Guitar hero, for real

Special to The Times

The Orpheum Theatre is not a big room for the Who, but this was an unusual occasion, an intimate collision of rock history and virtual reality, of brute force and high-tech fun. Looking out over the excited crowd that thronged the room Wednesday for a private show, singer Roger Daltrey smiled and called the night “a real rock ‘n’ roll gig!”

The gig was hosted by Harmonix, makers of the video game Rock Band 2, and both Daltrey and Who guitarist Pete Townshend were especially loose and chatty during the 90-minute concert. They performed the iconic tunes, from “Baba O’Riley” to “Pinball Wizard,” with Daltrey wailing and twirling his microphone and Townshend windmilling and pounding a fist against his guitar. It was live classic rock at its very best.

But the night’s anonymous warm-up acts already had performed some of the same songs. They were actually members of the audience, many of whom had spent the previous two hours plugged into Rock Band 2, living out their rock-star fantasies on small stages scattered around the Orpheum, singing and “playing” along to those songs and others on the game controls shaped like musical instruments.

“There’s this world full of people who are born with this innate desire to make music, and they spend their whole lives playing air guitar and loving music but having no way to tap into that instinct,” said Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and chief executive of Harmonix. “It took us more than 10 years to realize that dream.”


Rock Band 2, set for release in September, is another chapter in the fast-growing music-game genre that also includes the popular Guitar Hero series. Music-related titles claimed 16% of U.S. game sales last year, and the numbers are growing. But their influence is also being felt in the music industry, as an increasing number of major rock and pop acts choose to participate in the games.

Bands such as Aerosmith and the Sex Pistols have re-recorded songs specifically for Guitar Hero, and perhaps most remarkable, the long-dormant Guns ‘N Roses is debuting the single “Shackler’s Revenge” as a part of Rock Band 2.

The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” is included in the same game, and fans will be able to download a bundle of other classic Who tracks. At the Orpheum, Daltrey sang of the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” whose game-playing skills include “such a supple wrist . . .” Only this time, Townshend was in mid-solo when he snapped a guitar-string, his final note drifting into silence. He looked at the crowd and joked, “Does this ever happen in the game?”

In the last decade, video games have become another important venue for popular music, with new and established acts providing songs to a variety of games, including the Tony Hawk skateboard series. That’s where former Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker first appeared as a hidden on-screen character. He is now a fully animated figure in Guitar Hero World Tour, the first in the series to also include drums and vocals.


“My kids play it, my friends play it. It’s a crazy phenomenon,” said Barker. “There are so many people who wish they knew how to play guitar.”

The participation of artists and access to original multi-track recordings have become crucial, said Kai Huang, president and co-founder of RedOctane, makers of Guitar Hero. The newest iteration of that game will offer Metallica’s upcoming album, “Death Magnetic,” as a download on the recording’s day of release. “People who love this kind of music want to hear the original, great iconic bands playing the original songs.”

At MTV Games, co-owner of Rock Band, Paul DeGooyer has been responsible for licensing music from artists. It wasn’t always easy. “When we started, it was a very difficult discussion,” he said, but that’s changed as the technology has grown. “This game is for the first time bordering on an authentic musical experience. When we showed the game to certain artists and managers, they just got it. That seemed to resonate with a lot of artists.”

Many of the older rockers involved are new to video games but are catching up. “I’m still on the easy-to-medium level,” Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton said with a laugh about his attempts at Guitar Hero. “I suppose if I put more time into it -- although I have to balance it with my job, where I actually have to play real guitar.”