Barnett: “Gary Penn was my Lester Bangs”

By Kieron Gillen on February 18th, 2008 at 3:04 pm.

You know: I wish developers did more photos of themselves like this. They make life more fun.

I met up with Warhammer Online’s Paul Barnett last week in London for an interview. We talked about… well, a lot of stuff. We spent three hours in a pub, drinking all the while. It’s going to be an interesting transcript. However, one of the things we touched upon was Gary Penn and his importance. And it’s got Paul writing…

“Computer games and computer game hardware had as much importance in my youth and formative years as any amount of music. The game labels, games and the people who made and reviewed them took on the same mystique, fanatic devotion; belief and philosophical answers than anything I managed to dredge out of the radio and records that where available at the time”.

He then explores what much-cited music critic Lester Bangs actually was – rather than his myth – how this applies to games, and how his very own Lester Bangs was Zzap!’s Gary Penn, now of Denki. His point being, Lester Bangs isn’t some platonic perfect state – it’s a relationship between reader and writer born at a specific space.

I think he’s got a point.

If you’ve been following the whole WHERE IS GAMES’ LESTER BANGS/PAULINE KAEL/WHOEVER debate, it’s hung up on some kind of Gold Standard. The idea of a writer who speaks to the masses and communicates what’s interesting and worthwhile about the medium. Not sure that’s going to happen, at least in the short term. We may eventually get a Kael, but she was writing about movies, a form that had been existent for a long time previous and was as mainstream as sunlight. Lester Bangs is more interesting for me, because he was writing about a new form – modern pop music – which had been existent for relatively little time and not considered something serious by the adult population at large.

And Bangs didn’t speak to the mainstream at all. Bangs spoke to the obsessive, the weirdo, the crazed-in-love creature who licked vinyl and put their head inside speakers so they could feel closer to Iggy. He influenced critics and musicians, but he certainly never influenced sales – the acts he’s most totemically connected to sold jack shit, even though most of them have become massively important over the years.

What mattered about Bangs, as Barnett argues, is that he spoke to people who gave a toss. And when you’re full of these strange feelings about something the world isn’t really talking about, happening across someone who is writing about what you believe, articulating things you’re having trouble with and able to offer a little insight onto your fever-pitched brains… well, that connection is what makes someone a Lester Bangs.

Paul’s was Gary Penn. Mine? Amiga Power’s Stuart Campbell. Yours? Oh, I dunno. That’s your call. But looking around the world today, I can see people who I suspect were I still in need of a Lester Bangs, would fill the role.

Where’s gaming’s Lester Bangs? It’s wherever you place them. And if the world doesn’t agree, it doesn’t matter. Lester Bangs is for you.

, , .

47 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    You’ll always be my Bangs, RPS.

    Um, that doesn’t sound right.

  2. rob says:

    John Walker.

  3. Meat Circus says:

    Is it still acceptable to be suggesting Amiga Power? I mean, it was an integral part of my teenage life, but you know, that was fifteen years ago.

    So, who’ve I got now? Who speaks to me about games, rather than just writing about them?

    Well, there’s you guys. Yahtzee. Tom Bramwell.

    I don’t have a Lester Bangs, but there’s bits of him spread all over the place.

  4. Phil says:

    The Amiga Power collective from about issue thirty onwards

    EDIT: @Meat Circus – Fifteen years? I think its closer to twelve, but Jesus, that’s still depressing.

  5. Butler` says:

    Eurogamer’s ‘style’ is the one that appeals to me most, which I suppose I should attribute to a certain Kristan Reed.

  6. deathcakes says:

    John Walker ftw.

  7. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Considering that this blog is my primary source of gaming insight, news, commentary, and laughs, I don’t suppose I could say that the RPS-motron is my Bangs, could I?

    Granted, it’s alternately piloted by one of several writers (and a cartoonist, two ducks, and the ghost of a befuddled old Frenchman), but whenever I see any RPS-motron Pilots’ articles anywhere else, I sit up and take notice.

    You’re the first game journalists whose names I’ve ever bothered to remember or look out for. Every other I picked up branching out from this site’s links or comments as a hub.

