Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt reflects on Florence + The Machine’s soaring, incomparable cover of Ben E. King’s iconic track ‘Stand By Me’, and dives into the peculiar presence a real-world licensed track has in the roadtrip-friendly world of Final Fantasy 15.
It’s summer 2015: it’s the coldest summer the country has faced in three years, we’ve just endured the first in a spate of deeply frustrating General Elections, and Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage all resign from politics following the Conservative win. We’re threatened with the first national rail strike in two decades. An earthquake of magnitude 4.2 hits East Kent. And to make matters worse, Foo Fighters announce they’re pulling out of a Glastonbury headline slot after gravel-voiced, gum-chewing frontman Dave Grohl falls off stage and breaks his leg.
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The country is tired. It’s been a long year (little did we know what was to come) and we needed something – anything – to lift our spirits. Rocking out in a muddy Somerset field to ‘Times Like These’ would have been just the tonic. But whatever spiteful God was in charge of Britain in 2015 didn’t even want that to happen. It’s not all bad, though. One of the most gifted singers of the UK would step in to replace Grohl: the soaring voice of Florence + The Machine was organised to replace Foo Fighters’ trademark arena rock ahead of the festival kicking off.
And what a stellar job Florence Welch and her assembled band of neo-soul musicians would make of it. As well as winning over a crowd that no doubt purchased their tickets with the Foo Fighters in mind, Welch also led a cover of the Foos’ most emotive and evocative track: ‘Times Like These’. It was so good it brought Grohl to tears.
That’s a testament to what Welch can do; she’s accomplished enough as a musician that her own songs can drive even the most hardened, crusty old music journalist to tears. And then – whether she turns her vocal cords to a Foo Fighters track or a Ben E. King track, for example – she elevates that somehow, too.
Rumour has it that it wasn’t just Glastonbury that Florence tagged in for that year, though: over in Japan, Square Enix was busy putting the finishing touches to Final Fantasy 15, a game that by that point had been in development in some form or another for nine whole years. This ‘fantasy based on reality’ had been promised to a crowd of increasingly impatient, increasingly disenfranchised Final Fantasy fans since 2006; it needed to be good. Otherwise, it could be the death knell for the series.
After sniffing around for some musicians that would help project Final Fantasy through the gamer-specific audience and into the mainstream, publisher Square Enix settled on Florence + The Machine to record a version of ‘Stand By Me’. It worked, you see, for the themes of the game: four guys, through thick and thin, supporting and standing by each other in the face of insurmountable difficulties, intergenerational trauma, and what may be the end of the world. ‘Stand By Me’ – despite being written about something much more domestic and grounded – rhymed with this fantastical story. Square Enix was making a ‘fantasy based on reality’, after all.
A few months ahead of the launch of Final Fantasy 15, in March 2016, Square Enix premiered Florence + The Machine’s version of the Ben E. King classic. It was a moodboard for the game; early promotional materials had this cross-country road trip vibe, and it was supported with the soaring vocal rendition of a stone-cold soul classic. The scene was set. It was, for my money, one of the best uses of music to promote a game, ever. The cover – and two other songs the band recorded for a Final Fantasy-themed EP that released later that year – formed the soundtrack to the washout summer of 2016. To make it even more poignant, it was also the year that Ben E. King sadly passed away.
Florence – accompanied by her glittery free spirit, lyrics that flit between the comfort of death and the beauty of life, and the soaring, sky-high notes that don’t need over-wrought production to sound magical – has always had something of the fantastical about her. Somewhere between the evocative twinkling harps and subtle chimes, you hear blues-inspired drums and throbbing bass lines that drag you back down to earth. It’s very similar to what Final Fantasy 15 does as a story and as a game: it sets you up, and brings you down. It lets your disbelief soar, before clipping its wings and bringing it crashing down to earth.
Could the Foo Fighters have done this in quite the same way? As much as I love Grohl and his collaborators, I have to doubt it. “I’ve always seen Final Fantasy as a beautiful and creative game so I don’t think I could have worked with another video game,” she explained in a Square Enix-sanctioned interview at the time, adding: “in some ways the landscape of Final Fantasy and my own internal landscape seemed to fit quite well, it’s mythical and beautiful and epic.”
You can hear it. She was the perfect choice for this mini EP of real-world Final Fantasy tracks – and a damn sight better than the baffling choice of Leona Lewis for the Final Fantasy 13 promo some six years earlier. Florence + The Machine’s skyward-looking sound – replete with its gentle orchestral swells and its rhythmic bombast, – make the Final Fantasy 15 version of ‘Stand By Me’ an essential listen (even if you’re the sort of prude that insists a cover cannot be better than the original).
I’ve yet to find a real-world, licensed song that fits a game better than Florence + The Machine’s version of ‘Stand By Me’ fits Final Fantasy 15. From the opening beat of the game – where protagonist Noctis wheels a busted car down a dusty, Route 66-inspired road with his three childhood friends – to the climactic and incredibly pessimistic final moments of a muddy, confused story, I had ‘Stand By Me’ in my head. The song – its themes, its sound, and its intent – are as much a part of the game as any of the characters.
And it wouldn’t have been the same without Florence + The Machine.
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