It’s Saturday morning and we’re relaxing on the sofa with a coffee, idly scrolling through Twitter while MTV Classics plays in the background. The 1992 video for Roy Orbison’s posthumously released track 'I Drove All Night' plays. Now, we’re partial to Roy, the American singer-songwriter behind such classics as 'You Got It' and 'In Dreams'. He rose to fame in the ‘60s and was in the midst of a career renaissance in 1988 when a heart attack took him at the age of 52. His back catalogue enjoyed a revival shortly afterwards, thanks partly to the prominent use of his signature track in the hit film Pretty Woman. Consequently, despite hailing from an earlier generation, Orbison’s songs fire up late ‘80s, early ‘90s nostalgia for us in the same way as double denim and Hypercolor t-shirts.
Mention his name in conversation and ‘video games’ are unlikely to come up. Nintendo fans might be able to dredge up the trivia nugget that he (and his trademark glasses) inspired his namesake Koopa Kid courtesy of Nintendo of America’s English translation of Super Mario Bros. 3, but the musician was from a different generation; an analogue generation.
Owing to the fact he’d been dead for four years at the time of production, a spectral Orbison appears in the 'I Drove All Night' video via snippets of distorted archival footage while Jason Priestley and Jennifer Connelly cavort in moody monochrome. An impossibly attractive couple – the objects of approximately 98% of teenage crushes of the era – Priestley does his best James Dean impression behind the wheel as he drives to meet Connelly in the middle of the desert. On arrival, the two young stars then frolic on the car bonnet and other locations, generally enjoying each other’s company for the rest of the song.
As we took this nostalgia trip and cursed the ravages of Mother Time, we suddenly bolted upright at a brief shot of a van the two lovers ride past, spilling our coffee as we did a cartoon-style double-take. No, it couldn’t be. Grabbing the remote we hit rewind just to make sure and there it was, plain as day:
Skip to 3:14 in the video to see for yourself. For some reason – for the briefest of moments – Roy Orbison was plugging Super Mario Bros. from beyond the grave. Other split-second references occur throughout the video:
This is perplexing for multiple reasons. Even if he was an avid gamer (which seems unlikely), of all the potential artists that might have prompted early ‘90s kids to race down to their nearest gaming emporium and pick up the latest release, Roy ‘Only-the-Lonely’ Orbison would have been very low down the list – somewhere between Ringo Starr and your gran. We can’t imagine his seal of approval being the envy of consumer electronics brands in any decade, least of all the too-cool-for-school ‘90s. MC Hammer? Perhaps. Vanilla Ice? At a push, but Roy Orbison!? Too square, too operatic, and – frankly – too dead. Who on earth thought this would be a fruitful crossover for either party? We had to know, and the rest of our morning was spent in search of an explanation.
We should remember that this period was arguably ‘peak’ Mario – or perhaps more accurately, peak Nintendo. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was on TV, The Wizard had whipped up incredible levels of anticipation for Super Mario Bros. 3 before it landed in the US, and the summer of ’91 saw the arrival of the Super Nintendo with Super Mario World (PAL territories would have to wait until the following year). Sure, John Connor might have mocked the mainstream Nintendo kids in Terminator 2 while he skipped school and ripped off ATMs in his Public Enemy t-shirt, but he was being hunted by a liquid metal killing machine; the average kid his age was Mario mad.
Consequently, the plumber appeared in all sorts of places up until 1993 when the failure of the infamous Bob Hoskins live-action movie made Nintendo realise its brand could be damaged through hasty tie-ins. It put the brakes on such practices, and has arguably only recently begun branching out again with theme parks and animated movie deals.
This haphazard approach to licencing presumably enabled MCA Records to get its hands on the plumber’s likeness to promote a compilation album that you may or may not be familiar with.
Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin’ is a very strange album, to say the least. Ten tracks long, it includes 'I Drove All Night' and it, too, gets a reference in the video (skip to 2:38). While the cover couldn’t be more ‘90s if it tried, only the opening song by Jellyfish, 'Ignorance is Bliss', has any lyrical ties whatsoever to Super Mario. The remainder of the compilation is apparently made up of random tracks MCA Records had lying around the place, thrown onto a Nintendo-labelled disc because, well, those idiot kids will buy anything plastered with Mario’s face, won’t they?!
Kotaku ran a short article on the album eight years back after Negative World posted some highlights, if they can be called such, of a short comic that came in the album sleeve. This comic weaves the song titles into a contrived narrative featuring Mario and friends. Each title is crowbarred awkwardly into one of the characters’ speech bubbles and, for the particularly slow reader, another character invariably drives the point home with a knowing 'Song cue'.