    Maybe it’s just my ignorance talking, being so out-of-touch with the gaming journalism world that I just don’t know any better, but I honestly do connect with the articles you guys have written–and linked to from here, obviously–more than any others. Except Yahtzee, whose infectious pessimism speaks to my curmudgeon-y, jaded view of gaming in general. While sometimes Mr. Croal just goes over my head (the art debate comes to mind), I rather enjoy reading your articles a lot, Mr. Gillen. I especially appreciate your wit and ongoing struggle with the dark forces of grammar, something we can all relate to!

    This is also the only gaming news-blog-site-thing I ever comment on, so that says a lot.

    Though, I suspect a certain man’s Freezercube might actually be what lured me to this site in the first place. Hmm…

  8. Ian says:

    Oh God. Does Julian Rignall count? Certainly that was the era that games meant as much to me as music (back in the days where I’d write fan-mail — yes! — to Jeff Minter)…

    Nowadays? Well, the combined hive-mind that is RPS gets close enough to be worth repeated visits throughout the day, and that’s not bad going. Not bad going at all.

  9. drunkymonkey says:

    Hey, I know what this is about. This is RPS trying to get some appreciation by people telling them how all four of them are Lester Bangs!

    Well, it’s not gonna work, RPS!

    But I think Mr. Zero Punctuation is filling his role as voice of the disgruntled masses very well, if we’re talking about entertainment and style rather than conceptual ideas.

  10. phuzz says:

    Back when I was 15 the only magazine I read (as far as I remember) was The One [for Amiga games], I still have a few back issues knocking about, and somewhere is a huge disk box with about 200 cover disks in. Nothing could beat that monthly thrill of going into the news agent (never had enough cash to afford a subscription) and getting a magazine, and sometimes more impotently a whole new disk (or two) of games and demos. Some of which would be shite, but some I still have love for :)

    On a different track entirely, how do you guys (ie RPS) feel about seemingly quite suddenly becoming the gaming website of note, or certainly the most quoted one, I’ve seen your name dropped quite a few times this week, even by Valve and off the top of my head I can’t thank of many other blogs that have achieved that kind of name recognition.
    (bloody good writing helps though :)

  11. Kieron Gillen says:

    Drunkmonkey: I manfully resisted the urge to claim that RPS was CREEM. It’d have undermined the point, I suspect.

    KG

  12. Irish Al says:

    Rignall-era Zzap! 64 here. When you were stuck in the back end of nowhere with the nearest games shop 30 miles away, with probably half a dozen chances per year to get hold of non-pirated games, you damn well did your research before buying and hung on every word in the mags. No MetaCritic back then.

  13. Acosta says:

    If I have to chose one, he would be you Kieron.

    For someone as me, that not only is passionate about videogames but works on the field, British press in general is my reference for its quality, insight and, overall, respect for the medium without falling to the blinded praise. I still remember my first travel to England to spend one month learning english and my “discovering” of certain magazine called Edge (that I still keep, number forty five, July of 1997), that I hardly could read with the help of a dictionary but showed me that videogames was not only about games themselves, there was a world around them and the people who made them possible.

    That is when I started to get into British videogames press, got subscribed to Edge (remember my effort in sending the letter with my poor english and in fear I could screw it). Months later I discovered PC Gamer, really liked it and tried to get as much numbers as possible without subscribing (subscription to UK magazines from outside is pretty expensive). That is how I found names as Kieron Guillen or Jim Rossignol for first time.

    But, while I have read all type of great reviews and features, your New Games Journalism post impacted me at every level, I had just started to write for videogames magazines in my country and the piece shocked me at all levels, it showed a new way not only of seeing videogames press, but videogames themselves. I don´t know your actual position about that (I know you received quite heat for it), but for me it’s one of the most influential pieces of writing, one that articulated my confusing feelings about what writing about videogames should mean and what possibilities are open. I have tried to live to these standards, and I have failed many times trapped under the usual editorial pressure and my own limitations, but I keep trying.

    So yes, I consider you as a representative figure of many of the values I respect and admire of videogames press, and videogames themselves.

  14. Meat Circus says:

    Aaargh! I’m trapped in a room with a herd of squeeing Gillen fangirls. SOMEBODY SEND FOR HELP.

  15. Robin says:

    There were two ‘schools’ of UK games journalism that had the biggest influence on me:

    Firstly the Dennis Publishing lot who spawned Your Sinclair, Zero, Game Zone and early PC Zone (particularly David McCandless and Duncan MacDonald, with an honourable mention to Jonathan Davis who still makes me chuckle on a weekly basis on Games Press). I still think that Dunc’s Mr. Cursor column is the best serialised work of games writing ever.

