Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ye Olde Mix Tape………

Alright – I will ‘fess up. I am a format junkie. What does this mean? I have come to the realization that my music obsession includes a powerful component – I get a kick out of listening to music from different technological formats. I am somewhat bummed that the reel-to-reel deck I’ve had since the early ebay days has bitten the dust. Reel to reel tape decks may well be THE single most inconvenient music playback device ever, but cracking open a “new-old-stock” sealed reel tape and loading it up to watch the reels turn away with great music pouring out just gives me the (good) heebie jeebies! Yes I own and enjoy 8 tracks too (especially if they’re QUADRAPHONIC – muuuwhaaahahaaa!!). Anyone out there who loves the first Steely Dan album (Can’t Buy a Thrill) as much as I do and has never heard it in beautiful quadraphonic surround sound – you just don’t know what you’re missing. I get goose-bumps. I get misty-eyed. I shed tears. I’m pathetic, I know!!
Just today I stumbled upon a bunch of “new-old-stock” blank cassettes (still sealed!) in a thrift store. Anyone remember when these suckers were new on the shelves?
Try “early 1980s”, dude. This particular brand of tape has a special significance for me. When I was a young lad in the early 80s, my older cousin Jimmy made a mixed tape of songs he had been listening to and sent it to me in the mail. The blank tape he used was exactly like the one pictured above. It blew my mind to find a bunch of these still sealed so I had to buy a few. My cousins, whom I looked up to as if they were my older siblings (I had none, biologically), were my idols. The idea that my cousin took the time to put together a bunch of songs from his collection he thought I would enjoy was really amazing to me. Without dragging that tape out of storage I seem to recall what prompted the whole thing was me hearing The Yardbirds’ song “Lost Woman” at their house when I was visiting (for a holiday most likely – they lived in New York City and my family had moved to the ‘burbs). What I particularly loved about that track was – the bass line. It still strikes me as one of the coolest bass lines ever! What do you think?
Anyway – that particular track was only available on an import LP at that time. I just didn’t want to live without that song and it would actually be a few years before I got my mitts on a genuine LP copy. What a great album cover – I love it!

To fill up the rest of the tape, my cousin put on some Queen songs, some Jethro Tull stuff - all tracks I had never heard before and weren't on the radio (deep cuts). I was really into that tape! It started a dialog that continues to the present times – with my cousin and many friends. For many years I really got into making tapes for friends (and they for me – all of which I still have). And I got pretty good at creating “moods” with music on a 60 or 90 minute tape – sometimes with music from quite different genres. Now that cassette has given way to digital files, I kinda miss unwrapping a new blank tape and trolling through my record collection to piece together a collection of some favorites du jour to pass onto my pals.

So a few weeks ago, I did something I haven’t done in a long time – I dragged out my funky old cassette deck, cracked open a C-90 and set about making a mix tape of tunes that grabbed my fancy as I went along. Originally I wanted a 60 minute tape – 30 minutes per side. 90 minutes can be a long time to fill. 60 minutes is more of a challenge to put together a bunch of tunes that somehow hang together – maybe creating or reflecting a particular mood. I sure made some legendary tapes in the past. But that’s where cassette tapes have been relegated to – the past.

But in the not-so-distant past the cassette tape was the preferred format for music lovers on the go. Long before the ipod there was the Walkman and the boom-box. See this thing, kids? THIS was your 80s status symbol. No X-Box, no Playstation. This was it, dude
 The cassette was a pretty durable, if not exactly hi-fi, format. Sure, tapes could get eaten once in awhile, but considering how easy it was to make a copy of even a pre-recorded cassette – you could easily make a near-perfect copy of the original and store that away if you were inclined to take care of your stuff. And consumer tape decks were considered a bit of a threat to the music industry, or so it seemed at the time. Remember these funny little “public service announcements” on the inner sleeves of LP records like this?
(Many years later I was utterly shocked when the technology of CD-burning became available. Why on earth was this allowed? I, for one, saw the handwriting on the wall – perfect digital copies you can make yourself.? Whoah boy! Game changer for sure!)

Even though the sound quality was never stellar on cassette, things did improve over time. I have a really early pre-recorded, massed produced cassette of the Procol Harum “Home” album that is just dreadful. It looks to me like an original 1970 issue and the signal to noise ratio is pitiful – there’s just not enough signal coming off that thing to make it worth the bother of listening to! But by the late 70s and early 80s problems of that sort were resolved enough to make the cassette the logical replacement to the just as portable, yet infinitely more problematic 8-track tape (ever try to repair one of those suckers?).

The best place for cassettes was THE CAR. Since I did a fair amount of travelling as a young man I made tons of tapes for car rides. Many of them are still in boxes in my attic (some have unique music on them…..ah….I suppose I will eventually attract the attention of the “Hoarders” show…….such is life….). The radio – then as now – could not always be counted on to suit one’s mood. Nowadays there’s all these satellite radio channels playing deep cuts, but they’re all segregated into different genres – some of which don’t make ANY sense. Like, what is this Northern Soul shit? Talk about the biggest record collector scam ever. Of all the Northern Soul stuff I’ve bothered to listen to I have to say only about .5% of it was worth a second glance. The vast majority of what collectors are paying mondo bucks for is, musically speaking……shite. Sorry – it’s true. Anyway, I like to hear all kinds of music sometimes totally thrown together in unusual combinations. I don’t have a satellite radio, but I have heard it before and it can be cool, Northern Soul notwithstanding.

So what craziness wound up on my little C90? Hmmmm….

Side A:
The Core – Eric Clapton
She’s Long and She’s Lean – Mallard
Take it or Leave It – Rolling Stones
Blue Form – MU
Powaii – Sonny Rollins (live in Japan)
Babylon Sisters – Steely Dan
Lonesome – Big Bill Broonzy & Washboard Sam

Side B:
TVC-15 – David Bowie
Rock and Roll Stew – Traffic
Carney and Beggard Place  - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
It’s Your Thing – Isley Brothers
Killing an Arab – The Cure
Slip Kid – The Who
Reno Nevada – Fairport Convention
The Dolphins – Fred Neil
One More Chance – Sandy Denny
As Strong As Sampson – Procol Harum

Doesn’t seem like a lot of songs, does it? Yeah, I know – your ipod as GAZILLION songs on it. Everything from Celine Dion to the Butthole Surfers. Okay. I have a little MP3 player too and when I want to hear a shuffle with Three Dog Night, The Flaming Lips, Tiny Tim, Fela Kuti and Louis Armstrong in rapid succession I know where to go. But what about a purposeful juxtaposition of tracks from just as far-flung corners of the musical spheres that hang together in such a way that feels like you’re hearing them for the first time – or, at least, from a different point of view?

Alright – if you’ve never heard The Dolpins by Fred Neil – check it out:
What happens when you hear The Clash right after Aldo Nova? Does it make you want to hear Charles Mingus? Or Maurice Ravel? Or maybe Maurice Gibb? Or Rolf Harris? Or Keith Relf? Where does your musical mind travel to? When was the last time you put together a mix tape of songs you love in a particular order for one of the people you cared most about in your life? What would those musical vibrations say?

As Lou Reed once said, “those were different times……..”

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