Judge Drokk / The Infiltrators
Added on August 23rd, 2022 (624 views)
Hey Judge Drokk and welcome to the interview! Please tell us something about yourself.
Hi, I'm Mark Hellewell, a 53-year-old male, born and living in Yorkshire, England. I worked in tachograph data analysis and then delivery logistics. I've long enjoyed an unhealthy obsession with videogames and the machines they run on. I love the culture of the medium and all related aspects, from printed media on the subject to how their influence has crossed from films to games and back again. More than thirty years later, I’m still finding new ways to explore this world, primarily the Commodore brand but always with an eye on the "enemy".
What handle(s) did you use and how did you come up with it/them?
I've only ever had one scene handle, Judge Drokk, which I chose in 1987. I was a fan of the long-running British sci-fi comic 2000 AD and its primary character, the lawman Judge Dredd. I swapped his surname for "Drokk!", the profanity he used when angry – essentially, his version of dropping the F-bomb – to get past the censors.
What group(s) were you in?
On the Commodore 64, I was a founding member of The Infiltrators, and later I built up the team Anarchy on the Amiga.
What roles have you fulfilled?
Essentially, I was a failed coder, musician and artist who found his true vocation as an organiser. Actually, "failed" is probably a little harsh. I explored all those avenues with a passion, but discovered I had no natural talent in those areas. Passion was key, though, and I found I had a knack of bringing together other people who had the talents I lacked but were a bit adrift on the scene. This is how my role as an organiser emerged. I was a swapper or "mail trader" as well, of course. That activity was the glue that held the scene together: the fascination and wonder of the "warez", be it cracks or demos, etc. Later on, with my group Anarchy on the Amiga, I organised copy-parties and was made editor of our disk magazine Stolen Data.
How long were you active for?
I was active on the scene from July 1987, when the C64 group The Infiltrators formed, until March 1993, having moved on to the Amiga and the group Anarchy in October 1988.
Tell us about those years and how you got into the scene in the first place.
Personally speaking, my discovery of the scene was truly a down-the-rabbit-hole experience: you think you know everything, then someone offers you the red pill and your whole world changes. This happened to me after I left school and started college in 1985.
Very much in the style of an American high school comedy, I made friends at college with a geek who went by the rather unoriginal nickname Prof (for "professor"). Like myself, Prof was a C64 owner and, also like me, something of a playground pirate in his younger school days. The Commodore 64 had grown up with us, and we with it. We initially just met at college, but soon became friends outside that daily routine. We only lived a couple of miles apart, so our mutual interest in everything from the C64 to movies to the world beyond grew daily, leading to the day I met one of his close neighbours.
During this time, I had wondered how many more years or even months the obsession of my Commodore-related hobby would last (games were for kids, right?), but this guy (who shall be known here merely as Busby) made me re-think that age-related paradox on the spot. This guy was old, or at least as old as 40 seemed when you were about 17.
Prof and I visited Busby together a few times, then I went there once by myself. Busby, to my impressionable young self, seemed an extraordinary guy: an out-of-work, middle-aged software "pirate". He drove an old car, had this mysterious air of secrecy about him, and would never give you a full or straight answer to any question regarding his hobby. He copied pirated C64 games at an unrelenting rate on a daily basis. I only knew him by his real name at this time. He was not someone I'd particularly want to call a friend, but I had since left school and was missing the computer-game cassette piracy scene of the playground. Busby quickly became my No. 1 go-to guy for games. Busby's playground days were a lifetime behind him, but I was soon to find out where his illegitimate loot came from and what made it different from the spoils of piracy I had enjoyed before.
Busby was always a show-off, even though he didn't have a lot to show off apart from his ill-gotten warez, but he'd always make a point of having something you didn't, before giving it to you regardless. On one such visit, he had a particular set of titles I had never heard of before, but which turned out to be US C64 imports with titles like Chilly Willy and Phantom Karate Devils. What really caught my attention, though, were the on-screen "tags" by the guy who had originally made the copy from the original cassette or disk, emblazoned on the title screen: "Broken By Black Bob, - F**K Copyright", instead of the usual moniker. This had a dramatic impact on me. How exactly Black Bob had liberated this game from the confines of the commercial ecosystem seemed more important to me in that moment than the game itself. A following batch of swash-buckling merchandise really took me to the edge. What was I seeing? My first crack intro! This was me on the edge of the rabbit hole, about to take the red pill. Where was he getting these games from? Some guy in Germany had posted them to him, he didn't know him as such, they just shared disks. What was I looking at here?