    Secondly, the EMAP Mean Machines crew, who I started reading when I was tempted to the console side. Rignall, Leadbetter & co. A great mixture of very puerile humour and rabid enthusiasm for the subject matter.

    (I didn’t own an Amiga.)

  16. Mike says:

    Given that I got into PC Gaming just as PCG68 turned up with a review of AvP, I think you folks have to accept that you may be my generation’s Lester.

    Although maybe that’s not that reassuring…

  17. The_B says:

    I’d like to be somebody’s Lester one day.

    Lester Piggot, that is…

  18. Phil says:

    David McCandless and Duncan MacDonald both graduated from Zero, possibly the best non-Amiga mag ever, even if it did ache to be NME.

    Strangely I keep spotting people wearing Zero branded T-shirts around the shoreditchy parts of East London – perhaps it’s the new geek-pie.

  19. Dinger says:

    Lester Bangs is dead.
    And there won’t be another, I sadly fear.

    Bangs was at his best in capturing the apocalyptic maelstrom of a live show.
    Can a videogame journalist tap a like source of energy? What’s left of Bangs once you excise the rock-n-roll?

  20. FraggleRock says:

    Lloyd Mangram!

  21. Will Tomas says:

    I hate to add to the mass of squealing fanboys/girls/girlymen but if anyone seemed to “get” videogames in writing the way Bangs did with pop it was Gillen. Closely followed by Rossignol and the rest of RPS. Zero Punctuation is great, but the first uber-writer of the Bangs type for videogames is probably Kieron. Was definitely for me. Maybe that’s why he’s also a music journo…

  22. Mo says:

    Yeah, chalk me up as another Gillen fanboy.

    It was his Shogun review that sold me over. I remember reading it, puzzled by its irrelevance, until I hit the last paragraph. It all came together. I understood more about Shogun than any other review could possibly tell me.

    So while Kieron would definitely be my Lester Bangs, the rest of the PCG/RPS crew get it spot on too. Kieron and PCG, are really what showed me what games journalism was really about, and are pretty much the reason I write about games at all.

    Cheers guys! :)

  23. steve says:

    “The idea of a writer who speaks to the masses and communicates what’s interesting and worthwhile about the medium.”

    That’s where the Pauline Kael discussions get amusing, because she was writing about artistically about trash culture pieces for The New Yorker, which isn’t exactly for “the masses.”

    Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel) is probably the first film critic to truly reach the masses, and it wasn’t via the Tribune or the Sun-times. It was because of a thumb.

    Let’s face it, TV/video is more important than text when it comes to reaching the masses. The first TV personality who covers gaming in this way will be way more important than any writers or bloggers.

    But anyway, that’s not really the point here. I agree that it’s a personal thing, that the hardcore/obsessive do appreciate writing that speaks to them. And it’s probably someone you read at a younger age, when you were less cynical and more malleable.

  24. Nuyan says:

    This is great.

    As for a gaming, RPS is probably my Bangs too. I’m happy that I found out about this site rather quickly, there seem to be quite a few other game-sites out there that got it “right” for me though and I guess there will be sites in the future that will pick up the example of RPS.

    It’s always a bit hard to find out what exactly influenced you (or people in general) and what not, as for gaming really influencing me, I probably won’t get much further than Deus Ex, which I played when I really was quite young and all the MMO experiences I guess.

    Music probably does more to me. It lately occurs to me how strikingly similar music and gaming often are, if you look at indie-development for example. And game-blogs/sites sometimes remind me a lot of punk-zines as well, like this post here did.

  25. Nuyan says:

    Steve – “Let’s face it, TV/video is more important than text when it comes to reaching the masses. The first TV personality who covers gaming in this way will be way more important than any writers or bloggers.”

    The point being made however is that the people that will actually be reading the brilliant text-pieces, are the people that will be the Paul Barnetts of the future. (Heh.) And the mindless masses don’t really have to matter. (Or at least matter relatively less)

    I’m sometimes wondering what has more influence on people; A Rage Against the Machine or a Fugazi? I sometimes think that in the long-long term it might just end up being a Fugazi.

    (Apologies for punk-reference that won’t say anything to most people here, but it was the best way to make my point.)

