Side Two: ‘Try this at home’

Part the second of Stephen James's home taping odyssey... "although I’d like to say that I married her and we lived happily ever after, that would be untrue. Instead we spent a few wonderful months together, then I, rather predictably started acting like a colossal arse, which precipitated a couple of turbulent weeks, after which she left me for a plumber. Story of my life."


Recording an album in its entirety was one thing, but, let’s be honest, anyone could do it. Pressing ‘record’ and ‘play’ at the same time does not require immense amounts of skill, just two fingers. It’s certainly not up there with the search for the Higgs Bosun. Similar to the work at CERN, though, making a compilation tape was not a task to be undertaken lightly, on the plus side, however, the necessary equipment tended to be substantially cheaper than your average Large Hadron Collider. It was a process that took time, planning and effort, but, if you were lucky, produced an absolute classic.

Given that space was limited, firstly you had to decide what music to include. I usually favoured a C90 – initially BSAF, followed by TDK, before finally settling on Maxell MX90s: mainly for reasons of sound quality, as metal tapes provided the highest sound quality, but I had a penchant for certain Bauhaus tracks, so a louche, unperturbed Pete Murphy, pinned to an armchair by a wall of sound may have had more than a little to do with my change of allegiance – so, assuming you sensibly avoided 12 inches, which were on the whole commercial ventures to line the pockets of record companies, you were limited to 10 to 15 songs per side. Of course, if you were a prog- or krautrock fan then even a C120 was only going to accommodate two or three tracks, thankfully though most proponents of these genres were normally far too stoned to notice the inevitable tape stretch and associated musical distortion (which in most cases dramatically improved the compositions) encountered with that format.

The choice of tracks was also was severely curtailed by what records you possessed, unless you were lucky enough to have access to a tape-to-tape machine. Those lucky individuals were able, depending on sound quality, to include songs they only had on tape rather than actually possessed. (Remember, there was a clearly defined hierarchy amongst nascent musos: just having a home-recording of an album did not bestow on you the right to claim ownership, it had to be an original record. Obviously, provenance also bestowed added kudos, with stolen albums being the most highly regarded while records from your parent’s collections were rightly treated with derision).

In retrospect, I now realise I befriended many people who, had they not possessed music centres with tape-to-tape functionality, I would have placed my head in front of a bus wheel as it pulled off rather than spend time with. (In the unlikely event that there is anyone reading this, for whom the scales have finally fallen from their eyes, I apologise, but seriously, in your darker moments, as you lay in your single bed waiting for the sun’s first rays to hit your window you must have suspected that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. I mean, you admired the grace and athleticism of Torville and Dean, while I just thought I wouldn’t mind nailing Jane, and considered mime a valid art form rather than concurring with my, admittedly more extreme stance, that all participants in this innately preposterous activity should be hunted down like dogs they were and shot. Unless we face reality, we will forever dwell in the shadows.

Despite, on the whole, being a solitary activity, what you included on your mix tapes had a much wider impact than the four walls of your bedroom: or the studio as I rather pretentiously referred to mine. To an extent it defined you. A compilation tape articulated how you wished your peers to perceive you. There were certain songs that I regularly listened to, but which I would never dream of including on a mix tape. For many years, despite publicly declaring my undying allegiance to the overtly macho posturings of punk, and to a lesser extent Ska, covertly I enjoyed listening to Soft Cell. Typically, I would only do this alone in the dusty attic of an abandoned house, locked in a disused cupboard, hidden beneath a pile of soiled clothes, but I was, and still am a huge fan. However, as professing an interest in this band was tantamount to mounting your best friend in public I studiously failed to include a single one of their songs on any of my numerous productions. Conversely, the number of Pere Ubu, Laibach, Can or Faust tracks on my audio cassettes would perhaps have given the most definitely intended impression that I listened to them a lot more than I actually did.

My most anally retentive friend would write out the songs he wanted to include, clinically assessing the pros and cons of each choice, before assembling them on tape based on their musical compatibility; taking into account such characteristics as the tone and tempo. I always assumed he wore a white coat while he did this, and made his notes on a clipboard with a biro attached to it with Sellotape and string, but this was never independently verified by triple blind testing. Such a scientific approach was anathema to me, and produced a stillborn, constrained compilation, devoid of passion and utterly lifeless! 

