One strategy that major record companies have been employing lately to deter downloading is adding bonus computer content to new CD releases. I recently discovered that this technique is not unique to CD’s, but had in fact been practiced in the vinyl era as well. That’s right: there were a handful of records released in the late 70’s and early 80’s that contained computer programs as part of the audio. This is totally insane, and totally great.
Most of these programs were written for the Sinclair Spectrum home computer series. The Sinclair Spectrum was a relatively cheap home computer system that used a television set as a monitor and loaded programs from tapes. It thrived in England in the early 80’s:
“If the PC is the great electronic product of the 1990’s, the Sinclair Spectrum was the great electronic product of the 1980’s. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum (nicknamed the Speccy) was invented by Sir Clive Sinclair, a British Inventor.”
In the case of these programs on vinyl, the user would have to play back the proper portion of the record, record the resultant chatter to tape, and load the tape into the spectrum. Some users have mentioned playing certain games so much that they could recognise the loading sounds.
The Spectrum is emulated, so you can download the data files and an emulator and view the programs / play these games. Failing that, you can play most of these games directly in your browser (provided you have java enabled). All of the data files are available in the archive at worldofspectrum.org, and there are tons of emulators available for both the PC and mac (I used Spectaculator for Windows and Fuse for OS X).
The most ordinary of these vinyl-encoded programs are purely informational. Inner City Unit, a spinoff from Hawkwind, released an album called ‘New Anatomy’ in 1984. The last song on side two – ‘Hectic Electric’ consists of the audio pulses of a program that can be recorded to cassette and loaded into a 48k Sinclair Spectrum. When run, the program reportedly displays “a comprehensive description of the band, their recordings and tour schedules, etc.” I was unable to find this program data online, but the track has been included on the CD reissue.
Similar, though slightly more involved was a program included on a record called ‘XL-1’ by Pete Shelly, former leader of The Buzzcocks, in 1983. The last song on the record – ‘ZX Spectrum Code’ – contains the audio pulses of a computer program for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Again, the technically savvy listener was expected to copy the audio to tape and “play” it to their home computer. When properly input, the program was to be run while listening to the rest of the album.
If all of the above was executed properly, the program displayed rudimentary graphics and printed lyrics in time with the music for the duration of the album. Only the U.K. pressings of the album have this track. There’s a silent lockgroove before ‘ZX Spectrum Code’ so you can’t play it by accident (and deafen yourself). I’ve only found mention of one poor soul who has claimed to have successfully accomplished this feat – they mentioned it tangentially in a newgroup posting. If you have any further information, please contact me.
A gigantic step up from encoded text files were actual games included in the grooves of records. In 1984, The Thompson Twins released ‘The Thompson Twins Adventure Game’ in both regular vinyl and flexi disc formats.
This one has survived the ravages of time and is available for download online. You can play it in your web browser by clicking this link. The game is a bizarre text-based adventure in which you guide the Thompson Twins around a land of beaches and caves. If you didn’t grow up playing these games, in which you have to keep a map on paper and guess which key verbs the programmers used for certain actions, you may find it a bit frustrating. I poked around a little, but I haven’t played it enough to see how it ends. If you go north from the first screen, the Thompson Twins drown en masse. As always, the British say it best:
“And, what a surprise, having deafened my family recording it onto tape on our dodgy stereo, when the game finally worked, it was crap. Bloody stupid Eighties floppy haired inumerate Chesterfield talentless ponces.”
Another spectrum game included on vinyl was found on the B-side of Chris Sievey’s ‘Camouflage’ 7″ single. The game is called ‘Flying Train’ and was coded by Sievey himself. It’s a pretty horrible game, notable only for the explosions, which throw a stickfigure engineer from the wreckage of the train.
You can download ‘Flying Train’ here, or play the game in your browser by clicking this link. Note that the instructions will ask you to hit ‘Cyan’ to begin, and no matter what you hit you’ll get an error. I’ve found that hitting the ‘C’ key three or four times at that point gets you by to a screen where you enter your last name, and you can proceed from there.
So who was this guy who wrote computer game B-sides to his pop singles? Chris Sievey led 80’s new wave popsters The Freshies. According to one newsgroup poster, “the most interesting fact (possibly the only interesting fact) about The Freshies is that all their instruments and equipment were painted pink. This is true.”
This history of the Freshies, from the liner notes of their greatest hits album is an
entertaining read. They had mild success with one single: “I’m In Love With The Girl At The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk” (which later had its name changed to “I’m In Love With The Girl At A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”).
