Originally appearing as a B-side back in 1980 – and later as the lead track on the 1987 compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death – Police Truck by San Francisco punk rock legends the Dead Kennedys remains one of the band’s more popular songs.
One reason, of course, is that this scathing, surf rock-inspired satire of police violence and corruption is a jangly and infectious slice of punk rock perfection. Another is that, unfortunately, it’s as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. According to former lead singer and songwriter Jello Biafra the song was actually written about a real incident involving Oakland police – one he claims made the newspaper for barely a day, not long after he’d arrived in town – but Police Truck certainly serves as a broader but no less potent condemnation of police brutality in general. That the song is more or less timeless is both a reflection of the Dead Kennedys’ abilities to write powerful and enduring music and a sad indictment of the state of world affairs in 2020.
A third reason, however, more or less sidesteps the band themselves altogether. A third reason is all thanks to a small, L.A. game development studio called Neversoft.
And Ride, Ride, How We Ride
Few video game soundtracks are as highly esteemed as the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (and several of the them, perhaps unsurprisingly, are simply other Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games; the soundtracks for THPS2 and THPS3 are usually held in equal regard).
Like Road Rash before it and various GTAs in the years that followed, the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater captured the hearts of players in such a strong way it’s virtually impossible for many gamers to disassociate many of the songs from the game. In fact, the idea of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater without the original licensed music is so ludicrous that Activision and developer Vicarious Visions re-secured almost every track from the first two games for the wonderful THPS1+2 remake released earlier this month.
But the credit for that killer compilation of ska, rock, and punk that defined the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater largely belongs to a small, informal group of developers at Neversoft who were particularly passionate about making sure the music truly hit the mark.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Early%20on%2C%20with%20the%20first%20Tony%20Hawk%E2%80%99s%20Pro%20Skater%2C%20everything%20was%20fast%20and%20wild”]“Early on, with the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, everything was fast and wild,” says former Neversoft designer Chris Rausch. “It was a really small group of ultra-talented people that were the exact right mix of personalities to get everything done.
“There was a small group of us, outside of the skaters involved, that were the ‘skate culture’ guys, which included being looked to for suggestions for the soundtrack. It was pretty informal, really. We started putting together lists of songs that we could send to Activision, to see if they could get the rights to use them. We’d rip the tracks from our own CDs and then send them off and cross our fingers, hoping that they could be signed. I think I still have CDs with Post-It notes on them from some of the track suggestions over the years.”
According to former Neversoft producer Ralph D’Amato there were about five or six people who became involved in helping curate the soundtrack.
“Each person had their particular genre of music they were passionate about,” says D’Amato. “We would meet and listen to CDs, or MP3s I ripped from CDs – no Spotify and not every song was on YouTube. We would listen to tracks and pick things we thought would fit the mood of the game well.
“We would find out the cost for each track and match it up against the budget and from that we would create the soundtrack.”
“The soundtrack was definitely a team effort,” says former Neversoft development director and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater producer Scott Pease. “Being a small, unknown game with a limited budget, we reached for some classic tracks that had never been in a video game before.”
An added benefit for the team, according to Rausch, was that many bands that were big names in the skate or punk scene hadn’t yet broken through into broader pop-culture yet.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Our%20game%20wasn%E2%80%99t%20mainstream%2C%20at%20least%20not%20yet”]“While the Dead Kennedys were already one of the most popular punk bands of all-time, you would never hear their music endorsing a bunch of products, or being featured in other mainstream stuff like movies or TV,” Rausch says. “But, our game wasn’t mainstream, at least not yet. Skateboarding was just starting to gain popularity again, while still being more of a dedicated scene, so Activision was pretty confident that they could sign up whatever tracks we suggested.”
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Dog Will Hunt
“The first soundtrack was pretty focused on the punk [and] ska, with some heavier metal thrown in… but everything had to hit hard,” says Pease. “THPS was built on the two-minute run, and we needed fast, sticky tracks that got you hyped up to skate and wouldn’t get old.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=THPS%20was%20built%20on%20the%20two-minute%20run%2C%20and%20we%20needed%20fast%2C%20sticky%20tracks%20that%20got%20you%20hyped%20up%20to%20skate%20and%20wouldn%E2%80%99t%20get%20old”]Rausch credits Pease with suggesting the quintessential punk jam Police Truck, the song that would ultimately accompany the intro movie for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and set the tone for the quality of the tracks to follow.
