AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ABBOTT
The Commodore 64 is dead. Well, it's still experiencing the occasional spasm and, indeed, games seem to be produced occasionally. However, in the memories of many people the good old '64 will never ever die. People who grew up with the machine, people who now enjoy the Commodore 64 emulation packages that are appearing on the PC. People, like myself, who occasionally fire up "SIDplay" and just listen for hours, gently swimming away on aural waves of nostalgia.
Thanks to Chris Abbott, hailing from Bromley, UK, there are now other ways to enjoy some of the classic '64 tunes. Using his keyboards and adding the talents of some of the old music programmers, he compiled the nostalgic "Back in Time" audio CD. What with my trying to make as complete an interview series of the classic '64 music programmers as possible, it seemed to me logical to incorporate an interview with Chris Abbott himself, who was not only instrumental in this entire bout of nostalgia, but also in my contacting Ben Daglish. Below are the results of a short series of Q&A email messages.
When and where were you born?
Chris: Essex, UK in 1970. I'm not really an Essex man, more an Essex-Lincs-Notts-Surrey-Kent man. :)
Was the C64 the first computer you owned? When did you actually get into music?
Chris: The first computer I saw was a Pet 4032. First computer I owned (if you don't count Binatone Pong machines) was an Atari 400 with 16K (later on I won an MSX cartridge of "Track and Field" which I swapped for an unofficial RAM expansion to 48k). This machine was sold in a Car Boot sale in the late 80s :( A friend of mine bought a Commodore 64 soon after they were released, and the first games I saw on it were Ocean's "Hunchback", "Attack of the Mutant Camels" and "Falcon Patrol". "Hunchback" was the most fun, but I can still recall the awesome feeling of being about to start a game of "Attack of the Mutant Camels". I got into 'music' in 1985. Got bought a keyboard and found I could play the lead line from "Axel F". Swapped the Yamaha keyboard for a Casio CZ 101, and shortly after got a MIDI interface for the Atari 400, made by a guy in Milton Keynes. Now I come to think about it, I can't think where it actually plugged in... I think it was the serial port.
Were you part of the 'music ripping scene'?
Chris: No, I wasn't a talented enough coder. I just enjoyed the fruits of their labours.
What was the first piece of C64 music that impressed you?
Chris: "Hovver Bovver". The first piece that really blew me away was "Thing on a Spring". My favourite piece ever in the entire world is "Kentilla".
Is anything decent being made on the C64, music-wise, still? (forgive this question, but I have been out of touch with the 64 scene myself since I sold mine in 1986)
Chris: There are even games still being produced. The most prolific composer on the C64 currently is Waz Pilkington. He even converted the "Tomb Raider" music back to SID... now there's dedication!
When did you first get into contact with the C64 music programmers?
Chris: Some of them emailed me after I'd first put up my page of C64 MIDIs. Rob Hubbard I found after emailing all the Rob Hubbards on Compuserve, and Rob actually replied. Eventually, I found my way to the High Voltage group (I'm an honorary member), and they've got a huge list. I did my part in finding some people, like Tim Follin (who signed my guestbook soon after coming onto the net) and Fred Gray (a good friend of mine who I found through ICQ).
What are they like as people? (I've only met Benn and David myself, in 1989, and they seemed pretty relaxed, especially Benn)
Chris: Benn is relaxed to the point of Freneticism. It's weird: he's so busy, but he seems so calm when you speak to him... :) I haven't talked to Rob or Martin by phone: they both seem guarded, which I can understand. Fred's a great guy with some great stories. Tim Follin is a really nice guy, very humble. Send him some money, now! Chris Huelsbeck seems friendly, approachable and businesslike. I haven't had much contact with Charles Deenen, Reyn Ouwehand or JB, the Jazz man. The less said about my relationship with Jeroen Tel, the better.
How did the "Back in Time" cooperation with Rob Hubbard actually come about? Had you tried to contact Martin/Benn/David for similar things? If so, what was their reaction?
Chris: I'd been sending Rob my MIDIs: when the project started, I wanted to get him involved from the off. I sent him a preproduction, and he thought I'd missed the point with "[Crazy] Comets" and "Delta", and hadn't put enough variation into the drums and bass in "Monty [on the Run]". I sent him the source files, and he sent back much better ones. Benn was too busy to co-operate (although he wished me well), and David had no tracks on the CD. I was afraid to contact Martin until the end of the project, to be honest, but had talked to Ocean about the project. Martin at one point expressed an interest in doing tracks for "Back in Time" Volume 2, but I haven't heard back from him when I tried to be more specific about it. I've got Jogeir Liljedahl lined up as my Virtual Galway!
From the interview with Crowther/Daglish/Whittaker/Hubbard (on the "Back in Time" MPEG CD ROM), I gathered that Martin Galway is a bit of an odd one out. Do you know why?
Chris: Your guess is as good as mine. I think he has quite an ambivalent approach to fame. One of his fans took the time to send a tape of Galway covers he had done to the great man himself. Eventually, Martin sent back a detailed friendly letter with a tape of Jogeir Liljedahl's stuff (he's a great fan of Jogeir's). At other times I don't hear from him. Benn does a great impression of him by the way! But other times he just doesn't answer his email. But who knows what's taking his time?
What, to you, as a musician, are the specific merits and 'un-merits' of the top 4 sound programmers (David, Martin, Rob, Ben)?
