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How Sonic the Hedgehog Kept Glam Rock Alive After Its Grungy Demise

SEGA's series turned to some of the Sunset Strip's finest to bring rock 'n' roll theatricality to its Dreamcast soundtracks.

With tears and sold-out arenas as Mötley Crüe played their contractual final shows at the end of last year, and excited speculation and controversy as the definitive members of Guns N' Roses spend the summer on a reunion tour, it's fair to say that there's a palpable resurgence of interest in 80s-style heavy metal. Couple those headlines with the facts that satirical glamsters Steel Panther are headlining London's Wembley Arena this fall and that Reckless Love are helping to turn Helsinki into the new Sunset Strip, and it becomes increasingly apparent that people have a rekindled affinity with big hair and big riffs.

This wasn't the case in the last two decades, by and large. In its 80s heyday, the aforementioned Sunset Strip in West Hollywood was the center of the universe for glam metal, melodic hard rock, or whatever other elastic term you want to apply. Between the Whiskey a Go Go and The Viper Room, the Roxy, and Troubadour, long-haired young men braved a relentless world of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, being courted by corrupt A&R people while dark excesses waited around corners, and peroxide groupies handed out flyers. But it couldn't last. The creative well ran dry, forcing bands to further prioritize image over substance and vision. Penelope Spheeris's toe-curling The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years documents a conveyor belt of mortifying, starry-eyed hopefuls, but is worth watching solely for a scene involving W.A.S.P.'s Chris Holmes and a swimming pool.

The end came with the arrival of a cardigan-clad knight armed with a Fender Jaguar. Alongside a wave of bands from Seattle, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain helped to popularize grunge rock, a punk-based evolution that focused on alienation, introspection, and frustration, antithetical to hair metal's ebullient ethos. As kids' attention moved from Pretty Boy Floyd to Pearl Jam, Hollywood's music became as popular as Lars Ulrich at a Napster party, and the Strip fell silent.

The Whisky a Go Go, photographed by Mike Dillon, via Wikipedia

As this cultural revolution changed the face of popular rock music, the gaming industry was also going through the gears on the way to its most significant transformation of the 90s—that of 128bit. SEGA's Dreamcast was the first of these sixth-generation consoles and, while it was to be their last, it was a trailblazer, offering unique peripherals and, most significantly, online multiplayer functionality. As technology progressed, the new, cinematic graphics and immersive gameplay necessitated a soundtrack to match.

Sonic the Hedgehog was a flag bearer, gaming's most famous woodland creature having already enjoyed a powerful musical output across his Mega Drive career. Don't pretend you can't hum every note of Green Hill Zone. Then there's those infectious funk bass lines of Mystic Cave, the hyperactive scales of Flying Battery, and the theme of the motherfuckin' Doomsday Zone, the single greatest piece of music ever written.

While the fortunes of pre-millennial glam bands had taken a turn for the worst during the franchise's nascent years, several of the musicians actually went on to find sustenance in providing the sounds of Sonic's later adventures at a time when their musical presence was ailing. Two of the most significant contributors were frontmen Johnny Gioeli of Hardline and Ted Poley of Danger Danger, who both enjoyed cult success and spins on MTV, but never upheld the consistent stardom of the genre's big guns.

Hardline were one of the very best: a powerful, soulful melody machine, equal parts gravel and satin. In a bona fide example of friends with benefits, Johnny and his brother Joey met fellow Pennsylvanian Bret Michaels of arena giants Poison, who set them up with his publicist. Their original line-up was also graced with their sister's boyfriend—who, fortunately, happened to be Journey's Neal Schon—and together they smashed attendance records on the Sunset Strip previously held by The Doors and Van Halen. Sadly, their debut arrived just a little too late, right on the cusp of the Massacre of Hollywood.

"We got a lot of press, but we all worked very hard to get noticed," Johnny tells me of their formative years. "Once we had some traction, we broke all of those records. It was quite the scene! Everyone was trying to be glam. I always felt weird about it. I wasn't comfortable with lipstick on."

Hardline in the early 90s, with Johnny pictured center. MCA Records PR photograph by Neil Zlozower

Danger Danger, on the other hand, were a fizz-bang of hairspray, life-affirming anthems, twinkling keyboards, and guitar solos, who suffered similar setbacks once Seattle became the musical epicenter. Despite the differing stylistic nuances between them and Hardline, one thing that united the bands was their distaste for their grunge successors.

"That was the off switch," says Ted of grunge's arrival, followed by a silence that borders on uncomfortable. "That's all I have to say. I couldn't believe the shitty kind of music everybody liked. It was horrible. It's still horrible."

"I didn't understand Pearl Jam, it was crazy to me," echoes Johnny with a shudder. "How can a guy mumble, sing off-key, and look like a guy I passed in the street on a walk? It was mentally troubling and then musically devastating. I remember it clearly. I still get bad chills from it."

