Sonic Youth: The History and Impact of Crush 40

Sonic the Hedgehog has an interesting musical history: the original Genesis titles were vibrant and memorable, Sonic X’s English dub theme song originated the memetic “Gotta go fast” line, and one DiC Sonic cartoon even centered around Sonic and his siblings being in a band. However, there is one piece of Sonic’s music history that stands out amongst the rest — a band called Crush 40. 

Consisting mainly of Jun Senoue and Johnny Gioeli, Crush 40 formed with the specific intent of providing Sonic the Hedgehog with a signature sound for the series going into the 21st century. In succeeding, the band embedded themselves in the memories and hearts of an entire generation of Sonic fans. Though their contributions to the Sonic franchise may be small in number, they are massive in impact, and it’s for this reason that I embarked on a journey to chronicle the history and lasting power of Crush 40. 

Open Your Heart

Sega composer, sound director and musician Jun Senoue’s first musical credit on a Sonic game was for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in 1994. Soon after, he produced music for the Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast. With these and many other credits under his belt, as well as his love of hard rock, Senoue proved to be the perfect candidate for redefining Sonic’s sound as the character moved into three dimensions, which provided an opportunity to correct the dissonance between his edgy ‘90s attitude and his much-less-edgy electro-pop soundtrack.

And Senoue did exactly that, creating Sonic Adventure’s memorable hard rock funk-fest score. However, the Dreamcast was capable of more than just instrumental tracks: with new technology allowing full voice acting and a vocal soundtrack, Senoue was driven to create a main theme for Sonic Adventure, a flagship voice-driven song to loudly proclaim that this was the new sound of Sonic. Thus, Senoue laid down the demo for “Open Your Heart,” but the original vocals of Eizo Sakamoto didn’t quite fit. Fortunately, he had someone in mind to give the track the right punch. 

While Senoue was developing his musical career, Johnny Gioeli and his brother had formed their hard rock band, Hardline. The band had only a brief career, forming in 1991, releasing their first album in 1992 and breaking up soon after. But in this short time, they managed to gain the interested of Jun Senoue.

“Senoue was a Hardline fan since my first album,” Gioeli tells me. “He actually got my number through Doug Aldrich who was the Whitesnake guitar player, and so he invited me to the studio to see if I would sing on songs that he actually wrote.” 

Gioeli’s vocals turned out to be exactly what “Open Your Heart” needed to become a hit; the duo had captured the feeling of Sonic’s new style in a way that would in turn capture players’ interest. It also sparked the beginning of Senoue and Gioeli’s decades-spanning partnership.

“After I did it,” Gioeli says, “I connected the music with the game and said ‘Wow, this is no different than a movie and a soundtrack album,’ so I said why don’t we form a band and do this so that fans of the game or fans of the band will enjoy this music, either as the band or within the game.” 

And so the pieces fell into place. 

Live & Learn

Not long after creating “Open Your Heart,” Senoue and Gioeli went on to form Sons of Angels, collaborating on seven of the twelve tracks featured in NASCAR Arcade, which were eventually released in Japan under the album title “Thrill of the Feel.” This predecessor to Crush 40 more or less went under the radar, but the two had become more comfortable working together and when Sonic Adventure 2 eventually began development, the duo of Senoue and Gioeli was more ready than ever to craft a Sonic-worthy theme. This time around, however, Gioeli was given the task of writing the words.

“The way it works in the writing process is pretty straightforward,” Gioeli says. “I get a storyboard, I have the original drawings of those games, and the scenes are explained to me and then Jun would tell me ‘Johnny we have to write a song about this kind of feeling in this scene.’” Thus, Gioeli was handed instrumentals and ideas/images about the game’s story and left to create the lyrics.

“Jun usually had some music ideas and he would send them to me and then I would go lyrically and melodically crazy,” he adds. That craziness lead to Sonic Adventure 2’s powerful “Live & Learn.”

