When Chris Sievey died in June, several of those who knew him best described him as a genius. Chris was best known as the man inside the oversized papier mache head of Frank Sidebottom, but before finding cult success with his aspiring pop star alter-ego, he had attempted to carve out a music career of his own, and produced a pioneering computer game based on his experiences called The Biz. Typically brilliant, the game remains thoroughly playable more than 25 years after it was released. It’s also incredibly innovative – a multimedia music release created long before anyone had any clue what a multimedia music release was.
Shortly after Chris’s death, a Facebook campaign attempted to get Frank Sidebottom to number one. It failed. The nearest Chris came to having a hit record was with a punk-pop single called I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk, recorded with his band The Freshies. It reached number 54 in the charts in February 1981. A few months later (after follow-up single I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes had similarly failed to bother the top 40), The Freshies were dropped by their label MCA.
Chris had been negotiating the pitfalls of the music industry for the best part of ten years. He’d put out a stack of singles on his own self-financed Razz label before his brief stint with a major. Despite the MCA setback, Chris and The Freshies continued gigging and recording. But Chris decided he needed a new avenue for his music. He got hold of a Sinclair ZX81 – one of the first affordable home computers – and began to learn the BASIC programming language.
"Typically brilliant, the game remains thoroughly playable more than 25 years after it was released."
His initial idea was to create a Monopoly-type computer game based on his experiences in the music industry. But the ZX81’s tiny memory didn’t have the capacity to deal with all of the ideas and information he wanted to cram in, so the first game he programmed was a very simple (and admittedly bobbins) arcade effort called The Flying Train. He stuck it on the B-side of his 1983 solo 7-inch Camouflage. It was the first computer game to be issued on vinyl (predating uninspiring later releases The Thompson Twins Adventure Game and Shakin’ Stevens’ The Shakey Game...). Camouflage flopped, but it’s since been hailed as the world’s first ever multimedia single.
Meanwhile, Chris had borrowed a new-fangled Sinclair Spectrum (with 48k of memory – around 50,000 times less than an average modern equivalent) from a pal and was busy at work programming The Biz, hard coding in BASIC, one keystroke at a time. The whole process took around 18 months, largely due to the fact that it was another multimedia affair, this time with the game cassette featuring eight Sievey/Freshies music tracks. ‘I had to sort out the legal rights to the music tracks,’ he told Spectrum games mag Crash. ‘Also I was busy playing small concerts here and there. The music side is very important to me. The computer games are done just for a bit of fun and for a change.’ In fact, he admitted he didn’t really play computer games, other than Space Invaders and a bit of Football Manager.
The Biz was released in 1984 to good reviews (‘Horribly addictive and great fun,’ said Your Spectrum), although, typically for Chris, less-involving imitators Rock Star Ate My Hamster and K-Tel’s It’s Only Rock’n’Roll racked up bigger sales. Press ads proclaimed that The Biz was ‘written by a real life rock star with real life hits’. They also revealed another innovative touch – the first player to achieve the game’s ultimate aim of a number one single would get to record with Chris and appear on stage with The Freshies. As another point of interest, the game cassette also included an odd interview with Chris conducted by Freshies fan Frank Sidebottom – the first recorded appearance of the Timperley troubadour.
The game, which can be played online via various Spectrum emulators, is a kind of Football Manager for pop music fans, full of authentic and evocative touches that hark back to the days of Smash Hits and Cheggers Plays Pop, and infused with Chris’s daft brand of humour. Inevitably, it now looks incredibly rudimentary when compared to the bells-and-whistles likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. For a start, The Biz has no graphics, and in-game sounds are limited to occasional beeps. Nevertheless, it has retained the capacity to make several hours mysteriously disappear...
"The game is a kind of Football Manager for pop music fans, full of authentic and evocative touches that hark back to the days of Smash Hits and Cheggers Plays Pop."
My band struggles through pub gigs and rehearsal sessions, the drummer quits, our self-financed debut single stiffs, and our uninsured gear is stolen after a gig at Liverpool Eric’s. ‘Your tape’s back from Island,’ our dodgy manager tells us, ‘with a rejection slip.’ We’re faced with some perplexing dilemmas, including: ‘A groupie offer you some drugs to help you write some “far out” songs. Do you accept?’ (There are also some lovely self-deprecating touches. When recording a new track, the game prompts: ‘What is the title of your single? (14 characters maximum, unlike some of Sievey’s)’.)
But then some progress. The words ‘You record a John Peel Session’ provide a genuine thrill. Smash Hits prints a photo, we record a jingle for Mike Read, we’re on Tyne Tees TV’s Razzmatazz, and suddenly we’re signed to CBS on a £5,000 advance. We release a new single that goes straight into the top 40. We’re on standby for Top of the Pops – and get the nod. The single rockets to number two, but we can’t dislodge Blondie from the top spot. And it’s all downhill from there. Finally, when we’re dropped by our label, the game offers two options: ‘Press X to continue The Biz. Press 0 to commit suicide’.
To paraphrase Frank Sidebottom, The Biz is really fantastic. Unfortunately, it didn’t propel Chris’s music into the pop charts. In fact, he struggled to find chart success within the confines of the game. ‘Would you believe,’ he said, ‘even though I know how the program works, I can’t even get into the top ten?’
The Biz can be played online at www.zxspectrum.net.