Hey! Listen is a twice-monthly column unearthing obscure video game music and trivia. Today’s column examines how Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal worked with Sega to create the esoteric soundtrack to Wild Woody.
I’ve spent the last three months sipping from the golden chalice of video game music, in this case, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet detailing nearly 2000 video game songs in obscure time signatures. This list is a musical feast of epic proportions, covering everything from anime anthems in visual novels to the Meshuggah-esque chiptune melodies in Mercury: The Prime Master, but more importantly, it’s been an ace way for me to check out soundtracks from games I’ve never heard of.
- READ MORE: ‘F-Zero’ jazz and ‘Castlevania’ hip-hop: why the ’90s was the golden age for video game soundtracks
That’s exactly how I stumbled upon Wild Woody, a quirky platformer released for the Sega Mega-CD in 1995, whose music was written by the fretless purveyor of riffs, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal. If you’re not familiar with the name, Thal spent eight years of his life performing in Guns ‘N’ Roses between 2006 and 2014. Nowadays, he’s the guitarist for the prog-rock supergroup, Sons of Apollo, as well as the vocalist for legendary prog-rock kings, Asia.
Strange as the partnership between Thal and Wild Woody might seem, it actually makes perfect since when you consider they have the shared DNA of being really fucking out-there. The character you control in the aptly-named Wild Woody – which is so full of innuendos they should have just called it Stonking Stiffy – is an anthropomorphic pencil with the personality of Jim Carrey’s The Mask. You attack enemies with your arse – sorry, eraser.
By comparison, Thal’s stage name is derived from an animal disease known as ulcerative pododermatitis, as are all of the track names in his 1995 debut album, ‘The Adventures of Bumblefoot’, which sets the tone for the eccentricity that’s to follow. Thal’s debut, released on Shrapnel Records, sees him shredding in a variety of genres and styles, jumping from flamenco passages to metal and prog-rock. One track, ‘Strangles’, is essentially Dillinger Escape Plan meets Between The Buried and Me. Again, really fucking out-there.
Either way, the release of Thal’s debut caught the attention of decision-makers at Sega who had the perfect project for him.
“The album was animated and quirky, stylistically fitting for a video game-like Wild Woody,” Thal explains over email. “Shrapnel’s headquarters weren’t far from SEGA’s in San Francisco, which may have played a role in SEGA hearing the album. The game’s executive music producer Spencer Nilsen reached out, a wonderful brilliant guy who was very tolerant of my untamed eccentricity.”
Nilsen, also a composer, was head of Sega of America’s audio department at the time, and quite a fan of big fat riffs. Just take a listen to some of the other Sega CD soundtracks from that time, namely ‘The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin‘ and ‘Adventures of Batman and Robin’.
Thal says he was “thrilled” and “grateful” when he was asked to write music for Wild Woody, and it helped that he was into video games thanks to growing up with an Atari 2600 and programming his own games on the Commodore 64 when he was just 12-years-old. Video game consoles venturing into 16-bit recorded audio meant that he could write and record the music as he always had done, albeit with some mixing and fine-tuning to make the audio suitable for the Mega-CD.
Timescales were tight, though. While most video game composers spend months or even years writing music for video games, Thal was given just 28 days to write and record a title song, 16 game-level songs, six animated storyline transitional songs, and five different game-over songs.
All of the music he wrote needed to complement the changing scenarios within the game and its five worlds: Pirate World, Mythology World, Mechanical World, Sci-Fi World and the final Cemetery World, each of which had three different levels.
“My strategy was to start off silly and lighthearted in Pirate World and evolve in intensity to climactic finales in Cemetery World,” said Thal. “Within each world, I would also intensify from the first to third level in the same way, while remaining within the musical style that applied to the world,” Thal explains.
“I locked myself in my apartment in Staten Island NY for the month of February ’96 and every morning I’d write a song and record it in the afternoon. There was no time to second-guess or re-do, I ran with whatever the first instinctive idea was.”
In practice, this approach means that some songs, particularly those at the start of the game, are simple melodies that can get repetitive pretty quickly. Others, on the other hand, absolutely rip.
One of my favourites is ‘Yo-Ho!’, the boss-level music for the Pirate World which is a diss-track from the boss to the player. It’s basically a crossover Limp Bizkit and Faith No More track and it’s bloody brilliant.
“It was the mid ’90s, I was (and still am!) a fan of Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More and 24-7 Spyz. I took a chance and did a lyrical vocal song in that style for ‘Yo Ho!’, while at the same time keeping it a bit “kid-friendly”.
You can hear influence from all of these bands, as well as the likes of Mr Bungle and Primus, throughout the Wild Woody soundtrack. But Thal’s amalgamation of these various styles ends up becoming something of its own. Even if you’ve got no plans on picking up the game, give the soundtrack a listen from start to finish.
Rock music in the ‘90s was experimental by nature – just take a listen to the crossover avant-garde jazz, metal, funk and New York hardcore albums that John Zorn and 24-7 Spyz were putting out at the time. Wild Woody captures this experimental era of music in its soundtrack.
It is, without a doubt, one of the wildest game soundtracks on the Sega Mega-CD.
Wild Woody isn’t the only video game that you’ll hear Thal’s music in. He contributed music to Of Bird and Cage, a metal album presented through a two-hour long short story game, while his immense back catalogue riff wizardry has seen his music licensed for games including Test Drive – Eve of Destruction, Outlaw Volleyball and Rock Band Network.
Thal believes metal and video games are a great partnership, and if you take a listen the music in the latest Doom games or look ahead to the upcoming release of Metal: Hellsinger, it’s hard to disagree with him. So in between the writing, recording, producing and mixing he does from his studio, I asked, would Thal be interested in scoring another video game?
“I would LOOOOOVE to do more video game music, yes!”
Devs, if you want riffs, give the riff man a call.
Enjoy reading about the gaming world’s musical oddities? Here’s author Mat Ombler’s last piece on why the ’90s was the golden age for video game soundtracks.