knuckles would be an echidna because they look fairly similar. Why didn’t they pick a porcupine? I don’t know. But hey, thanks to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, a generation of kids knew that the platypus had an even weirder cousin species that was covered in spines. Thanks, Sega!

Yes, I’m going somewhere with this. I’m sorry for Rachel Maddowing you, but I wanted to explain my approach to this episode. Sunbirds and sago palms aside, this is actually the third installment of my series looking into the connections between pop music and video game music. In the first episode, I talked about Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. In the second episode, I talked about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. If you haven’t heard those, I’m linking to them in the show notes for this episode. In this third installment, I’m talking about three 1980s-era rock bands, in addition to a lot of other artists that probably have never been spoken about in any relation to video games.

You’ve been listening to music from the first Mega Man game this whole time, and now I’m going to make you listen to a track from this game that is almost infamous in how it’s connected to mainstream music. Here is the theme to Elec Man’s stage, from Mega Man 1, composed by Manami Matsumae.

I think I’ve said before that Matsumae deserves a lot of credit for her work on the first Mega Man. It’s catchy video game music, but it also set the tone for what every subsequent Mega Man soundtrack would sound like. Even if you think Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3 is the apex of Blue Bomber music, it’s this game that established the fundamental sound.

Elec Man, of course, is the electricity-themed Robot Master in this game, and BTW, did it ever occur to you that he’s weak against Cut Man’s weapon, the Rolling Cutter, because snipping wires is a good way to shut down an electrically powered machine? I see what you did there, Capcom. In a 2011 interview with Akira Kitamura, the director of Mega Man, he says he told Manami Matsumae that the game’s stage music should echo the boss’s theme in some way and that in Elec Man’s theme you can hear sound effects that represent electricity. I think those pulsing noises you hear at the start of the track are what he’s referring to. But it’s the part that comes next that I’m concerned with here.

You probably know where I’m going with this, because most people who know a thing about the first Mega Man’s music know that Elec Man’s theme sounds a lot like the song “Faithfully,” by Journey. Have a listen.

You can’t miss it. I’d actually wager that there are a lot people my age who maybe only know “Faithfully” because it’s been documented so widely online as something that sounds like Elec Man’s theme. Mega Man came out on December 17, 1987. “Faithfully” first came out on Journey’s eighth studio album, Frontiers, on February 1, 1983. A shortsighted person would conclude that Manami Matsumae had to have been inspired by Journey. Right? It’s a tempting explanation. After all, Mega Man’s name is in Japan Rock Man. His female counterpart is Roll. The characters in this series are very often given music-themed names. It would be easy to think that this reference to Journey is also intentional.

The composer, however, says that’s not the case.

About a year ago, GTV, the YouTube series by the user Gajillionaire, did a video about the song. In it, it’s noted that Journey certainly would have been familiar to Japanese audiences before Mega Man came out, but that Manami Matsumae wasn’t — according to her, at least, and they knew this because they asked her about the similarity, and she responded. Quote: “I have heard this from many people, but when I was composing music at that time, I didn’t know any songs by Journey. Even if I had, I wouldn’t do such a daring thing [such as copy a song] because it would come out in public. Some people have said it’s plagiarism, and it hurts me slightly, but the songs are very similar, and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it now.”

Watch the video. I just think it’s impressive that they actually got Matsumae to respond. I say this as someone who has reached out to a few Japanese composers for this series and have heard back from exactly… zero of them. So good job, GTV.

I have no reason to doubt Matsumae’s sincerity, and I gotta say that it makes me feel bad for her that she has the specter of plagiarism floating around her for this one similarity. Like, she did a creative thing, and there are these people in the United States being all, “Yeah, but Journey?” Even in the comments to the GTV video, there are people who are saying that they think the similarity is not coincidental without offering a reason beyond “because I can hear it.” They’re the people touring Australia and saying, “Yeah I’m 100 percent certain that this is a hummingbird” because they haven’t made room for the possibility that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I wanted to look a little further into this and maybe find out a little more about these similar melodies.

The GTV video notes that Journey’s “Faithfully” has two other connections to pop songs. First, when Prince wrote “Purple Rain” he checked with Jonathan Cain, the songwriter of “Faithfully,” to get his blessing because “Purple Rain” had chord changes similar to those in “Faithfully” and Prince didn’t want to get sued. The story was recalled to Billboard magazine a few days after Prince died in 2016, and Journey guitarist Neal Schon said the fact that Prince did this — that he asked permission first — spoke well of his character. I listened to “Purple Rain” with “Faithfully” in mind, and I hear it but not the part of “Faithfully” that sounds like Elec Man’s theme.

The other connected song is “All the Right Friends” by REM, a song that was first released to the public in 2001, on the soundtrack to the movie Vanilla Sky, but which REM actually recorded back in 1983, for the band’s studio debut album, Murmur. See if you figure out why it also gets mentioned in this discussion of Mega Man and Journey.

