Saturday, May 03, 2014

Tracing the source of catchy melodies

Thirty years ago, in the mid 1980s, I would be spending some time with my Commodore 64 – writing some programs in BASIC or the 6510 machine code or playing some games. Or some combinations of those things.

This composition will be one of the main topics of this blog post.

With a few exceptions, the games I possessed were copied from the pirates but what you would expect, especially behind the Iron Curtain. Commodore 64 had the wonderful "sound card", the SID chip with 3 sound generators and more. I still remember some POKE's and PEEK's needed to make this gadget work. The music sounded much better than the one-bit music from Sinclair ZX Spectrum, for example. (Compare the nearly professional C64 music with the Manic Miner sounds from Spectrum which are really horrible in comparison. If you cared: The in-game music is "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's music to Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play "Peer Gynt". The music that plays during the title screen is an arrangement of "The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II.)

Some of the games' musical themes were wonderful. And a curious person wants to know more about good compositions. Sometimes, especially when the composer was a young living man, the author would be written down. But it wasn't always the case. Today, we could use Shazam [iOS], the app that (reversely) identifies the music according to the audio it hears. But there was no Shazam 30 years ago so the source of some music remained a mystery.

I could learn that there were some wonderful composers who were literally born to excel in the Commodore 64 era of the mid 1980s. Rob Hubbard was perhaps the most famous one. He wrote or converted the music for 75 games. His memorable pieces include Commando, Crazy Comets, Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Monty on the Run, and Master of Magic.

A band called "Press Play on Tape" has been playing the compositions as if they were not intended for home computers. And the music sounds pretty good. Try e.g. Ghost 'n' Goblins.

Well, this is the work of another (then) young composer, Mark Cooksey, who would work for Elite – a producer of games that every Commodore 64 enthusiast must have noticed. Aside from Ghost 'n' Goblins, I liked his music for Paperboy (more), Uridium (remix). And correct me if I am wrong, I believe that he is also the original author of the unforgettable 911 Tiger Shark theme music. I might be completely wrong because I also knew this music from some educational program on Czech TV in the early 1980s so it may be more famous. What is it?

He converted the music for Scooby Doo (along with Ben Daglish). If there were no Iron Curtain, we would have been familiar with the TV series, I guess (we were familiar with numerous similar Western TV series, anyway). The original simple "Scooby Doo Where Are You" song was composed by a guy called David Mook, I believe.

The same Iron Curtain prevented many of us from actively knowing the 1985 comedy Beverly Hills Cop where the song Alex F appeared. So ironically enough, I would only know this composition from its C64 reincarnation. Well, the theme song was actually picked by [only the Czech edition of?] the Radio Free Europe (a transmitter of the imperialists that I would listen to) as the jingle introducing one of their political programs but I have already forgotten which one it was. Harold Faltermeyer recorded the original composition.

These were some notable examples of "contemporary" compositions whose composers could have been traced. Well-known older pieces were actually harder to be pinpointed.

In 1986, someone released the game "Sanxion". Its music was notable. I knew that I had to have heard it somewhere. Perhaps at school. Maybe I was supposed to know who was the composer and what was the name of the composition. The appearance of the music in the game made it connected – internally – with the Iridium-like aircraft. It's some war music, isn't it?

Today, quite accidentally, I decided to check whether there were some famous enough Ukrainian composers. Of course that the sad and tense political situation in Ukraine is what is increasing my attention to all things Ukrainian. However, the only name in the long list that I could really recognize was Sergei Prokofiev. YouTube reminded me of his most famous contributions. And the first hit was the video at the very top of this blog post, Romeo and Juliet, No 13, Dance of the Knights (unofficially: Montagues and Capulets). Sergei Prokofiev was really ethnic Russian but at least, he was born in the (currently explosive) Donetsk Region.