I knew there was much more to this than meets the eye. My life was about to change quickly, I was growing up fast and quickly discovering the scene for myself, suddenly finding more friends than I had had in two decades in the real world. Commodore friends. Friends for life. My personal experience started as an addiction, became an obsession, and led to a new way of life for me: being drip-fed new software like a junkie and his dealer was now a thing of the past, it was time to dive into this world on my own terms.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer (in the 1980s/1990s, that is).
I worked part time after leaving college in 1987, which left me lots of time for more important matters. I was building a network of scene friends, and such friendships were based on sharing, which meant I was receiving many parcels of disks each day. Every day brought something new, but the games themselves were becoming less important. I was getting to know the scene through the crack-intro: I would read the scrolling text in each and every one, absorb all the cat-fights, the boasts, the scene hierarchy, the relationships. I wanted to know which teams were the most respected, who were the legends and who were the newcomers. I learned what a "lamer" was and of course what made someone "elite". I figured out what made someone popular, just from reading scrolltext in crack intros (every one, from every group, every day, for months).
I wanted in on this scene. I wanted not only to be part of a group, but to have a group of my own. With time, energy and passion on my side, I spent a "typical day in front of the computer" in my C64 days doing all the above.
Did you personally invent any special techniques or tools to make things easier for you?
I wasn't a coder or a musician, so I can't say I invented any techniques or tools, but I was very open to finding ways of making life easier or cheaper. The scene didn't come for free, but there were always ways to make things easier on the wallet, be it phonecalls, beating the postal system, etc. Picking up these tricks and refining them was the order of the day (and, of course, not getting caught!)
When you look at what you did back then, what are you most proud of?
I think my proudest achievement on the scene was to actually get noticed and, in the long run, remembered. When, over thirty years later, you're waiting in the rain to enter The 8-Bit Symphony concert event in England, and someone taps you on the shoulder to express his pleasure at meeting you and to tell you he's been a fan of things you did in decades past, that truly is an honour. Whoever would have thought that the things you did for fun on a computer in 1987 would still be remembered almost 35 years later? I'm proud that I formed my own C64 team instead of asking to be part of someone else's team, where I would have had to prove myself to someone else. With a team of my own, I only had to prove my worth to myself, by building the best team I could. I'm proud of that. We weren't a particularly big team, and I never had any tangible sense of how well-known we were or what kind of impression we made at the time, or how far our releases made it around the world, but I think we at least made a ripple, particularly looking back now. There were twelve of us, and we released over 35 productions including demos, intros, trainers and cracks. I even released a short demo (with a lot of help) purely to attack someone who I had mail-traded with until he stole my disks. Now in my fifties, I cringe when I read the scrolltext I wrote as an angst-ridden, attention-seeking teenager. As far as I know, it's the only C64 demo titled "F**k Off!". Am I proud of that one? I'll pass on that question.
Who were your heroes on the scene and why?
I was inspired by several individuals and groups on the C64 scene. I was very impressionable (ha!), and the amazing things I was seeing gave me the desire to imitate them and to create my own versions with a team of my own. In 1987, the best crackers for my money were Triad, Fairlight, Ikari and Hotline. They specialised in speed and quality, strength and unity. I was always intrigued by what the C64 could do, and the people who amazed me were those who brought something different to the emerging demo-scene, either through technical, musical or graphical ability. One of these was Triad's artist The Sarge, with amazing works such as the Iron Maiden hero Eddie. Speaking of Triad, Jeff Smart's magazine Illegal was the first scene magazine I ever read, before a torrent of disk-based magazines flooded the C64 scene at the end of the 1980s. It was a passionate, informative bible of information which itself inspired another of my heroes and friends, N.O.S.A.H., who created the scene paper-magazine Iguana. He was a great friend who I would speak to on the phone on a weekly basis, originally an independent passionate scener like myself, he had a huge list of contacts and always had something to bring to the table. He joined Zenith for a while, followed by the Doughnut Cracking Service. We moved on from the C64 around the same time, and as I was forming Anarchy for the Amiga, he launched an Amiga scene paper-magazine called Stolen Data which was a co-operation between DCS, Anarchy and (pre-Red Sector) Tristar, before he was sadly forced to quit the scene because of pressure from his employer (the British Army!).
