Wis Notes – Home Taping Is(n’t) Killing Music / Mix Tapes and Compilations

When I started my research for the Walk in Silence project last year, I’d decided to write some personal notes and reflections on how college radio affected me in the late 80′s.  It was a brief overview of what I want to cover in this book that lasted for twenty-five installments, a sort of a detailed outline of memories, thoughts on influential (to me) bands and albums, friendships, and such.  I’ll be posting these sporadically on the site over the next few weeks or so.

 

HOME TAPING IS(N’T) KILLING MUSIC

My older sisters introduced me to taping songs off the radio at an early age, probably sometime in the early to late 70s.  My eldest sister would be heading off to college in a few years and was taping things via sitting the family tape recorder (A bulky and black heavy thing we used everywhere) placed in front of the radio speakers.  She also introduced me to the year end countdown on WAQY out of Springfield.  There were also the tapes of random things—family noises, neighborhood singalongs, partial songs, and other things, interspersed with actual songs off the radio or from our meager record collection.

My own tape collection of the home variety probably started around 1980 or 1981 with copies of albums from the library (Heart’s Greatest Hits/Live from 1980 was a big one), and took off about 1982.  I’d started with taping stuff off the then-new MTV, which progressed to taping off the radio.  By 1984, I was big on the taping—I was listening to WAAF out of Worcester at the time and getting a lot of hard rock on tape, in addition to the classic rock being played on WAQY.  At that point in time I started naming my audio tapes—pretty much all the titles were a song featured on it—and was probably inspired by the K-Tel albums that were still floating around at the time.

Unlike those early tapes that were a mishmash of noises and recordings in random order, these new ones were tapes of songs dubbed straight from the radio using either one of my sister’s tape/radios, or my own recently acquired tape/radio, filled with songs I was looking for, sitting at my desk doing my homework or drawing or writing.  Also by 1984, I finally got around to buying cassettes instead of albums.  I picked out a few albums here and there—and duly snagged my sister’s already worn copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA—and another format in my collection was born.

By 1986 my tape collection was slowly growing, probably a few dozen tapes from my joining RCA, as well as stuff bought at various record stores and flea markets.  A year later it grew exponentially, through more purchases, but also due to my new circle of friends’ penchant for dubbing each other’s collection.  Those ninety-minute tapes you could buy anywhere (or even better, the 100 and the 120 minute tapes!) were perfect for dubbing albums…the shorter albums fit neatly on one side, so you could mix and match or even get a good chunk of someone’s discography onto one tape.  Of course there were a few albums that would get cut off, or go onto the other side, but more often than not it fit perfectly.

By spring 1988, when Chris and his gang were about to head off to college, we traded album and song lists (I was one of the few who catalogued theirs early on) and made wish lists of albums we wanted to borrow.   It had nothing to do with wanting to get an album for nothing—that wasn’t even in our thoughts.  No, basically it was that we wanted a copy of the other person’s album to add to our collection, and once they left town, who knew when we’d have a chance to borrow it or hear it again?  Dubbing people’s collections became a spring semester thing after awhile…when I was a senior, I was dubbing albums from Kris and others…when I was in college I was copying my roommates’ and friends’ albums.

I remember Chris got the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come album before I did and he made me a copy on a sixty-minute tate—one side on each side, leaving a good ten mintues or so of space—so I asked him to throw random other Smiths songs on there.  I think he dubbed a few tracks from their self-titled debut and a few from elsewhere (and I think the end of side two had a few tracks from the Violent Femmes’ self titled as well for filler).  Interesting mix, but it sated my hunger for new stuff until I finally bought my own copy.  That was the thing—it was never about stealing music, it was about getting a copy to listen to, just like getting it from the library, and buying it if we really liked it that much.

 

16-20 September 2010

 

******

 

MIX TAPES AND COMPILATIONS

Out of the furious album dubbing came the compilation making.  I never called them ‘mix tapes’ because I always equaled that phrase with something to be played at parties.  And unless it was a get-together with Chris and the gang, I never went to parties.  I just didn’t run with that crowd.

As mentioned previously, my proto-compilations of yore were radio tapes—random things taped off the stations I listened to back then.  Somewhere along the line there were also the random tapes of stuff I’d taken from the library.  At that time, I just never thought about making a real compilation.