“Sievey and Ryan approached the one record company not to be featured in Sievey’s expanding rejection folder, MCA. A licensing deal was swiftly completed, and ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check Out Desk’ spent a solid thirteen weeks on the Radio One playlist, remaining stubbornly in position throughout the heavily enladen Christmas chart and selling
over 40,000 copies. With dark and cruel irony however, a postal strike prevented the chart return statistics from the north of England from
reaching the central computing heart of London. Despite this agonisingly frustrating setback (The Freshies really wouldn’t have been The Freshies without being constantly blighted by such surreal slabs of plain bad luck), the band remained on stand-by, literally, with all the equipment stacked in the back of a Transit van for Top Of The Pops on three separate occasions, while the single bobbed and dipped with infuriating uncertainty.”
“I’m In Love With The Girl At The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk” ended up on a soundtrack cassette to a Spectrum game called ‘The Biz’. This game wasn’t included on a vinyl release, but it too was coded by none other than Chris Sievey, and can easily be seen as a sort of venting of his frustrations with the music industry.
The player inputs information such as name, band name, class, and hometown to begin the game. From then on, the ‘band’ is offered a dizzying array of options, all affecting variables used to determine your ‘Overall Star Rating.’ Players must schedule each week’s shows and rehearsals; hire managers; record, press and market singles; film videos; and pay attention to what genres the kids are buying on the weekly charts. I ended up playing it for way too long when I ‘tried it out.’ You can download ‘The Biz’ here, or play the game in your browser by clicking this link.
Sievey ended up making a living wearing a paper mache head, playing a character called Frank Sidebottom. Frank Sidebottom was originally conceived by Sievey as the Freshies’ number one fan, but he soon grew to be infamous in his own right (Or so I’m told, I’d never heard of him). He’s apparently released albums under the name, and become something of a celebrity soccer (football) fan.
Rockabilly revivalist Shakin’ Stevens – one of the best-selling artists in Europe in the late ’80s – also had a Spectrum game included on a vinyl release. ‘The Shaky Game’ is variously reported to have been included as the B-side of the ‘This Ole House’ single, and at the end of side 2 of “The Bop Won’t Stop” album, possibly both.
The program audio is preceeded by a message from Shakin’ Stevens himself, explaining the concept to less computer literate fans. The goal of ‘The Shaky Game’ is to drive Shakin’ Stevens’ car to the center of a maze while avoiding bats, who bite you.
Though not released on Vinyl, the cassette version of The Stranglers’ ‘Aural Sculpture’ album included the audio pulses of a game called ‘Aural Quest.’ The game, a text adventure in which you controlled the band’s tour manager, was written by their Keyboard
player, Dave Greenfield.
From the newsgroups:
“Sorry, Mr. Greenfield, if you read this, but it’s true..the game’s so bad I took my copy of Aural Sculpture back to the shop to exchange for the version without the game on the end of the tape (which they had to order specially!)..it just wasn’t worth the aggro of falling to sleep with the tape on and being woken by a Spectrum 48k loading noise!”
There’s a bit of Spectrum audio code in the song ‘Thank You’ on Scottish band Urusei Yatsura‘s ‘Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura’ album, released on their own Oni records. Successfully importing the code produces a program that, when run, displays the following screen:
Examining the source for the program reveals the following comments:
“Hi Nick, is Robin there?”
“Judas Priest Satanic Message #3”
“What is sadder: a.) finding this b.) writing it”
You can download the file here.
The last song on side two of ‘Peace and Love Inc’ by 80’s synth popsters Information Society is an approximately three minute long modem transmission.
The title of the song – ‘300bps N, 8, 1 (Terminal Mode or ASCII Download)’ – gives all necessary information for importing the message. The message revealed upon playing the transmission into a properly configured computer is:
“SO WE’RE SUPPOSED TO PLAY IN CURITIBA IN 18 HOURS, BUT OUR BUS IS BEING HELD HOSTAGE BY THE LOCAL PROMOTERS. THEY’VE FORMED SOME UNHOLY ALLIANCE WITH THE BRAZILIAN COUNTERPART OF ASCAP; THE PRS. APPARANTLY THE PRS HAS THE LEGAL POWER TO ARREST PEOPLE, AND THEY WANT A PIECE OF THE NATIONAL TOUR PROMOTER’S MONEY. THE LOCAL SECURITY FORCE, “GANG MEXICANA”, HAS BEEN BOUGHT OUT FOR 1800 CRUZADOS AND A CARTON OF MARLBOROS EACH. THE ONLY FACTION STILL OPERATING IN OUR DEFENSE IN “BIG JOHN”, OUR PERSONAL SECURITY MAN, AND HE’S HIDING IN HIS ROOM BECAUSE A LOCAL GANG IS OUT FOR HIS BLOOD BECAUSE OF A 1982 KNIFING INCIDENT IN WHICH HE WAS INVOLVED. OUR 345-POUND ROAD MANAGER, RICK ONLY HAD THIS TO SAY: “YOU WANTED THE LIFE OF A ROCK STAR!”. PAUL, JIM AND I REALIZED THAT THIS WAS ONE SITUATION WE WERE GOING TO HAVE TO GET OUT OF OURSELVES.
