J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Notes From Underground - #40
A Cassette Valediction: Part One

"Got your tape and it changed my mind / Heard your voice in between the lines..Now I'm falling in love too fast / With you and the songs you chose..I've been living in your cassette / It's the modern equivalent / Singing up to a Capulet / On a balcony in your mind.." - Semisonic ("Singing In My Sleep")

"I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter - there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again..You've got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention..and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch..and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and ...oh, there are loads of rules." - Nick Hornby (High Fidelity)

In thinking about cassette albums that I've adored over the years, tapes that I listened to time and time again, I couldn't help but think of mixtapes. Labors of love - works of art. Slavish devotion to the belief that great, whole truths can be discovered with the right combination of music. I often get giddy thinking of my weekly radio show in terms of creating an entirely new mixtape every week.

And when I say tape, I mean tape. I've been given and have created some great mix CDs in my day. But they're never as satisfying. It's almost like they're less work, less sweat, less thoughtful. Cutting and pasting is infinitely less personal than outlining playlists, pressing the record and pause buttons, the actual process of having to listen to the entire tape while you're creating it.

I grew up, and so did most of you, in an age where cassettes were a standard format for music. We also grew up in an age where the only way you could copy an album for someone was via cassette. You had to put the other tape on, or cue up the record, or press play on the CD, hit record on the other tape, sit back, and enjoy. But mixtapes - collections of various songs, a playlist created solely by us - they were even more refined. It was as if we were designing our own 90 minute (or 120 if you sprang for the longer tapes) radio show. Living and dying by the sacred segue. Finding or creating connections between songs and artists that no one else would ever have put together. We were creators of art, whether we knew it or not, incorporating the words and work of others in order to manufacture our own, divinely inspired masterpiece.

And how many tapes did you make for someone you were smitten with? How long did you agonize over which songs to include? The right song combination would surely win his/her heart, no? Don't make it too obvious - you can't give it all away. But if he/she is smart enough, they'll hear "your voice in between the lines" and see exactly the proper amount of woo and restraint that is an earmark of an excellent potential dating partner. You savvy devil, you.

On the radio each week, I live for a good segue. When I pull one off, admittedly, I do a little dance around the room. That enjoyment comes from being a mixtape fanatic. There's something so right about creating an album of material that didn't exist previously. The Twilight Singer's "Esta Noche," with its European-dial tone rhythm, leading into Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone," the telephone's ringing cuing the song's propulsive start? That's the ticket. Now, follow them up with the Replacements' "Answering Machine" and you've got yourself a killer trio and the beginning of a great 'telephone' themed tape. Not to mention they ought to flow quite nicely into one another.

There are people out there trying to preserve the spirit and soul of the mixtape in the completely digital age. Muxtape is a website that lets people create digital mixtape collections for anyone to peruse and listen to - and purchase the individual songs if they like. Not a bad adaptation of the process - mixtapes were all about getting you to love certain songs, after all. (Hello, Chameleons' "Swamp Thing!" Howdy, the Wallflowers' "Murder 101!") But I can't help but feel the 'album' feel of the mix tape is missing, even if it's easy to listen to the songs that way.

One of the more user-unfriendly things about cassettes was also one of the things that make mixtapes so especially breathtaking - the fact that it was awfully difficult and time consuming to get to one, specific song. Therefore, you listened to the whole thing. You got to know that mixtape the way you would a real album - anticipating its highs and lows just like any other album. The digital age in music has begun the slow and painful process of destroying the 'album' as a creative concept in more ways than one.

As I mentioned earlier, my mixtape-making jones has largely been sedated by having a radio show each week, but it's still there. But I'm probably going to make a Muxtape site of my own pretty soon and will probably make my fair share of mix CDs in the coming years. The urge to create with the voices of others is an unavoidable one for fans of pop culture. The art is malleable and if we can craft a form that fits us, that speaks for us where we sometimes don't have the words ourselves, then we will find a way to do so.

Mix It Up:

The Twilight Singers - "Esta Noche" (from Blackberry Belle)

Blondie - "Hanging on the Telephone" (from Parallel Lines)

The Replacements - "Answering Machine" (from Let It Be)


In the comments, leave some of your favorite mixtape songs of all time. Your favorite opening tracks? Your favorite combinations of songs? Favorite closing song? Lay it all out.

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  • At 8:03 AM, April 19, 2008, Anonymous Ian McCormick said…

    It was definately much more exciting of a task back in the day, especiall if you didn't own the song and youhad to wait for it to come on the radio. Of course, you didn't want the station acknowledgement and the retro atari home computer commercials. It was meticulous yet satisfying. i was poor enough to remember holding the cassette recorder up to the speaker of the cd player (Just as a time frame reference, the first CD I ever owned was the Batman Soundtrack in 88).

    I still every once in a while have a chance to return to those tapes and pop in a few and see where i left off on a tape too. That was always as telling as making htem. Some mixtapes we're just as theraputic as pharmaceuticals. Here are some of my stopping point on some mixtapes I have discovered.

    "One Night in Bangkok" - Murray Head

    "Sister Christian" - Night Ranger

    "I Was Wrong' - Social Distorion

    "Seven" - Prince

    "Here and Now" - Letters to Cleo

    "Sober" - Tool

    "Don't You want me Baby" - Human League

    "Personal Jesus" - Depeche Mode

    "Terrible Lie" - NiN

    ... I can't remember or find anymore :)

    Ahhh... Childhood

  • At 12:38 PM, April 19, 2008, Blogger J. Neas said…

    There were a few tracks I recorded back in the day by holding the recorder up to the speaker on the television. Talk about lo-fi.

    "One Night in Bangkok" as a closer? That, I like. You had good perception obviously - I have a professional compilation that closed with Tool's "Sober" also. And thank you for mentioning Letters to Cleo. Just in general.

  • At 9:40 AM, April 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As an opener I always love "Only Shallow" by My Bloody Valentine or "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel....


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