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You know who Brownbag Johnson is. That's his wailing guitar in "Cheat on the Church" (.MP3), the Graveyard BBQ song that won the first "Be A Guitar Hero" contest. You know because you rocked it out: You shouted the words to its shrill opening sermon; you head-banged your way through the whining glory notes; you felt your fingers cramp and burn on those never-ending, face-melting riffs. Admit it: You played the shit out of that song. And every time you did, you felt like you were 18 feet tall with cajones the size of cantaloupes and throngs of adoring fans prostrating themselves at your bedroom slippers. Basically, you felt like you were Brownbag Johnson.
But when Brownbag Johnson played his own song, he felt more like you. "Let's put it this way: Our bass player's little brother - who's only 8 years old - can kick my ass at it," he laughs. "Even though I wrote the song, I'm not totally kicking ass at the game."
Ever since Guitar Hero descended upon an unsuspecting public last year, regular joes like you and me have become conquistadors of rock, sweating out our souls over plastic guitars. The game sold over a million copies and schooled thousands of rock neophytes in the Pantheon of Metal Mythology: Ozzy, Pantera, Motorhead, Megadeth. Thrashing in unison, we threw up the horns for everyone from Palmer to Hendrix, and somehow, without even completely realizing it, we all started thinking, "Man, Boston can totally crush it."
But even better was that secret thrill upon purchasing yet another indie gem in the Unlock Shop. Really, who didn't stomp around their living room in Kubrick-esque glee to "Caveman Rejoice"? Or kick it hoity-toity style with "Eureka, I've Found Love"? And who among us could resist the lure of that mournful organ and that thin, unintelligible growl in Graveyard BBQ's dirtcore anthem, "Cheat on the Church"?
Tracking the Indie Scene
From the beginning, producers planned a Guitar Hero tribute to bands in the indie scene, because, after all, every Hall of Fame mega-group must start somewhere. "All great bands start off as small up-and-comers," says Ted Lange, associate producer for RedOctane. He worked on both Guitar Hero games and helped run the "Be A Guitar Hero" contest. "What better way to support rock music as a genre," he asks, "than to turn people on to new bands that may one day be headliners?"
The original Guitar Hero included 17 unlockable indie tracks (metal deities Zakk Wylde and the Black Label Society notwithstanding). Some songs were relatively easy to acquire: Many of the bands, like The Acro-Brats and Anarchy Club, feature musicians who moonlight as Harmonix employees. For the other slots, however, developers scoured the local Boston scene, approaching dozens of bands in the hopes of finding someone crazy enough to sign up.
However, now that the franchise is established, Harmonix doesn't need to search so hard. For the second game, which expanded its indie offerings up to 24 tracks, the company was deluged by MP3s from bands hungering for videogame immortality. "It's really great. You never know when you're going to hear the next big thing," says Lange. "Sometimes, we find the rare gems in the sea of music we get."
RedOctane and Harmonix's quest for songs also included the promotional "Be A Guitar Hero" contest, which ran for both games and promised the winner a primo slot in the indie set-list. The only requirements for entry were that submissions had to be "hard rock" or "heavy metal," with a featured lead guitar. Committees from both Harmonix and RedOctane then whittled the songs down, choosing the winner based on sound and ease of adaptability into the game.
Although the contest drew many submissions its first year, Lange says that selecting a champion was easy. "Graveyard BBQ was, without a question, the winner," he says. "As soon as we heard that first slide on the guitar, we knew we had something unique."
The band, on the other hand, had been utterly ambushed by its own success. Graveyard BBQ had actually formed as a joke in 2003. Four good friends would get together and pretend to be redneck yokels, complete with fake beards and Confederate flags, while slinging out some serious tunage.