I was much more of a suck it and see chap. An ardent proponent of Mackintosh’s statement that “there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist.” I’d choose a song and record it, add a second, and then listen to them to see if it worked. If it did, I’d add another, if not I’d start again, or, if suitably discouraged, I’d wander off and find something else to fill the void. Of course this approach involves a lot of rerecording, but it wasn’t as if I had anything better to do. Well apart from onanism, and there only so many times a day that’s possible. (The record in our school was nine times, but the guy was hardly a reliable witness; although he did once manually relieve a horse in return for cash. I didn’t bother to keep in touch after we left school, but I hope he followed his passion and became a vet.)

I did try and consider how they would work together, however my notable successes were more by luck than judgement. Who would have thought that Pere Ubu’s pre-punk, post-punk tour de force Non-Alignment Pact followed by The Seventh Seal by the Godlike Scott Walker would have produced such an awesome aural counterpoint. Typically, there were far more failures than successes. I implore God everyday, on hands and knees, eyes averted, back bleeding profusely from a scourging that even a Roman Centurion would be proud of, to explain what possessed me to follow JC’s awesome Autogeddon Blues with some reconditioned, mod-lite meanderings by Ocean Colour Scene. As I can’t remember which specific track it was illustrates that having to listen to this ineffably jarring juxtaposition, day in, day out, was so traumatic that I’ve thankfully repressed it.

Some people would go for themed compilations, but they were never my cup of tea. Not that I was against them per se, but, like my earliest cassettes recorded from the radio and intended to feature a single artist, I just found such an approach too constraining. They could work very well. I still remember Dangerous Dave Nicholson’s paean to our nightclub of choice: ‘A Night at the Kirk’. If I ever I want to be transported to those debauched nights of my youth, I only have listen to this gem. As soon as I hear the first bars of Liberator, it’s 1986 again, and I’m on the dance floor, feet stomping, arms flailing (occasionally in time to the beat), hoping to catch a certain elegant blonde’s eye*. I will however, never forgive him for not including any Soft Cell who, in 1982, at the height of their phenomenal powers performed one of their greatest ever gigs there. However, as I explained earlier, even as an ardent fan of theirs I was fearful of including them on my compilations for fear of having my sexuality questioned, or, far worse, being branded a New Romantic, so I fear it would be hypocritical to judge him too harshly.

My one attempt at themed cassette, ‘If This Doesn’t Freak You Out’, promised far more than it delivered, I’ve been more freaked out by the Moomins.

Timing was critical and you had to ensure that each side ended without a prolonged period of silence, or, the ultimate sin, cutting off mid-song. Either of these situations precipitated a major rethink, typically a shuffling of track order, or the selection of a different song that was tailored better to the space available. (Faced with the first situation, more professional compilers would open up the cassette and cut out the offending sections of tape, personally I found this an unsatisfactory solution as it shortened the overall length of the tape and only work on the first side. It was a useful technique though when recording full albums if you wanted that truly professional feel.)

There are always of course exceptions and I knew one rather odd individual who, when the tape stopped during he a recording, he would simply turn it over, and press record. He didn’t even stop the record. Using this technique, due to the couple of seconds of plastic before the actual recordable tape began (included to ensure a durable attachment to the spool), could result in losing up to a minute in the middle of a song. I’m no conservative, in fact I think Trotsky was a little blue and used to believe that David Cameron should be ripped to pieces by foxhounds like the rest of the inbred toffs, but after last Wednesday I think he should be trampled by Rebecca Brook’s ex-police and forced to be treated on the NHS he’s just raped, but there are limits to what is acceptable in decent society, and this sort of behaviour, is beyond the pale. I lost contact with this individual, but I’m sure I’ll recognize him when, inevitably, they find the bodies and his face is emblazoned across the front page of every paper in the land.

Compilation tape fanatic that I undoubtedly am, even I must draw the line at the decoration of cassette boxes. All a bit arts and crafts for my highly defined aesthetic sense. A bit too amateurish. Personally, I had the mighty Peter Saville design all mine. Well, I would have if he had replied to any of the letters I sent him, and hadn’t hidden behind that restraining order.