Yes, it's the wonderful music from "Sanxion". So the Sanxion theme music is no true warmongering music – it's a Romeo and Juliet music! This personal mystery of mine has been waiting to be resolved for almost 30 years; I must have been busy or something to have put this important question on the back burner for a while. I am happy that it was resolved tonight. In fact, a very similar mystery has been waiting to be solved for 25 years and I solved it a few minutes before the previous mystery, too. ;-) It was harder because I didn't know what was the exact game where the remarkable war-like composition was used. I just knew it was some war-like game with tanks and airplanes, too. For something like 20 years, I've been fooling myself into believing that the game had to be called 1942. But it's not hard to see that the 1942 game had a different melody. Sources indicate that it was by Mark Cooksey.

However, I actually found that the name of the game was Black Hawk: a much uglier game than what I have wanted to believe for 25 years. ;-) I've never played it for more than a few minutes, I guess. In this case, I figured out the name of the composition (and the author) before the name of the Commodore 64 game.

And yes, it is "The Ride of the Valkyries" from "Die Walküre", an opera by Richard Wagner. And it is indeed an opera about warriors. The plot is just older and less hectic than the Second World War with which I have associated the composition in my mind, partly thanks to the usage in the Black Hawk game (and probably in some movies and other games). These days, I am imagining a pack of modern fighter jets when I hear the music although this wasn't necessarily Richard Wagner's original intent. ;-) A remarkably modern composition – I wouldn't guess that the melody has been around since 1851.

Previously, I mentioned that a composition about love looked like a hymn for the military. There are many other cases where this misinterpretation is very tempting – and, indeed, irresistible for many people.

Katyusha is probably the world's most famous example of that confusion. Katyusha is a World War II Soviet rocket launcher and the music was released during the war. So people – especially those who speak no Russian – tend to assume that this is a song promoting the war. The reality is that it is a love song from 1938. Apple and pear trees were blooming. And a girl is missing her beloved one (a soldier). The rocket launcher was actually named after the love song! ;-)

The wildly popular Czech "translation" of the lyrics is neither a love song nor a war song. The plot is typically Czech – practical in character. The text says that Nina entered a cow house and wanted some milk. So she grabbed a bull by his scrotum and told him: give me, bull, some moloko. And so on. ;-)

The second most notorious example is Kalinka which is no war song, either. It is an 1860 song about the cranberry trees and love. :-)

Just to be sure, the Sacred War (Svjáščennaja vojna) is a war song composed in order to fight the Nazis. I think it's a wonderfully catchy composition, too.

There were too many war songs so I had to embed a wonderful Russian/Soviet song on peace, May There Always Be Sunshine (Czech, English, German+French). As an anti-communist revolutionary or as a Czech American, I have never stopped to love it. ;-)

The pro-Maidan soccer rowdies have burned dozens of people in Odessa, so far peaceful Black Sea port in Ukraine (70% Ukrainians, 30% Russians). The anti-Maidan citizens were held in the burning Labor Union building – most of them suffocated, some of them jumped from the windows, in shocking scenes that we remember from 9/11, too. It may be a matter of days when the Kremlin sends troops to Ukraine. And maybe they will do nothing. No one knows for sure – perhaps with the exception of Putin.

One more funny story about the wiggly journeys of songs. It is about a Hungarian trace.

There is a well-known Czech or Slovak folk song with the lyrics "Chobogay, nye bogay, char-rih nye bogay, bogay bogay bogay bogay char-rih nye bogay". It doesn't make much sense, even in Czech, but the words look like almost grammatically correct forms (including declension) of words that could be a dialect of Czech or Slovak. The "meaning" could be translated like "What to bog, do not bog, don't bog the lines. Do bog, do bog, do bog, do bog, but do not bog the lines" but if "bog" means something, it shouldn't mean anything! ;-) See YouTube for Čobogaj to see some interpretations of this hackneyed song.

