We recently had some major renovations done, and in the course of throwing some things away and losing others, you also find some things.
Like an old, tiny vinyl carry case containing a bunch of cassettes. Some tapes were pre-recorded albums and the rest were “mixtapes”.
1963 PB (Pre-Beatles, or Pretty Boring):
If you asked me - at age 6 - what I liked, I might have answered toys or games. I would not have said girls or music.
Why would I like music? Perry Como, Andy Williams and their ilk dominated TV variety shows and I was too young for Elvis to make an impression on me.
And since both of my parents were from Ireland, the only music coming out of the Victrola was by Paddy Noonan, Bridie Gallagher or Mary McGonigle, who, in retrospect, are very good. But not at the time.
So neither television nor the living room was providing any musical inspiration.
Instant Gratification: AM Radio 1964-1969:
And how could it, especially when the Beatles finally arrived?
From 1964 on, turning on the radio meant instant gratification. You’d hear the radio playing on someone’s stoop, or from a passing car. But it always sounded great.
And in the rare moment when you didn’t like what you heard on WABC, you’d simply switch to WMCA and you’d be fine.
But as good as radio was, you’d still buy your favorite singles. And when you had enough of them, you and your friends would play them - one after the other - on the stoop with your portable turntable. (I once saw a bunch of older kids marching down Fifth Avenue with their portable turntable in their arms playing a single as they went. Sooo cool!)
To me, these hours-long singles sessions were the beginnings of the mixtape. We had begun to program our music.
By 1970 AM radio was getting increasingly frustrating, and the cool kids were moving to FM. But by its very nature it was more exploratory. So for each heavy revelation, there’d be at least a few minutes of boredom. So we hadn’t given up on AM. Yet.
But we were getting into albums by then. But albums - because of their variety of tone - often played better in the solitude of your bedroom than on the stoop or at a party.
So who could resist the urge to take the best of everything and put it all together in one place?
The Beach, or the Mixtape is Born:
By the mid-seventies, while others were still bringing radios to the beach, I’d already switched to just a tape player. I was doing my damnedest to minimize the chance of something awful coming on.
But if you did this, the music had to be energetic. It couldn’t be too slow or too mellow.
Oh, you could get away with middle period Beatles (Revolver, Rubber Soul) later in the afternoon when everyone was getting a little mellow anyway, but otherwise, that music had to move. And flow.
It was pretty challenging because we were no longer agreeing on what music was great.
When I Was Your Age!:
I can finally say that now. But not about walking to school in the snow, or being without Netflix.
I’m saying it because, back then, it was a pain in the ass to make a mixtape.
At first, you’d simply play a record and try to record it with a microphone, and hope your mom didn’t shout for you to come down for dinner. Thank god they started putting in plugs so you could connect directly to the source.
But it still usually took about 3 hours to do a 90-minute tape. You had to have the right connections between your stereo and your tape player. If you were very lucky, the tape player would record everything at the same volume. If not, you were subject to the sudden drops and rises in volume from song to song, based on how they were recorded and mastered.
If you were very lucky you had a pause button, which helped you edit out the sound of the tone arm being raised or dropped. Which could otherwise sound like a car crash.
Mixtape as Art:
But that was the mechanics of it. Once you had that down, you could do a fairly amateurish tape which had songs you liked in the order you happened to place them on the tape, and that ended simply when you ran out of room on it.
If you were lazy you wouldn’t worry about how much space was wasted at the end of each side. If you were like me (ie, didn’t have a girlfriend) you spent time on such things.
On the other extreme, you would try to build a sequence that naturally segued from one song to the next, and there would be a flow to the entire tape, hopefully with it ending in some sort of climax.
This required the math to calculate how much you could fit on the tape - and on each side of the tape, too. Which meant editing on the fly when you got it wrong.
I didn’t like it when someone would go to the trouble of putting a very popular song on a mixtape. Why go to that trouble when you were likely to hear it on the radio anyway?
There was a bit of snobbery at work here, too. If it was popular, I probably hated it.
So you’re songs had to:
- Not be overplayed
- Be recognizable, or at least very very catchy
- Have decent sound quality, either in volume or overall dynamics.
But then you get married and have kids and who has time for all that?
And there were a lot of tapes that were lost or went down with the cars.
I can think of dozens of songs that made it onto those tapes that have since been lost. This is a real shame because by then the whole pacing thing got easier. But I’d have to have the original playlists to put them back together.
Old, lost tapes, I salute you!
But I did find that vinyl case, and a few tapes survived.
The first one - from about 1987 - was pretty simple: All REM. It was relatively easy to make because it consisted almost entirely of Chronic Town and Murmur with smatterings of later albums added and edited in along the way. And all coming from vinyl.
And it still sounds very good.
But even I realized we couldn’t just listen to REM all day, so I’d made another one, which also survived. And after almost thirty years, it holds up pretty well. I made it in about 1989, and reflects what we were listening to at the time, so it’s almost all music from the 1980s as opposed to “eighties music”.
I tell people I hated the 80s. Mrs. Jaybee says I'm full of sh*t. This tape is proof that we're both right. This tape is virtually hit-free! Just a bunch of relative obscurities that made the decade bearable for me. This one must have been made in the fall. It just sounds that way.
David Bowie - “TVC15”, from Station to Station, which we’d only recently gotten. This is such an infectious song and a perfect opener. Never has Bowie been so damned playful.
