A Former 'Rock Band' Addict Tells All
We all have life milestones we'll never forget. I can narrow mine down to four key moments: The birth of my son. My wedding. The day my father died. That time I made it all the way through Judas Priest's "Painkiller" on Rock Band 2.
I know what you're thinking: Bullshit, you lying motherfucker. Unless you were on "No Fail" mode, there's no way you pulled that off. I understand your skepticism. Claiming you've finished all six face-melting, knuckle-grinding, blood-pressure-raising minutes of the blistering speed-metal opus "Painkiller" on a plastic Fender Stratocaster is, in real-world metrics, like saying you have a photo of Sasquatch, or a girlfriend who lives in Canada and that's why nobody's ever met her. But I swear, this really happened.
If you're not familiar with Rock Band, you either weren't alive when it came out in 2007 or you were in a religious cult that didn't believe in joy. The Harmonix game was one of the year's hottest multiplayer titles, where, instead of teaming up to mow down alien invaders or squash a Russian civil war, you and up to three friends selected plastic instruments and tried to master the vocal tracks, guitar riffs, bass lines, and/or drum licks from a selection of 80 or so songs ranging from indie pop to classic rock. It was like karaoke, but with props and lightning-fast screen commands and the constant fear that you were going to miss a note and get excised from the stage with extreme prejudice. Technically, it was just the next run on the evolutionary ladder from 2005's Guitar Hero, also by Harmonix: The guitar controllers were pretty indistinguishable, with the same fret color configurations of green, red, yellow, blue, and orange running down the neck. But filling out the ensemble made all the difference. Guitar Hero was to Rock Band what email is to Slack: The group dynamic made it immensely more satisfying.
The game was a global phenomenon. Even selling at a not-so-cheap $200 a pop, Rock Band racked up sales of more than $1 billion in just the first 15 months following its November 2007 release. E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos mafioso Steven Van Zandt wrote in Time magazine that Rock Band was where "kids will find music in the future," and predicted that the game "may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs or MTV." The music industry recognized the game's power: Mötley Crüe released its single "Saints of Los Angeles" as a downloadable track on Rock Band, and despite charging $1.99 -- a 100% markup from iTunes' 99-cent sticker price -- the song sold way more copies on Rock Band in its first week (48,000) than on iTunes (14,000). Guns N' Roses, which hadn't released new music in over a decade, premiered a new track, "Shackler's Revenge," exclusively on Rock Band 2 in 2008. That's like if somebody asked you in 1982, "Have you heard that A Flock of Seagulls song 'I Ran'? Oh, you can only hear it if you play Ms. Pac-Man."
When Rock Band first came out, it didn't interest me. Which was odd, considering I was the target demo: A guy who always wished he'd become a musician but lacked the discipline to do the hard work, settling instead for hours as a teenager preening and air guitaring in front of my bedroom mirror. But when, as an adult, friends invited me over for a Rock Band "jam," I always declined. Everything about it sounded excruciating. It had all the social awkwardness of an adult party game like Celebrity or Pictionary, combined with the self-inflicted public debasement of karaoke.
And then one night, against all better judgement, I went to a Rock Band party at a friend's apartment. I sternly informed my host that I was there "just to watch." I sat in the corner, arms folded, as tentative as a guy at his first orgy. ("I want to see what all the fuss is about, but my pants stay on.") I sat through almost three hours of pseudo-rocking before I finally felt the courage to try one of the "bottom tier" songs, which is Rock Band terminology for "easy songs that anybody with basic hand-eye coordination can pull off." I played lead guitar on the Beastie Boys "So What'cha Want," and it proved strangely satisfying. I even tried the drums on Lit's "My Own Worst Enemy," and, according to various eyewitnesses, I was smiling wider than a man in his mid-30s should while keeping time to a song about drunk 20-year-olds.
Addiction is a funny thing; it happens slowly at first, and then all at once. One week I was the guy who still needed to have frets explained to him and could barely keep up with the rock-for-dummies "Eye of the Tiger," and the next I'd invested in my own Rock Band gear and I was sneering at players who hovered their pointer fingers over the green button. I mean, the pointer obviously goes on the red, the middle on the yellow, ring finger on the blue, and pinkie on the orange. And when it's time to hit the green, you slide that finger up. JESUS, HAVE YOU PEOPLE COME TO ROCK OR IS THIS FUCKING AMATEUR HOUR?
