Funky Five: Rock Band Network Songs

Words By Andy DeVilbiss

As I’m sure I have mentioned before, I’m a bit of a nerd, and one of my big-time nerd outlets is the videogame Rock Band. For those unfamiliar with this particular gaming phenomenon, Rock Band is a party-style “rhythm game” where you and your buddies push buttons on fake plastic guitars, pound on drumpads, and screech into microphones to guide a videogame band to superstardom. It’s like Guitar Hero on steroids. In fact, the Rock Band product proved itself so superior to Guitar Hero that Guitar Hero is no longer being made. Truly, there are few things more fun in the world than knocking back a few cold ones and raging some Rock Band with your crew. It’s like a badass karaoke party in your living room, except there are more participation options than just singing (Me? I have no problem playing this game by myself. A LOT. Enough that my cumulative score places me in the top one percent of the fake bass players on Xbox Live. Damn skippy I'm tootin' my extremely nerdy horn. Recognize the skillz, suckas).

One of the reasons Rock Band has come to dominate this particular videogame niche is that they are constantly evolving the gameplay and adding new content. For the latest iteration, Rock Band 3, there were some big upgrades: the addition of the keyboard; multiple vocal lines allowing harmonies, and; Pro Mode, which answered the oft-heard criticism of "you spend so much time with a fake guitar, you could probably learn how to play a real one," by enabling players to actually learn how to play real guitar, bass, and keyboards. Fender even made a new Squire guitar entirely for Pro Mode, a guitar that could be used as a game controller AND then be plugged into an amp like any other electric guitar. There's also a Pro Mode for drums, but, honestly, Rock Band drums were pretty damn close to real drums anyway.

As to new content, the Harmonix development team made that a priority from the start, releasing tunes as weekly downloadable content since they launched the first iteration of the game. Bands like the Grateful Dead could contract with Harmonix, who would have their coders diligently program their fingers to the bone to create Rock Band versions of their songs and make them available for purchase and download (They have 19 songs available in the game if you were curious. Phish has two). The only problem with this approach was that output was entirely determined by the Harmonix team's production/programming capacity.

Seeking to remedy this issue and to further bolster their reputation for promoting independent music, Harmonix developed the Rock Band Network (RBN). Through RBN, Harmonix freely provided their own software tool to whoever wanted it for use in creating Rock Band songs. Now, instead of having to go through Harmonix, artists could provide their master recordings, or, in RBN developer parlance, "stems" to freelance creators/coders to transform them into playable Rock Band songs. After going through a testing and review process, these songs would then be made available for download at price determined solely by the artist, who received a larger slice of the profits cake then they would working with Harmonix.

This resulted in a tremendous explosion of content as many bands viewed this as viable method to make money, as well as expose new listeners to their music and pick up a few fans. Currently there are 1,024 songs available through RBN out of 2,642 total downloadable songs. Besides a couple groups we'll get to in a few moments, some bands you might be familiar with who have made tracks available through RBN include Umphrey's McGee, Gov't Mule, The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Garage A Trois, and Assembly of Dust.

With this massive expansion of content came an increased presence of different genres that previously were unusual to see in Rock Band, which usually focused mostly on classic rock, metal, pop, and punk. On RBN you could now find electronic music, blues, and indie rock options. Most importantly, you could now also find some of The Funk, a genre that had been sorely under-represented. In fact, before RBN, Harmonix offered just ONE clearly labeled funk songpack, which provided Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces," Earth Wind and Fire's "Shining Star" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine - Pt 1" by... Well, if I gotta tell you who's responsible for that tune, you need more Funk assistance than this humble column can provide.

There's still not a TON of funk available, but, given the almost total lack of that genre's presence before RBN, things are rapidly improving. At the very least, there's enough available for a Funky Five...



1. Carl Douglas "Too Hot To Handle"

You're not crazy if you're thinking name Carl Douglas sounds vaguely familiar. He was the man responsible for documenting the antics of funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chung in the One-Hit-Wonder Hall of Fame song, "Kung Fu Fighting." Before finding this song, I had no idea he was still making music. Actually, I had no idea he was still alive. Turns out he's still (roundhouse) kickin'.



2. Nick Gallant "Turn Yourself Around"

Nick Gallant's got a few tracks on RBN. I'd classify his overall sound as alternative rock, but, damn, iff'n this track ain't 2:30 of righteous funky goodness. Straight-up disco-licious, bouncy fun.



3. Zigaboo Modeliste "Standing In Your Stuff"

A little NOLA flava courtesy of one of the founding members of the Meters, and one of the funkiest drummers of all time. This song is also on Dumpstaphunk's latest album and is a staple of their live shows. Considering the source, the drum part is indeed looks pretty challenging. This assessment is based entirely on this video, as my distinct lack of coordination means I generally stay away from the drums. Seriously, I'm lucky if I can play ANY song on easy-level drums.



4. Lettuce "Last Suppit"

Speaking of challenging drum tracks... OH MY SWEET LORD. Adam Deitch has always been one of my favorite drummers, and I think I appreciate his skills even more after seeing his incredible song-ending drum solo parsed out in Rock Band notes. It's just INSANE. It's not just the drums that pose a challenge. I must sadly admit I have yet to be able to get through this track on my standard expert-level bass. The final version's bass part during the guitar solo has a lot more notes than the preview version in this video. A lot of notes that are too fast for me to play without the larger split-strummer bass guitar. In short, there's a reason Lettuce's low end master E.D. Coomes is nicknamed "Jesus." No worries. You can just switch over to guitar and channel your inner Kraz (but good luck on the aforementioned solo).



5. Soulive "Too Much"

This one has quickly become one of my favorites to play. It surely endorses my belief that Neal Evans' left hand is better than a lot of actual bassists. Another scorching track from the Royal Family crew, and, since they've already put out two tracks, I'm hoping there's more to come. Might I suggest "Tuesday Night's Squad" or "Cannonball" please?

If you're a Rock Band player, I recommend you download all of these songs immediately. And if you're looking for someone to rock out with, I know of a pretty decent fake bass player from a little band called the Blue Whackadoos. He's pretty high in the Nerd Rankings, too. Like top one percent.

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