when they first began at the start of the first COVID lockdown last spring, Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Parties had escapism at their heart. Artists from Oasis to Pulp, Blur and more guided fans through a listen-along to some of the most beloved albums in the canon. For one hour a day – deliberately starting at 10pm to clash with the evening news – fans could forget about the looming tragedy outside their four walls and dive back into albums from their youth, guided by their creators’ informative narration on the stories of the records through their Twitter accounts.
“It’s an inclusive thing and it’s fun, which is something we need to have,” Burgess told NME at the outset of the Listening Parties, which have gone on to be a genuine phenomenon across the following 18 months. Leaving the confines of Twitter at the end of lockdown, the Listening Parties have since gone into the real world with a series of appearances at festivals and live events, and also spawned a book celebrating the first year of the parties. For his relentless positivity and community spirit across lockdown, on the Listening Parties and beyond, Burgess was named one of NME’s 10 People Who Defined 2020. As we wrote at the time, “Burgess’ album parties proved to be a relentless saviour for our sanity, and a timely reminder that we have far more in common than the things that divide us.”
As was the case in their embryonic stage early last year, escapism has remained the core principle of the Listening Parties and their subsequent offshoots. As we all know, there’s no better way to escape real life than diving headfirst into a video game, so it’s brilliantly suitable, then, that this weekend (December 5), Burgess and a team of Japanese developers are launching Tim In Listening Party Land, a retro, arcade-style mobile video game to take you even further into the blissful, carefree world that the series offers – as previewed by NME earlier this year.
Tim In Listening Party Land sets you down in some of the most formative places in Burgess’ life. As a pixelated version of the Charlatans frontman, you pass a Tim Peaks Diner (a pop-up shop featuring DJs, coffee and more) and legendary Manchester venue The Deaf Institute, before rocking up at a Rough Trade record store. Proceeds from the game are going to the Music Venue Trust, an organisation Burgess has consistently supported, and has kept hundreds of vital grassroots venues across the UK afloat after they were shuttered for much of the last 18 months.
“It’s an everyday tale of a pixelated me, having my record collection stolen by some evil birds who are acting for the big bad boss guy,” Burgess tells us of the idea behind the story of the game. “I have to head off to Listening Party Land to retrieve the albums.” Access to these different worlds is gained by purchasing “magic copies” of NME from Rough Trade, allowing you to reclaim Tim’s record collection and dive deep into a host of brilliant albums. “I meet other bands, a few ghosts and I’m powered by drinking coffee,” he adds. “That bit is based on real life.”
To bring the idea to life, Burgess approached Japanese pixel art developer Takekiyo, who came into contact with Tim when he made a pixel version of The Charlatans four years ago. “We kept in touch and we loved the 8-bit versions of Charlatans songs that sound creator Satoshi Ishikawa was doing with little animations from Takekiyo,” he explains. “When the Listening Parties started, animations would appear in my inbox – demos of platform screens with the 8-bit me finding the albums involved. It was then a case of joining the dots/pixels.”
A series of late nights followed across the past year, with Satoshi and Takekiyo working in Japan and Burgess in the UK. “I wasn’t sure it would ever be a reality but we loved the process of it,” he says. “It was like putting an album together – each screen being a track and the whole thing making something greater than the sum of its parts.”
Across the game, there are five stages: The Charlatans, Blossoms, Badly Drawn Boy, Taffy – all bands who have taken part in Listening Parties over the last 18 months – and the “big bad boss guy” to finish. Inextricably tied to the parties themselves, Tim In Listening Party Land is a delicious slice of escapism, allowing you to dive into a colourful, vibrant 8-bit world, buy magazines, meet bands and build up a record collection. All the best things in life, basically.
As developer Hiroaki Hayashi explains to NME, the idea was for the experience to be the point of the game, not the completion of the levels. “This is a game that you’re supposed to enjoy the sounds and the graphics of, rather than just “clear the stages” like other normal games,” he says.
For Burgess, the arcade feel of the game was inspired by his love of retro games from the early 1980s, and, in partnership with Arcade Now, a full-scale arcade version of Tim In Listening Party Land has been created as well, which is planned to be rolled out at select events.
“There’s a big gap that starts around 1983 and ended in 2020,” Burgess says of his video game education. “They had a Space Invaders in a chippy near where I grew up and we’d be in there with our spends on a Friday,” he remembers. “The kids with their initials on the high score page were like mythical characters. My son is nearly nine and he loves Minecraft and has lots of games for his Switch – we knew we were onto a winner when he spent 45 minutes playing the test version.” When asked for his feedback on the game, Burgess’ son asked if he himself could make an appearance, which eagle-eyed players can go searching for among reclaiming Burgess’ beloved record collection.
“It’s something everyone can do together, while being apart,” Burgess says of his Listening Parties, and their continued success. “If you can access a streaming service or have an album and you can get on Twitter then it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. It’s just a case of sitting back and enjoying an album but with a director’s commentary appearing on Twitter as you listen.”
Distilling the appeal of the parties, the subsequent game, and the burgeoning franchise around it, which has given so many a truly vital escape from the doom of our current reality over the last year-and-a-half, Burgess says: “It’s really simple but there are endless possibilities.”
To see where Tim Burgess takes his Listening Party next, be sure to follow him on Twitter.