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The Majesty of Welcome Tape

[Continuing RPS' guest week, I give you Al Ewing. He's a one man infinite-monkey. His fingers spew universes. If you know him, it'll probably be for his 2000AD work. If you don't, you'll know him for this, a guide to Welcome Tape for the Great British Home Computer, the BBC Micro.]

Oh! The miracle of the internet! I thought I’d have to describe the majesty of the Welcome Tape in mere words, but fortunately ‘cpmisalive’ at YouTube has recorded enough of it to give you a taste. Admittedly, he’s gotten hold of the Welcome Disc for the Acorn Thingy - presumably some kind of Fancy Dan system that’s too good for mere tapes - but it’s the same stuff all around. Just imagine that to switch between programs you need to PRESS PLAY ON TAPE and then wait twenty minutes.

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That wierd alien bug-zapping sound while it draws the owl is pretty much exactly as I remember it. There were no ‘keys’ to be collected in the Welcome Tape - no ‘doors’ needed opening, no ‘princesses’ had to be rescued or ‘rings’ collected by a ‘hedgehog’. There was only one goal in the Welcome Tape, and that was to get to the end of the Welcome Tape, passing through all the strange and wondrous minigames - or ‘programs’ as we cave people called them - on the way. Let’s see what we have here…

INDEX: Aka YES YES GET ON WITH IT. Tells you what you’re doing calmly and clearly, in case you should suddenly GO MAD from the strain of mind-melding with the ADVANCED ELECTRONIC BRANE of the BBC Micro Model B. As far as I know nobody did go insane from playing the Welcome Tape and this is why.

KEYBOARD: I remember this just being called KEYBOARD but evidently on the NANCY 2000 with its OOH LA LA FANCY DISC DRIVES, it’s called KEYBOARD FAMILIARITY.

Frankly, the video tells you all you need to know.

Press R.

You pressed R that is correct you took 0.66 seconds.

Press J.

You pressed J that is correct you took 0.76 seconds.

Press Q.

You wrote an incisive commentary on Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce you took 8.77 years THAT WAS INCORRECT PRESS Q.

It gets quite exciting later on when you have to type entire words of three letters or more. But moving on.

SKETCH: Again, it was just called SKETCH in the old days. I’m sure of it. Once again the video accurately shows we future men of the year 2007 the unremitting boredom of simulating an Etch-A-Sketch on a computer screen. Not much to be said here except that b3ta and that lot don’t know they’re born with their fancy MS Paint.

CALCULATOR: Oooh, CALCULATOR PROGRAM is it now. You and your fancy discs. Readers might be forgiven for thinking at this point that the Welcome Tape was complete rubbish but you have to understand how brain-meltingly astonishing this kind of thing was at the time. I mean - JESUS CHRIST WORDS FLOATING ON A SCREEN IN BLACK AND WHITE AND EVERYTHING OH MY GOD I JUST HAD AN ACCIDENT IN MY PANTS!! Try and imagine someone handing you a device that CREATES LIFE, and then imagine having to write a blog a quarter century later saying that it wasn’t rubbish at all even though it only created mice. The point I’m trying to make is that the Welcome Tape had to start slow, with things everybody could handle like Calculators and Etch-A-Sketches, because if it went any faster OUR MINDS WOULD EXPLODE.

Like they exploded for… ALPHA SORT. ALPHABETIC SORT my ass. It was ALPHA SORT. Boyeeeee. You type in a list of words - AND IT SORTS THEM. RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN IT MOVES THOSE WORDS AROUND. Hold onto your chair and dial 999 because YOU MIGHT HAVE A STROKE WATCHING. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how insanely incredible this was. THE WORDS MOVED ABOUT!

And then we have POEM. On the fancy-nancy poncy-noncy discy-wiscy drivey-wivey it’s OOOH NOW PRESS RETURN! OOOH MY POEM’S GOT A PROPER TITLE! OOOH! by Twatty McTwatkins, but on the rugged BBC Micro Model B with tape player it was POEM.

Look at it. Just look.

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Thank you ‘pmsdowney’ for that in-depth peek at the poetic genius of POEM.

Anyway, bitter stuff. Roger McGough gives the impression that he’s got better things to do than piss around writing a poem for what he appears to see as a novelty gonk of a machine, a slightly fancy version of a scientific calculator. Indeed, he spends most of the poem actively hating what the shadowy men of the BBC are forcing him to write. He’s probably being a bit tongue-in-cheek - you don’t get to number one with Lily The Pink by taking yourself too seriously - but even so, you can tell he’s having more fun blasting his own verse to bits with a gun than he is scattering computery-sounding words like ‘diode’ and ‘transducer’ around the place.

In fact, there’s a massive contrast between the slightly cringeworthy computer-babble that’s sprinkled liberally throughout (allegedly against McGough’s will) and the exciting interactivity that actually demonstrates what these new-fangled computer things might be capable of, once you get past all the hyperbole and actually put them to work. Lots of yes/no choices, user input and of course the gun blasting the words to pieces.

McGough knew his audience well - a mixture of goggle-eyed kids and gadget-minded dads, freaking out at this new machine, closer to middle-class than anything else - hence the frankly bizarre reference to ‘parking the Jag’, a touch of affluence that presumably helped lift the BBC Micro Model B above the likes of - ugh! - Atari Tennis.

We’re left at the end with the reference to ‘a plastic daffodil in a Grecian Urn’ - a reference there to Ode On A Grecian Urn, a semi-famous, not too obscure bit of ‘proper’ poetry by Keats that those Jag-driving dads can nod and feel intelligent for recognising. It might be inferred that the plastic daff represents the vulgar bleeping machine that’s forcing the poet to grind out his COBOL-packed verse - but the line is set up so that the ‘plastic daffodil’ is more likely to be the poet himself, trapped inside the Grecian Urn of the BBC Micro Model B, painfully aware of its full capabilities but unable, yet, to make use of them.

