** 2002-2015 - Wishing I'd never started doing this in the first place, and had a proper life instead... **

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frank Sidebottom's alter ego does the ZX81 / 7" single interface thing...

Something which isn't mine (at all), but I did put the component parts together after doing a load of work.  Here's a video, and below I'll tell you all about it...

In 1983, Chris Sievey (soon to find fame as Frank Sidebottom, and formerly of The Freshies) released a 7" single on his own Random Records label. The A-side was the song 'Camouflage'. Chris had recently started programming on the Sinclair ZX81 home computer, as so many of us did at the time, and included three of his programs on Side-B of the 7", as audio data recordings - exactly as they would sound when saved onto a cassette for storage.  Apparently the single got reissued on EMI soon after, but I've never seen a copy.  Anyway...

Two of the programs were versions of a game called Flying Train, for the 1K and 16K machine respectively. (Note: contrary to what's been written several times on the internetover the years , the ZX Spectrum version of Flying Train was never pressed onto vinyl. Sievey distributed this on cassette, probably for the reasons alluded to below, and would chuck in a copy of the single as well...)

The third file was an animated (albeit very basic, and BASIC) pop video for the song on Side-A. I'd seen this demonstrated on TV some time after its release, possibly on Whistle Test, alongside Pete Shelley's XL-1 which came out in 1983 as well. I never tracked a copy of the record down at the time. Nearly 30 years later, I found an unplayed 7" on eBay (the seller seems to have a few of them, in fact, at the time of writing), so set to work.

Quite a few people experimented with cutting computer data tones into vinyl, or even flexidiscs, in the early 1980s. The success rate of loading any of these was pretty bloody dismal, and there are letters/articles bemoaning that fact in several of the computer magazines of the day. One scratch, mark or even a bad mastering/cutting job at the pressing plant would scupper everything. In this case, even though the record was effectively new, it still needed a good clean (using PVA glue, my weapon of choice) to remove some muck lodged in the groove before I could get a good enough recording of the data with no odd noises, pops or clicks. I then had to filter off the unwanted frequencies at either end, fiddle with the levels and blah blah blah.

The program had to be run on an emulator on the PC, as my ZX81's 16K RAM pack went missing in the last ice age. The visuals didn't sync up with the music at all, probably as a result of the emulator not being 100% accurate, so I chopped, stretched and edited it all over to (hopefully) fit properly, as Mr. Sievey had intended. It may not be the most sophisticated bit of computer animation you'll see today, but this was visionary stuff nonetheless... You know it is. It really is.


buzby said...

Excellent stuff! I can sympathise with the effort you put in here, as I had one of those magazine flexidiscs with a Spectrum game on and never got it to work properly on our Fidelity 'hifi' (though I am glad to find someone persevered with it as it's in the WoS archive).

He was a clever lad was Mr. Sievey. It's funny how a few artists from the Manchester scene all dabbled with computer-generated 'content' at about the same time (there was also New Order's Apple II-sourced videos for 'Blue Monday' and 'Prime 586'), though Chris obviously got the most involved with the programming side of it though. All of them were years ahead of Dire Straits and Kraftwerk too. On top of that it's a cracking tune and Hannett production as well.

How did you get on with the PC, by the way?

ben_sH said...

Was that the demo of the Thompson Twins adventure on the front of C&VG? I never got it to work either, but the game didn't turn out to be much good anyway. The only thing I liked about it was in the opening scene, they were standing on a beach, and if you directed them north, they drowned. Good.

Chris was so multi-talented, it's unreal. Music, programming, artwork... Shame it was all so underground (apart from New Order, obviously) which let other people nab the glory later on. Hmm, sounds familiar. That also applies to 'The Biz', I suppose, as the later games like 'Rock Star Ate My Hamster' and K-Tel's 'It's Only Rock & Roll' got more press, despite being not as good (if a bit flashier).

I did send you an email about the PC, it must have vanished in the ether, but it's all going fairluy swimmingly. I had a bit of a moment when I couldn't find anywhere to plug my Canon BJC210 printer or IDE hard drive with all my music and stuff on it. I managed to find an old faulty USB hard disk, so put the drive from the HP into it using the old PC and transferred everything across to it that way. As for the printer, well... I'll just have to learn how to use a pencil again!

Apart from that, it's light years ahead of what I was using before. Ableton runs a treat, and can handle loads of big VSTis now in real time. Vegas still doesn't preview very well though, perhaps it needs more RAM rather than a flashy video card?

Anyway, muchos thanks again for dragging me into the noughties! See you soon, I hope.

edocronian said...

Iaso Tomitas Bermuda Triangle album did similar with encoded text, although you needed an Altair 8800, plus crazy interface card to read it.

DIdn't know the PVA trick until now. Works a treat!

ben_sH said...

Interesting stuff! I'd not come across that before, I must admit. A bit of 'research' suggests that you needed a Tarbell interface card, so I wonder if there's an Altair emulator which also emulates the interface? I know someone with a copy of the LP, so... Thanks for the info!

PVA is quite remarkable at rescuing mucky vinyl, although it's bit of a pain having sticky records cluttering up every available surface sometimes!

Rhys said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rhys said...

I came across this a few days ago and bought a copy straight away. Oddly enough it seems to be the EMI copy that's now most common on discogs, though the quality of the vinyl is usually not great (your restoration work saved me quite a few quid, so: thanks).

The A-side's wonderful - a great lost pop gem, though still with Hannett's fingerprints giving it its spacious sound. I still have my ZX81 in working order, so I wonder whether you might have a .p file for the ZX81 emulators? Shouldn't be impossible to transfer the file onto a working cassette then.

I recall Your Computer releasing two flexidiscs, one in mid-1982 and the other towards the end of the year. Both had ZX81 software on them and I imagine these days the chances of finding a near-mint copy of either is close to zero.