Friday, 6 March 2009

Play and Record

It’s just over a month since I bought my Macbook. It’s both my first Mac and my first laptop, so playing around with it has been doubly fun. The novelty of indulging in nerdy pastimes whilst wandering around the house instead of being stuck in our cold spare room has yet to wear off.

I won’t harp on about the user-friendliness and general cuteness of Macs; you’ll either know already or won’t care, but one of the gadgets worth a mention is GarageBand. For the uninitiated it’s an audio recording program which most people use to create their own music to the extent that ‘laptop electronica’ has almost become a genre in itself. I have no rhythm or musical ability to speak of but it’s scarily easy to use and has built in functions for recording podcasts which is right up my ten-foot. However, for the moment I’ve been using GarageBand to digitise all my old cassette tapes. This is something I’ve tried before on my PC using Audacity, but for some reason Vista and Audacity never seemed to be good friends on my computer. Thankfully GarageBand is a bit easier to work and I’ve been happily trawling through my old c90’s.

I dumped most of my pre-recorded cassettes when I moved. I’ve since picked most of them up on CD for a dollar or two. However I have a special stash of tapes that have travelled with me that aren’t likely to appear on CD unless I make it happen.

I was a reasonably obsessive compilation maker in the day. I’d borrow friends’ tapes, CDs and records to make my own collections which I’d dutifully label and create artwork for. I’ve made a few tapes for mates and would-be-girlfriends over the years but mostly I just made them for me. I still have most of them. Some are almost 20 years old and have been with me through thick and thin, played on every walkman I’ve ever owned. Their track listings and orders are as familiar to me as any ‘proper’ album. Some songs are forever welded together, one always destined to follow another. Putting on these compilations is the closest thing I’ll ever come to time travel. The songs still have life in isolation, but strung together on these tapes they form an aural tapestry, dragging places and events back to life from somewhere in my head.

Listening to them recently, my favourite is still the Enormous Sigh, a compilation of songs that are so sad they never fail to make me feel happy. Things like Download by Super Furry Animals, I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine by Beth Orton, Aren’t you Glad by Spirit, Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O’Connor and That’s My Desire by Hadda Brooks are all still worthy of anyone’s two-bob on the heartbreak jukey.

I have a nice collection of tapes given away free with various magazines through the ages, especially the NME and Select. Most magazines these days seem incomplete without a free CD, but free music on magazines was a relatively rare occurrence in the nineties. Many of them were terrible; a couple of live tracks or remixes by big name acts, a couple of up and comers and a few that were never to be. However, short of cash and devoid of decent record shops, these tapes would occasionally offer up gems that I would tape to tape onto one of my own compilations where they would breathe new life. My favourite find in my stash was a long lost copy of Kylie’s Got a Crush on Us by Teenage Fanclub, given away on a 1992 tape celebrating the best of pre-Oasis Creation Records. It was all downhill for the Fannies from there…

Another notable was Beat up the NME, a 1997 Fatboy Slim mix tape that heralded a whole new era in genre hopping and spawned hundreds of cash-ins from the likes of Ministry of Sound. I literally wore this tape out listening to it, because at the time it was guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. I think it was the first place I ever heard Psyche Rock, Mr Cook’s remix of an old Pierre Henry song that got ripped off by the theme tune of Futurama. But I digress.

Beat up the NME was a nice and digestible reflection of a world being broadcast nightly on late night BBC Radio 1, and specifically on the shows hosted by Annie Nightingale and Mary Anne Hobbs, and whose shows make up the remainder of my tape collection. The latter’s Breezeblock was like a dirty aural cocktail resulting in the type of soundtrack they now play on the Bill to signify that an estate is a bit dodgy. Hobbs seamlessly mixed hip hop, rap, rock, big beat, electronica, funk, dub, soul, space rock, krautrock, post rock, jungle, drum and bass and punk. It was a world where Jason Spaceman was the saviour of the universe; where Bentley Rhythm Ace were treated with as much reverence as Chuck D; where Stax and Motown were equal partners with Wall of Sound and Skint; where the Private Psychedelic Reel could fade into the skuzzy intro of I Wanna Be Your Dog. It was a world where you could hear exclusive DJ sets by Suicide, the Beastie Boys, Avalanches, Radiohead, Mogwai, the Beta Band, Primal Scream, David Holmes, DJ Shadow and even comedian Chris Morris. It opened up the old to the young and the new to the old. What’s more, in a period where you could define subcultures and genres by their poisons, the Breezeblock wasn't about bifta or pills or booze or speed; it was about bringing them all into the same space and saying let's go fucking ape. On the radio.

I treasure the shows that I still have on tape. Even when there was no special guest the music was ace. The shows still sound fresh, different and Mary Anne’s passions and obsessions are easy to share. If you look around online you’ll find a lot of the Breezeblock sessions and mixes – whether DJ sets or live sessions from Maida Vale. I’d suggest most would be worth a listen. One that isn’t up anywhere as far as I know is the first Breezeblock session by the Lo Fidelity Allstars. When I realised that GarageBand could convert my record my tapes to MP3, this was the first tape that went in the machine. I can vaguely recall sleeping on a friend’s floor after a night out and remembering that the Lo Fis were in session. I begged her for a tape to use and she managed to find one for me but the tabs were snapped off so we had to fold up some paper and fill the holes so it would be recordable again. It was worth it; I’m not sure if the Lo Fi’s were ever that good again. It was the start of a journey for them, before the hype and before they had to go back and change all their songs because they’d stolen all the samples. The versions of Battleflag, Disco Machine Gun and Vision Incision (‘dedicated to Jason Space-man. I’ll see you in space...’) were blistering, chaotic, irreverent, indecent, funky, naïve, epic and beautiful – everything that the Breezeblock was about. Every other version I heard of those songs seemed watered down afterwards. I have no idea what the legal ramifications are but if anyone wants a copy, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Despite this nostalgia tapes were, of course, shite. Mix tapes were a cute thing to get – I think I still have every tape that anyone ever made me and they mean far more than the CDs that people have ripped me from i-tunes. But let’s be honest, they were cumbersome, could chew and destroy themselves in any player they went into, they were a pain to rewind and fast forward and had none of the appeal of vinyl, with their tiny covers and plastic cases that broke easily. That said I’ll probably still keep all my tapes when they’re all converted. It’s been 20 years after all and who knows what horrors might befall my hard drive over the next 20.

Post-Script Random Fact: the French commonly refer to tapes as K7’s (the letter K is pronounced ‘Ka’ and ‘7’ is pronounced as ‘sette.’ Em-pay-trois (MP3) isn’t quite as cute.

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