The track did not make the cut, but the fact that Murmur was released April 12, 1983, about two months after the Journey album featuring “Faithfully,” means that the songs were probably being worked on around the same time… which if true would mean that the REM guys and Jonathan Cain independently came up with these very similar melodies, and then Manami Matsumae did as fell a few years later.

Which left me with two questions: Is there something about this melodic construction that would appeal to songwriters? Like, does it elicit a certain effect on a listener, maybe, that all these songwriters are going for?

And then the second question is… are there more songs out there? — more songs with this similar element?

I’m going to answer the second one first, because I actually knew of another example off the top of my head: “Way of the World,” a Cheap Trick song from the album Dream Police, which came out in 1979, before the Journey album or the REM album.

I know, it’s not as close as the other ones, but it’s very similar. Springboarding off this, I did some poking around online, and I also found…

… “Marianne,” a 1980 track by Human League.

… the 1982 song “Change” by British rocker John Waite.

… Bon Jovi’s 1984 song “She Don’t Know Me.”

... a 1989 song called “On the Edge” by a band called AWOL.

… a 2008 eurobeat track titled “Back to ’80s” by High NRG Man that may actually be an intentional tip of the hat to the Journey song, seeing as how it’s called “Back to the ’80s” but here I go anyway.

... “Never Surrender,” a 2010 track by a band called Giant.

... “Follow Your Heart,” a song that sounds like an 1980s rock track but was actually put out in 2012 by an Italian band called Sunstorm.

… “Every Praise,” a 2013 gospel track by Hezekiah Walker.

… the theme song to the 1985 animated series M.A.S.K., written by Shuki Levy, who also wrote the themes to Inspector Gadget, He-Man, She-Ra and a lot of other shows. BTW, this is one of the few to not use the shared melodic element in the intro.

… “Steal My Girl” by One Direction. And yes, I’m surprised as anyone that I found a reason to play One Direction on my podcast.

Interestingly, in that Billboard article I mentioned earlier, Neal Schon specifically says that there’s a One Direction song that he thought sounded too much like “Faithfully.” Quote: “I was upset about it, and I just let it roll.” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about “Steal My Girl.” It’s pretty close.

… and finally… the stage select theme from Mega Man 1, by Manami Matsumae.

Like, it actually kind of does like Elec Man’s theme, and it’s in the same game, which means Matsumae liked it so much she used it twice… though it also sounds a little like Bon Jovi’s 1984 track “Runaway.”

Clearly, I need to stop now.

So obviously, it’s something that gets used a lot — if not identically then similarly enough that someone says, “Hey, that kind of sounds like this one other song.”

But why?

I can read music, but I’m not a songwriter and I haven’t played an instrument in a long time, so to answer that question, I asked a bunch of people who are and who have.

I’m going to start with the big guns and say that one of the people who shared thoughts with me was Karl Brueggemann, who is not only a musician and songwriter but the co-host of Super Marcato Bros., which is probably the most technical VGM podcast out there. Karl and his brother Will talk about music from video games and don’t shy away from using the proper vocabulary for various musical constructions and techniques. It can be very educational, and that’s why I was happy to have Karl educate me.

This is how he explained the similarities between Elec Man, Journey and REM. Quote: “It's a pretty simple idea, melodically and rhythm-wise, with lots of repetition. … The rhythms here start with four dotted quarter notes. The harmonies typically change, but the melody repeats a few times. That repetition with changing context, plus the rhythmic displacement, is very pleasing and quite a common songwriting technique. Add the descending progression, and it's a very emotional and powerful effect.”

As an example of a piece of VGM that does something similar — “a repeating melody with a changing, descending progression,” though with a different melody here, Karl suggests the main theme to the Sega game Space Harrier, composed by Hiroshi Kawaguchi.

I actually reached out to a gamerly friend who does music here in L.A., Nick Loiacano, to ask him what he thought was going on here, and he actually came up with the exact same VGM example of this happening outside a Mega Man game. Which is neat.

Analise Nelson is a songwriter here in L.A. — and she also happens to edit Singing Mountain’s podcast network sister show Smart Mouth, and she also knows video games — and she pointed out that the Mega Man, Journey and REM tracks have melodies circling the third degree of a given key’s scale. That is, if we’re in the key of C major, the third degree would be E. Then it’s one note down from E, one note up from E and then E again. She also points out that this is an example of an ostinato, a repeated musical phrase, and that is a word I only know because I listen to Super Marcato Bros., and if you listen, you will also learn fancy music vocab like this.

Analise also points out one of the reasons this technique gets us to feel emotions is that the melody goes above and below the third degree but never resolves to the tonic note, which in this case would be C, and we want it to do to that, but we don’t get that. Quote: “We, as humans, when presented with repetition without resolution, feel tension and frustration. Think of it as musical edging!” Which is the best metaphor for an abstract musical structure I’ve ever heard.

So if that’s what it is, why does it show up again and again?