“I want to say Police Truck came from Scott Pease’s suggestion list, while he was still on the Activision side,” says Rausch. “That was one of the things that we connected on when we first met…, having both grown up listening to bands like DK. It really demonstrated that he knew what was up and he was really dedicated to the project, so much so that he ended up joining Neversoft shortly after.
“I brought stuff to the table like Primus, the Vandals, the Suicide Machines, and Goldfinger. Goldfinger is probably my proudest suggestion, in terms of that early soundtrack, as that Superman song has become so synonymous with the game. I had worked with a director friend of mine, Jeff Gordon, who got an early copy of their second album, as he was making one of their music videos. That Superman track kicked off the album and just immediately stood out. So, a year or so later, when the opportunity came, it was one of the first ones that went on my list.”
The handwrought nature of development on the original game at Neversoft meant personal connections like these sometimes proved to be crucial pieces of the soundtrack puzzle.
“I remember that there was a lot of DIY during the early development of THPS, and because my ex-wife was working with the manager of Slayer as a personal assistant, we wanted to take advantage of that,” says Silvio Porretta, lead artist on THPS. “So she did ask Slayer if they’d be interested to have their music on the soundtrack, but since they don’t want to be affiliated with commercial work they turned it down, and I respect that.
“She was also connected with Suicidal Tendencies and she easily got them to sign up. We basically did a portion of the job of the marketing department ourselves.”
Shut Your Bread and Cheese Hole
The Neversoft team also received suggestions from their titular leading man, Tony Hawk.
“I threw out a bunch of suggestions that were more my era of music and what I consider ‘skate sound,’ which is more like punk music,” Hawk explains. “I never imagined that would be such a highlight for people.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Our%20music%20was%20always%20considered%20weird%3B%20skating%20was%20considered%20weird”]“I was proud of it, but our music was always considered weird; skating was considered weird. So to think that it would be embraced in either way was incredible to me, but I was really excited and proud that I got to bring, like I said, the soundtrack to my youth to a whole new audience and a whole new generation.”
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“We always knew the soundtrack was a big part of the game; it’s a big part of skateboarding,” says D’Amato. “I don’t think we knew we were shaping the music taste for lots of kids.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20don%E2%80%99t%20think%20we%20knew%20we%20were%20shaping%20the%20music%20taste%20for%20lots%20of%20kids”]As for why THPS soundtrack has gone on to carve out a reputation as one of the most revered game soundtracks of all time, Pease puts it down to not picking tracks “based on market research or what was ‘hot’.”
“They were legit skate tracks, hand selected and, in some cases, just old enough to be ‘new’ to younger fans of the game,” says Pease. “I know we introduced the Dead Kennedys to a lot of new kids, for example.
“We also put a premium on variety, so that in a long play session the soundtrack wouldn’t drone on – each run it would surprise you. Skate videos from that era were really pushing creative use of music – mixing up tempo, era, and style for each part. We strove to represent that in the game. We wanted you to feel like you were playing through a skate video of your own creation; we wanted you immersed in that world and culture on every level.”
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“I don’t think that we were the first, but I do think that we were one of the earlier games that had looked to licensed music like that to create a soundtrack like that,” adds Rausch. “The music had always been really good, but it came from bands and genres that had smaller or more underground audiences. So when this game with fast gameplay and fast music that a lot of people hadn’t heard yet became a huge hit, it just clicked. It exposed a massive new audience to the sounds that had been a part of skateboarding for years, and a good chunk of that new audience loved it.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%5BTHPS%5D%20exposed%20a%20massive%20new%20audience%20to%20the%20sounds%20that%20had%20been%20a%20part%20of%20skateboarding%20for%20years%2C%20and%20a%20good%20chunk%20of%20that%20new%20audience%20loved%20it”]“Now this huge crowd of kids and young people are effectively growing up with these games and soundtracks for years, and by the time that this generation is grown, they look back at the games as one of the places where it all clicked for them when they were younger. Where they can specifically remember hearing some of their favourite bands and artists for the first time.”