An original Czech or Slovak invention with lyrics that the Czech or Slovak lyricists found funny? It turned out that the origin of this piece of the song is different. It is a 19th century Hungarian folk song, Csebogár, Csebogár. You may listen to Lovay Laszlo's edition of this military march that says "Yellow May beetle, you yellow May beetle". The song has acquired another piece – called "The Queen Herself" or "On the St Catherine Day" – and it became vastly more popular in Czech lands and Slovakia than it was ever popular in Hungary, especially thanks to the Hungarian chorus. (Our not so well-known songs have become comparable superhits in Poland so the latitude seems to have this amplifying effect.)

(Isn't it utterly amazing that most of the 15 millions of Czechs and Slovaks may know this "Čobogaj" song but virtually none of them knows that it's originally a Hungarian folk song – even though Hungarians live just across the Danube? 15 million people living in un-curious group think are simply not enough to notice the nearly obvious.)

One more comment related to the Hungarian language. For years in the U.S., I would be told that my accent was... Hungarian. Because – in spite of their appearance that isn't too different from ours – I consider the language of our Hungarian friends as something that has invaded Central Europe from some region in between India and the Andromeda Galaxy :-), I found this coherence puzzling. But the Slovak film director Juraj Herz just told us that the Pilsner accent reminds him of Hungarian so the "misidentifications" of my accent couldn't have been coincidences. We must be doing similar things with the vowels, making them longer, more melodic, and "EH"-like, kind of. It is hard to describe, especially if I don't realize what is the true pattern that others find unusual. Can you compare Hungarian with some Pilsner speech, e.g. Izer's parody (he's speaking in the Pilsner dialect when the people are laughing). Or Mrázek's South Pilsen sketch. I can't see the similarity but the people who speak neither Hungarian nor Pilsner must think it's the same language! ;-)

BTW Czech speakers should extend their vocabulary by learning this Dictionary of special Pilsner words. It's hard for us to believe that some of the words are only being used around Pilsen – and, truth to be told, many of them are actually used much further, too.


  1. One of my favorite song is by the River of babylon.
    By boneym.

    Then niel diamond then Elvis gospel.
    And some of the old country.
    And the original black jazz.
    The really old stuff from the dirty thirties.

    Waterloo computes.

  2. Do you know that the Rivers of Babylon are not originally from Boney M but from The Melodians in 1970?

    Boney M only made it hugely popular by their cover.

    And that the lyrics of the song is actually made out of two Psalms from the Bible?

  3. Yes I know its from the psalms. That is why I like it so much. I'll look up the melodians. Thanks.

    This psalm dates from the Jewish exile about 580 BC. When the temple singers were exiled. A sad day but our God "IAM" brought them back. Ezekiel was there with them.

  4. Other pretty song, though censored for many years (by pretty obvious reasons), is "Tomorrow belongs to me" from Cabaret. This would make a pattern, beautiful songs and nice messages... but gruesome background, in this case the rise of nazism on the early thirties (I was thinking on ecologism also present in the lyrics of the song).

  5. Related and one of my favourites:

    Red Army Blues :-)

  6. Possibly a little OT.

    War music! A fan of grim, eh? :)

    OK, here you go, Luboš. This'll cheer you up.

    The World at War theme. I think it was played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. :)

    Warning: it's a little repetitive. But then I suppose so was the killing. (3:56 mins)

    Incidentally, I thought the choice of Lawrence Olivier as narrator for the series was a masterstroke — just the man for conveying grim++ and then some.

    Here he does a 1:45 minute intro before the opening theme kicks in:

  7. "The anti-Maidan citizens were held in the burning Labor Union building"

    You forgot to mention that they were mainly citizens of Transnistria and Russia who a few hours earlier attacked peaceful ukraininian rally on the Cathedral Square using bats, rocks and even firearms. They were scum and they've got what they deserved.
    Being pro-russian and right-wing cannot be compatible nowdays. Russia proved that they are a terrorist state by participating in kidnapping observers from OSCE. They should be treated exactly like other trashy terrorist states e.g. North Korea.

