The Biz ZX Spectrum
Last week, Chris Sievey – the man behind comedy icon Frank Sidebottom – lost his battle with cancer. The internet is already full of brilliant tributes to him, praising his work as a musician and comedian. So, I’m not going to add to that, because I’d only be repeating stuff that’s been said better by others. But what I am going to do, is tell you about a game that Sievey made back in 1984. Because it is still entirely brilliant.
The Biz is a management sim where you create a band, and attempt to get them to #1 in the singles charts. You do this by playing gigs, rehearsing, writing songs, hiring out a studio, making deals with the vinyl pressing plants, cutting deals with record labels, and so on. You start out with no talent or money, and the only gigs you can get are either at school dances or the local YMCA. But every week, you call your agent, he offers you venues, and you choose to either play gigs, or use the venues as practice spaces. Playing gigs improves the band’s stage presence and fanbase, while spending time rehearsing and writing songs improves the quality of your music as well as the band’s performance skills. On top of that, gigs pay money. Rehearsing doesn’t, but it does give you a better shot at putting out your first single. DECISIONS.
There are other management aspects to take into account, too – how much should you spend on promotional guff? Is it really worth saving up £10,000 for a video shoot? Should you get insurance for your van? Should you spend a bit more money on some new clothes, or a dry ice machine so you look a bit less shit on-stage? Should you take the drugs offered to you by a groupie after one of your gigs?
Wait – what?
The best thing about The Biz isn’t the day-to-day management stuff, but the random events that happen to you along the way. This includes one of the most stark anti-drugs messages you’re ever likely to see in a video game, but goes all the way down to brilliantly mundane stuff like the band racking up a £110 bill (“including tips”) at the hairdresser’s. And despite the game’s incredibly lo-fi visuals, Sievey’s grounding in the music business lends an air of believability and attention to detail to the game. Sometimes your gigs will get featured on local TV channels or radio stations, and the TV companies/radio stations you deal with depend on the location of the gig. Playing in Swansea or Cardiff, for example, will get you on S4C, while a gig in Coventry would be filmed by Central Television. It’s not completely mind-blowing, but it’s enough to make you think “Ha! Oh yeah, S4C’s that channel they have over there in Wales, isn’t it? Brilliant” – and anyone between the age of 20 and 60 who cares about music understands the importance of the words “YOU HAVE RECORDED A JOHN PEEL SESSION”.
As well as providing funny contextual quirks, however, this attention to detail also works its way into the gameplay. One playthrough saw me independently launch my first single in late November, having only pressed 2,000 discs because I didn’t expect it to sell too well. The next thing I know, Rough Trade have bought half the stock, and all 2,000 copies sell out in the first week. So, I call the pressing plant straight away, only to be told that the run-up to Christmas means all the pressing plants are now fully booked until the new year. God damnit. And so my first single peaked at #138 in the charts, beaten to #137 by Ray Stevens’ The Streak, a song which had been released roughly ten years before mine.
There’s a whole bunch of other stuff too, which I’ll not spoil for you. That said, anyone who can phone the in-game solicitor and not immediately burst out laughing whilst simultaneously diving for the ‘n’ key, is dead inside.
It’d be easy to start going on about how The Biz is crying out for a remake. But, to be honest, it’s fine as it is. Its minimalist presentation works in its favour, and you can play it in your web-browser (or on your favourite handheld gaming device, if you’re a little more resourceful), for free. It’s addictive, rewarding, funny, occasionally harrowing, and makes you want to bore your poor real-life friends to tears about in-game events as if they actually bloody happened. Because even though you’re basically cajoling a bunch of numbers into doing what you want them to, there’s enough character and charm to shape those numbers into memorable experiences, despite the simplistic presentation.
Chris Sievey did a whole bunch of amazing things, this being just one of them. But it’s one that receives relatively little attention, and it deserves better. Play it, and do a quick salute to one of the most irreplaceable men of our times.
You know, you should. You really should. THANKYOU.