This is the full and uncensored story of Grabbag, the Duke Nukem theme song. It was posted in the 3D Realms Ultimate Bulletin Board on June 6th 2000. There may be some outdated material, so keep that in mind as you read this. If you want to listen to Grabbag as you read, here’s a download link to the 96KHz/24bit 2018 remaster.
Okay, here’s the true, official story of how the theme to Duke Nukem 3D got its name, and of how it grew into what it has become. Somebody please make a copy of this and put it in the FAQ or something, since I seem to get asked this question a lot nowadays. Ready? Let’s begin. 🙂
I got a lot of inspiration for the music for Duke Nukem 3D by listening to CDs that team members and other 3D Realms people had loaned to me. Most of these came from Todd Replogle, Allen Blum, and Joe Siegler. I had to listen to them at home, since I was still working in the tech support department and couldn’t listen to them with the phones ringing all day. I also did all of my work on the music at home, for the same reason.
The CDs covered quite a few styles, but mainly they were heavy metal. The majority were from Black Sabbath and Pantera, with some Megadeth, Metallica, Ozzy Osborne, and others thrown in. I used these to do hard-core research into the genre. By research, I’m talking about the kind I used to do when I was taking music theory courses: analyzing chord progressions and modes, and breaking down styles and song structures.
One night, after a long session listening to these CDs, I sat down at my home computer, fired up Cakewalk and my Roland RAP-10, and tried working on a piece that incorporated some of the things I’d learned from these songs. I had no idea where I was going with it – I merely wanted to see if I could write something in the heavy metal style. As the song progressed, I started to feel like I was reaching into a bag, pulling things out, and just seeing how they fit together.
I’d grab the ideas for the drums in from one place, the harmonic progression from another, and the melody from several different places. Bits of Pantera-inspired riffs showed up in the guitar lines, and a good measure of Ozzy Osborne and Black Sabbath inspired the mode switching I did in the melodic line. For a bit of fun, I tossed in a Rick Wakeman-style keyboard riff, just to see whether or not it would work.
When it came time to wrap up the session and save the song, I still had no idea where I was going with it. I hadn’t even begun to think of a title, and to be honest, I didn’t really think that there was much of a song there yet. Nevertheless, I needed a filename in order to save the song to my hard drive, even though I still didn’t have a title for it. Since it seemed like I’d been reaching into a grabbag and pulling out song ideas while writing the song, that’s what I chose for its filename: Grabbag.
After I managed to get a loopable section done, I brought the MIDI file up to the office and turned it loose on the team. I honestly don’t remember the reactions. There were some good ones, but none that really got me fired up to do a lot more work on the song. I put in a few more tweaks, and then moved on to other stuff. I didn’t even bother to change the name – “Grabbag” had stuck, and that’s what it would be called from then on.
On the night that “Star Trek: Generations” opened up in Dallas, my wife, my son, and I were standing in line with the rest of the team to get into the theater. Greg Malone, a producer for 3D Realms at the time, was standing near us. Almost out of nowhere, he told me that George Broussard and he had chosen Grabbag to be the theme song for Duke Nukem 3D. I had two thoughts when I heard this news. My first thought was, of course, “WOW!” I’d snagged the theme song, which was something I hadn’t even done on Rise of the Triad, my only previous big project. My second thought was, “Why?” I thought Grabbag sounded more like level music, albeit not necessarily great level music. Worse, I didn’t think that the song was anywhere near being finished. All I had was a loop that consisted of a 4 bar intro, 6 bars of melody, and then a variation of these lines. It certainly wasn’t a complete song, at least not in my opinion, and I was rather fearful of having an incomplete work used in a major game.