  8. In every civilized country, the soccer rowdies would be tried for murder. But individuals like you are doing their best to cover the war crimes of the Maidan regime.

    If your anti-Russian obsession is so strong that you're not able to see that, it's you who deserves what you wish to others.

    Putin is much more right-wing than the left-wing clique currently in charge of the U.S.

    I've only banned you because doesn't offer me the "electric chair" button yet.

  9. "I am ashamed of you as you are a Slav, too."

    You use primitive and barbaric racial criterions and you dare to say that I have something to do with heritage of Auschwitz? WTF??
    Listen, I had family both killed by Germnas and by Russians. The difference is simple: Germans are mostly ashamed of their sad history, while Russians are proud of their crimes.
    Today Putler's kacap pigs came to polish city Branievo to celebrate NKVD bandits who were responsible for killing many innocent polish soldiers from AK including my grand-grandfather. This is an official visit, and kacaps took with them flags with hammers and sickles. Russian government threatened Poles to not remove the statues of soviet bandits in this region of Poland, while they remove from Crimea statues of even so heroic people as of Peter Konashevych-Sahaidachny. They are an ulcer on this planet.

    "Putin is much more right-wing than the left-wing clique currently in charge of the U.S."
    WTF? Right wing ideology is based on free market. Let's compare USA and Russia:

    Facts contradict theory? The worse for the facts. Yes, yes, you would be a great soviet ideologist (in fact, you already are).

    "You will probably never quite make it to a civilized nation."
    I could write back that you will never by a real nation at all, but I know some Czechs and I wouldn't like to offend them though many of them have anti-polish complex. Now I see that you also have some anti-polish resentment. But fortunately your opinion on this matter is worthless. Opinions of a man who might think of Russians as of a civilized nation musn't be taken seriously. I understand that for you high HIV prevalance or ubiquitos risk of getting rabies might be determinants of a civilized country, but not for me.

    "I've only banned you because doesn't offer me "life in prison" button yet."

    You see, you are a true Soviet and you have just given a great proof for that.

  10. Two more things. First of all, I used to think that you were a courageous man, and you have disappointed me. Censorship is a result of fear.

    And the second thing. For you I can be permanents russophobes, but in this case my whole nation is a nation of professional russophobes because for some reason all Poles I know dislike Russia, and internet comments of biggest left-wing newspapers (like ) or conservative ones (like ) are full of anti-russian expression. Maybe we are all payed by Usrael to destroy slav unity? Or maybe many of us, have some of their ancestors killed by Russians, and they are now severely disgusted seeing 1th may parades on the Red Square, russian media spreading lies about Katyn or Operacja Polska, about rapes of the Red Army and so on??
    Where are graves of your ancestors? How did they die? Have they been killed by a nation which is now proud of all these villainy? Or maybe they've died of old age because they were opportunists?
    Maybe for you it's easy praise Soviets while pretending to be right-winger, but for many people from my nations it's surely unacceptable.

    The difference is that I wouldnt like to put you in prison or want you to get diagnose of sluggish schizophrenia, while you have a little Hitler living inside your mind wanting to restrict freedom of speech as left-wingers are in the habit of.

  11. Babylon is on "Nightflight to Venus" album as a gift from friend around 1979. She liked "Rasputin". I did to. Still have the album but entropy has increased so will not spend time to find it among the once alphabetized;

  12. I believe Grothendieck went crazy when he stopped using drugs. In the sixties, seventies, drugs were very commonly used by mathematicians to increase their productivity rate..

  13. I truly feel for Poland, they taken it from both sides, Russia on the east and the Germans on the west. I also feel for Ukraine, will Ukraine and the Ukraine people and their history and language end up in the ash bin of history? Like Poland the been sweeped from both sides.

  14. The "Sanxion" music is preludium to ballet "Romeo and Juliet" by Prokofiev

  15. I noted you found it yourself. Please delete mz previous comment