The ones I did end up making grew out of the radio tapes I gave K-Tel-like names to—Can’t Stop Rockin’, Turn Up the Radio, Reaction to Action, titles of featured songs and whatnot.  And with the college radio tapes, I’d just named them College Radio I/II/etc.

The first real compilation with a theme, with all songs from my collection rather than the radio, came in the spring of 1988, with something called Stentorian Music.  By then I’d been coming up with nifty titles for my fledgling lo-fi band The Flying Bohemians, and I thought something hyperbolic and taken out of my sister’s thesaurus (stentorian = loud) would work.  This one then, had all songs worth cranking up—The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese”, Screaming Blue Messiahs’ “Wild Blue Yonder”, Adam Ant’s “Friend or Foe”, the Pretenders’ “Tattooed Love Boys”, etc.—fitting onto a sixty minute tape.

This was quickly followed in the next few days or so by a compilation of quiet songs to listen to at one in the morning (Cimmerian Candlelight, featuring The Cure’s “All Cats Are Grey”, Felt’s “Primitive Painters”, The Woodentops’ “Give It Time” and so on), and a third one featuring new wave, technopoppy stuff (Preternatural Synthetics, which understandably had Art of Noise, Information Society, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, to name a few bands).  Not the most brilliant or coordinated, or smoothly-flowing mix, but they were the first three featuring nearly all “college music”.

These first three were trial runs in a way, testing out compilations of different kinds.  I followed these up with a few more, including a few duds like an aborted Remix series (all extended remixes of songs), one called Under the Ivy (named after a Kate Bush song, and featuring all single b-sides).  The first great one was Listen In Silence, so named as it was a tape I’d most likely listen to late at night, or that the songs were from tapes I listenened to at that time of night.  Either way, the aim was to create a compilation of my favorite college radio songs of the time.  Listen was a mix of old and new, purchased and borrowed.  It featured a lot of my favorites of the time, such as The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, Midnight Oil’s “Dead Heart”, Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun”, and so on.  Nearly all the tracks were songs I’d heard either on WAMH or on 120 Minutes.  A few odds and ends were tracks I found at my brief job at the local radio station [more on that later].

I got fully into the compilation making to the point that I even gave them a label name to “release” them under: Plazmattack.  [Long story short: Plazma was an odd nickname given to me as a kid, and I’d used that portmanteau in various silly things such as my writing and art.  Its logo was a rune-like ‘P’ in diamond.]  I even got creative enough to make some c-cards for the tapes, though I never made any art for them (that I left for the TFB releases).  I never wrote down the exact dates of the early ones, but I can still make a good approximation as to when they were made, because of what was on them and when they were most listened to.

The next title that stayed was the one that shares the title of this project, Walk In Silence.  It’s the first line to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, which became one of my favorite songs of 1988 as the next-to-last track on the cassette version of the band’s Substance retrospective.

That year culminated with a best-of-year compilation, harking back to the years I spent listening to end-of-year countdowns on the radio.  This wasn’t so much a countdown, though, as much as it was a best-of.  Opening with the wistful “Will Never Marry” by Morrissey (a b-side from his “Everyday Is Like Sunday” single), it featured all my favorite tracks from my favorite year in music.  Cocteau Twins, Wire, The Church, Peter Murphy, Information Society, Front 242, Jane’s Addiction, Morrissey, U2, Joy Division, and so on, and title taken from Wire’s “A Public Place” (the last track on that year’s A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck), Does Truth Dance?  Does Truth Sing?  The Singles 1988.  It was the pinnacle of a really fun, cool year.

I went through phases with compilations over the years.  Some years I’d have over a dozen comps made, and some years there would only be four or five.  It really depended on what was going on at the time…this first wave of comps lasted until about 1990, when I stopped obsessing as much over music due to focusing on college work.  The next phase, 1991-1993, was pretty sparse, 1994 was almost nonexistent (except for the Two Thousand soundtrack/compilation for a story I was writing at the time).  In 1995 things changed a bit—these were comps made to mirror my desperation of the time.  Quite a few were made during my tenure at HMV Records, 1996-2000, as well as my Yankee Candle years (2000-2005) when I was making weekly trips to Newbury Comics in Amherst.  The compilations have kind of died down since then, especially now that my collection is completely digital, but I’ve thrown virtual collections together now and again.

20-21 September 2010, revised 7 November 2011

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