Having taken the art of making snapping bones being shattered by bullets sound as lifelike as possible, games writers are now giving as much attention to the music in their worlds. As a result, rather than being a simple tool for removing extra cash from dedicated gamers, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a box of delights, even if you thought computer games were getting above themselves when they introduced the second paddle into Pong.
Even non-gamers will know the basic set-up of GTA: ultra-realistic ultra-violence with a backdrop of a fictional but lavishly-realised early-’90s Los Angeles. Since just driving too fast can bore even Jay Kay, players are given a spot of extra stimulation by the choice of eight built-in radio stations, and each CD in this box-set represents one of these. So now, when you’re nipping down to Tesco in your Punto, you can have exactly the same soundtrack as your on-screen escape from corrupt G-men. Just don’t get the two worlds muddled up. (Unless you’re in So Solid Crew, in which case it’s too late.)
Two things give this box-set the edge. Firstly, software companies’ spending ability – the budget for the GTA: San Andreas game would probably have funded every person in Wales making their own ‘Sgt Pepper’, with enough left over to produce a couple of My Bloody Valentine albums. In fact, Rockstar have probably only let themselves down by choosing playlists more adventurous than the budget-conscious, audience-whoring world of real US commercial radio.
Secondly, GTA have realised that an age isn’t entirely defined by the music (not even Radio 1 plays stuff solely from the current Top 40), so rather than churning out an ‘I Love The Early-’90s’, they serve up classics – country network K-ROSE offers Patsy Cline’s ‘Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray’ from 1957; Augustus Pablo’s ‘King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown’ pumps from rootsy K-Jah West, as fresh as it was back in 1976. You also get a disc full of Rod Stewart from his pastel-jacket-with-bunched-up-sleeves era ( ‘Young Turks’) and a spot of Kiss from before they became a doll-flogging pantomime franchise.
Hip-hop Radio Los Santos finds space for 2Pac and Public Enemy, but also gives Compton’s Most Wanted’s ‘Hood Took Me Under’ a rare airing. Bounce FM boasts Ohio Players and Rick James ( ‘Cold Blooded’) while Mastersounds offers James Brown – appropriately enough, as he’s no stranger to car chases or gun crime. CSR features Bell Biv Devoe, but makes up for it with En Vogue (the proto-Destiny’s Child) doing ‘My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)’ and Bobby Brown with a fist of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’.
Radio X, the piercings and leather trousers station, is the most disappointing. It has its moments – L7 doing ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ – but generally, you can’t help feeling that the rock underground had more to offer in the early-’90s than Helmet and Depeche Mode. The absence of Nirvana from the chosen tracks is a screaming omission but, knowing how much Kurt Cobain hated guns, is probably understandable.
With computer games outselling records by roughly three million to one, once-mighty musicians such as Axl Rose and Chuck D have been reduced to blagging slots as spoof DJs between tracks. It’s like when new owners of a bankrupt company hire back the old management to make them dress up as jesters.
Thoughtful, lovingly constructed and expertly programmed, this is the way all box-sets should be. There might be debate over what the digital violence of the game is doing to The Kids; but it’s clear that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has driven a huge, stolen car through the window of the record industry.
Simon Hayes Budgen