WE CONVENED A HASTY CONFERENCE IN THE NOVOTEL LOBBY. PAUL SUGGESTED CONTACTING OUR NATIONAL TOUR PROMOTER IN SAO PAULO, BUT WE REMEMBERED THAT HE WAS IN RECIFE WITH FAITH NO MORE, WHO HAD JUST ARRIVED FOR THEIR BRAZILIAN TOUR. WE THOUGHT ABOUT CONTACTING OUR BRAZILIAN RECORD COMPANY IN RIO, BUT THEY WEREN’T HOME. OUR EVER-DILIGENT AMERICAN MANAGER WAS ARRANGING HELP OF NUMEROUS FORMS, BUT HE WAS IN NEW YORK, AND JUST TOO FAR AWAY TO GET ANYTHING MOVING IN TIME.
AND THERE WERE 6000 KIDS IN CURITIBA WHO JUST WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.
WE KNEW IT WAS TIME FOR ACTION. PAUL WENT UP TO THE PRS GUYS AND INVITED THEM INTO THE BAR TO DISCUSS IT LIKE CIVILIZED MEN OVER A FEW BRAZILIAN DRINKS, OFFERING EACH OF THEM A CIGAR ON HIS WAY. THE AMUSED PRS HEAVIES SEEMED
TO LIKE THE IDEA OF A FEW FREE DRINKS, EVEN IF THEY KNEW THEY WOULD NEVER GIVE US OUR BUS BACK. WHEN PAUL WINKED AT JIM AND I ON HIS WAY IN, WE WENT INTO ACTION.
I STOLE OFF TO MY ROOM TO PREPARE WHILE JIM WENT INTO ACTION. CREEPING CAREFULLY THROUGH A SERVICE DUCT, HE MANAGED TO GAIN A VANTAGE POINT SOME THREE METERS ABOVE THE BUS, AND DROPPED CAREFULLY ONTO THE ROOF. AFTER USING HIS ALL-PURPOSE SWISS ARMY KNIFE (AFFECTIONATELY KNOWN AS THE “SKIT KNIFE”) TO JIMMY OPEN THE ROOF HATCH, HE WENT THROUGH THE DARKENED INSIDE OF THE BUS AND REMOVED THE INSIDE ENGINE SERVICE PANEL. USING SOME SPARE ELECTRONIC PARTS HE FOUND WHILE ON AN ISLAND IN THE AMAZON, HE WIRED THE ENTIRE BUS FOR REMOTE CONTROL, NOT UNLIKE A REMOTE CONTROL TOY CAR.
AT THIS POINT, HE ASKED HIMSELF “NOW HOW SHALL I GET OUT OF HERE?!?”
PAUL WAS HAVING DIFFICULTIES OF HIS OWN.
“COULDN’T YOU SEE YOUR WAY CLEAR TO LETTING US FULFILL OUR CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATIONS IN CURITIBA? THINK OF THE KIDS!”
THROUGH OUR TRANSLATOR, FABIO, THE PRS MAN, ALDO, SAID:
“NO. YOU AMERICANS THINK YOU OWN THE WORLD. HAH! WE’LL BURN DOWN OUR RAIN FOREST IF WE DAMN WELL PLEASE. WE NEED ROOM FOR COWS!! WE WANT A MACDONALD’S ON EVERY… OH, SORRY, YES ANYWAY, NO. WE NEED 40% OF YOUR CONCERT
RECEIPTS TO GIVE TO DAVID BOWIE.” HE SAID, WINKING TO THE LOCAL PROMOTER, PHILLIPE.
AS PAUL CONTINUED THIS ELABORATE DISTRACTION, JIM EFFECTED AN ESCAPE FROM THE HEAVILY GUARDED BUS BY CRAWLING DOWN INTO THE CARGO BAY, CUTTING A HOLE IN THE FLOOR WITH THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE’S ARC-WELDER, SLIPPING INTO THE MANHOLE COVER SITUATED UNDER THE BUS, AND WALKING UP INTO THE HOTEL’S BASEMENT FROM THERE. JIM CALLED UP TO ME IN MY ROOM AND GAVE THE SIGNAL. WE WERE NOW TO MEET AT THE BACK ENTRANCE, WITH OUR TECH GUYS. BUT FIRST, PAUL WOULD NEED SOME HELP GETTING AWAY FROM HIS UNWELCOME GUESTS, AS THINGS WERE GETTING UGLY.