The Bangles - “September Gurls”, from Different Light. This is the song that pretty much defines the tape. El got Different Light for Christmas that year and this is probably the most Beatle-y cut of a very Beatle-y album. Very pretty and autumnal, naturally. I heard this before I ever heard the bonkers Big Star version. And the beat is ever so slightly faster than “TVC15”.
Neil Young - “Hold On To Your Love”, from the much-maligned Trans. I had the weird experience of hearing this for the first and second time in public on the very same day - once in a record store in Manhattan and then again that night at Adventureland in Long Island. I found it so pretty I had to have the album. I should have - and may have originally - put this before the Bangles given the slightly sci-if sound, but beat wise it’s in the right place.
The B52s - “She Brakes for Rainbows”, from Bouncing off the Satellites. Continuing the spacey theme. But not as kooky as you’d expect from the 52s. Sweet, melodic, forgiving.
‘Til Tuesday “Voices Carry” – Probably the only hit here. A good segue from pretty to ominous. Aimee Mann’s voice and the 80s synthesizer are not embarrassing at all.
The Rolling Stones - “Child of the Moon” - Don’t know why I forced this one in here. Probably because it’s got that lovely guitar and melody. It probably should have gone after the Bangles.
‘Til Tuesday - “Maybe Monday” because I did such a lousy job with the editing, I cut off a second or two of the beginning and this just explodes at the start. My favorite song by them.
U2 – “In God’s Country” - The guitar here picks up from where “Child of the Moon” left off but what the hell. And for once, I can take them without a grain of salt. It’s pretty enough and fast enough to carry the weight Bono puts on it. And with some memorable phrases, (Punch a hole right through the sky...every day the dreamers die...Sad eyes,crooked crosses, in God's country.) It almost makes me cry.
The Replacement’s great one-two punch from Let it Be “Satisfied/Seen Your Video”. The first with the brilliant acoustic guitar intro, loud bang, shout to get things rolling, and great vocal.
And then “Seen Your Video” to take it out with a little comedy and a lot of rock and roll. It starts off with a minute of a sleak show-business-y instrumental theme, and then changes to a rockier, guided-missile theme, and then, finally, the words arrive to tell you they’ve seen your video (you’re another band, you see) and they hate it. (Seen your video! Your phony rock and roll! We don’t wanna know!) Just what I wanted to hear in the mid-eighties
The B-52s “Wig” from Bouncing off the Satellites and one of the best tracks of the 80s, off of one of their lesser known but still quite good records. Never has a record started off so completely off-kilter and random and ended so focused and powerful. Along the way it gets funny, and then, between Fred’s and Kate’s vocals, builds and builds until the drumming – which seemed goofy at the beginning – is now joined by some power chords to bring it all to a stunning close.
And now from the ridiculous to the sublime, Kate Bush -” Hounds of Love” – from The Whole Story My favorite KB song. The dynamics on this are wonderful. It opens with someone announcing “It’s coming! Through the trees!” And the drums make me believe him. And it turns out to be Kate - or at least her voice - swooping down from heaven, and then sweeping back up again. Whatever religion this is, I’m joining it.
And that's it for side one.
Blondie “Picture This” One of the many gems on Parallel Lines. Debbie Harry is one of the realest singers ever in that she sings like people talk. Oh Yeah!!!!
The Divinyls - “Don’t You Go Walking” from What a Life! - So the Divinyls came and went and somehow we got their second album, supposedly not as good as their first. So why do I think side one is one of the best of the decade? Which is why I put almost all of it on this tape, minus the actual hit, of course. This one is kinda fast and kinda loud.
“ Good Die Young” They slow it down a bit but add emotion and it’s wonderful
“Sleeping Beauty”, and even slower, even more emotion,
“Motion”, okay, enough of all that. Now it’s back to fast and loud and not so much a vocal as a roar. A great, great rocker.
Peter Gabriel “Red Rain” - I don’t know. I guess I should have ended the tape with the Divinyls. Now I have nowhere to go but back down from here. So I start over with my third favorite PG song. A nod to Prince maybe?
Human Switchboard - “Who’s Landing in My Hangar?” Yeah, just try finding this album. So we go from the lush “Red Rain” to the plain tacky “Hangar”, but it’s worth it for the title alone, but also because of that rough guitar and messy farfisa organ.
The English Beat - “Best Friend” The first of two absolute classics by the Beat. The first, with a twelve string electric guitar combined with speeded up ska.
“Two Swords” - This time, punk guitar and ska. Intense and heartfelt. Two swords slashing at each other, only sharpen one another, and in the long run even he’s your brother…
Talking Heads “Pulled Me Up” This song answers the question What if Psychokiller (the prior cut on Talking Heads '77 was brought up right? Never has gratitude ever been quite so… scary.
The Eagles “Tryin”, courtesy of Randy Meisner, back when fame and cocaine hadn’t yet gone to their heads. A fine rock and roll song.
Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns “Don’t Bug Me Baby” from their first record. Joe takes up the mantle of Doug Sahm and Sam the Sham, but adds amphetamines. So we go out on one of the great themes of Western Civilization, at least from the male point of view. But then again, there’s no reason a woman couldn’t sing this song, too.
So that's it. Probably my favorite mixtape of all. But there are others.
You've been warned.