The Universe Doesn’t Say What You Want it to Say
“It’s crazy to think I had never heard of Millencolin before I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, as they are one of the most successful punk bands to ever come out of Sweden, which is where I am from,” says filmmaker Ludvig Gür, whose long-gestating documentary, Pretending I’m a Superman, chronicles the birth of the best-selling Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series.
With the very name of his documentary overtly plucked from the lyrics of a song the game virtually single-handedly catapulted into mainstream earholes, it’s no surprise Gür also learned some interesting things about the building of the THPS soundtrack during the making of the documentary.
“I think learning that [pro skateboarder] Steve Caballero handpicked songs for all of the games he was involved with – except Tony Hawk’s Underground – was very interesting,” Gür tells IGN. “He’d approach bands that he’d been touring with, and in the fourth game his own band, The Faction, were featured. In that sense, Steve is the reason I started listening to both Bodyjar and Millencolin, the latter of which is one of my favourite bands.”
Gür has a similar take on the secret to the success of the THPS soundtrack.
“One of the most enjoyable aspects of skate videos is the music in them,” he says. “The developers at Neversoft clearly wanted people to have a similar experience when playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and they did just that. The first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game has an excellent mix of various punk songs from various decades, featuring both hardcore ’70s acts such as Dead Kennedys, as well as, at the time, newer ska-punk bands, hence Goldfinger. Hearing these excellent songs on constant repeat got people addicted to them quickly.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Tony%20Hawk%E2%80%99s%20Pro%20Skater%20was%20not%20the%20first%20game%2C%20nor%20the%20first%20skateboarding%20game%20to%20feature%20a%20licensed%20soundtrack…%20%5Bbut%5D%20they%20set%20the%20standard%20for%20every%20game%20that%20came%20after”]“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was not the first game, nor the first skateboarding game to feature a licensed soundtrack – Top Skater, released in 1997, had a soundtrack featuring Pennywise and other punk bands. However, they set the standard for every game that came after, by putting in so much love, care, and suggestions to make it all authentic.”
Something Makes You Think That You’re Some Kind of Winner
There are few better examples of the unique strength of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack to be its own distinct, cultural touchstone – even when detached from the game itself – than the success of rockers Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of a Tony Hawk Pro Skater Cover Band. This six-piece Australian act (who only perform covers of songs from THPS1 to THPS4) was originally assembled with the intention of performing a one-off gig, but ended up performing on stage with Tony Hawk himself during a THPS 20th anniversary event in San Diego last year.
“Initially I just wanted us to do one gig,” explains co-founder and lead guitarist Josh Newman, who came up with the idea while driving home one day. “I didn’t even think there was really an audience for such a niche band.”
But Birdman did find an audience of like-minded fans, one of whom famously ended up being the actual Birdman himself.
“I still take a step back sometimes and am just floored that we exist,” says Newman. “That there is enough love for these soundtracks in the world for us to exist. I fully expected this band to be one and done in terms of gigs. That’s all I really wanted from the band too. I always kind of believed it was a good idea, however dumb it was, but I never expected we’d tap into all this nostalgia and pure love for these games and soundtracks. I had an idea that it was there, that somewhere in the world were people like us. I had no idea just how many there were though!”
“After the first practice, I just kept wondering why I hadn’t met these guys sooner,” adds singer Chris Kearnes. “A bunch of video game nerds who quoted Simpsons and listened to Bad Religion.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=You%20realised%20how%20much%20time%20people%20spent%20absorbed%20in%20the%20THPS%20world%3B%20how%20it%20shaped%20their%20love%20for%20music”]“I still thought it was pretty niche, but then we played our first gig, and the crowd is yelling out every song they want you to cover. You realised how much time people spent absorbed in the THPS world; how it shaped their love for music. You play a song, you see faces light up, singing every word. I really have it easy as the vocalist; I barely have to sing.”
