Saturday, 14 February 2009

Secret HIStory

The story you're about to read involves scandal, creative genius, and a 15 year conspiracy of silence. Oh - and Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, after a long, long hiatus, I started playing Sonic 3 again. When I reached the Carnival Night Zone, a few bars of the awesome soundtrack were all it took to propel me back in time. Not literally, of course, just in the Proustian sense. So taken was I by the catchy riffs and thumping beats, that I whimsically suggested sampling it and laying down a sort of furious Juggalo tag-team rap over the top. I got as far as dumping the whole track into Audacity before I remembered I haven't the most rudimentary inkling of how one might start being a 'DJ', and I have never 'rapped' in my life.



I mean, just listen to that. It's tasty as you like. Here's the slightly remixed version from Act 2:



If you can't imagine two peeps dressed as clowns spitting sick lyrics up and down and all over that fucker, your soul is dead to music.

A few years after it came out on the Megadrive, Sega released the Sonic & Knuckles Collection for the PC, allowing home computer gamers to play Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and the linked-game, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which was originally created by plugging the Sonic 3 cart into the port in the top of Sonic & Knuckles to create a double-length game. But what's this?



Euuugh! More like Sonic Torture the Hedgehog! What in the name of the Inscrutable Immutable is that? What did you do with my beautiful ghetto circus?

Well, because I'm obsessive nerd with too much time on his hands, I wanted to find out. Little did I realise that, in the process, I would stumble over one of the most awesome yet benign conspiracy theories to ever grace the internet.

Here is the list of composers lifted from the Sonic 3 & Knuckles credits:


Let's take each one of those in turn. Google Brad Buxer and you discover that an impressive list of credits as a keyboardist, precussionist, producer, and arranger/composer. As a sound engineer and mixer, Bobby Brooks worked with such greats as The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Prince and Black Sabbath. Darryl Ross made his name as a producer, composer, musician and sometime vocalist. Geoff Grace has a broad range of credits as a keyboardist, songwriter and producer, working with everyone from Elton John and Boyz II Men to 'Weird Al' Yankovic. Doug Grigsby III has a large mainstream backcatalogue from his work as a bassist, keyboardist and composer. Googling 'Scirocco' leads you, rather unhelpfully, to the Volkswagen Scirocco, but 'Cirocco' leads you to a writer and producer who has worked with TLC and Stevie Wonder, amongst others. Look up Howard Drossin's work, and he seems to be the odd one out. His composer credits are largely for video games and adverts, plus some session guitar work. Curiously, however, when you play through Sonic & Knuckles on its own, Drossin is the only musician from the original septet to get a credited for the music. (check out 2:32 in the video)

So what makes Drossin the odd one out?

Well, the most conspicuous difference is that he's the only member of the group who hasn't collaborated with Michael Jackson.

In an email interview back in 2005, Roger Hector, ex-Director of the Sega Technical Institute revealed that, during the development of Sonic 3, 'Michael Jackson was originally brought in to compose all the music for the game'. This isn't quite as mental as it first sounds - after all, key Jacko tracks had already been appropriated for Moonwalker on the Megadrive, and, at the time, Sega were keen to position themselves as cooler and edgier than their family-oriented rivals, Nintendo. (as dyed-in-the-wool Nintendo fanboy, watching friend after friend fall prey to what I perceived as Sega's triumph of style over substance wound me up no end) MJ's cultural stock with the core 10-16-year-old console gaming demographic was at an almost unrivalled high.

So what happened?

Well, in 1993, one year prior to the game's release, allegations that Jackson had molested 13-year-old Jordan Chandler happened. According to Roger Hector: 'at the very end, his work was dropped after his scandals became public. This caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking.'

So, according to Hector's version of events, Sega lost their lucrative superstar contributor, his involvement was airbrushed from the records, and all his songs were replaced. Or were they?

There is a considerable body of literature on the internet espousing the theory that Jacko's tracks weren't removed from the game at all.

It turns out that people had claimed to have noticed similarities between music from the Carnival Night Zone music had the work of Michael Jackson even before the Roger Hector interview - namely, Jacko's 1991 hit single, Jam.

The most charitable thing I can say about this comparison is that it's rather inconclusive. Yes, the two pieces are peppered with orchestra hits, and they share the sampled 'glass smash' and beat drop, but by 1993 all these elements had become so ubiquitous as to become toe-curling rap clich├ęs. The two pieces may borrow some moves from the same playbook, but by and large they are substantially different. As far as I'm concerned, claiming one rips off the other has no more merit than claiming that the Elecman stage of Megaman pinched its melody from REM.



More noteworthy, however, are the obvious similarities between the opening of the Sonic 3 end credits theme, and the start of Jacko's 1996 single Stranger In Moscow. Even without being primed to spot a connection, I think most people would agree that these two opening sections sound very close indeed.

Diligent online Sonic scholars have paid particular attention to the tracks that were replaced in the 1997 PC version, (specifically the music from the Carnival Night, Ice Cap and Launch Base Zones) speculating that these might have been penned by Jacko and thus removed for legal reasons. The result has been some rather tortuous trawls through MJ's back catalogue, suggesting that, when sped up, the theme from Ice Cap Zone resembles his single Who Is It? Which is sort of true, if you strain to hear it, but hardly a smoking gun.

