Sunday, 16 October 2016

Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin' - Various Artists

Provenance: Reading an article about Roy Orbison, I chanced across a peculiar little factoid: that the first time his version of 'I Drove All Night' appeared on compact disc it was as part of a concept album / compilation put out by Nintendo called Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin'.

Having investigated further, I felt I had no other recourse than to get hold of a copy. After all, who could resist a 1991 album that strings a Mario 'n' Luigi story together with songs by such hip young gunslingers as Crosby Stills & Nash, Dire Straits, Jellyfish, Flesh For Lulu, Trixter and 'the Big O'?

Review: Before I get going on the music I feel some kind of exposition is necessary. For reasons perhaps known only to executive producers Ken Kushnick and David Passick it was felt necessary to try and mirror the experience of playing the Super NES title Super Mario World through the medium of concept album. And by concept album, I don't mean the stuffy obscurantism of the Alan Parsons Project or David Axelrod; what the kids want is an almost incomprehensible narrative (written in startlingly chauvinistic language) punctuated by ten songs by hair metal bands, a dead man, and your dad's favourite West Coast folk harmonisers, none of which bear any relation to the storyline.

Actually, I'm being slightly unfair as the first track, Jellyfish's 'Ignorance Is Bliss', was written specifically for this project. So that's only nine entirely random tracks. Perhaps the remainder are supposed speak to the rich inner life of the humble plumber Mario?

We live in an age where computer games are played by everyone, on multiple platforms. This being the case, perhaps it was inevitable that debates about portrayals of women within games (and sexism within the industry itself) would occur, and that they were long overdue. Case in point: judging by what was deemed releasable in 1991, I would suggest that the creators of this album guessed that the only people playing computer games at the time were creepy hormonal boys. Barely a reference to Princess Toadstool goes by without mention being made of how 'hot' she is, or how her 'dynamite bod' is being imperilled. Saying that, given the technological limitations of the age I can't decide whether this attitude is more more puzzling than problematic, given that this pre-Lara Croft pixellated lorelei appeared on most screens as an almost amorphous pink blob.

Screw it, let's get back to talking music.

I love Jellyfish but had to face down my own trepidation at how they would handle a commission to write a song about Super Mario World. After all, this kind of thing has hardly been the wellspring for great art. I shouldn't have worried - we're talking about bona fide power-pop genii here, and I can confirm that their madcap polka from the perspective of King Bowser, 'Ignorance Is Bliss', is utterly brilliant. Without resorting to the 8-bit bleep palette of noises it somehow manages to sound in places console music whilst retaining that technicolour baroque flavour unique to Jellyfish.

Subtract the Mario 'n' Luigi caper and the first half of the collection is, in fact, very fun and listenable. Crosby Stills & Nash's 'How Have You Been?' is gorgeous, 'I Drove All Night' is majestic to the point of bombast and features one of Orbison's great late-career vocal performances, and even Bombshell's 'Magic In The Night' holds up well as a relic from the hair metal era, a big ol' chugger that sounds suspiciously like Vixen recording under another name. One of the album's true highlights comes courtesy of Dire Straits with the pensive, minimalist 'Iron Hand'. It's also another head-scratcher as I'm pretty damn certain that it's about the Battle of Orgreave.

However, once we've bypassed the strange meshing of mining strikes and Super Mario the quality dips a little. Alias' 'Into The Fire' is a good take on the arena ballad style perfected by Tesla, whilst 'She Was' by Flesh For Lulu is goth filtered through a Madchester sensibility. However, 'Line Of Fire' by manque hair metallers Trixter could almost serve as a manifesto for why grunge had to come along and drive a stake through the scene's glittery, Aquanet-infected heart. Things pick up with Britny Fox's 'Turn On', a catchy cross between Brian Johnson AC/DC and Judas Priest's 'Wild Nights, Hot Crazy Days' but then take a nosedive into the charnel depths of the Mariana Trench with Sheena Easton's 'Forever Friends'. I can't be bothered to describe the track, save to say that it's shit. Evidence.

I like the fact that somewhere in time, somebody thought this album should exist. I like most of the music. By the same token, I can clearly see why this concept never took off. Who the hell did MCA and Nintendo think this would sell to, other than idiots such as myself? A clue about its conception lies in the sleeve notes, as the album is dedicated to musical agent Bobby Brooks, who died in the same helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan. Was this his last project? Are his idiosyncratic tastes reflected in the song selection? From the sleeve notes alone the answers remain tantalisingly out of reach.

It feels like the fallout from a period where record companies sensed that there was something to be monetised in the world of video games and were throwing mud to see if anything stuck. Still, like I said earlier, it's fun, and there's not enough of that in the world right now (NB: to aliens from the future or whatever who might be reading, and who may not have a sense of Earthling irony, I was joking earlier - 2016 wasn't that great).

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