When I’m Super Mario 64: Exploring Nintendo Soundfont Covers of Beatles Music
Laura C. Brown / University of Texas at Austin
The YouTube algorithm: home to the wild west of recommendations—some better than others. A number of months ago, I peeked at the “suggested videos” column accompanying a clip from Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1976 Wings Over America tour, and I saw a preview image with the album artwork for The Beatles’ 1966 masterpiece, Revolver. However, there was something slightly off about this artwork, and upon closer inspection, and a curious click of my mouse button, I realized what was different: instead of seeing Klaus Voorman’s drawings of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I was face-to-64 bit face with Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad from Super Mario 64. I clicked play, and my jaw dropped once I heard the opening notes of “Taxman.”
It’s not just The Beatles that are (dare I say) fortunate enough to receive the Super Mario 64 soundfont treatment, which consists of creators using MIDI files of music, sound effects, and sometimes even voices from Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 game and utilizing them to (re-)create other music. Other albums, such as Steely Dan’s Aja, Tatsuro Yamashita’s Ride on Time, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Metallica’s Master of Puppets have all been covered in a way that makes me want to pester my brother and grab the N64 controller out of his hands because he’s played long enough and now it’s my turn! From my view, The Fab Four stand out from the rest of this pack because they have have a longer, more extensive history of other artists and creatives interacting with their music, with The Beatles likely being the most-covered artists of the 20th century, who have been widely referenced, copied, and parodied. In fact, right off the bat, the sort of multi-referential tone to these Nintendo covers reminds me of The Rutles (formed in the 1970s by Monty Python alum—and friend of George Harrison—Eric Idle, and frequent Python collaborator Neil Innes), who had songs like “I Must Be in Love” and “Cheese and Onions” that pulled together audio and visual references from across the Beatles’ career, making each song a bit of a treasure trove to discover a drum beat from one track, guitar riffs from others, and perhaps even visuals or mannerisms from another performance. However, these Super Mario 64 soundfont covers—in a way that is reminiscent of Wendy Carlos’ revolutionary Switched-On Bach—can be seen as an extension of a lineage that dates back to The Beatles’ earliest days of success.
In 1964, as part of The Beatles’ first feature film, A Hard Day’s Night, famed Beatles producer George Martin arranged an instrumental version of “This Boy” to accompany a French New Wave-esque montage of Ringo straying from the rest of the group for an afternoon to have some moments of self-exploration. In addition to the instrumental arrangement of “This Boy,” (which had been retitled “Ringo’s Theme”) A Hard Day’s Night also featured an upbeat, jazzy instrumental version of the film’s eponymous song that served as background music for one of the movie’s (surprisingly many) chase scenes. Finally, the soundtrack record for A Hard Day’s Night included a slightly different, instrumental version of “This Boy (Ringo’s Theme)” than the one featured in the film, plus bonus instrumental versions of “And I Love Her” and “I Should Have Known Better,” both of which were songs performed live by the Beatles in the movie.
Soon thereafter, Martin (with his orchestra) began to arrange and release more instrumental, easy listening versions of Beatles songs, which Kenneth Womack notes was a way for the band to reach additional audiences outside of their broadly-adolescent fanbase. In these early covers, the overall tone of the songs remained relatively similar to the originals, yet reinterpreted in ways that could potentially expand its listening contexts: for example, Martin’s light orchestral arrangement of “No Reply” sounds to me like it would pair perfectly with a Barcalounger and a highball, whereas “Ticket to Ride” could be played in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Oftentimes, certain elements were added or replaced in a way that makes the cover version sound (to me) less aurally-intrusive for the listener—such as swapping John Lennon’s sometimes raspy, pleading lead vocals in the bridge of “This Boy” for a dulcet-toned guitar and light orchestrations. Ultimately, as Jack Curtis Dubowsky notes, Capitol Records, the Beatles’ American label, marketed these easy listening covers of The Beatles songbook to teenagers—The Beatles’ primary listening audience in their earlier years—a move that reflects not just the multifaceted appeal of Beatles music, but of the easy listening covers, too.