What, for you, was the coolest thing ever invented on the C64? (e.g. a tool, routine, etc.)
The things that blew my young mind in the 1980s were often the tricks that the demo-scene offered that as a C64 user you wouldn't find anywhere else, like the first time hearing long-form music samples where 30 seconds to a minute of a digitised song would play through my C64's speakers, or a routine that could make my 1541 disk drive play music by vibrating/grinding the drive heads at different speeds to create musical notes. Probably not a very sensible thing to do in hindsight, but mindblowing (to me at least) at the time. Special mention should also go to Fast Hack'em, the Swiss army knife of C64 disk tools. Some days, I spent 23 out of 24 hours in front of that program.
Did you go to any copy-parties, meetings or tradeshows?
I didn't attend any copy-parties during my C64 years. I'm not sure if there actually were any parties like that in England, I don't remember missing out at the time, but I did head down to London for the big tradeshows. The PCW show in 1988 stands out: I finally met Zenith, having had a few interesting public ding-dongs with them over the previous six months, throwing jibes and insults back and forth via crack intro scrolltexts. My contact at Zenith was Steve, though when I approached him at the event, he was quite stand-offish and pretty much totally blanked me.
I met my C64 hero, Jeff Minter of Llamasoft, at this event. I'd been a fan of his from the start, and the first games I played on the C64 were by him and Tony Crowther. He lived up to his reputation as a legend, and everything I'd imagined of him was true. He was genuinely the lovable freak I'd thought and hoped he would be. I've met Jeff a more few times since, at other events and, and I was friends with him on PlayStation Network on the PlayStation 4 for a couple of years.
In your opinion, what was the scene all about?
For me, the scene was about sharing and friendship. Sharing mainly meant games of course, and later demos, and the latter quietly became a scene of its own but still forever intertwined with the former. Games meant piracy, which is a subject that can be discussed until the cows come home. Many of the coders behind the world's biggest and best remembered games started out in the world of piracy and spun it out into their careers. I've seen, and still see, a lot of hypocrosy from such people.
For me, the scene was an unfathomably large network. We were friends, rivals and sometimes enemies, but regardless of which, the energy generated by the passion of the individuals was the spark that kept the scene alive, and still does to this day. For me, that's what the scene was and is all about.
What were the particular highlights for you?
Travelling to Sheffield to meet the first two members of The Infiltrators (Doctor Who and Sir Monty), shortly before I left the group, is something I will always remember, particularly seeing their set-ups and all their hardware and games. Doctor Who's C64 was set up inside a pantry in the kitchen: the shelves held all the hardware, and he sat in a chair in the kitchen and accessed the C64 through the door. He and Sir Monty were The Infiltrator's first coders. Seeing our first production on-screen was a proud moment. Having something to share, that people will want to pass on to others, is a great feeling. Seeing the first dedicated demo-groups arrive on the scene around 1986 was a special time and very inspiring to me. Those early pioneering releases were what drew me into the whole culture of the scene. Notable highlights must include Crazy Sample II by The Judges, the Boggman demo by Ian and Mic, and Future Shock by Borderzone Dezign team. It was releases like these that inspired me to found my own team on the C64 and later the Amiga, I was simply wowed by the creative renaissance of art, music and coding that the C64 cultivated.
Any fun stories to share with us?
