Where Art thou?

A gigging musician in Scarborough, Dave Lowe had almost forgotten he used to create computer games and write music for them until his true status as a pioneer of the industry was revealed

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It’s not every day you discover that your dad is a wanted man on the internet, but that’s what happened to the actor Lucy Lowe when her brother Adam came across an online gaming forum about “Uncle Art” – a composer who had put sounds to some of the hottest video games released in the UK in the mid-eighties and early nineties.

“Whatever happened to him?” the online posters wondered. And there was great excitement when Adam revealed that Uncle Art, otherwise known as Dave Lowe, was alive and well and playing a guitar in Scarborough.

Like his guitar years before, Dave admits he “got a bit obsessed” when he bought a ZX81

Born in the East End, 69-year-old Dave Lowe still has a gentle cockney accent, despite having lived in Scarborough for more than 30 years. He and his daughter Lucy speak to Big Issue North while sitting in Dave’s music studio at his home on the outskirts of town. The room is filled with Dave’s instruments and sound equipment: keyboards, a bank of computers, a rack of guitars across one wall. At the back of the room is a sound booth, a microphone hanging from
the ceiling.

It was in this studio that, often working under the name Uncle Art, Dave created the music for over 70 early computer games, including Afterburner and Street Fighter II.

“It was a fantastic time because everybody in it was breaking new ground,” says Dave. “It was all exciting stuff. It was a bit like when rock and roll first started. People were working in their bedrooms and back rooms on this stuff.”

Now Dave’s work has inspired an album of music, A Temporal Shift, which he’s put together with his younger daughter Holly, and a film, Uncle Art, by Lucy that charts both the development of her dad’s career and how his work was rediscovered years later. It’s a fascinating tale about a man who has spent his life making money out of his obsessions.

The first of those obsessions was a guitar. Dave remembers the day he saw an older kid sat on a wall outside his house playing a song from The Shadows. “I was mesmerised,” he says. “It was like magic to me.”

Dave’s mother had reached concert pianist level but suffered from such stage fright that she never went on to perform publicly. His dad had been a drummer in an RAF band and later, when he was a lorry driver, he helped Dave get started in his own music career, taking him to gigs in the back of his truck.

Dave had his first gig at 13, on a barge on the Thames, and by 15 was working regularly in pubs and clubs, performing cover versions of songs by The Who and The Beatles. But life as a working-class lad in the East End was pretty tough and he used to carry a mallet around with him to ward off gangs trying to steal his guitar.

Dave’s decade as one of the world’s first computer game composers started when his wife Vicky, a dancer and a reserve member of the troupe Pan’s People, got sick of putting up with a fidgety Dave, who spent his days waiting for evening to come around so he could pick up his guitar again and go gigging. She suggested he take up a hobby.

Like his guitar years before, Dave admits he “got a bit obsessed” when he bought a ZX81, one of the first home computers, and started programming in machine code, which opened the door to writing games.

Together with his brother-in-law, Dave wrote Buggy Blast, which they sold to software company Firebird in 1985. Dave’s brother in law then produced a game called Rasputin, for which he asked Dave to do the music. After that, work started flowing in. “I was out gigging at night and then programming during the daytime, getting about three or four hours of sleep a night.”

Writing music for these games was not an easy task. It meant being both a musician and a machine code programmer, a combination that few people possessed. As Dave points out in Lucy’s film, the Twitter App has about 100MB to use, 20,000 times more space than he was working with. Dave broke new ground, being the first to use vocal samples in 1987’s Starglider, for example.

Dave was able to buy the house in Scarborough, where the couple decided to raise their family, create the studio, and leave behind his nights on the stage. Lucy, 39, recalls how the house was cluttered with games consoles, her childhood reverberating with the“same bits of music on repeat” as Dave worked.

She, along with her sister Holly and brother Adam, got to play on the latest games. “It was cool, but it was just normal,” she says. And none of them had any idea that their dad was working in the early days of an industry that would one day rival movie making.

As games companies got bigger and corporate, they started to want people to work in-house rather than employ freelancers. “They wanted you to be in an office nine to five,” says Dave. “I never worked in an office and I didn’t intend to start.”

After more than a decade, Dave’s ride on the crest of an emerging games industry came to an end and he went back to be a gigging musician.

“I totally forgot about it,” he says, and he assumed everyone else had too.

Discovering 20 years later that he was “famous on the internet” and that there was a new interest in retro gaming came as a bit of a shock.

The discovery led to him working with his daughter Holly, herself a musician, on an album of his games music in arrangements that reflected how he’d first conceived the tunes, before rendering them into electronic sounds. The tracks were recorded both in Dave’s studio and, significantly for him as he is a massive Beatles fan, at Abbey Road, where they worked with a 50 piece orchestra recreating the music for Frontier: Elite.

It was during the development of this album that Lucy started documenting things on film, initially as a keepsake for the family.

“I decided to start looking into dad’s background and the things he’s achieved and all the ground-breaking stuff that he did back then,” she says. “Dad’s work passed us by for years – we never thought about it. But of course there’s going to be interest in it, because it was the first ever computer games music. And there’s great nostalgia for these games. Who wouldn’t want to feel young again, just for a moment, and to forget all the worries of adulthood?”

The nostalgia for these games and their music is represented in the documentary through the eyes of a train driver, suffering from PTSD after having four tragedies on the line. He reveals how the music from Elite helped him in his recovery, having been told by his therapist to pick things that could take him out of the moment and back to “somewhere good”.

“He was so open and honest, and saying how dad’s music had helped him through difficult times,” says Lucy. “Music can touch us in such powerful ways.” There’s a melancholy edge to the film. It captures something about Dave’s brush with fame and how, as his wife Vicky says, “he’s been nearly there… just within reach of making it” but never quite gained the recognition or success he deserves.

Dave is laid back about the direction his life has taken. He still works in his studio, recently producing the album No Direction Home by Jesse Caine, but it’s his love of playing in front of an audience that makes his eyes sparkle. “If there’s an opportunity to play live, I’m there.”

Uncle Art is available on Amazon Prime. A Temporal Shift is available on Spotify or at uncleartretrogaming.com

Photo: Dave and Lucy at the music studio in Scarborough

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