There are many instances that one can cite of a song fitting perfectly with an event in a film or a game. For example, like many others, I can’t hear ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel without thinking of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, and start strutting around like Michael Madsen.
This is a perfect marriage of scene and song, and this innocent little ditty from Gerry Rafferty and co. can never be thought of the same way again.
What is rarer, however, is when an entire soundtrack can perfectly match the entire feel of what it’s supporting. There are great soundtracks, sure, but how often do they so wholly encompass the tone of whatever film, game, etc. they belong with.
That’s why the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (GTA) series, developed and published by Rockstar Games, is so amazing. It’s one thing to pick a bunch of songs, put them all together, and let them play in the background without much attention payed by the player. But it’s another to craft the carefully chosen music into genre-specific stations, complete with presenters, alongside scripted talk stations, that can hold up well as pieces of entertainment on their own, and hand control of which radio station will be hear over to the player. It’s something that makes you feel at home in the world, that no amount of high-resolution pixel detail ever could.
Rockstar have been crafting radio stations into the GTA series ever since the first game, ‘Grand Theft Auto’, was released in 1997 (back when Rockstar was still known as DMA Design). However, it wasn’t until 2001, when ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ was released, that the concept really took off.
‘Grand Theft Auto 3’ (which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary) is one of the most influential and ground-breaking games ever made. Set in the fictional Liberty City, it was funny, incredibly violent, fun as hell, and the game world was FUCKING HUGE! It also featured an excellent soundtrack, featuring music from mostly unknown or obscure artists, that helped make Liberty City feel more real.
The absolute highlight of the radio stations of ‘Grand Theft Auto 3’ was Chatterbox FM. Chatterbox FM was Liberty City’s talk radio station, and was so fucking funny, that whenever I would hop in a car in the game, I would immediately go hunting for it, and no amount of times hearing it would ever make me want to stop. The host of Chatterbox FM was Lazlow, who co-wrote the script for the station with Dan Houser, who serves as producer and one of the head writers on the series. Lazlow, a real-life radio personality, plays a version of himself here, who appears in all of the major games in the series from here forwards, and his character continues to develop (more on that as we progress).
After ‘Grand Theft Auto 3’ there was ‘Vice City’, released in 2002. ‘Vice City’ was set in 1986, in a fictionalised version of Miami called Vice City. With the success of ‘Grand Theft Auto 3’, Rockstar could afford to get some bigger artists onto the soundtrack this time around. Artists including Michael Jackson, Twisted Sister, Kim Wilde, Gary Numan, A Flock Of Seagulls, the list goes on. The music chosen for the soundtrack, especially the music featured on Wave 103, perfectly captured what we think when we hear someone say “80’s music”: synthesizers, bad hair, and pure cheese. The great music choices help put you right there in 1986, and you can’t help but feel pleasure riding around on a motorcycle singing along to ‘Kids In America’, blasting away at passers-by with an Uzi. It’s enough to make you want to get up off your couch, do a line of cocaine and call somebody a “cock-a-roach”.
The talk stations return in the form of K-Chat and VCPR, which both have their moments, but aren’t up to the standard of Chatterbox FM. Our good friend Lazlow does return however, as the host over at V-Rock. For those paying attention in the previous game, which was set 15 years after ‘Vice City’, Lazlow references the time he “got kicked off the rock station”, so there is a great level of attention-to-detail shown here.
For my money, the pinnacle of what Rockstar could do with a soundtrack in a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ game was reached in the follow-up to ‘Vice City’, 2004’s ‘San Andreas’.
‘San Andreas’ not only features the best soundtrack of any GTA game, it is also the greatest GTA game. Some may consider it too ambitious, and therefore lacking focus. Some may find it too silly, with the ability to fly around using jetpacks or beat people up with giant pink dildos. Personally, I think that Rockstar took everything they’d learned with the previous two games, and went balls to the fucking wall, creating a masterpiece in the process. ‘San Andreas’ is set in not just one city, but in an entire fucking state. Comprising of 3 main cities (Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas) and all the countryside in between, ‘San Andreas’ is set in late 1992, so it features a lot of music that is a part of that time period.
I was born in 1985, making me a child of the 90’s, so I grew up with a lot of music featured in ‘San Andreas’, which helps put it into its position as my personal favourite. The main reason the soundtrack is so fucking awesome, though, is the fact that the 3 main cities and the surrounding countryside all have distinct personalities, and there are radio stations that reflect that so perfectly. Some people may be content just listening to their favourite songs over and over again, but I couldn’t help but get sucked into wherever I was in San Andreas and switch over to a station that suited.
If I was in Los Santos, based on Los Angeles during the time of the L.A. riots, it was gangsta rap all the way, with Radio Los Santos featuring artists like Ice Cube, 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Cypress Hill. If I was in San Fierro, based on San Francisco, I could tune into their own house music station, San Fierro Underground Radio. Then there’s Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas, which calls for a bit of Master Sounds 98.3, with some James Brown, Maceo & The Macks or Bobby Byrd for that cool Vegas feel. And there’s something to be said for drving around the country side in a crappy old pick-up listening to the country staton K-Rose, with ‘Amos Moses’ by Jerry Reed playing at top volume. There’s also plenty of other stations with plenty of great music (including my personal favourite, K-DST, with Axl Rose playing DJ Tommy “The Nightmare” Smith), and the return of talk radio with WCTR, again featuring Lazlow.
These 3 games came in the last generation, with ‘Grand Theft Auto’ entering the current generation with ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’. Like ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ before it, ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ is set in the present in Liberty City. It features a lot of great music, featuring classic artists like The Stooges, Queen, Stevie Nicks, and The Who, and contemporary artists like Kanye West, LCD Soundsystem, The Black Keys, R. Kelly, and Busta Rhymes.
The issue that this game has, like ‘Grand Theft Auto 3’ before it, is that because it is set in the present, it’s hard to get a feel for what defines this generation of music, therefore leading to a lack of a central vision, unlike ‘Vice City’ and ‘San Andreas’ which were set in time periods that had a certain type of music very closely associated with them, like New Wave and Grunge.
There is one very large saving grace that ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ has going for it, soundtrack wise, and that is Lazlow’s first channel that he has all to himself since ‘Grand Theft Auto III’, Integrity 2.0. Integrity 2.0 picks up on Lazlow’s story after he’s been fired from Chatterbox FM, gotten divorced and gone through a huge drug addiction and a fall from fame. He’s trying to reclaim his fame by hitting the streets and trying a different kind of radio show. Being a huge fan of the Lazlow character, listening to him get himself in crazy situations while cursing like a sailor and talking about his sex life, is hilarious. It’s the best talk station in all of GTA, and worth a listen on its own.
As far as soundtracks are concerned, nothing is better than GTA. So go check out the games, Dear Reader. The radio stations are nothing short of astonishing, and hey, the games are great to play too.