VGM Entry 06: Hubbard’s covers
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Monty on the Run is arguably Rob Hubbard’s most famous work today, and perhaps because of that I am inclined to believe it was one of his most distributed songs at the time, but it remains one game among many. A broad and stylistically diverse collection of games released in 1985 all featured Hubbard’s novel techniques as well as his high standard of quality, and it was through this larger catalog that Hubbard really made his mark on the future of game sound. What may come as a surprise is that a lot of these songs were not actually original. Hubbard had a knack for finding obscure preexisting songs that could translate well into the SID sound.
In fact, Monty on the Run was essentially a cover song. It was a rock arrangement of “Devil’s Galop”, a classical piece by Charles Williams which served as the theme to the radio show Dick Barton – Special Agent. Dick Barton, moreover, aired from 1946 until 1951, and Hubbard was born in 1955, so I doubt the choice was merely nostalgic. But whatever inspired him to choose the song, rock and roll was no obvious style through which to reinterpret it. It took a pretty unique ear to hear this and envision a C64 chiptune epic.
It helped that Hubbard was an experienced musician. His career began as a studio musician, not a programmer, and his first effort as a programmer was to design musical education software for the Commodore 64. When he submitted the project to Gremlin Graphics, it was his demo songs rather than the associated software that peaked their interest, and his new career was born.
Elsewhere, Hubbard took more recent and relevant inspiration. Master of Magic (Richard Darling, published by Mastertronic, 1985) was an arrangement of “Shibolet”, written by Larry Fast for his Synergy project and released on Audion in 1981. Trying to obtain more than a 10 second clip of the original has become more trouble than it’s worth for me, but I have to imagine that, as with all else, Hubbard made it uniquely his own.
The fact that he was even listening to contemporary synth composers–far more relevant to chiptunes than say, classical music–says a bit about how he viewed his work. Certainly Monty on the Run had a ‘guitar’ solo, but I doubt he intended the song to sound like an actual rock band in the same sort of way that some early NES composers tried to emulate real orchestras. In covering a synth artist, he was turning to a style of music designed for precisely the type of instrument the Commodore 64 was. He employed the sounds available to him for what they were, not for what they distantly resembled. This concept of viewing the SID as an instrument, not as a means to approximate instruments, is not an obvious step, and it’s much to his credit that C64 sound came to evolve as an instrument in the first place. I think it’s telling that when the likes of Tim Follin and Neil Baldwin began composing for the NES their music had a distinct Commodore 64 sound; Hubbard’s SID manipulations manifested as a unique and classifiable style of music.
His most exciting early work to consider is Rasputin (Firebird, 1985). It is derived from traditional and early Soviet-era Russian folk tunes, but wait a minute here. Yes, Tetris was created in 1984, but Alexey Pajitnov’s original was silent, and in any case it was initially isolated to the U.S.S.R. Hirokazu Tanaka, another video game music legend, composed its famous tunes based on Russian folk songs, but that wasn’t until 1989. Whether Rob Hubbard influenced him or not, the reverse is certainly not the case.
szigand on youtube actually took the trouble to dissect the components of this song and the order they appear in. It’s an amalgamation of Katyusha by Soviet composer Matvey Blanter, Czardas by Italian composer Vittorio Monti, and the traditional Hungarian folk song Kaljinka. Where Hubbard might have found them, let alone what inspired him to combine them into a chiptune classic, is anyone’s guess, but the result is brilliant.