Well, it might not have been fun at the time, but I remember us being attacked and slandered as "re-crackers" by Zenith, a team I mail-traded with through their member Steve Williams and one of the UK's leading cracking teams at that time. I was pretty suprised one day to receive one of their cracks in which the scrolltext announced "... It's true folks! ZENITH are now the ORIGINAL SUPPLIERS for THE INFILTRATORS!". A tongue-in-cheek remark, which was even more ironic as I had supplied them with a couple of originals myself before my own team started releasing cracks of our own. Well, strictly speaking, one of the originals I supplied was a frozen game that they released as a crack (without mentioning where they'd got it from). The truth behind their attack was that we forgot to mention in one of our trainers that it was originally cracked by Zenith (all our other trainers did come with this information). The original intro had been removed in the process. We responded by splashing "This is not a ZENITH re-crack" across our new 33 Loony Tunes music demo, plus a few choice words in the scroller. If I'm honest, I found the attention quite a buzz at the time. Since I was blanked by Steve of Zenith at a trade show in London later the same year, he apparently didn't feel the same way. ;)
Are you still in contact with any old C64 people today?
When did you get your C64 and do you still have it lying around somewhere?
I got my Commodore 64 for Christmas in 1983. I very nearly chose a VIC-20, but was swayed by the promise of a superior sound synthesiser. Little did I know what was to come in that department! I no longer have that machine, it was one of the early Silver Label machines with the distinctively stylised "64" logo on the power LED. As a 14-year-old, I didn't really understand the significance or the story behind the disapearance of the silver machines until some time later.
My machine developed a sound fault, and they replaced it in-store with another unit, this one with the more familiar rainbow-striped design. I moved over to the Amiga in 1988 and, like many other broke 19-year-olds at the time, sold my complete C64 collection to fund that move, albeit with great regret. I don't think I have ever missed a machine as much as my Commodore 64. I have an eternal fondness for its games, music, art, creators and heroes and for the excitment it brought to my life in the 1980s.
I did re-aquire a C64 in the 2010s, several in fact, including two Silver Label machines. My most prized possesion, however, is the Steampunk C64 laptop created by British upcycler and steampunk Nixie tube clock maker Bad Dog Designs, a unique all-in-one commisioned one-off creation built in oak and brass.
Why was/is the C64 such a great machine?
The C64 was so much more than a computer. It became a way of life. For some of us, it may have became life itself for a while there. It was certainly an obsession. The C64, Apple and Atari computers were the primary gaming computers available in 1982 and 1983, but the price of the C64 brought it within the grasp of so many more people. In terms of sound, it was light-years ahead of other hardware and, as we all know, continues to wow 37 years later. It inspired the supressed abilities of a generation like no other machine before or since. To have witnessed the foundation of this whole movement was a privilege and an inspiration. To look at a computer demo or listen to music made in 1984 should not in all truth still bring such a joy, but it is. A timeless pleasure. What the C64 offered was more than software, it was a drug, a culture and certainly the most intoxicating thing you could pump through a CRT and a pair of speakers.
When can we expect to see some new C64 output from you? :)
While not always specifically C64 content, I do enjoy writing about my adventures in the C64 and Amiga demo-scenes and about classic Commodore gaming in general.
I did appear in the movie Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years, talking about my team Anarchy, which in a way reignited my passion for the scene I'd been away from for so long. The following year, I was asked to write about my time on the scene and Anarchy's inception for the book Amiga in Pixels. Thinking back to the 1980s and 1990s and uncovering so many locked-away memories was a soul-searching experience. I've since written for the nostalgic Commodore 64 book 8Bit Kids, worked as a writer and reviewer, and interviewed C64 legend Tony Crowther for the first three Zzap!64 annuals. This is my "output" now. I don't have a strong passion for the modern demo-scene: now I'm in my 50s, I'm a little out of the competitive rat-race, but I still thoroughly enjoy new Commodore 64 releases, be it games, art, music or demos. I wonder how my teenage brain would have comprehended the technical magnificence and artistic design of contemporary C64 productions.
Do you have a message for your old contacts and/or anyone reading this?
If any of the friends and contacts I made during my years with the Commodore 64 and later Amiga are reading this, then please do look me up on Facebook or Twitter under my demo-scene handle Judge Drokk. It would be great to say hello. Unless you're Mark Fisher, who stole my disks in 1987, forcing me to release a demo as revenge. I never did get my disks back from him... haha. I think it's time I let that go.
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