Chris: Did you know that David used to play in the Gary Glitter band when they didn't have Gary Glitter? (hehe). My entire musical experience is filtered through Jarre-specs, so naturally I empathised with the "SID-singing" sounds of Galway. It was as if the chip itself was making the music. Whereas with Rob, you felt he's emprisoned an entire band in the chip. Benn told me once, "he's a monster muso". Rob and Martin were already musicians, but Ben and David became musicians through their career. Rob: no demerits. Who am I to judge the master? Merits: real musical feel, sense of musical structure, amazing programming skills, real vision. He created real music, inspired by real music. Subsequent musicians tended to be inspired by Rob. Martin: ditto.
Who should be added to these Fab Four, according to you?
Chris: I would add Fred Gray, for sounding unique and bringing 12/8 time to the world. I would also add Jeroen Tel (much as I have my differences with him) and Tim Follin (an absolutely unique musician). Quite a few other musicians have produced world-class pieces, of course.
Could you reveal what your plans so far are for a second volume of "Back in Time"?
Chris: It's still in the "planning" stage. I know what I'd like to be on it, but I have to make arrangements with the composers involved. If I have my way, it will include "Kentilla", "Spellbound", "Comic Bakery", "Warhawk", "Knucklebusters", "Tetris", many little connecting jingles, etc. I have a track pool of 400 tunes, all of which I feel inspired by to greater or less degrees. Which ones appear depend on which ones the composers want to do themselves, which ones work as real music and sound like "CD" tracks, and which ones can be licenced properly. An additional CD-ROM is likely if there are some tracks I feel like doing that aren't quite right for an Audio CD (for instance, "Wheelin' Wallie", or the old Interceptor stuff). CD space is limited, but CDR space is virtually unlimited. However, I'd be hard pressed to get another 70 C64 MPEGs together.
Could you lift out a few classic C64 tunes and say something about them that most people don't know?
Chris: Until "Back in Time", some people thought "Ocean Loader 3" was by Galway, rather than by Peter Clarke. All the stuff usually credited to Greg Holland (e.g. "Exploding Fist") was actually by Neil Brennan. A surprising amount of Jeroen's stuff is "inspired" by other sources. Toto for example (cf. "Children's songs"/"Cybernoid 1"). Also, someone recently found the original of "Scout". Not too many people know that "I-Ball" is a composite of two tracks from "Cabaret Voltaire" (one of them "Whip Blow") because the programmers requested something from them, or that "Delta" In-game is a disguised version of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (again, Gary Liddon requested this specifically). I don't think "Delta 97" is a copy of Philip Glass, as some people think. If you analyse the two musics, it is safe to say that it was inspired by Glass, but it's nowhere near a 1:1 copy. One of my friends recently only this afternoon recognised the entire SID of Fred Gray's "Infodroid" as being covers of Led Zep tracks!
What music do you like, um, normally - non-computer music?
Chris: Jarre, Vangelis, Nik Kershaw, lots of other music of all different types. I like music that isn't merely knob-twiddling. Anyone can take a synth sound and make it quackier over time. Anyone can sample a breakbeat, copy and paste it and put it on something else. I admire music it takes skill to produce. It makes me very angry when people criticise music (especially my music!) just because it doesn't contain a Roland 303 or a breakbeat.
Which tune on "Back in Time" was technically the most difficult to make?
Chris: "Sanxion" or "Auf Wiedersehen Monty", for different reasons. The Galway stuff came relatively easily, and "Parallax" virtually wrote itself. "Auf Monty" is difficult music, difficult to get the sounds right, also I got the bassline wrong on the first master, because Sid2MIDI ignored the filter effect. Had to redo the master to fix that one. Cost BP 300! "Sanxion" was difficult because of the synchronisation of the digital audio to the MIDI, and the difficulty of getting the bass and drums sounding right. They only began to sound like they do now a week before mastering, when Waz Pilkington came down here. "Mutants" also (another difficult tune!).
And on the CD ROM (MPEG)?
Chris: "International Karate" (it still isn't finished!).
Now for some words to react to...
He designed the Commodore 64 (and, later, the Atari ST, accordingly to legend he welded the rough version together on his kitchen table...just imagine if he'd managed to build in a SID chip in the ST (68000 processor, 8 Mhz...lots better than the C64).
Chris: Yeah, imagine...
Chris: Master instrumental musician. Anarakophobic.
Chris: I'm scared...
Chris: He was businesslike.
Chris: I don't know anything about him other than the crap Jeroen spreads about him, and I've never emailed him. So anything I said would not be based on fact... :)
Chris: Where's my CDs Jeroen?
Chris: Nope. Unless you're talking about the one with Rob Hubbard in it.
Jean Michel Jarre.
Chris: Awesome groundbreaking music, but I don't believe he played any of the instruments. I mean, has anyone seen this guy actually play a verified instrument line? Nope.
Actually...a long time ago, we're talking pre-"Zoolook", I've seen a video where he certainly does appear to play stuff. He played "Oxygene", I believe, and he was playing the keyboard and there was this huge device that he triggered all the extra noises and thingies on. He was like a total wizard in my vision. Only the drum tracks seemed pre-programmed. But I can imagine him not doing it anymore...it's way too tireing, I should think. But he does play the laser beam thing and a regular keyboard, I think?
Chris: I've seen the videos, and carefully studied his "live performances". The synchronisation is all wrong. And in the Docklands concert they actually show you footage of the guy in the turban (Michel Geiss) playing the lead line! I reckon he did all the work and JMJ was just a front man.
"Oceanic". Vangelis is who Jarre thinks he is.
Written September 1998
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