Mix Tapes 1: “i dubbed the tunes in perfect form”

One of the most exciting things about music is sharing it. Whether you’re a casual fan with open ears or an obsessive who just loves to give the gift of perfect sound, it’s a great feeling to know you’ve turned someone on to something new that you can both love. It’s easy to do that in the wake of the digital revolution – mp3s, Spotify playlists or even quick links to Youtube/Myspace have ensured that no-one need wonder what a band sounds like for too long. But in the not-too-distant past, we used mix tapes.

Far more eloquent articles have been written about mix tapes than these humble pages are likely to host, and in any case WHTB was part of the last generation to maintain any interest in the cassette format. I’m certainly writing more in the manner of a grumpy old coot than I have any right to at the age of 28, no matter how deftly I dust off my newly-acquired rose-tinted spectacles. It therefore seems daft, dear reader, to bore you at length with theory. But here’s a few words you may have heard used to describe magnetic tape: outdated, clunky and bereft of many of the conveniences of newer technology. Strange, then, that a new wave of hipsters have apparently deemed it a valid format in this day and age. Surely it should have died out by now?

And yet there is something magical about cassettes – or more specifically, the art of the mix tape. A properly constructed compilation demands time, effort, draftsmanship and a real mastery of the pause button. Whilst mix CDs are not without their charm, there’s something infinitely less romantic about a selection of songs ripped from a computer hard drive and burned to disc in mere minutes. Mix tapes are made with love – which is why they make such ideal presents for a friend or lover. As a teenager, WHTB learned at least as much about certain friends from this simple craft as he ever did from the hours blissfully wasted in their company.

That’s why I’ve decided to put together this occasional series – I’ll be going through my mix tapes and analysing them. Perhaps not in too great detail – just enough to trigger some memories and wallow in simple nostalgia. I’m a sentimental fool these days.

Please feel free to share any memories of your favourite mix tapes below.

Just William / Muses + Shakers – Crushed By Eyeliner

The first tape I’m going to look at was a present in 1999… it was given to me at an open day at Liverpool University, by a friend that i regretfully don’t see too often these days. In any case, it’s a prized item in the mix tape library.

Side A (Just William) is pretty eclectic – I’ve not received many tapes with an opener as surprising, fun or indicative of the compiler as Science Fiction from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then it’s straight into a track by late-90s Liverpool punks Dog Flambé (who featured a young Doc Horror of Zombina & The Skeletones fame), which is as good a reminder as I’m ever likely to get of the time. There are tracks from forgotten 90s nearly-weres like Octopus, Black Box Recorder and Drugstore. There’s a track by unlamented never-weres Spy ’51 (who i liked at the time, perhaps because of the band’s association with Fierce Panda Records). Most significantly, there are tracks by bands whose names I can’t hear without at least thinking in passing of the maker of the tape: Veruca Salt and The Dandy Warhols. Even looking at the tracklist eleven years on, I’m immediately transported back to a summer holiday that I spent listening to this tape over and over again. Ah, trusty walkman, you were good to this one.

Then there’s the second side, Muses + Shakers. Again, this consists entirely of acts who are inextricably linked to the guy who put them together onto 45 minutes of tape: Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses and Belly. This run of 14 songs was a perfect introduction to three great acts – they’re all wonderful.

I’m still very, very grateful for this tape. It’s superb. It’s a reminder of a great summer, and also of an afternoon spent in the company of old friends who have all moved away or drifted into different social groups. Which happens to us all, of course, but sometimes it’s just nice to have little reminders like this – a soundtrack to the narratives we create around our lives, to ensure certain scenes will always have their songs.

Just in case I didn’t say it at the time, thank you.

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11 Responses to “Mix Tapes 1: “i dubbed the tunes in perfect form””

  1. oldrope Says:

    Fabulous. Somewhere in this world, in an attic or something is a box of my old tapes. Every bazillion years or so I stumble upon them and smile (they aren’t hard to literally stumble upon, there were so many and they take up so much space!).

