I AM SOMEWHERE in the Grand Senora desert. It’s around 1.30am, and I’m looking for a bar. The collision five miles back has knocked out my left headlight, and, combined with a cracked back windshield and a rickety front wheel, my rusted black camper van feels like it’s on its last legs. In fact - like the burnt out Chrysler LeBaron in Planes, Trains and Automobiles - the radio seems to be about the one thing still in good working condition. As I navigate the rocky terrain of a barren West Coast dirt path I'm listening to a country and western station - Rebel Radio, hosted by Jesco White (Strapline: “drunk, armed and ready to party”). The headlights of an oncoming trailer truck illuminate the bullet-holes in my driver side door, and the DJ introduces the next song: Hank Thompson - It Don’t Hurt Anymore.
Rebel Radio is one of fifteen radio frequencies that transmit through the state of San Andreas, the fictitious setting for Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games’ new open-world adventure released last week for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Five years in the making, it grossed over a billion dollars in sales in its first three days of release, making it the fasting-selling entertainment product ever.
I have modeled my Trevor Philips – a hostile desert survivalist and former bank robber – on Will Oldham
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Grand Theft Auto games operate on a ‘sandbox’ principle: players are encouraged to complete missions as part of a larger (chiefly felonious) story arc; but outside of that they are free to explore the completely immersive world around them. Players can choose to do almost anything, from playing the stock market or a quiet round of golf to driving an ice-cream truck down a crowded street whilst firing a machine-gun. GTA5 is the most expansive instalment yet, giving the player control over three unique characters spread over the city, each fully customizable in appearance (naturally, I have modeled my Trevor Philips – a hostile desert survivalist and former bank robber – on Will Oldham). You can roam free in a reimagined Southern California, from the peak of a mountain to the ocean floor, driving along freeways and deep into forests, hanging out in trailer parks and suburbs, exploring canyons, quarries and even shipwrecks. The attention to tiny details in a game of such grand scope and size is truly astonishing; not least of all when it comes to the music.
Outside of bicycles and emergency transportation, radios are present in every mode of transport in GTAV. Every stereo on every car, bus, boat and plane can be tuned to one of twelve music channels, or three talk radio stations. The choice is extraordinary. For example, Space 103.2, hosted by Bootsy Collins, specialises in the Rick James and D Train strain of ’80s synth funk, but it’s only one click up the dial from the snotty modern garage sounds of Metz and Ty Segall on the Wavves-fronted Vinewood Boulevard Radio (“The soundtrack to your broken dreams and unspent potential”). Elsewhere, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry commandeers reggae and dub transmission The Blue Ark, Pam Grier spins Marlena Shaw and George McCrae on Classic Soul Low Down 91.1, and Gilles Peterson gets a dedicated station for his eclectic BBC Worldwide show.
Granted, this is not a new concept in the world of Grand Theft Auto. The radio has been an essential but understated companion since the original top-down GTA released in 1997. Back then there were seven stations playing music composed entirely by in-house staff. But as the popularity of the series grew, real tracks began appearing in transmissions. Since Grand Theft Auto 3, the radio hosts and playlists have grown steadily more impressive. Guest DJs have included Juliette Lewis, Roy Haynes, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Axl Rose and David Rodigan.
There is a lot to admire in Rockstar’s loyalty to the radio format. Other developers may have felt tempted to offer some modernised alternative – the user loading in their own library or streaming from an on-demand service perhaps. But with this model there is no skipping tracks or curating of playlists. If you don’t like the song you can either stick it out or change the station - just like real radio. In a post-download Spotify world this is actually a bold statement. The music is not there as an advertisement, distraction or corporate cash-in; it is there to shape the authenticity of San Andreas; it is as much a part of the landscape as the skyscrapers or waterfalls.
Take, for example, how each station serves as a microcosm of a particular corner of Californian society. Hijack an expensive yacht from the city marina and you may find yourself listening to Kenny Loggins, introducing the 1980s excesses of Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks or Steve Winwood on Los Santos Rock. Hotwire a pick-up truck out in the hostile methamphetamine wastelands of Blaine County and things are much scuzzier: Channel X, hosted by Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, is the top choice amongst the trailer park dwellers, blasting out anti-authority anthems like Black Flag’s My War and T.S.O.L.’s Abolish Government. Meanwhile, the Lowriders out on gang-run Grove Street bounce to Chief Keef, Gucci Mane and Future on contemporary hip-hop station Radio Los Santos, whilst The Mexico Institute Of Sound represent LA’s Spanish-language populace on East Los FM.
For artists, the rewards are obvious. It commands far more respect to be tied to a successful, long-lasting product that people actually enjoy than to be the background music on a car advert. For older acts, it’s a chance to reach a younger audience and align with a cool brand. For newer, independent acts like cult Los Angeles songwriter Nite Jewel, it gives them a chance to be heard by over two million people without having to compromise their sound.
Perhaps the most impressive inclusion in this respect is FlyLo FM. Running on an hour-long loop, the station broadcasts an exclusive Flying Lotus mix of cosmic beats and minimal hip-hop, including tracks from Aphex Twin, Clams Casino and Tyler The Creator. The result is a completely hypnotic experience that demands close listening, something largely unprecedented in popular gaming of this scale. It was my station of choice when I made a long cross-map journey by airship to the top of a mountain, the radio serving as my sole accomplice on the slow ordeal. Like the desert trip with Hank Thompson and Charlie Feathers, it underlined my favourite thing about Grand Theft Auto V: amongst all the killing and the chaos, an unshakable sense of solitude still permeates the whole game. Even in the most densely populated city neighborhoods, the radio is your only true companion; you are God’s lonely man.
It’s a theme Rockstar perfected with the groundbreaking 2010 Western shooter Red Dead Redemption. Your lonesome travels as outlaw cowboy John Marston were soundtracked by a new form of interactive scoring, in which various stems of the same BPM and key could be automatically deployed when necessary, creating a dynamic musical backdrop suited to the character’s current location or predicament. Commit a crime and a sinister guitar twang rings out across the plains. If the Sheriff gives chase, authentic Spaghetti Western percussion begins in perfect sync. But for the most part it’s just the distant sound of delicate guitar picking, or a lonely harmonica solo. For Grand Theft Auto V, Edgar Froese was enlisted alongside Oh No and Alchemist of hip hop duo Gangrene to supply the atmospheric samples that score missions and moments of tension. Consequently, it’s Tangerine Dream drones that accompany your radio-less police chases over freeways or mountain ranges, lending an eerie fatalism to the action, a sense that you’re only delaying the inevitable deadly showdown. It’s enough to make you feel totally helpless in the face of pursuit, give up the chase and go out in the most spectacular blaze possible.
Ultimately, that spectacular blaze is what Grand Theft Auto has always been about for most players; in future plotlines I’ll be called upon to blow up buildings, steal jet planes, carry out bank heists and generally cause hysterical chaos. But, right now, with Hank Thompson on the radio, and one headlight on the road, I just want to find this bar, and play a quiet game of darts.