As The Beatles’ career continued, so did the instrumental covers of their music. Beyond the light orchestral contributions by Martin (and many others), in 1966, for example, guitarist Chet Atkins released Chet Atkins Picks on The Beatles, with a plucky, vaguely country take on “She Loves You” could be right at home in any Nashville jukebox. Just as The Beatles, as artists, worked to push the boundaries of their own music, so did the types of artists covering the Fab Four. Take, for instance, tracks from Booker T. and the M.G.’s McLemore Avenue that provide bluesy, slightly funky, and at times borderline psychedelic, takes on songs from Abbey Road, while the title track from Ramsey Lewis’ Mother Nature’s Son adds a wonderfully contradictory electronic, synthesizer-forward opening to a song centering organic themes. Count Basie added his identifiable sound to his version of “All My Loving,” while the even king of lush easy listening music, Liberace, did a wonderful cover of “Something.” At the opposite end of the spectrum of interpretations, we can contrast Maynard Ferguson’s face-melting blast of a take on “Hey Jude” with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra’s surprisingly hip (for Welk, that is) approach to the same song that transforms “Hey Jude” into a soft dance chart for the gig books. At the end of the day, having artists from the realms of country, blues, jazz, and beyond served as a clear avenue for the Beatles’ audiences to expand to other realms of the musical landscape. However, many of these relatively straightforward takes on the Beatle catalog were decently contemporaneous releases with the Fab Four’s offerings—some of which, as were the cases of McLemore Avenue and Mother Nature’s Son, were recorded only a few months after their source material was released. While we are over 50 years beyond the time The Beatles were still actively recording as a group, and it seems as if the band will never fade into irrelevance, I suppose they are no longer at the forefront of current musical culture as they were in the 1960s. In this vein, these continued covers of Beatles music—specifically, through this (sub-)subgenre of Super Mario 64 soundfonts—works to not just maintain a space for the Beatles in the cultural lexicon and expand the reaches of their catalog to different audiences—in this case, the YouTube meme and/or Nintendo audience(s) who are unknowingly engaging with what I would categorize as a new take of Beatles-centric easy listening music.
I acknowledge that I am applying the term “easy listening” relatively loosely here. While other scholars have studied the history of the easy listening genre, Muzak, and the like, one general conclusion that I reached from exploring this literature is that we no longer live at the height of easy listening music as it was traditionally defined. Granted, what we generally categorize as being “easy listening” is certainly not what it used to be: while such music in its traditional sense certainly still exists and is easily accessible (if you’re wondering, the soundtrack for writing this column was the Music Choice Easy Listening channel), “easy listening” as it was originally defined—as “Music While You Work,” the aptly-named program run by the BBC from 1940 until 1967—has taken on new forms in recent years. With Lofi Girl serving as the reigning queen of ambient music used for productivity and relaxation (and don’t worry, folks have made lofi work beats cover versions of Beatles songs, too), our literal and metaphorical easy listening foci have expanded to include music that is both electronic and/or sourced from video games. While these Super Mario 64 soundfont covers of Beatles albums may not fall under what we typically categorize as “video game music,” they’re also not not a hybrid of video game-sourced music and easy listening, either. In this vein of productivity, of particular note is what Andrew Schartmann describes as a “visceral level” of action that is reflected in the Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. sound design from 1985 (which, according to my ear, had a clear influence on Kondo’s scoring and Yoji Inagaki’s sound effects for 1996’s Super Mario 64). The sense of engagement and activity that is suggested by these sound designs, when utilized in an easy listening function, could combine in such a way that could position these covers as a potential holy grail of music for productivity. (I’m sure the efficacy of which could be up for debate, because I can’t help but grin throughout the entirety of these albums.)
In a crowded YouTube space, these revisited Beatles albums using the sound designs from Super Mario 64 fall in the middle of a spectrum of wholly earnest covers of Beatles songs (like Michael Sokil’s channel of Beatles instrumental track recreations) to memeified shitposts (such as edits of every time the Beatles said “come” across their entire discography). Now, I am not here to debate where these soundfont covers should be located on a cultural hierarchy scale, or judge whether or not these versions do the originals “justice.” But with that said, utilizing the soundscape from one of the most influential video games of all time to reinterpret some of the most famous and recognizable music from the past 100 years sets a pretty high bar to meet; and from my view, particularly on the tracks to make them more tonally-themed to different worlds from Super Mario 64—plus the little twists on album artwork and song titles—they are all strangely successful. Whether you’re putting on these soundfont covers to act as productivity music while you’re working to become a Paperback Writer, you want to listen to The Beatles Here, There, and Everywhere, while you’re Only Sleeping, or you’re just looking for Something to listen to, these covers provide wonderfully fresh and unique takes on a familiar music catalog and a video game soundscape that serve as an opportunity to interrogate the function and form of easy listening music and reify the seemingly limitless boundaries of the Beatles’ catalog.
- YouTube user Durag Gohan‘s Super Mario 64 soundfont cover of The Beatles’ Revolver.
- The Beatles performing “This Boy” (1963).
- George Martin’s instrumental arrangement of “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy),” as featured in A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
- The Beatles’ Abbey Road, as reinterpreted by YouTube user TTStupid.
- YouTube user bruhmoment28‘s cover of With the Beatles.
- Kenneth Womack, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Early Years, 1926-1966 (Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2017): 270-271. [↩]
- Jack Curtis Dubowsky, “The Named and the Nameless: Easy Listening from Anonymous to the Beatles,” in Easy Listening and Film Scoring, 1948-1978 (London, UK: Routledge, 2021): 151. [↩]
- See: Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and other Moodsong (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Tim Anderson, Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Kier Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows: Defining the Easy Listening Era, 1946-1966,” American Music 26, no. 3 (Fall 2008), 309-335; Jack Curtis Dubowsky, Easy Listening and Film Scoring, 1948-1978 (London, UK: Routledge, 2021). [↩]
- Andrew Schartmann, Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015): 99-110. [↩]