The B-side of Chris Sievey’s 1983 single “Camouflage” sounds like an unlistenable maelstrom of noise. It’s not an avant-garde song; it’s a program for the ZX-81 computer and if you could load it correctly, it gave you a (very rudimentary) computer-animated music video, coded in the grooves of a vinyl record.
This neat little tidbit is well known to fans of early 80s punk music, but UsVsTh3m brought it back to our attention recently and it’s worth re-remembering. Chris Sievey, on top of being a founding member of The Freshies and the mind behind the charmingly offbeat character Frank Sidebottom, was a computer tinkerer drawn to the ZX-81. The hobby computer, weighing only 340g, with zero moving parts and no display (you plugged it into your TV), bolstered its 1KB internal memory by storing data to cassette tapes at a blistering 250 baud.
That also meant you could hypothetically send data the other way: the B-side of Sievey’s single duplicates the audio tones of three ZX-81 programs he wrote. Two were versions of a game he created called Flying Train, and one was the companion music video you see here.
In order for the whole trick to work, you would have had to buy the record, record the B-side onto a cassette, then load the cassette’s data on your ZX-81. Inaccuracies that cropped up in any of those steps would ruin the gag.
YouTuber soundhog09 succeeded only after finding a mint-condition copy of the single — and he still had to painstakingly clean the grooves of the vinyl with PVA glue and digitally clean up the resulting sound files before transferring them to cassette, then running them on a ZX-81 PC emulator program. Soundhog09’s YouTube description explains just how finicky the process was:
Quite a few people experimented with cutting computer data tones into vinyl, or even flexidiscs, in the early 1980s. The success rate of loading any of these was pretty bloody dismal, and there are letters/articles bemoaning the fact in several of the computer magazines of the day. One scratch, mark or even a bad mastering/cutting job at the pressing plant would scupper everything.
Viewed 30 years after the fact, the final product seems simplistic, but not wholly obsolete. It’s a graphic style that artists and musicians find fascinating today, and Sievey’s experiment foreshadowed the Enhanced CDs that offered up all kinds of Easter eggs when you’d pop them in your computer’s CD-ROM drive.
Finally, we have the technology to appreciate the computer program coded in vinyl in 1983. [UsVsTh3m]