Closer examination of the comic reveals the ostensive reason for the entire endeavour – it’s an ill-conceived pro-literacy project. Set in Dinosaur Land, Yoshi and the Koopa Kids learn to read courtesy of Princess Peach (or Toadstool here), while perennial loser Bowser subscribes to the mantra ‘ignorance is bliss’ (song cue).
It’s complete nonsense but fascinating all-at-once; a hodgepodge of ‘90s vernacular and a (presumably mandated) selection of hilariously inappropriate ‘big’ words. For example, Princess Toadstool, the ‘babe’ with the ‘dynamite bod’, stuffs magical spell book pages down her ‘décolletage’. Head over to Negative World for a more thorough look at the liberties taken with your favourite video game characters, but suffice it to say, it’s utter rubbish.
You’ve got to hand it to whoever knocked this up, though; effort has gone into this rubbish. Stringing together such woefully unrelated tracks in a Mario-branded pro-literacy wrapper was a thankless task. The result is an intriguing oddity from the height of Mario mania, for sure, but why exactly were these songs thrown together on the disc? Were there no more fitting alternatives? Sure, Dire Straits were a big deal at the time, but Mark Knopfler’s sombre reflection of a violent clash during the UK miner’s strike was even less likely to win over the target demographic than Roy’s contribution. Stranger still, Virgin Records – not MCA – held the rights to Orbison’s back catalogue, so getting this song on its Nintendo compilation involved work on MCA’s part, certainly more than simply sweeping the recording studio floor for random offcuts and B-sides.
Examination of 'I Drove All Night’s' single sleeve provides a vital clue. On the reverse we found the following dedication from Orbison’s wife:
Bobby Brooks was Roy’s agent and friend. I am so pleased that Roy’s song, “I Drove All Night” pays tribute to Bobby’s memory. Roy always felt that children are our future. The work of the Bobby Brooks Foundation will promote literacy in children and ensure a more promising future for us all.
The single features two ‘B-sides’, both by other artists taken from White Knuckle Scorin’. Further investigation of this Bobby Brooks character uncovered a contemporary L.A. Times article from November 1991 highlighting the release of both the single and White Knuckle Scorin’ itself (unfortunately, European readers may have trouble accessing the article due to geo-locking).
Despite a few inaccuracies (the article claims White Knuckle Scorin’ is “a soundtrack album for a new Nintendo video game”), it sheds some light on the thinking behind the project. Bobby Brooks was an agent for various artists; ‘a tremendous guy, a very funny man’ according to another of his clients, Eric Clapton. Brooks was tragically killed in the same 1990 helicopter crash that also claimed legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. According to the article, White Knuckle Scorin’ was the brainchild of MCA Chairman Al Teller – a somewhat confused attempt to fuse a tribute to the departed Brooks with a compilation album to ‘tap the Nintendo youth market’.
In addition to playing Nintendo, literacy was apparently a cause close to Brooks’ heart and provided the album’s wholesome raison d’être, with a cut of proceeds going to form a foundation in his honour. It seems that Bobby Brooks had worked (in some capacity) with the majority of the featured artists on the compilation; the tangential link between this strange selection of songs.
The peculiar dual role of ‘Nintendo-branded album for the cool kids’ and tribute to Brooks seems to have left the album in an awkward no-man’s land, satisfying neither function. None of the songs are an obvious fit for the ‘Nintendo youth’ demographic Al Teller was reportedly targeting, although it’s conceivable the two objectives were inextricable. If the Nintendo licence were contingent on the pro-literacy angle provided by the Brooks connection (therefore limiting the tracks MCA had to work with), that would provide a reasonable explanation for this conceptually odd Nintendo tie-in that features veteran folk rockers Crosby, Stills & Nash rubbing shoulders with Sheena Easton, while Roy Orbison warbles “I drove all night... to make love to you”. We all know sex sells, but really?
Which brings us back to the video. Perhaps MCA was contractually obliged to include Nintendo references in it or maybe stipulations from Virgin Records or Orbison's widow prevented Mario from being jammed into every frame. Alternatively, perhaps Nintendo got cold feet with the ‘love-making’ references and put the brakes on the collaboration. Its licencing department vetting procedures evidently weren’t so stringent in those days, but you’d assume MCA would want more than some blink-and-you’ll-miss-them White Knuckle Scorin’ references in the final product. It’s all very odd indeed.
We encourage you to check out the eclectic mix yourself. Tracking down your very own copy is possible, although we’d recommend just having a listen to this YouTube playlist instead. Having solved the mystery of Roy Orbison’s posthumous endorsement of the House of Mario to our satisfaction, the album made for an appropriately surreal end to a surprising morning.
Join us next week when we’ll be hunting obscure Metroid references in Miami Sound Machine lyrics.