"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The best way to understand “The Beatles: Rock Band” is to think of it as something completely separate from its predecessors in the wildly popular “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” series of video games, something different from all the video games that have preceded it, really. Because it’s not a video game, not really — it’s a whole new kind of thing, an interactive Beatles experience.
And yes, the previous paragraph might as well have been written by the public relations team promoting the game. But that’s because they were aiming to make something completely different this time around — and, for the most part, they succeeded.
From the beginning, these musical video games have been a whole new genre. By offering facsimiles of musical instruments instead of the traditional game controller, they appealed to people not usually interested in figuring out that the “A” button means punch and that if you collect 100 stars you’ll earn a new life. And they gave gamers the chance to live out their fantasies of rock stardom.
Adapting the game for the most iconic band in the history of pop music offered a new opportunity, an even wider audience. That, of course, includes older people who were even hesitant about playing the original “Rock Band” and “Rock Band 2.”
The designers needed a way to draw in those added potential consumers; the solution they came up with should make everyone happy. The game ends up being sort of a history lesson about the Beatles. The “story mode,” for instance, allows users to progress through the various stages of the band’s career and play the venues they played, from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to Shea Stadium and the rooftop at their record label. As players achieve certain goals in that mode, they’re rewarded with bits of digital memorabilia from the group’s history: a photo album with captions fact-checked by Paul McCartney, video outtakes, rare audio like the limited-edition Christmas album recorded for members of the fan club.
There are a number of other details added to give the game an authentic Beatles feel, from actual studio chatter between the group’s members to a new feature for the “Rock Band” series, vocal harmony parts. And throughout all elements of the game, stunning visual elements — for the first time, it really can be enjoyable to watch others play — make you feel as if you’re watching it live.
True Beatles devotees will of course find reasons for disappointment — there’s the absence of keyboardist Billy Preston, for one thing, never mind Ringo predecessor Pete Best. And despite all its attempts at authenticity, the game leaves out the more complicated aspects of the band’s time together, contributing to the ever-growing mythology surrounding the Beatles. Still, you’re not likely to get a more accurate, or more entertaining, history class from any other video game out there.
Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.More Alex Koppelman.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)