However, just this month, ex-Sonic Team President Yuji Naka gave an interview in which he stonewalled when asked about Michael Jackson's role in composing music for Sonic 3.

Naka first told the interviewer: 'It's best that you ask Sega!' When pressed, he responded (in what sounds like an attempt at good-natured banter): 'This information is on a need-to-know basis! One day, when the time comes, I will give you the information!' Why would he be so evasive unless there was something to hide?

It's a tricky one. This youtube video, summarises most of 'the case for'. Be warned, it's narrated by Sonic-o-phile 'Qjimbo', someone with a voice so stultifyingly monotone that every time he opens his mouth, it lulls Satan into a doze and a thousand chartered accounts escape from Hell.

On the one hand, I think there's a great deal of confirmation bias at work here. Eager theorists have a lot of data to mine, given MJ's sizeable back catalogue. Is it really that surprising that people have found musical phrases amongst his prodigious output that sound akin to phrases within the soundtrack to Sonic 3?

There's an innocent explanation for what connects the replaced tracks on the PC version, too. The music used in Sonic & Knuckles Collection has all been converted to MIDI tracks. The Carnival Night, Ice Cap, and Launch Base Zone themes all use samples - the glass smash, the low-fi yells of 'C'mon!' and 'Go!' - which, if my woefully limited knowledge of audio formats serves me correctly, couldn't be reproduced in MIDI files. I'm not sure why someone went to the trouble of writing new music rather than using the old tracks with the samples removed, especially since the new tracks are, frankly, shite. This whole 'legal complications' subset of the theory looks especially shaky when one considers that, as far as I'm aware, the tracks remain unchanged in the various Sonic and Megadrive retro compilations that have been released since. (including the Sega Megadrive: Ultimate Collection that comes out this month on Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PS3)

On the other hand, that credit roster is pretty much Team Jacko, the openings to Stranger In Moscow and the Sonic 3 end theme are very alike, Roger Hector says Michael Jackson was originally onboard, and Yuji Naka's reticence is hard to account for without some species of behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

For a while, I richocheted back and forth between the two positions - some of Jacko's songs did get left on the Sonic 3 soundtrack, no, it's just a (not very impressive) coincidence - ping pong, ping pong... every time I dismissed one side as silly, the inconsistencies of the other would rise to the surface like a corpse trapped under the ice. Then, after much pondering, I formulated an unwieldy, less exciting, but ultimately (I think) more plausible explanation.

My theory (which is no more than an idle exercise in 'what if' hypotheticals and shouldn't be construed as a statement of historical fact) goes like this: we have no reason to doubt Hector's claim that Michael Jackson was originally drafted in to write the music for Sonic 3 - certainly, to my knowledge, neither Sega nor anyone associated with the project have ever publicly denied his involvement. The official line on Jackson's songwriting methods is that, rather than writing on paper, he would sing songs into a tape recorder then recite them from memory in the recording studio.

While this compositional style is far from unusual, it does make it hard to pinpoint what proportion of the final sound of his songs was created by him, and how much was the product of members of his studio team - i.e. Buxer, Brooks, Ross, Grigsby and Cirocco. So, in practice, 'bringing in Michael Jackson' to compose the music would likely constitute 'bringing in Michael Jackson's team', meaning it's not clear how many of the songs would start life with Jacko humming them into a Dictaphone, and how many would be worked up by his collaborators in the studio, with subsequent 'input' from the J-man. After all, the value of the commission was based on its yielding a high-quality soundtrack, and on the bankability of a Michael Jackson writing credit. When sexual abuse allegations not only destroyed the value of the latter, but turned it into a liability that might well have a negative impact on sales, it wouldn't have been hard to simply strike Jackson's name from the record. From a legal point of view, it's easy to see why establishing exactly how much input Jackson had into each of the tracks already developed and negotiating the various technical and legal in-and-outs necessary to see what work - in any - could be salvaged and used without a Jacko writing credit, would have 'caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking' as Hector has it.

And look, it's not as if derivativeness and pop music are perfect strangers - over a lifetime in the studio, working to a brutal schedule with some of music's biggest names, you wouldn't sometimes retread familiar ground. I mean, how many people can whistle the end theme to Sonic 3? Or any game, for that matter? I can, (I have a whole repetoire) but that's because I'm peculiar. If you'd written a strong song opening only to see it relegated to an obscure corner of 16-bit history, wouldn't you to be keen to reuse it? Or might you simply forget that you'd written it - a touch of the old cryptoamnesia - only to have it resurface later, in a flash of inspiration, when you were called upon to pen a new track? Whether a touch of conscious or unconscious recycling took place, I don't think it's beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that this may have been on the part of the six MJ collaborators, rather than by MJ himself, and that the 'signature style' that they'd been hired to reproduce in the first place surfaces in their earlier and later projects.

Or perhaps not. I don't know. But it's possible, isn't it?

All of which leaves one big, thorny problem.

Okay, so - imagine you're overseeing publicity for the launch of Sonic 3 in Europe, an alleged sex scandal's just wiped out your internationally-renowned headline-grabbing pop star asset, and you need some way of letting one of the most hotly-anticipated video game sequels out of the traps with an appropriately huge bang. Who do you bring onboard to replace the King of Pop? Who on Earth could fill Jacko's colossal moonboots?

Who else... but Right Said Fred?

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