  26. StolenName says:

    Don’t have one. Don’t care for one.

  27. steve says:

    “A Rage Against the Machine or a Fugazi? I sometimes think that in the long-long term it might just end up being a Fugazi.”

    As the joke goes, if every person who claims to have been influenced by The Velvet Underground had actually purchased a Velvet Underground record, they’d have sold millions.

    But I generally agree that in the long-term, it’s the more obscure influencers. Everyone rips off the popular bands, but ones that last often have deeper influences. And the nerdy look to those deeper influences to see how their favorite bands got from A to B.

    For example, I’d never heard of Big Star until I heard “Alex Chilton” by The Replacements. (Because Paul Westerberg never travels far without a little Big Star.) Since I was Replacements-obsessed, I checked out Big Star and started down an entirely new branch of my music knowledge.

    I wish it was a bit easier to do this with games. Emulators sure have helped, though.

  28. drunkymonkey says:

    Oh, I take great joy in knowing which developers did, are doing, and are going to do what. I like my figures in the industry too, Molyneux, Doak, Spector, and all.

  29. Steve says:

    The only games reviewers whose reviews I would read even on games I wasn’t interested in were Stuart Campbell and Mr Biffo. So they’d be my picks.

  30. Ben Hazell says:

    Gah. Well, from PCG 45 onwards when I got in, I think it might be you guys. Changed the way I thought about and understood games and the way I thought they could be written about. It always seemed like there were a lot of experiments going on there, some failed, and some inspired and PCG became a lot more than just consumer advice.

  31. John Walker says:

    I want a go.

    I read Your Sinclair as a kid, and that programmed my brain. Everything I’ve ever written in PC Gamer has been an attempt to let someone else feel the same way I felt when I read Crap Games Corner, or the Trainspotting column, or a review that spent most of the words discussing someone’s hair rather than the game. Then I went onto Zero, and thanks to the worst decision my dad ever made buying an ST, I never read Amiga Format at the time. I deeply regret that. But early PC Zone continued the trend.

    I get to embarrass Kieron now. Ten years ago it was his writing that made me realise I wanted to do this for a job. I was buying PC Gamer primarily to read what he’d written. And as I’ve said many times before, his Descent 3 review that made me take the mad plunge of sending in sample work to PC Gamer. He was doing something bigger and braver than anyone else was trying to do.

    Not any more, obviously – he’s rubbish now.

    Since I’m thinking this through out loud in public, I’ll witter on further. Interestingly, I didn’t want to write like Kieron, and I don’t think I ever could if I tried. (Simply knowing any grammar makes it almost impossible). But he proved that there was space and possibility to try and write how you felt you should. That’s a big deal.

    My biggest influences now would be Kieron (especially his analytical writing, and strangely, comics), Stuart Campbell, who not only influenced a generation of games writers, but is my constant conscience and inspiration, and Tom Bramwell, who is an extraordinary talent, and whose work reminds me how lazy I can be, and how much harder I have to work to keep up with him. Those three combined can be my Bangs.

  32. Anonymousity says:

    My Lester Bang’s is Ben “yahtzee” Crosshaw cynical hermetic lettuce fetishest.

  33. James says:

    As much as I hate to join the squee horde, I too am a big fan of Mr. Gillen’s work. I mean, RPS at large is the only gaming journalism website that I have any more than a passing interest in, and I think all four of you are tops, but there have been so many of Kieron’s articles that have really got me thinking about things I would never have noticed (Break-up games comes to mind), or challenged my ideas about gaming. It’s a vital thing in a journalist, and everyone who writes for RPS has it, but I think it’s Kieron’s that catches me out most often.

  34. Christian says:

    In the last few years:

    - Selected Escapist articles, especially
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/print/338
    - Old Man Murray, circa Rune Review.
    - Consolvania, first season.
    - that one UKR post.

  35. Rev. S Campbell says:

    Fascinating read, but somewhat odd, as Gary Penn never actually wrote for Crash or any other Spectrum magazine. And he says he had a Speccy rather than a C64, so he can’t be just confusing the name with Zzap.

  36. Paul Barnett says:

    Your quite right, I switched to a C64 when my Speccy broke and that moved me to Zap!64, first games bought being Bruce lee and beach head. And my all time fave game Paradriod. I’ll make an edit on the blog to fix it.

