The Beatles: Rock Band (Xbox 360)
"Shoot me. Shoot me. Shoot me."
-- "Come Together," The Beatles; John Lennon, vocals
Number 9. Number 9. Number 9. I get it. Release day, 9/9/09, is a reference to "Revolution 9," the noisy, avant-garde, chaos-filled Beatles song on "The White Album." At eight minutes, it's the longest John, Paul, George and Ringo song ever published (the longest unreleased song is "Carnival of Light"). You have to be a fan to know that.
In life, you're either a Rolling Stones person or a Beatles person. I'm proudly the latter, a semi-complete fan of the Beatles from way back; jealous when I heard my music editor saw them in Toronto as a kid, sometimes dreaming of them after I'd read the latest biography in the cottage industry that is Fab Four tomes. I'm one of the minions who was utterly devastated when sports analyst Howard Cosell, on ABC's "Monday Night Football," announced that John Lennon was shot. That next morning, I sat at my grandmother's old player piano and plinked out "Let It Be," just like my mom taught me to.
So I wasn't sure the Beatles were the best fit for a music game. Would The Beatles: Rock Band sully the name of the most iconic of rock groups? How on Earth could Harmonix do it right? Is it sacrilege that the Beatles: Rock Band commercial is everywhere -- that Viacom channels, from MTV to Comedy Central to Country Music Television, are scheduled to show it simultaneously? Beatles music has been heard in commercials since the first 1985 ad, a Ford commercial, but it used to be that their music would never promote other businesses.
And who will buy it? A recent Pew Research poll found that older people, those over 50, choose the Beatles as their favorite music act. Sure, younger people put the band in their top 10. But who knows if they'll really buy the game, let alone the game with the expensive plastic band appliances, for $250? We're still mired in a recession, right?
As of the end of August, The Beatles: Rock Band wasn't in the top 20 preorders at Amazon.com (whereas the new Halo 3: ODST had been in the top 10 for months and is now No. 1; has been for a week). As of today, the Wii version of the game is No. 5. That doesn't indicate a super-hit in the making. On a more optimistic note, people paid hundreds per head to see Paul McCartney's latest tour, and there were tons of kids in the crowd when he played Coachella. And at all of these shows, there were not-so-subtle clips of the game behind him on the LCD screen onstage.
Yet I don't think the majority of gamers or Beatles fans really care about the marketing of the game, or how it was made. Dan Radosh, the journalist-turned-"Daily Show" writer who penned the thoughtful, 8,000-word New York Times Magazine story, was disappointed when most of the Web comments were about the song list in the game and not about the issues, both philosophical and procedural, that he brought up in the piece. The majority of gamers simply want to play. Whether they make Beatles: Rock Band a huge bestseller is another Glass Onion entirely.
The Beatles: Rock Band is spread out on my Iranian rug like the big present on Christmas Day. As a weak alto, I sing worse than Ashlee Simpson with the swine flu, so harmonizing as part of the game's three-part harmony isn't the best option for me, even on Easy mode. I gravitate toward the drums, even though Ringo was not my favorite Beatle and drums aren't my favorite instrument. While playing some of the more complex tunes in Story mode -- like "Birthday," "Get Back" and "Revolution" -- I realize that Ringo had some seriously intricate chops as a Beatles drummer. Even though I'm not asked to hit every note that Ringo hits in a Beatles recording, it's still a royal challenge on Medium. Part of that is due to the enormous spring underneath the bass drum pedal which (very unfortunately) is not adjustable. More, it's Ringo excelling at drum play. Ringo: I'm not worthy.
I put the game through every kind of test I can think of. You're supposed to be able to play the game with almost any peripheral. From the back of the closet, I find and hook up a High School Musical game microphone, and it works fine. I add a Gibson guitar from probably the first Guitar Hero. Again, it performs well, even though the Gibson has one set of fret buttons. (The Hofner bass guitar has two complete sets of fret boards, and it's somewhat easier to play.)
I have four people over for my Beatles fest, two of whom have never indulged in a music-based game. They get it. We have rollicking fun. We laugh as we play, just as we marvel at some of the more stunning videos Harmonix attached to the music, like that for "I Am the Walrus." One of my bugaboos about games in general is that designers never get the human articulatory phonetics right. Here, the lips and mouths move exactly as they would in real life, a small miracle.