A Danger Danger PR photograph, with Ted pictured center

The catalyst in bringing them together under SEGA's glam-friendly auspices was Jun Senoue, a Japanese guitarist who had landed a job on the Sonic The Hedgehog 3 soundtrack—alongside Michael Jackson, according to legend. Graduating to compose songs for NASCAR Arcade and later Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, Senoue formed the band Crush 40 with Johnny and invited Ted to chip in, as well as TNT singer Tony Harnell. The frontmen's collective back catalogue, with its perennial high-energy melodies, made them ideal candidates to capture the series' staple sense of carefree fun and comic-book cool. However, having been solely focused on their own music, the two had little experience when it came to video games, and found themselves diving into the unknown.

"The last video game I played was probably Atari," chuckles Ted when asked about any prior relationship with Sonic. "I was busy playing instruments and playing with the opposite sex, basically. I've seen the birth of the video game, but while I was growing up they weren't as interesting to me as they would have been in the current format.""I was not at all a gamer, and I'm still not," admits Johnny, a man who created some of the most iconic songs in one of gaming's biggest franchises. "I just don't have the time to commit to learning all the strategies. It was a whole new world for me.

"Crush 40 was born like a soundtrack to a movie. I love watching a scene on a game or analyzing a storyboard and then getting creative. Jun and I have our system—he starts with a musical feeling and sometimes a melody idea and then I go nuts with it! The lyrics do have to be approved for content, but that's it. We have the freedom to write what we feel is the right song for the scene. It's a great experience for sure."

Crush 40, "Open Your Heart" ('Sonic Adventure' opening)

Tying in with this filmic idea, the high-spec opening of 1998's Sonic Adventure became the Dreamcast's calling card, with Crush 40's accompanying song "Open Your Heart" heralding the frenetic burst of the blue blur's turn-of-the-century makeover. They'd go on to provide "Live And Learn"—one of Johnny's favorites—for the 2001 sequel. Critically acclaimed as one of Sonic's finest 3D outings—a feat that SEGA would struggle to accomplish in subsequent years—Sonic Adventure 2 introduced Shadow, who beat Tails for the honor of second-most popular character in the franchise in a 2006 fan poll.

There's Johnny, second from left, in a poster for Axel Rudi Pell's band, as spotted by the author in a Berlin toilet in February 2016

It also spawned another classic in "Escape from the City," the theme of the first stage. Undoubtedly Ted's defining contribution to the series, it sees a fugitive Sonic rolling around at the speed of sound as he races through a fictionalized San Francisco to escape the armed forces. It's a liberating, joyous example of 3D platforming that's deeply ingrained in the minds of fans. The irony is, despite his prior merit as a glam rockstar landing him the SEGA job, the genre's economic climate of the 00s meant he'd never see the finished work until over a decade later.

"At that time, I couldn't even afford the hardware that came out," Ted says of the Dreamcast. "The first time I actually saw some of the music linked up to the visuals was when I did the Sonic Boom convention. The truck screaming through the city, it's so cool! We played it live, which was tough because it was never to be sung live and writing the lyrics for games is very different than writing for a rock song. You have to have a lot of action and alliteration. It creates a whole mood and there's no time for breath—the song is over in a minute and a half, and it's intense."

"I imagine if you stop playing, you get killed by the truck or something," he muses, completely naïve to the shoddy mechanics that result in the truck moving at the same speed as Sonic, whether that's fast or at a snail's pace.

"What's funny, if it had been a music hit in the real world, I'd be rich from it," he continues with a laugh, lamenting the no-royalties, one-off payment deal. "That's the biggest hit I've ever had. I always try to get a percentage of what I do but that's not the way the deal was structured. I knew what I was doing at the time, though, so I'm just slightly less upset than I normally would be when you sell ten million of something and don't get paid for it.

"I made a lot of new fans through [the game] and it's very cool, and I wouldn't even trade them for the $10 million I would have gotten. No, actually, I would. Sorry, guys. But not for less than $10 million!"

Ted Poley recording "Escape from the City" for 'Sonic Adventure 2' (which is great, but not quite as great as the greatest video of someone singing a video game theme of all time)

Less cherished is the character of Big the Cat, for whom Ted provided a theme in Sonic Adventure. The dim-witted feline and his god-awful fishing levels marred the game, and the bitter taste still lingers today. However, as an avid toy collector, the singer is fond of the controversial kitty.

"I have a plastic Big the Cat," he exclaims excitedly. "I love to collect old toys and games, antiques, back to the 1800s, so it was a thrill to become a part of it. I couldn't care less if anybody likes him or not. To me, I became immortalized in a toy."

As Sonic celebrates the 25th anniversary of his debut title, Johnny continues touring with Hardline and German guitarist Axel Rudi Pell, while Ted— who still performs with Danger Danger—is enjoying acclaim from a new solo album, Beyond the Fade. And while the successes of both gaming's premier hedgehog and glam metal have been mercurial throughout their lives in popular culture, one thing's for sure—once upon a time, Sonic rocked.

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