Everyone who’s ever had their digits on a Commodore 64 computer for any significant length of time likely remembers the computer fondly. Some more dedicated likely remember even programming games directly into it using the Basic computer language. Chris Abbott and a large handful of other Commodore aficionados have joined their digital digits to bring back some of the best music from this machine. Drilling the depths of the rich musical history from the C64’s video games and whatever other compositions, the people of C64Audio.com have managed to make available to the new post-PC generation. Chris Abbott, the owner of C64.com, graciously agreed to an interview on their perhaps peculiar but definitely intriguing brand of C64 rebellion.
Kevin Noel Olson: The Commodore 64 was one of the very first home computers, and one of the most popular for a long time. I had and enjoyed these computers in my younger years, and they were a training ground for the overly and overtly complicated ‘improvements’ later machines would bring.
Unfortunately, like vinyl records, there are some of the younger and uninitiated that were never old enough to be blessed to own one of these remarkable machines. Perhaps you could enlighten us with a brief history of what exactly a Commodore 64 was (and still is).
Chris Abbott: The Commodore 64 was released in 1982 as primarily a business machine, with a price to match. However, it was the most powerful home computer released up until then, with hi-res colour graphics, a dedicated synth chip (very very unusual), and (what was very important in the days of 2D graphics), sprites. Once the European programmers got their hands on it, the amount of games and music for it exploded and it became the best selling single home computer model ever made.
In common with most computers of the time, when you turned it on, you were in the programming language “BASIC” (written by a small company called “Microsoft”), which meant that programming the computer was a very big part of owning one (unlike these days). To load games, you bought a tape deck (until they invented fastloaders, games could take up to 25 minutes to load from tape into 64k of memory), or a disk drive.
The Commodore 64 was unusual because although it was designed by a corporate machine, a unique set of circumstances meant that it became a testbed for some experimental and very clever designers to work their magic: it was these features (which were often put into the design despite management disapproval) that drove the sales of the machine. Indeed, it was the lack of time and money to test parts of the machine properly that led to chipset bugs which were creatively exploited to enhance the capabilities of the machine.
KNO: The music on your site is very intriguing. Is there a history as to how the C-64 started a unique audiophile craze of musicianship?
CA: Even during the C64’s lifetime, the composers of the best music had become “stars”. Over the years, various people ported the music to other platforms, then started remixing it, and finally we’re here.
KNO: Is there a ‘Commodorapalooza’ or equivalent?
CA: There was “Back in Time Live” (a live performance of C64 music in a
prestige venue), and now there’s “Copenhagen Retro Concert” run by the Commodore 64 uber-geek band “Press Play on Tape”.
KNO: How does someone go about being listed as a C-64 musician on your site?
CA: Well, my site as in c64Audio.com requires you to have composed a C64 tune which makes a CD, or remix a tune and have it on CD. To appear “in the scene”, you’d upload a remix of a C64 tune to http://remix.kwed.org, but you’d make sure to read the guidelines. It’s a hard audience.
KNO: How many different musicians and/or bands are
dedicated to this retro-vision?
CA: Hundreds, actually. About 50 are active at any one time. Most are
bedroom musicians, but there’s been an increase in people performing the music live.
Oddly, it’s very rare a Commodore 64 is used, since most of the time
the music is used as a creative outlet for the performers, not as a
showcase of the original tune.
KNO: Are there still outlets or producers of the Commodore 64 and its relatives, or how does one go about retrieving a machine for themselves?
CA: Unless you buy a Commodore 64 DTV, you’re limited to friends, car boot sales and Ebay. The DTV is ostensibly a games console, but is actually a full C64 in a joystick, and there’s numerous ways you can hack it.
KNO: Is there a requirement for the music on your CDs to utilize a Commodore or a relative in its production, or merely to have a feel or some obvious relation to the C-64?
CA: It generally has to cover or remix an existing Commodore 64 tune that appeared in a Commodore 64 game or demo.
KNO: Is there a resurgence of interest in the C-64, or is it mostly people who are nostalgic for its heyday?
CA: The soundchip (which was, and is, unique) has enough fans for it to become a valid instrument in its own right in the pop and electronic music industries… and the Commodore 64 DTV tries to bring the Commodore 64 to a new and possibly oblivious audience, but generally it’s either nostalgics(who want to relive their memories) or creatives (who want to filter the art through themselves in order to grow creatively). Of course, some people (like me) are both.
KNO: What is the general attraction for the C-64? Is it a type of ‘punk’ movement, flying in the face of corporate computerism, or is it something deeper?
CA: That’s a large part of it: many of the main revered figures from the Commodore 64 made the rules and for a time were bigger than the
industry they served. Rob Hubbard, for instance, sold games. In general
preserving music that the computer and music industries would rather pretend didn’t happen feels like a blow for the individual. And of course the computer itself is a relic of a time when someone in a bedroom could make a real difference. These days even “bedroom boy makes good” stories are a product of a fat and cynical PR machine.
KNO: Where do you see the future of C-64 retro music?
CA: iTunes, and songs based on C64 music that distance themselves from their origins.
KNO: Please give us your missive on why you do what you do and what attraction the music and the C-64 has in the neo-modern world.
CA: Ideally people would listen to Commodore 64 tunes because they’re damn good musically: there was some unique talent. In another ideal world, children would learn to program on a home computer because it’s a real introduction to computers that’s often a lot more useful than University: getting down and dirty with the hardware (and having to learn about sound synthesis, graphics techniques, code optimization, etc)… our generation that learnt computing by doing on machines like that have a much better grasp of programming and problem solving than more recent graduates. In particular, the generation that grew up on early Windows PCs without programming languages were particularly poorly served.
But generally Commodore 64 music is a powerful virus that spreads itself using victims to put their money and energy into its replication.
Sometimes I wonder if it was worth it, but my particular life journey is interlinked with this music, and the directions it has taken me are sufficiently interesting and varied to only partially regret the huge amount of money spent on it…