“HE SAYS HE HAS LOST HIS PATIENCE, AND THAT HE CAN THINK OF OTHER WAYS OF EXACTING PAYMENT FROM YOU KURT AND JIM PHYSICALLY.” OUR TREMBLING INTERPRETER SAID.
THE MOMENT HAD COME. JIM BEGAN OPERATING THE BUS FROM HIS BACK ENTRANCE VANTAGE POINT. AS THE REMOTE-CONTROLLED BUS LURCHED TOWARDS THE PARKING LOT EXIT, THE SUPERSTITIOUS SECURITY YOUTHS FLED IN TERROR. PAUL WAS PULLING ANXIOUSLY ON HIS COLLAR AS THE PRS MAN BEGAN DESCRIBING HIS COLLECTION OF WORLD WAR II NAZI CERIMONIAL KNIVES WHEN A SUDDEN CRASH SPLIT THE TABLEAU.
JIM HAD PURCHASED ME THE GIFT OF A COMPLETE BLACK NINJA STEALTH ASSASSIN OUTFIT IN ARACAJU. I HAD BEEN GEARING UP AND CRAWLING THROUGH THE AIR CONDITIONING DUCTS ALL THIS TIME. AS I CRASHED THROUGH THE CHEAP IMITAION-STYROFOAM HUNG CEILING TILES, SKATES FIRST, I FLASHED NINJA STARS ALL ABOUT ME. IN THE ENSUING PANIC, PAUL ESCAPED TO THE PRE-ARRANGED BUS PICK-UP POINT. UNFORTUNATLEY, MY SKATES WERE A POOR CHOICE OF FOOT GEAR FOR ESCAPING OVER THE BROKEN GLASS. OF THE TABLE I HAD LANDED ON. WERE IT NOT FOR THE CONFUSION AND THE NINJA-STAR-INFLICTED WOUNDS DELIVERED TO THE BAD GUYS, I WOULD HAVE BEEN SET UPON WHILE FOUNDERING ON THE GLASS-STREWN CARPET. AS IT HAPPENED, HOWEVER, I LEAPT THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR OF THE CAREENING BUS AS IT DEPARTED THE CITY OF MARINGA FOREVER.
IF ONLY WE HAD MANAGED TO GET OUR EQUIPMENT IN THE BUS, TOO . . .
EVERY WORD OF THIS STORY IS TRUE.
– KURT HARLAND
Japanese composer and synthesizer expert Isao Tomita released an LP called ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ on RCA records in 1979. A paragraph on the sleeve says “Each side of this Lp contains coded data in the form of sound effects. The message can be recovered if the electrical signal from the Lp is interfaced with the input of a micro computer programmed to the Tarbel system.” I found the decoded messages on Tomita’s site:
Side A: “THIS IS THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, OVER. SLOW DOWN. TARGET 50 MILES OFF SOUTH FLORIDA, A GIANT PYRAMID AT OCEAN BOTTOM.”
Side B: “THIS IS THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, OVER. LOOK OUT! THE CYLINDRICAL OBJECT JUST LIKE THE ONE EXPLODED OVER SIBERIA AND CRASHED INTO TUNGUSKA IN 1908, HAS JUST COME INTO THE SOLAR SYSTEM.”
Amazing. Tomita appends the following comments to his notes on the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ album:
“Ocean explorers have found scientific evidence that a collosal pyramind – more immense than any other known – sits beneath the sea in the Devil’s Triangle. Sonar tracing reveals massive and symmetrical structure. Says author Charles Berlitz: “I believe we have found a pyramid where Atlantis may have existed!”. Pyramid as shown in artist’s sketch is in 1,200 feet of water and reaches incredible height of 780 feet. Undersea researcher found it 50 miles off South Florida.”
A few others that I haven’t found many details on:
- A Space Invaders clone on the B-side of the ‘Google’ single by Atomic Robo Kid. ‘
- Polish group Papa Dance released a 12″ called ‘Ponizej krytyki’ in 1987. It contained a program in two parts. The program was info about the group and some kind of quiz.
- “Carter USM put a program at the start of a song on thier “101 Damnations” album. ‘A Perfect Day to Drop the Bomb’. It starts with about 15 seconds worth of loading screeches. It’s just code, though (the blue and yellow bit), with no header, so you can’t load it in, unless you know what you’re doing.”
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