Story of XL1

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I'd known Pete Shelley since June 1977 when the Buzzcocks signed their first major recording contract with United Artists. Since then the Buzzcocks had achieved a degree of fame and fortune, and I had achieved a degree in Computer Science. Pete had advised me to get the degree, and given a great deal of support during that time.
In late 1982 Pete had ordered a Sinclair Spectrum by mail order, and one of the first BASIC programs he wrote put up the lyrics to one of his songs prompted by key presses. This was reminiscent of the old sing-a-long movies with the bouncing ball, and was long before karaoke hit the western world. With the help of Francis Cookson, and myself we developed the program to show the lyrics for a whole song without human prompting. The first song we tried was a Wire track - "Question of Degree" - and the results were so impressive that every visitor to Pete's house was shown the result of our endeavors.
Pete was at the time writing songs for his new solo album following the success of Homosapien, and he thought it was a great idea to include a Spectrum program with the album containing all the lyrics. He must have got the OK from Martin Rushent, his producer and owner of Genetic Records, as we then went into production with the program. I spent most of Christmas 1982 learning machine code and disassembling the Spectrum ROM.
I didn't have an assembler for the Spectrum, I don't even know if one was available then, so all the code had to be converted into its hex equivalent and typed into the program. All the jumps and calls to subroutines had to be hand calculated as well! When the machine crashed it had to be restarted and the cassette tape program reloaded, usually taking at least 5 minutes.
My first programming job started in January 1983 at Manchester Town Hall using COBOL. I spent all my spare time writing the code for XL1. In February I started going down to Martin Rushent's studio on Fridays and returning on Sunday evening. This was a five-hour journey by train and a 30 minute walk at the end of that.
Martin had won the producer of the year awards in both England and America, and had produced such acts as The Human League, The Stranglers and The Buzzcocks. His studio was set in wooded countryside in the village of Goring in Berkshire. It was equipped with all the latest equipment including a Fairlight and one of just two Synclaviers in the country. Outside there was a tennis court and swimming pool. We usually stayed in the village pub, 'The Miller of Mansfield', which only had 7 guestrooms. This had an excellent restaurant, which attracted the local horse racing set as well as the Williams Formula 1 racing team.
We decided the program was going to be divided into 10 different sections, one for each song. Each song was going to have a different graphical look.
The lower third of the screen, 8 lines of text, would contain the lyrics. I had devised different methods for the text appearing: instantly, slowly, from the side and from the top. These could be used depending on the song. The top part of the screen would be used for graphics. The graphics were kept simple - pixels, lines, circles, color blocks, scrolling horizontally and vertically.
With three weeks until the album was to be finished, I moved down to the hotel to work on the program full time. This was crunch time, and Francis and I spent most of the time working in the hotel room. In fact it took us three days before we realized that there was only one bed in the room and we had to change rooms.
Francis was typing in the lyrics and synchronizing them to the music. I had written another program to accept keypresses and record the start of a line to the nearest fiftieth of a second. He played drums in a band called the Tiller Boys with Pete and was adept at timing.
While Pete was recording during the night, Elvis Costello was recording 'Punch the Clock' during the day. His producer was Clive Langer who I knew from Liverpool. The album contained 'Shipbuilding', co-written by Clive, and containing the incredible trumpet solo by Chet Baker. Another band that used the studio consisted of the rhythm section from the Birthday Party with Peter Capaldi on vocals. We raided the pub kitchen at 4 o'clock one morning and cooked ourselves some of their best Aberdeen Angus steak, very reminiscent of one of his scenes in 'Local Hero'.
As well as the Spectrum version of the program we were also going to do a ZX81 text only version for the US version of the album. However due to the fact that we couldn't find a 16K RAM pack that wouldn't fall off, and time was short we cancelled this version.
With only a few days before the album had to be finished, Pete still had two songs to complete, one of which only had a title. We had to wait for the songs to be completed, type in the lyrics off scraps of paper, and then synchronize the lyrics to the music.
The visual parts of the program were made to fit the mood of each song as much as the primitive graphics would allow. For example 'Twilight' was just a plain blue hue, and the more upbeat 'You know better than I know' had bright, fast moving visuals.
Once the album was finished and mixed we had to do the final version of the timing for the lyrics. This involved adding in the timings between each track on the final master version of the album. It was at this point that we noticed that there was as much as 5 seconds difference (over a 20-minute side of the album) between different one-inch tape machines in the studio. The implication of this was that home turntables and tape machines could get horribly out of synch with the program unless they had some sort of variable speed control. One solution to this problem would be to add speed control keys to the program, but it was too late to add any more code. However I intend to add this feature to a version of the program for emulators.
There will also be a track select version, which will enable the program to be used with CDs that have a different track order.
After the album and program was 'in the can' then we celebrated with an end of album party. This coincided with Elvis Costello finishing his album, so he played us his album in the studios control room, and then we played him ours with the added bonus of the Spectrum program. He had been a computer operator before his professional songwriting career and appreciated what we had done.
Our work wasn't quite finished yet, as we had to cut the album. To our knowledge nobody had put a program on a 12-inch disc before, so we were breaking new ground. After the last music track of side 2 there was a locking groove to prevent the code from blasting through someone's speakers.
The only way to play the code was to physically lift the needle onto the last track. We cut one master disc and tested it on a Spectrum but it didn't work, so we had to reset some of the levels and try again. Luckily the second master disc worked fine and it could go to the pressing plant.
As can be expected with an album release involving something new and innovative, the press and marketing department at Island Records (Genetics parent company) went overboard. Their head of marketing was responsible for marketing Frankie goes to Hollywood and before that the Muppets.
They lined up a number of TV appearances for Pete to attend, which I went along to, setting up the program and being the 'Technical Advisor'. One program that we were all looking forward to, but which was cancelled at the last minute was 'Blue Peter'. We were really looking forward to meeting Sarah Greene!
The press coverage was comprehensive also. As well as articles in all the computer and music press, some of the major magazines covered the album. The worlds second biggest seller, Newsweek had an article as well as New Scientist, Britain's most prestigious science magazine.


There are a set of screenshots from the program.

 

1997-2003 Joey Headen                          joeyh1@headen.com