75: Winners Don’t Use Drugs

Back before mainstream pop started sampling video game music willy-nilly, The Pixies went a step further and wholesale covered a VGM composition: the theme from NARC, a 1988 arcade game. This says as much about The Pixies as it does Brian Schmidt’s great soundtrack for this game, and in the scope of Singing Mountain’s series looking into the intersection of VGM and mainstream pop music, it’s an outlier in that the latter isn’t screwing over the former.

Listen to all VGM+POP episodes here.

Track listing:

0:07: Krak Street (Main Theme) / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
2:09: The Bridge / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
4:12: The Junkyard / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
6:04 The Pipeline / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
8:53: Sunset Strip / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
9:41: Where Is My Mind? / The Pixies
10:08: Velouria / The Pixies
11:01: Sunset Strip / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
11:38: Theme From NARC / The Pixies
13:23: Skyhich’s Nursery / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
16:32: The Nursery / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
17:30: The Inner Sanctum / NARC / Brian L. Schmidt
20:10: Title Theme / Black Knight 2000 / Brian Schmidt, Dan Forden and Steve Ritchie

Show notes:

In each of the five previous installments of my little series about video game music and pop music, I’ve told stories about the latter borrowing from the former and not giving any apparent credit. Today’s episode, however, is an exception. It’s actually a happy story.

The track that opened this episode is the title theme from NARC, a 1988 run-and-gun arcade game, the soundtrack for which was composed by Brian L. Schmidt, whose chief contribution to the world of gaming is actually music for pinball games. I got to ask Brian a few questions via email recently, and one of them was what he was going for when he composed the theme, which, BTW, is technically titled “Krak Street,” though it’s probably better known now as “Theme from NARC.” More on why in a bit.

Here’s what Brian said about the song:

For NARC, we went pretty stock “90s arcade” feel. Lots of energy, always pushing forward. As a bass player, I often write music from the bass up, coming up with a driving bass/percussion line that serves as the foundation for the upper layers. Back then, the style of music was also heavily influenced by the technology we had available to us — at that time that was FM synthesis. Since 8-voice FM synthesis sounded really bad trying to, for example, sound like a big orchestra, we wouldn’t do that, but would write pieces that the synth chip could pull off. So that techno-synth, with a driving beat fit not only my style, but also the technology we were using.

Brian did a lot of other video games too, including three Super NES-era Madden NFL games and then Mutant League Football and Weaponlord being the two that I most remember. The most famous, I’d wager, is NARC. And my god, is this game a time capsule. It’s so weird to look at now.

NARC has you playing as one two law enforcement agents, named Max Force and Hit Man. Those are probably codenames, but I’m going to pretend they’re not, just because I like to think of a guy named Hit Man trying to find his place in the world but just ending up shooting people. In the game, you scroll from left to right, shooting drug addicts and drug dealers. Technically, you can also bust them — like, arrest them to add to your overall end-of-stage point total — but I feel no one really did this because it’s easier to just gun enemies down. And it’s not just shooting them with a gun. You also have a missile launcher that, when fired, causes the drug addicts to explode into a bunch meaty body parts, which is clearly a prize for the player. What’s more? This game rendered all this violence in a level in crisp high resolution. Look up a playthrough on YouTube. It looks really good.

Really bloody, but really good. None of this is criticism, mind you. These are just the facts, and I’m going into it just because it’s so interesting to pick apart. I wouldn’t have this game any other way.

So yeah, you’re a cop just shooting a never-ending wave of shambling drug addicts, because that’s the right way to deal with rampant drug addiction. That’s not the reason people objected to it, however. The typical factions who object to violent video games objected to this one too, for being violent in general, not for being violent to drug addicts who should probably get medical care instead of being blown to pieces. In 2019, that seems weird, not only because the gore seems relatively tame by today’s standards but also because I feel like we’re in a different place with how with think of the war on drugs and police violence, but here’s what I think happened:

Though I can’t back this up, I’d imagine that framing this violent video game in the context of being anti-drug was maybe a ploy on the part of the developer, Williams Electronics, to get away with more violence than they might have if it had been, say, people blowing each other into meat chunks just for the hell of it. This is actually smart, from a business standpoint. The developer could point to the anti-drug veneer and say, “See? It has a good message!” I kind of think that sort of thinking was part of the “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” campaign, which would start the following the year. Thanks, FBI Director William S. Sessions! Did you know that that campaign lasted until the year 2000? Sessions himself was only FBI director until 1993, so it’s kind of weird to think of his long-standing legacies being, No. 1, Ruby Ridge and, No. 2, that screen flashing in 1990s-era arcades.

I will also point out that any messages this game had did nothing to stop kids my age from using the word “narc” to mean “tattletale.” But enough of drugs. I say NARC has a solid soundtrack that captures that gritty urban vibe that a lot of games back in this era had: Final Fight, Streets of Rage, etc. Brian Schmidt just put an American spin on it.

Have a listen to “The Pipeline,” the game’s subway theme.