    Some mixes were great and on heavy rotation, but often they came to characterise a certain time or place.

    I am sure there are some things I still only have “on tape”, though that is as good as meaningless in all senses of the words. I’d do well to trawl through them and look for things to re-acquire. I’m sure there’d be tons of shit as well, the older the tape.

    Two other things, till particular mixes spring to mind. Firstly, the great thing about these mix tapes was you listened ALL the way through. You could stop when you wanted, then pick up where you left off. Skipping was an imprecise and therefore seldom practised art. And I’ll wager many a time when you got to the end of side B you turned the tape over and started again. It was the easiest way to hear that cracking track 6 songs into side A.

    Secondly, I’ll wager if I heard half the old tapes again I would start to sing the next track in the mix as soon as the last one finished, with no conscious knowledge of what it was going to be. Somewhere the ‘playlist’, if not the songs, is burned into the brain. Probably where all the shit you were supposed to learn about science or whatever in school was supposed to be.

  2. johnlebaptiste Says:

    WHTB – am I right in remembering that you once set up a book-club style mixtape club? Any plans to reprise it? That always struck me as a great idea. I don’t like book clubs because I don’t reads. But mixtape clubs are my kind of clubs.

  3. whenheartsturnblue Says:

    OR – that’s the spirit! i look forward to any musings you may wish to offer on favourite mixes.

    JLB – Your memory is accurate, sit – i attempted to start one, but couldn’t raise sufficient interest. I’d be game to do it by post though (…AND start a mixtape club, fnar).

  4. johnlebaptiste Says:

    Hey that sounds like a good idea, though the cost of p&p would be a bugger if it were a big club.

    What in your opinion is the optimum length for a mix tape? Both sides or just one side? I’m a fan of leaving the B side free for salient remarks regarding the content of side A.

  5. whenheartsturnblue Says:

    Well, the idea of the original club was that everyone would go to the pub armed with a mix tape. All tapes would then be jumbled up and handed out – so essentially everyone would make a present for someone else, but they wouldn’t know who. Then at the next meeting everyone could discuss tapes, like a book club (except, like at an actual book club, doing so would be heartily discouraged as it really cuts into drinking time). And then another round of tapes would be handed out, and so the cycle rpeats itself ad infinitum.

    One bored afternoon, I actually wrote out a Tape Club manifesto, which must still exist somewhere in the depths of my room.

    Personally i’m a fan of the C90 for optimum showing-off of how ace/eclectic/obscure your record collection is. Perhaps comments sheets should be supplied with each tape…?

  6. Danolo Vanz Says:

    I know who gave you that tape WHTB! I remember that day as well, OR and I went to the Furries that night and toasted your re-entry to the band on the coach. Fucking Hell that took me back­­, cheers.

  7. whenheartsturnblue Says:

    Ah yes! And then later From Bolivar To Bangkok jumped off the coach and walked straight into a lamp post, if memory serves. I wasn’t there to witness the incident, but I had a good chortle as it was reported back to me.

  8. Danolo Vanz Says:

    I think that’s a fair point from OR above about listening all the way through to tapes. It pisses me off that the carefully arrived at emotional and sonic climaxes at the end of the cds I make for people probably don’t get listened to. Oh poor us music nerds.

  9. whenheartsturnblue Says:

    DV – indeed. In fact, i’ve just remembered that the second rule of the Tape Club Manifesto was ‘Tape Club abhors mix CDs’, with that as one of the (non-listed) reasons.

  10. Danolo Vanz Says:

    I’ve only got this on tape. Taped off the radio

    No idea where it is though.

  11. whenheartsturnblue Says:

    COR – i’d forgotten about that!

    i once got mugged on a bus for my walkman, which the horrible sods nicked along with the mix tape inside it. i’ve since managed to track down NEARLY everything on it, except for a track off a long-out-of-print 2nd gen emo album, and a demo track by a Scottish band who went on to become… well, not that big actually. anyway, if i ever track those songs down, i’m TOTALLY remaking that tape, as i’ve still got the cover.

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