The Mix-tape

April 22, 2010 at 2:28 pm (Uncategorized)

I made my first mix-tape in 1981. Sure, I made cassettes  before that, but they were mostly things I taped off of the radio, pop hits then later John Peel sessions.

But in 1981 I moved from England to Canada. Suddenly instead of  indie punk, I was  surrounded by classic rock, and crappy bands like Triumph, Headpins, Toronto, Loverboy and all the rest of the cheese-metal scene. And it was diffiuclt to explain to the guys in my class, the music I liked. Oh sure they knew about punk, but not really. My lab partner Mike would just chant “too drunk to fuck; too drunk to fuck” when I tried to talk to him about music. Yeah, I owned that single by the Dead Kennedys, but punk was much more than that.  So I made a tape with some of my favourites: The Sex Pistols, the Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Crass, Discharge, the Wall and many others. Needless to say, the kids didn’t like it.  But I did. I kept the tape for years and played it over and over. Who knows, it’s probably gathering dust somewhere in the basement.

When I finished high school and went to university, I worked at the campus radio station. For two hours a week, I hosted my own live mix-tape.  But I continued to make mix-tapes for friends, girls, girlfriends, and family for years. One of the first gifts I gave my wife was a cassette with a Jesus and Mary Chain bootleg on one side and a Butthole Surfers mix on the other (our first date was a Butthole Surfers shows with the flaming Lips opening for them)

Then for Christmas  2003, I gave my sister a tape, and while she thanked me, the expression on her face was, “What is this thing..?” I bought a new computer with a CD burner and switched to make mix-CDs. I still make them; I don’t have enough friends to make playlists for.   I can’t remember who said this first, but the idea is that once technology becomes obsolete it becomes collectable. The only real advantage of the cassette was its portability. The sound quality was lower than vinyl and every time you played a cassette there was the very real possibility the player would eat the tape (always carry a pencil just in case you need an emergency rewind)!

But there was something lovely about the cassette and the mix-tape. Perhaps because it took so long to make, it became a labour of love. Making a sixty or ninety minute mix-tape involved a number of restrictions even before you worked out the track listing. First you had to make sure you had the right length of material for the tape – punk was marvellous for the tape because you could always find a song under two minutes to squeeze in at the end of the side – I hated tapes where the song cut out half-way through! Second, you had to sit and cue up each song, press “play”, then “stop” at the end of the track. Making a tape was as long as the tape.

CDs made it quicker. Ripping a song took a fraction of the time, as did the burn. Today, the playlist means the entire process can be done in under ten minutes, but  it takes a little of the specialness out of it. But the main thing  about the mix-tape, mix-CD or even playlist is that it often says more about you than the person you give it to. Why did you choose those songs for that person? It reminds me of that line from Bob Dylan’s “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”; Dylan sings, “your debutante knows what you need, I know what you want.”   And you want these songs, you just don’t know it yet.

There’s a certain amount of rock nerd snobbery about the mix-tape, but there’s also the naive joy of the fan who hears something great and says everyone should hear this too. I’ll admit I’m still crushed when I play something I think is great and the audience isn’t moved. (Most recently I came across a recently unearthed Cornershop remix with MIA doing backing vocals. My wife shrugged.)   What brought on this bout of nostalgia?  I came across Mix Tape – the Art of Cassette Culture, a collection short pieces and track lists about mix-tapes, edited by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.  It’s a great read, and best of all, it gave me lots of ideas for my next mix. Happy taping

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