Joking aside, Peter Saville should be given his dues as the only designer who managed to produce tape designs that were more than oddly-proportioned facsimiles of the record covers. If you’re not aware of the typographically exquisite, minimalist, over-sized, cardboard boxes he designed for New Order’s albums like Low-life (Fact 100c) and Power, Corruption and Lies (Fact 75c), as well as other Factory protégés like the Railway Children, you really should try and track them down. (This may prove difficult, unfortunately, as, beautiful as they undoubtedly were, the cardboard was not as durable as plastic.) I’m certainly no Jean Des Esseintes, and unfortunately I do not live in a decadent, fin-de-siècle museum of high taste, but I think they are the epitome of understated design.

Once you’d finished your mix, it was good form, if not essential, that you wrote down the track names, including recording artists, on the cardboard sleeve. This was very important, as the following cautionary tales illustrates. Incendiary’s editor and bon vivant Richard once included a certain song on one of the tapes he regularly sent me before being distracted by this very publication. It was just a space filler at the end the challenging Zero Beats Per Minutes, but I loved it, far more than Anal’s rather torpid, austere offering. Unfortunately Mr F, despite detailing every aspect of main attraction, had neglected to included either the name of the song or the artist! To make matters worse, the tape has long since perished, I have retained only a vague impression of the song, and Richard can’t remember it, so I still have no idea what it was or how to locate it. I think it was called ‘Cynthia Smile’, or at least may have included the phrase, and I initially suspected it was Robyn Hitchcock, but this must be incorrect, as numerous Internet searches have failed to find it. If, based on these incredibly sketchy details anyone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll do anything for you, and I mean anything. I’ll even be your best friend. And remember, as they say, a friend will help you move house; your best friend will help you move a body. Richard has my details. (Cynthia Mask? Robyn Hitchcock - Eye LP. Did I stick that on after Anal? Bloody hell - ed)

Mr Anal used to use dry transferable lettering, or Letraset to give it it’s correct nomenclature, to note down the titles of his compilations onto their spines, as well as detailing the individual tracks in the same manner. Who has the time to do that? Individually lining up the letters, then rubbing them with a pencil, letter after letter, on and on, ad fucking infinitum. Life’s too short for this sort of behaviour. The sun’s shining for sake, let’s make some hay. Yes, his cassettes may have looked very tidy, even professional in a desperate, emotionally needy, approval seeking kind of way, but it’s not really Rock and Roll is it? I mean, I can’t imagine that Sid Vicious would have bothered with such niceties. That said, he shot up using soiled toilet water (according to the late, great Dee Dee Ramone) so he’s not really a good role model.

And finally, of course, there was the all-important name. My favourite title was “Is There A Mr Carter In The Room?” which started with the same phrase, including ringing phone, culled from the seminal film Get Carter, before seguing effortlessly into the attenuated, high-pitched, rising whine that precedes the desperately beseeching vocals in Non-Alignment Pact: certainly one of the high points of my recording career. Dangerous Dave named his mix tapes things like ‘Puppy One’ or ‘Fish Two’, the cute names concealing the deadly array of killer tunes contained within, but I found this disrespectful and downright frivolous. I said at the beginning of this piece, that this was a serious business, and I meant it.

Well, that about covers the dos and don’ts of mix tape creation. Hardly exhaustive, but I feel it covers the salient points. In my experience, making a compilation was one of the joys of being a teenager, along with acne, litre bottles of cider quaffed on street corners, and crusty socks hidden at the back of your wardrobe. I should state that I kept making compilations well into my thirties, and now that I’m approaching middle age I’ve lost count of how many cassettes I’ve created over the years. Most, if not all of them have been lost, which is a shame as I’d love to listen to some of the better ones now and see if, unlike me, they’ve stood the test of time. Another chapter of my life has ended, leaving only fond, and occasionally acutely embarrassing memories, but what I do still wonder is why making mix tapes was so important to me? Why did I invest so much time and energy in it? So, now that I’ve covered the how, next I suppose I should tackle the why.

Next issue: Side Three: Sex and Tapes and Rock ‘n’ Roll

With thanks to Dangerous Dave Nicholson and Andy The Chinaman Ross.

* I did, and although I’d like to say that I married her and we lived happily ever after, that would be untrue. Instead we spent a few wonderful months together, then I, rather predictably started acting like a colossal arse, which precipitated a couple of turbulent weeks, after which she left me for a plumber. Story of my life.