I had soon formed a regular trio with two other freelance-journalist friends whose days were similarly flexible. At first it was casual; we'd take turns on different instruments and laugh at our clumsy musicianship. But then something changed. I don't know if we actually hit the 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" that Malcolm Gladwell says makes someone an expert, but one day, it felt less like goofing around and more like band practice. We alternated vocals, but I was always the guitarist, and my avatar of choice was Moosejaw Boudreau, the game's lumberjack, because he's my spirit animal. My writer friends -- let's call them by their preferred avatars, Mothership Q and the Duke of Gravity -- were the bassist and drummer, respectively. We even gave ourselves a proper name: Per Word Rate, which may seem like a nerdy journalism joke, but we spelled it with umlauts over the O and A so it was actually pretty badass.
Playing Rock Band became our thing. When people asked to join our get-togethers, we avoided eye contact and muttered excuses. It just felt invasive. They could come watch if they wanted, but I wasn't about to hand some groupie my axe and let them play our songs. Yes, I called it my "axe" -- forgetting that my guitar was a toy.
Even though we were gelling into a tight trio, "Painkiller," our white whale, eluded us. We took it on many times, over several months, to no avail. But then one day, it all came together. I won't lie and say we were playing expert level. It was medium at best, maybe even easy. But it's like the difference between jumping out of a flying helicopter and leaping between two rooftops. Sure, one is considerably more dangerous than the other, but they're both driven by the same fear and adrenaline.
It was a weekday, early afternoon, and we were all wearing sweatshorts, so obviously things were going pretty well in our lives career-wise. We expected "Painkiller" to end like it usually did: with somebody tripping over their part like an old man stumbling down stairs, the words "FAILED" appearing over our stage as the CG crowd jeered, and the responsible "musician" screaming expletives and impotently waving his fist at the heavens. But this time, we just kept going, and going. It's difficult to do justice to the euphoria. It's like finally learning to ride a bike after multiple topples. No, it's more than that: It's like learning to ride a bike while simultaneously challenging and beating the Devil in a fiddle contest.
The adrenaline of our triumph would fade, just as Rock Band would. It wasn't the next FM or CD, and it didn't save the music industry. It started to slip from the cultural zeitgeist around 2010, with the release of Rock Band 3, which for some reason included the option of playing the game with a real guitar. Hey, if I wanted to play a real guitar, I would've learned how to play a real guitar and joined a band that gigged outside of living rooms.
Despite special editions -- devoted to the Beatles, Green Day, and, for the kids, Legos -- Rock Band faded, just as all popular fads eventually do. The other members of Per Wörd Räte stopped getting together as often -- we started having babies, and getting more dependable jobs. My plastic Stratocaster moved to storage somewhere around 2011, and a Salvation Army giveaway box soon after. Rock Band 4 came out in 2015, and Rock Band VR earlier this year, but I was never tempted to get back in the game.
And yet, I still sometimes dream about it. I'll be deep in REM when up pops the bald shirtless dude from the Rock Band 2 intro -- the one swinging a spiked mace while balancing precariously on a speeding car -- and he scream-sings at me, "Would you like to do a number with me?! Would ya like to, would ya like to?!"
It's not that I pine for the ridiculous pseudo-shredding challenges. And I recognize that nobody playing Rock Band nails the effortlessly cool Keith Richards swagger they are picturing in their heads. (You don't want to see a video of yourself playing Rock Band any more than you want home video of yourself having sex.) The reason I still get a little misty-eyed about the game is that it reminds me of what it was once like to listen to music. I mean seriously listen.
I've always been a Bob Dylan fan, but thanks to Rock Band, I know all the lyrics to "Tangled up in Blue" by heart. And Rock Band made me less of a music snob. I used to think bands like Jethro Tull and Duran Duran were mainstream crap. But if you're forced to reeeeeeeally pay attention to every note, "Aqualung" is a pretty damn good song. And after hours of trying to master "Teenage Riot," I could finally say "I'm a huge Sonic Youth fan" and not just be pretending so people would think I'm cool.
And then there was the community of it. We're living in an age when good friends sit shoulder to shoulder, ignoring each other as they listen to separate songs through their own earbuds. We played Rock Band like people used to listen to records, nodding together and comparing notes about notes. Who calls up their friends anymore and says, "Come over tonight and we'll listen to some tunes and see if we can figure it all out?"
I still have Moosejaw in my heart. Someday I'm going to call up Mothership Q and the Duke of Gravity and tell them we're getting the fucking band back together. It's never too late to slide back into your old sweatshorts and see if we still have the chops to conquer "Painkiller."