  37. Paul S says:

    Kieron Gillen, again. This is all getting a bit sycophantic really. Oh well.

    But PCG in general, around the first Quake issue. I mean, I’d read it off and on in the Johnathan Davies years, but that’s when I graduated from Amstrad Action (oh, the nostalgia) up to full time PCG reader. I remember loads of KG’s early reviews (the Thief one in particular, and H&D – later, Deus Ex), and they kind of coalesced a lot of my own feelings about gaming at an important period of my life – 14ish, I believe. Just when I was ready for a long haired, made up Belle & Sebastian fan to get me thinking properly.

    Another Gillen legacy. B&S, and, indirectly, vaguely pretentious self-examination and critical thought. Yikes.

    Gosh. I’m a bit of a Gillen fanboy, really. How embarrassing.

  38. Nick R says:

    Does Steven Poole count?

    Also: Ed Lomas (C&VG and Official Dreamcast mag), Violet Berlin, and the Edge hive-mind entity.

  39. Will Tomas says:

    I personally think the reason KG’s writing resonated with me was that he wrote about the mental experience going on while you were playing videogames, rather than simply dealing with the games in isolation (i.e. reviewing games only in the context of other games). Context is all, and he put games in the context of our mental interaction with them as much about how they “mechanistically” operated. How we felt about them could be written about too.

    But I’d be interested to know how Kieron sees his own writing and whether as arguably the most influential games journalist of the last however-many-years he feels us calling him the computer games version of Lester Bangs is in any way appropriate?

  40. John Walker says:

    I think Kieron will be too modest/embarrassed to respond to that question.

    Also, I think that if someone starts to think about themselves that way, they’re pretty much done as a creative mind. Fear, mild self-loathing and occasional quiet compliments are the necessary fuel.

  41. Alec Meer says:

    Kieron will be too modest/embarrassed
    Hang on – is there another Kieron I don’t know about?

    I don’t have a Bangs-of-games myself. Couldn’t afford games mags when young (and couldn’t afford games mags and music papers when slightly older; games mags lost) so barely knew any writers’ names, let alone formed strong attachments to ‘em. I rather fear this blind spot has had some interesting/unfortunate effects on my own games writing.

    Perhaps, actually, RPS is the closest I have to a Bangs. All three of the others regularly muster insight and turns of phrase I’m bitterly jealous of. But don’t tell them that.

  42. Kieron Gillen says:

    Alec: I suspect that the sort of encouragement between peers when they riff off each other in a mix of co-operation and competition is a different thing altogether. PCG was by far at its best when there was those sort of spirit of quiet competition, for example.

    Not that I’m ever jealous of anything you or Walker have ever written. Oh, no. No, sirree.

    KG

  43. Seniath says:

    Sad to say, well, you lot really. PCG kept me fed on gaming goodness during the dark days of 56k and geocities. And now you continue to keep me informed and entertained.

    A few PCG Podcasts ago, Tom Francis mentioned being treated like an internet celebrity due to his status as a reviewer, and I kinda look at it like that. I respect you lot much more than people with “real” fame *cough*wino*cough*.

    I guess, however, if I had to pick one of you, it’d be Kieron. Like Paul S, I’m a self-confessed KG fanboy. I still remember getting into bitter arguments with my friends over that Hitman review.

  44. Miles says:

    I would say mine was Kieron but… well, on a blog he writes for? I don’t know, there’s such a thing as too much ego stroking.

  45. Kieron Gillen says:

    You know, I honestly didn’t actually write that article for this.

    No, really.

    Shucks.

    KG

  46. The_B says:

    Hmmm, I forsee one of two things happening:

    Either the end of the world comes, and we see a four way fight to the death between the RPS team.

    Or:

    Kieron breaks away from RPS, and goes off on a moderaterly successful solo career, while Alec John and Jim carry on RPS without him quietly, until a few years later when suddenly RPS explodes into something humongous, and Gillen quietly creeps back into the band…err website…

    This analogy may or may not be based on Take That/Robbie Williams.

  47. Zach Marx says:

    Kieron-

    You’ve been inspirational to me in making me want to write games journalism, but I’d have to say that the man I’d call my ‘Lester Bangs’ is someone I thanked you for introducing me to when I met you at San Diego Comiccon:

    Tim Rogers.