I would love to say that we’ve stumbled onto some secret key to pop songwriting gold, but it’s much more boring than that. It’s actually like the hummingbird and the sunbird seeming like they’re connected but actually not being connected at all. They got that way because it works. It’s an effective strategy for survival. And kind of similarly, what we’re hearing in Elec Man’s theme and Journey and REM and a bunch of other songs is something that exists simply because it sounds good. It conveys emotion, and it’s used at the beginning of songs to hook you in as quickly as possible.

This is how Karl put it: “People who don't write music definitely have trouble understanding how common and totally fine it is to have a similar idea as someone else. Music simply has common elements that happen time and time again. And it's usually because the element is great.”

I say all this because I don’t think it’s fair that Manami Matsumae should feel any sense of badness for accidentally creating a melody that’s similar to this one Journey song, because lots of other people have also done it, and it wasn’t Journey that invented it in the first place. And I hope in having the similarity explained by the people I’m quoting in this episode, people with experience with this subject matter, someone listening would be less likely to decide that yeah, she probably did do it on purpose. And furthermore, if you perceive a similarity between two things in the future — musical or otherwise — maybe hold off before you decide that one must have ripped off the other.

My friend Nick says this kind of thing is more likely to happen than not. Quote: “There are only so many notes and only so many chord progressions that sound pleasing to the ears, so it's inevitable that you'll end up writing something that sounds a bit (or a lot) like something else. Sometimes it's unconscious.” And then he went on to talk about how he wrote a song that ended up sounding so much like a Modest Mouse song — even though he’d never heard the song or even of Modest Mouse at the time — that he put it aside because he didn’t want the perception that there had been any kind of intentionality there.

Convergent evolution is a thing. It’s maybe worth mentioning that I’d actually planned to do a robots episode of Singing Mountain two or three weeks down the line, and I’d been putting the playlist together for a while, and this very week Super Marcato Bros. did a robot-themed episode. It was good. And though it happened coincidentally, I’m going to retool mine a little bit and save it for a later date. It happens.

I have one more thing to point out to you before I wrap up this episode. Even though I spent the last few minutes cautioning you all from reading intentionality into coincidences, have you ever seen the cover art for Journey’s Frontiers, the album that “Faithfully” debuted on? It’s… a face. It’s a face that has technology on it. So it’s like a blend of tech and a human face. You might say it kind of looks like a robot. But a robot with big blue eyes. And also a helmet. That is blue.

journey-frontiers-looks-like-mega-man.png

Yeah, the album art looks like freaking Mega Man. It’s super weird to realize this. I’m posting the album art on the show notes for this episode. Check it out for yourself. I have absolutely no explanation for how this could have happened, other than that coincidences are coincidences.

Super weird.

For each installment of this series, I’m posting the text at this website, including clips and any relevant sources I used. As always, you can listen to all previous episodes of Singing Mountain at singingmountainpod.com but also anywhere you’d normally find a podcast.

If you have any questions, comments or criticisms about Singing Mountain, the easiest way to reach me is on Twitter, either at @drewgmackie or at @singmopod. You can also follow Singing Mountain on Facebook — just search Singing Mountain and then click on the one that is not a bakery — and, if you like pixel art, on Instagram at singingmountainpod.

Please subscribe, and if you like the show, give me a rate and review, because those are helpful for the reasons you hear on every podcast ever.

This show was written, produced and edited by me, Drew Mackie. The cover art for this series of episodes examining VGM and pop music was designed by Jude Buffum, a pixel artist whose work I really dig. You should check his stuff out at his website.

Special thanks to Karl, Analise and Nick, whom I mentioned earlier in this episode, but also a few more people who gave me some insights about music so I sound less stupid: Donna Swanson, Dudley Saunders and John Wedgeworth. Amy Smith is the person who cleans up this text after it goes on the website — also so I look less stupid.

Singing Mountain is a TableCakes podcast. TableCakes is a Los Angeles-based podcast network that features some really cool shows, including two others that I host. Check them all out at tablecakes.com. If you want to support Singing Mountain or any of the other shows on the TableCakes network, do so at patreon.com/tablecakes.

In 2006, Capcom put out Mega Man: Powered Up for the PlayStation Portable. It was a remake of the original Mega Man with updated graphics and two new Robot Master bosses, Time Man and Oil Man. It also featured Toshihiko Horiyama’s rearrangements of the original music by Manami Matsumae.

I’m going to close this episode with the redone version of Elec Man’s theme from this game, and when you hear it, notice how it starts out with some very rock-and-roll sounding drums, and upon hearing it for the first time in getting this episode together, I at first thought, “Oh, they’re doing it in a rock style. They’re closing the loop and finally getting even more like the Journey song it’s been compared to all these years.”

Nope. It goes off in a different direction, and it’s not bad, but oh how much cooler it would have been if it did embrace the rock and roll connection.

Here is Elec Man, from Mega Man: Powered Up, composed by Manami Matsumae but arranged by Toshihiko Horiyama.

 
 
mega-man-journey.png
Drew Mackie