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The lens through which Birdman views their fans’ shared love of a handful of roughly 20-year-old video game soundtracks is a peculiar one, but it’s gifted them their own perspective on what makes the THPS soundtrack truly special.
“For me it was the culture validation,” explains bassist and co-founder Sim Bartholomew. “I wasn’t a skater growing up – and I’m a pathetic skater now – but I was really into alternative music, and none of my friends in high-school had anywhere near the same taste as I did. Total loner.
“Then this game hits, and it just screamed out to me, ‘There’s a whole world of people out there who love the same cool, weird, heavy, fast tunes you love, too.’”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=It%20was%20like%20Tony%20became%20everyone%E2%80%99s%20older%20brother”]“THPS came out at a time when we didn’t have Spotify and Apple Music,” says Newman. “No one was curating playlists for us – a ‘playlist’ wasn’t even a term we used yet! The closest thing we had was whatever your older brother was listening to. Then, it was like Tony became everyone’s older brother: ‘Have you heard Dead Kennedys? No? Here; listen already!’”
But while Birdman exclusively plays songs from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 to 4 (“We always get asked to play songs from Underground or Wasteland but those games weren’t us,” admits Newman. “That was the next bunch of kids growing up with Tony Hawk games”) the arrival of THPS1+2 has thrown the band a late curveball.
“Audiences usually hate the dreaded, ‘Well, here’s a new song’ at a gig; I know I do,” jokes Newman. “I never thought this band would have that problem.”
“I’ve been having this internal ‘ethics’ debate ever since we found out the game was coming out for the last 15 months,” adds Bartholomew. “Do we stay pure to OG THPS? Do we evolve? Or will fans hate it because it’s the equivalent of Metallica playing their new stuff at a gig when all you want to hear is Enter Sandman?
“But there’s so many new bangers on there like DZ Deathrays and Billy Talent which would go huge at a gig! We had enough trouble culling the THPS1 to 4 soundtracks down to a two-hour set – there were some very tense convos about what made the cut. Now with an extra 30-odd new tunes to the playlist, how the hell do we cull this?”
For his part, though, Kearnes reckons it’s not entirely up to them.
“I can predict at least two purists, two swing voters, and two progressives,” he says. “If it’s a tie, the only reasonable thing to do is let Tony make the call.”
Looking Older All the Time
As successfully as the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater exposed the Dead Kennedys to a whole new generation, there’s one particular song on the original game you can’t have a conversation about the THPS soundtrack without mentioning, and that’s Goldfinger’s Superman.
Superman was written by Goldfinger frontman John Feldmann way back in 1994, while sitting in his Santa Monica apartment, and Feldmann claims the song took less than 15 minutes to write. In 1997 Superman became the first track on the band’s second album, Hang-Ups.
However, while the song appeared on couple of now-forgotten film soundtracks in the ’90s (the Farrelly Brothers’ Kingpin in 1996, and the dire 1998 Disney flop Meet the Deedles), it was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that sent it into the stratosphere.
“I really didn’t know how much Tony Hawk helped our band with that song until we were on tour in England,” revealed Feldmann, speaking with Loudwire this past June. “We were touring with Bloodhound Gang and supporting them as they had this huge hit at the time in Germany, so we played with them in England and all of a sudden when we played Superman, everyone went ballistic.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=All%20of%20a%20sudden%20when%20we%20played%20Superman%2C%20everyone%20went%20ballistic”]“It was the biggest circle pit of the entire night. There was no moment in Bloodhound Gang’s set or our set that surpassed what happened with that song. I was like, ‘What the f–k is happening with this song?’ But I put two and two together and realized that Pro Skater had globally just become this huge hit of a video game.”
“Everyone was listening to punk rock and the whole skate community was playing this game and it became this thing that was much bigger than anyone could have imagined. I was asked if it was okay to put this song in the video game and I was like, ‘F–k yes it is. Tony Hawk’s a legend.’ But I had no idea it was going to be that big of a deal until we were on tour in England and all that came together.”
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office and could listen to Bodyjar’s “Not the Same” from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 a hundred times in a row and never get sick of it. You can find him on Twitter sporadically @MrLukeReilly.