Still, there's no new music from the archives. I mean, there must be more unreleased demos in that dusty vault. More, this is unrepentantly Beatles Lite -- a Disney-esque, sanitized version of Beatles history that never pretends to be, say, VH1's "Behind the Music." That's OK; forget the lurid dirt. But there's not much Beatles history here at all. The makers must imagine that everyone knows the story of their meteoric rise to fame and fortune; and if you don't, as one high-level MTV exec told me for a Slate article, you can pick up a book or rent a documentary separately. While that's a fair counter, it does more than a modicum of disservice to the teens and adults who will buy the game.
I'm not saying that everyone has to delve into the intricacies of John's youthful statement that the band was more popular than Jesus Christ, or indulge in the tabloid-like exploits of the Beatles as lovers and drug experimenters. But when you play "My Guitar Gently Weeps," and George Harrison is playing guitar in the Beatles: Rock Band video, there should be a footnote that says the guitar solo on the "White Album" version of the song is really a fine collaboration with Eric Clapton. (Don't believe it? Clapton and Harrison recorded a live version of the song in 1992.) What you do get are photos with anecdotal, almost banal blurbs in Story mode, the first of which is about the candy the Beatles preferred. It should have been about why they chose the name "The Beatles," don't you think?
So there does need to be more honest, informative history here -- in words. But the videogame industry, which I love, rarely cares enough about words or, for that matter, intellectual depth. That has to change at least a little in the future, or the industry will never be taken seriously by smart, maturing gamers and by those who create other popular art in movies, music and books. Why couldn't Viacom have spent a few extra bucks to place one of the hundreds of Beatles books in the game? Instead, we get Beatles pictures to collect with "fun facts" and audio clips. The indication? When Viacom explains away words by saying that this game is about entertainment, it's saying that words aren't entertaining. And I would fight to the death to disagree. I mean, what if they had added these recently unearthed John Lennon lyrics, so touching and so insightful, as an unlockable? They would have added a touch of real profundity.
All of this is not to say I believe that Beatles: Rock Band isn't one generally terrific piece of musical escapism and entertainment. It's the most alluring rhythm-oriented music game ever made, and only a Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd music game would rival it (inside word is that there will be an announcement soon, regarding one of these other bands). Of this, there's no doubt: The Beatles: Rock Band takes you on a magical mystery tour. Forget playing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the first of eight chapters in Story mode -- there, you're onstage, as in the first stages of any career mode in any music game. But in studio sessions at Abbey Road, you almost feel like you're sitting next to John, Paul, George and Ringo; especially because before each tune, there's real-life chatter from the band that shows both its focus and its occasional enjoyment at "coming together" to make records. In that way, The Beatles: Rock Band is a most precious holographic mimesis.
But it's not, as the erudite yet overly enthusiastic critic said in The New York Times, so amazing that it "may be the most important videogame yet made." It is a cultural event: a bright new way to understand and take pleasure in the Beatles' music with a comprehensive musical depth. These gentlemen could indeed play. Then there are the lyrics. Take the words of "Come Together," the Beatles song that started as a campaign ditty for psychedelic guru Timothy Leary's presidential bid and morphed into what some people believe are a dead person's musings as he hovers over his funeral. For so long, I thought the opening words were "Shoop. Shoop. Shoop." They're "Shoot me. Shoot me. Shoot me." What a revelation. So much crisper and clearer is this song in the game that it makes me look at "Come Together" in a wonderfully darker light.
If The Beatles: Rock Band sells as predicted (a big "if," since sales of music-based games are down 46-percent this year, according to the NPD Group), it will bring a million or more families together to play. And that's better for the tweens than listening to Miley, and better for the college kids than listening to (ugh) Fall Out Boy. But despite the fact that there is story in the music, I remain adamant that there's not enough history here. So when you buy The Beatles: Rock Band, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the hefty "Beatles Anthology" tome that showcases the Fab Four in its own unedited, unexpurgated words. Music and pictures make you smart, but words do, too.
This review is based on a Limited Edition retail version of the Xbox 360 provided by the publisher.
Get the first hour of the game in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: The Beatles: Rock Band.