I asked Greg why he and George chose Grabbag. He told me that they sat down and listened to everything that Bobby Prince and I had submitted so far, and that Grabbag was the closest thing to a theme song that they had. I told him that I thought it wasn’t a complete song, which I think surprised him a bit. Apparently it didn’t matter, though, since they stuck with the decision. Since we were close to the release of the shareware episode of the game, and since I was in the middle of working on several other songs, I didn’t have time to tweak Grabbag as much as I wanted. I did a little bit of panic-inspired fine tuning to the sound and adapted the MIDI file to use the features of the Apogee Sound System, but I left the basic structure alone.
The end result is what went out with the shareware version and, later, the original retail release. Before we released the game, though, George wanted a short looped sound file that could be played while the players’ scores were being shown. He also wanted it in VOC file format, since he wanted to avoid the problems inherent in MIDI cards of the day and make sure it sounded the same on every player’s system. I wound up using the main melody of Grabbag, attached a 2 bar build-up to the front of it, and recorded it into an 11KHz 8 bit VOC file. The result sounded surprisingly good, and it would later inspire the last and most extensive bit of work I did on the song.
As I said before, even after Duke Nukem 3D was released, I still felt like Grabbag was incomplete and wished that I could do more with it. Fortunately, we soon began working on an extension to the original game (the Plutonium Pak level, later incorporated into the Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition (which replaced the original release on the store shelves)). After I finished the sounds and songs for the new level (which included a “Muzak” version of the Grabbag melody for use in the supermarket level, again in the form of a short looped VOC file), I had a bit of spare time. I took advantage of the chance and began working on my own, in order to finally come up with what I considered a “complete” version Grabbag.
By this time, I’d been out of the tech room for several months, having been promoted to Music and Sound Director. I’d also been given a Roland SC-88 Sound Canvas, which I wanted to use to its full potential on Grabbag. I played around with the GS features of the SC-88, got a good mix of sounds that I liked, and got to work on fleshing out the rest of the song. It took several days, maybe a week or so, but I eventually wound up with the full version of the song that everyone now knows. There was now a solo section, with a guitar and a full Wakeman-esque keyboard rip. The buildup that I used in the first VOC file loop (mentioned earlier) was extended and served as a transition from the solos. It led back into a recap of the melody, followed by a big ending that came complete with a church bell-sounding chime hit that hung on just past the end.
I was finally happy with Grabbag, but there was no guarantee that anyone outside the office would ever hear this version. I knew that George wouldn’t let me change the MIDI file of Grabbag within the game, especially since it used Roland’s GS extensions which the game’s MIDI engine couldn’t support. So, I asked instead if I could record the song to Red Book CD-Audio format and put it on the Plutonium Pak CD as a hidden “bonus track.” There was plenty of space left on the CD, and he didn’t have a problem with the new version, so he gave the go-ahead to include the track. I wasted no time in recording it, and Joe Siegler and I worked together to make sure it went out on the master CD. The finished track was eventually included on both the Plutonium Pak CD and Atomic Edition CD, as track 2 of a mixed mode CD. It’s also one of the tracks (along with those on the Stargunner CD) that qualified me as a full voting member in NARAS, the Grammy organization.
Since the release of the full version of Grabbag, there have been several covers. James Grote of Gigadeth Productions did an “interpretation” of the song, with some subtle changes to the chord structure and melody. This version was used in 3D Realms’ 1998 E3 video promotion for Duke Nukem Forever. (He incorrectly states that 3D Realms used a song he “created” (see his website for the full quote), but it is in fact merely an arrangement of my original song, which he performed and recorded.) Later, Megadeth did a cover version for the “Duke Nukem: Music to Score By” CD, which drew mainly from the Grote arrangement. The rest of the official cover versions and arrangements tend to stay closer to my original version. These have shown up in the various versions of Duke Nukem games for other platforms, including the Color Gameboy version and the soon-to-be-released “Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes” game.
In retrospect, it looks like I’ve unintentionally created quite a monster. Grabbag has gone far, far beyond the simple composition exercise that it was originally intended to be. I’m not about to complain, though. Not as long as people continue to listen to and be entertained or inspired by it. I’ll never complain about that – as long I continue to get author credit for it on future publications, that is.