Or something like that. Any opposing literary commentary can be left in the comments box.

TELEPHONE - yes we’re stepping back towards CALCULATOR territory again with this one. After POEM the new BBC Micro Model B owner needed to be soothed with the fact that not everything was different in this terrifying future and even in a world ruled by a sinister electronick brane we would still have crappy address books that we never used. Bollocks to it anyway - who has time to think about boring old telephone nonsense when POEM by Roger McGough is still fresh in our minds? Let’s have a look at the second half and see if things pick up a bit.

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After the extreme yawnery of TELEPHONE we come right back in with BAT ‘N’ BALL, which wonder of wonders is an actual game. Of a sort. It’s sort of like Pong - or rather Breakout - but the ceiling moves lower and lower until either you run out of space to manoeuvre or you die of boredom. It tries to add the ‘educational value’ that is the hallmark of the Welcome Tape by giving you the commands that you need to draw the bat, the ball and the walls but strangely skimps a little on detailing the bit that makes things actually happen. Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing when you’re dealing with the awesome power of the BBC Micro Model B! Note the awesome sound effects in particular.

Presumably that awful flat beeping was to prepare the virgin ears of the unsullied young for MUSIC. But MUSIC like no MUSIC that any human has heard before, for it came from the BBC MICRO SPEAKER! There was no telling which letter on the computer keyboard corresponded with what note as they all played something utterly divorced from any scale known to man or God and the resultant polyphonic diarrhoea was shat onto the screen in wholly alien tongue. In fact it looked a lot like the sheet music from the Excessus Machine in Barbarella, so presumably it was meant to make new users spoff half to death at the amazing sonic power of the Beeb. It’s telling that ‘cpmisalive’ spends less time here than he does on CLOCK.

CLOCK, as you can see, comes in three varieties, each of which it draws painstakingly for you - analogue, analogue and digital, and just digital. One of these takes less time to draw than the others. Coincidentally, one of them is considerably more rubbish. This would probably have been the first time this kind of analogue clock display would have appeared on the computer screen, but the problem here is that in order to learn the time you have to spend ten minutes loading up a tape cassette and during this process the time will almost certainly change. It’s no good for boiling an egg, for example. Not a soft-boiled one anyhow.

PHOTO. I’ve made my point earlier about how the Welcome Disc, for the fancy disc driiiive, sucks all the life out of these things. Digitised Photograph. No wonder it just lies on the screen like a squashed turd. This is much like CLOCK, in that what is now a useful part of every computer in existence was then just a useless bit of emphemera seemingly jammed on the tape to fill space. Like PATTERNS.



It’s… it’s like the BBC Micro being sick on you. I don’t know, all I’m seeing at this point is MUSIC, CLOCK, PATTERNS… this is the Dark Side Of The Welcome Tape. This is where the bloom came off the rose. This is where even the idealistic young minds watching through the window into the future sat and thought: we know. We know. It can draw lines. Yes. Thank you. What else? What else?

The Welcome Tape isn’t very good, is it?

Disappointment sets in. This too, is a function of the Welcome Tape, for it has much to teach us. it has taught us the meaning of joy - now it teaches the meaning of despair. How can we go out and spend money on new games to feed our hunger if we are always playing and re-playing the Welcome Tape? So the cycle begins here - early joy, wide-eyed amazement, quickly turning to disappointment as even this marvellous new aquisition is not enough to satisfy us. We must go out and buy more games. More and more games. Then, as they evolve, more and more computers to play them on. More and more. It’s a cycle that’s brought us to our current technological paradise, and it’s a cycle that began here, with the Welcome Tape. Like the apple that brought the downfall of Eden, the Welcome Tape gives us knowledge, but the price is our happiness.

Oh, foul serpent of the British Broadcasting Corporation! Oh time, Oh death, Oh fall of man!

Moving on.

KINGDOM. An actual game again and one that’s familiar to all of us. it’s primitive, but it works. The object of the game, contrary to the instructions, is not to keep your village prosperous and happy. That is far too easy, thanks to the creators of the Welcome Tape wanting to make this first true ‘gaming’ experience a happy one. No, the object of KINGDOM is to KILL THEM ALL through your poor leadership. Watch as the yellow river slowly floods the plains! Do you have no workers in the fields, so your people starve, or do you leave them out so that the river destroys them? Or might the river get in the way of the thieves who would otherwise creep from the mountains (marked MOUNTAINS) to pillage and kill? There are so many choices and such a short time to kill your entire population. I managed to do it inside a year once, through good fortune and careful planning.

This is a style of gaming that’s continued long since - Sim City, with the monsters you could call up at a moments notice to ravage your painstakingly-built town, Die Hard Trilogy on the playstation, where you could plough into sidewalks filled with pedestrians until your windscreen was awash in blood, and of course The Sims aka Vengeful God Simulator.

Finally, BIORHYTHMS - ending the tape with some seventies psychobabble. BIORHYTHMS is at best protoscience, a hypothetical fancy. It has its proponents, but it’s become lost inamongst the great wash of holistic medicines and pseudofacts that babble over us day by day. But back at the turn of the eighties, it was presumably seen as science fact. More from the world of tomorrow. Another chunk of the golden future - even something that might become as boring to us as CLOCK or PHOTO, in time. Were we meant to have Biorhythm-calculators on our desks, charting our personal rhythms from moment to moment? What other tools did the greatest computer minds of 1981 imagine us having? What other dreams? Did we achieve them? Did we go beyond? Or have we taken a path away, into darkness, that great flash of optimism and hope decayed?

Are we living in the future the Welcome Tape was supposed to welcome us to?

Who can say?

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.