NARC’s legacy, aside from a similarly controversial remake in 2005, is The Power Team, a show that is basically Captain N: The Game Master but with more poorly-remembered video game mascots. The Power Team was an cartoon that aired as part of a syndicated video game review show called Video Power. I didn’t actually know about this series until very recently, because it didn’t air where I lived, but The Power Team included Max Force (who presumably wasn’t gunning down drug addicts as much), and also Kuros from Wizards & Warriors, Tyrone from Arch Rivals and something called Kwirk from a game called Kwirk. You can watch episodes of the show online. It’s super weird.

But then there is also The Pixies. Do you know The Pixies? You should. They are one of my favorite bands, and they’re probably best known to the world now for the song “Where Is My Mind?” which plays at the end of Fight Club. But for my money, their best song is actually “Velouria.”

Please listen to their whole catalogue, however. The Pixies are also known for being one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands and kind of the reason he started his own band, so if you like Nirvana, you might enjoy the music that helped bring that band about. The Pixies is a band that is pretty explicit about its own inspirations, and you will hear references to the things they love, like surreal films Une Chien Andalou and Eraserhead… And then there’s NARC.

Because The Pixies covered the theme from NARC. Here is the studio version of that song, as it’s heard on The Pixies’ 2001 B-sides collection, titled not “Krak Street” but “Theme From NARC.”

That might be a first-of-its-kind thing, with a video game composition being full-on covered by a major band for a studio release. But this example of VGM interacting with mainstream music is unusual for a few reasons.

I asked Brian about how the hell this happened. This is what he said:

I had recently left Williams to become a freelancer; a few months later, I’d bought a house and had a bit of a housewarming party. One of the guests, NARC Game designer Eugene Jarvis, simply showed up with the CD! I had no idea that the Pixies were covering the track literally until Eugene handed it to me. I was pretty (and pleasantly) stunned. It was all done without my knowledge; I have a feeling my friends were secretly keeping it from me as a surprise until the CD was out!

Which is kind of awesome, to be honest — like, to be surprised that a known band decided your work was good enough to merit a cover, especially back when VGM wasn’t especially regarded. According to an interview with Pixies frontman and chief songwriter Black Francis, it was the fact that the NARC theme didn’t play like standard studio music that attracted him to it.

“Theme From NARC” doesn’t really have a chorus. … I thought it was pretty cool, because the chord progression in it is completely fucked-up. It isn’t standard rock ’n’roll progression.

That quote comes from an interview he did with a fanzine called Rock A My Soul, which I can only find now in quoted form. The original text seems to be gone from the internet, or at least very hard to find, considering that Black Francis also released a song called Rock A My Soul under a new stage name, Frank Black. (His real name is Charles Thompson IV. I feel like people don’t generally know that.)

Brian couldn’t advise me on what kind of deal was made between The Pixies’ label and Williams, which would eventually become Williams Bally Midway and then just Midway, and which today is a subsidiary of the Scientific Games Corporation, which I think sounds just vague enough to seem a little sinister. By the time the Pixies cover happened, Brian had left the company, and besides, he explained, because he wrote the song as an employee of the company, they owned the rights. However, unlike many instances where mainstream music uses part of a video game composition but doesn’t credit the original composer, The Pixies actually did. If you look in the liner notes for that Pixies B-sides collection, Brian gets a songwriting credit. Even better, you see his name on the listing for the song up on the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers — or ASCAP, which is a hilarious acronym I don’t think I’ve explained in previous installments of this series. This makes a difference on a monetary level. The video game company owns the mechanical rights, which is to say who gets paid when the album is purchased or the track purchased on iTunes. However, the performance rights — when it’s played in concert or used in a movie — gets split 50-50 between the company and the human who actually write the music.

Brian admits this payment is small, but it’s more than what I’d imagine most of the other VGM composers I’ve mentioned in this series have gotten — and certainly more than the guy in the Eternal Champions episode.

I asked why and Brian said he imagines that a full cover of a video game composition is different than a mere sampling, hence his credit. A quote:

It’s one thing to take a little snippet from a song and incorporate it into a much larger piece — it’s another thing to do a wholesale cover. I do see that various artists sometimes sample bits of VGM — with sampling it’s a lot easier to “forget” about the original composition/composer and just think of it as raw material.

However, he also noted that the game (and consequently his music for it as well) was featured in a 1990 Shelley Long movie called The Boyfriend School, and he didn’t get paid for that. So go figure.

If you want to listen to previous installments of this series looking into the how VGM interacts with pop music, click here.

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 as well.

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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 Amy Smith is the person who cleans up this text after it goes on the website — also so I look less stupid. If you’re in need of a copy editor, hit her up on Twitter.

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.

I’ve had Brian’s soundtrack to NARC playing in the background throughout this episode, but I’m closing out with a track from Black Knight 2000. If you’re hearing that title and thinking, “Oh, I’ve not heard of that video game,” that’s because it’s not a video game. It’s a pinball game. Because I’m so focused on video games, I forget sometimes that pinball machines are a whole side of the entertainment machine industry. So this is their moment. The final song in this episode is the theme to Black Knight 2000, composed by Brian Schmidt, Dan Forden and Steve Ritchie.

Drew Mackie