“I wasn’t sure if it [“Live & Learn] was good,” Gioeli admits. “I questioned it all the time. I would call Jun and say ‘Jun, is it good? Do you like it?’”

Further problems arose when the pair learned that the name “Sons of Angels” was already in use by a Norwegian rock band. They decided to change their name to Crush 40, which represented both Senoue’s love of Crush soda and Gioeli’s goal to “crush” his then-upcoming 40s.

Gioeli’s fears about “Live & Learn” turned out to be for naught — the song became of the most memorable and beloved Sonic tracks of the 2000s, and solidified Crush 40 as musical fan favorites.

Hear The Sonic Youth

With two hits under their belt and an undeniable sound for Sonic established, Crush 40 became the go-to songwriters for future Sonic games. They returned to produce the titular song of Sonic Heroes alongside “What I’m Made Of,” they created “I Am… All of Me” and “Never Turn Back” for Shadow the Hedgehog, performed covers of songs in Sonic ’06, Sonic and the Secret Rings, both Sonic Riders games and Sonic CD, and produced four original songs and one cover for Sonic and the Black Knight.

During this time, several factors helped push the band’s catchy and appealing rock to cult hit level. The sound tests featured in every 3D Sonic game allowed players to enjoy Crush 40’s music outside of the games themselves. Gamecube releases of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2: Battle brought these titles and Crush 40’s music to wider audiences. And the band featured on a number of compilation albums, the most recent being 2019’s “Driving Through Forever.”

In short, Gioeli and Senoue had created a sound that would forever stick with a generation of Sonic fans. Even in the “dark ages” of Sonic marked by poorly-received releases like 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Crush 40 could be counted on as a constant source of great Sonic tunes. 

Live shows at Sonic conventions and eventually two San Diego Comic Con performances in 2016 and 2017 helped Gioeli and Senoue realize the impact they’ve made on fans.

“I was riding with a bunch of YouTubers in a van,” Gioeli recalls, “and I said ‘hi you guys, I’m Johnny from Crush 40’ and they start laughing, like ‘We know who you are.’ I said ‘How do you know me?’ and they start laughing, and it was at that moment where they explain to me how iconic this music [Crush 40] was and they explained to me how they grew up and it was part of their life, part of their childhood.”

Crush 40 eventually paid tribute to their dedicated following in one of their few non-game originals, “Sonic Youth.” The song incorporates and references nearly every Sonic song Crush 40 worked on, with grateful lyrics that frame the fans who grew up with Crush 40 as a force that turned the band into Sonic heroes.

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Driving Through Forever

After 2010’s Sonic Free Riders, Crush 40’s contributions to Sonic wound down. Senoue continued to serve as a composer, sound designer and many other musical roles for Sega, but his collaborations with Gioeli were called upon less and less. Instead, Sonic games experimented with new voices like Bowling for Soup’s Jaret Reddick in Sonic Unleashed, Jean Paul Machlouf of Cash Cash for Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, and Doug Robb of Hoobastank in Sonic Forces. Crush 40 put out some originals during this Sonic hiatus, but outside of some compilations and live performances, it seemed that the band’s time with Sonic was over.

That is, until early last year, which saw the release of Team Sonic Racing. Amongst the poppy, rev-up soundtrack was a Sonic Adventure-styled main theme by Senoue and Gioeli entitled “Green Light Ride,” a triumphant return to the franchise that perhaps marks a new age of Crush 40-infused soundtracks for future Sonic games to come. 

Even if that doesn’t happen, the band has made its mark. The collaborative efforts of Jun Senoue and Johnny Gioeli, though a relatively small part of the Sonic song catalog, are a major part of the franchise and many Sonic fans’ childhoods. Some have gone so far as to say that exposure to Crush 40 helped expand a generation of Sonic fans’ musical tastes. Simply put, Crush 40 defined the modern sound of Sonic, and their music will forever be associated with the blue hedgehog.