I mentioned over at Welcome to Bridgetown that I find myself once again returning to the 80s (surprise surprise), via an old story I started my senior year in high school and attempted to revive numerous times over the ensuing decades. This is the story that went through so many different titles, versions and mutations that it has its own report binder here in the file department of Spare Oom.
And here I am, half-seriously coming back to it. Again.
I mean, this is the same story that also inspired my much more recent nonfic book idea that shares the name of this blog, Walk in Silence. The college rock era of the late 80s will always be near and dear to my heart for many reasons.
So why bring up this old story again, you ask? To answer that, I’d need to explain why it failed so many times in the past, and it’s called roman à clef. Each time I resurrected it, I made the mistake of wanting to write it as a self-insert piece of fiction, and therein lies the problem: my life back then wasn’t nearly as exciting as I often make it out to be. A lot of silliness and a lot of gloominess and everything in between, but not enough to make it an excitable read. So what’s different now? Well, thirty years on I’ve learned a thing or two about how to write fiction and realized roman à clef is not what was needed here. I knew what I wanted to write, but real life self-inserting wasn’t the way to go.
I’m not taking this project too seriously at the moment, as I’m already focusing on a few other things, but I’m letting myself devote an hour or two a day for it anyway, making notes and revisiting mixtapes and looking at discographies and chronologies. I’m also resurrecting a writing style I haven’t used since those same 80s days: using music to inspire and influence certain scenes, Michael Mann style. The difference here is that I’m not leaning heavy on memory here. I’m taking ideas from the songs I loved and expanding on what images and thoughts they inspire and evoke in me. Sure, there’ll be a few self-inserts in there — there always are in my books — but it won’t be as obvious this time out. And I’m making an expanded mixtape that’ll have both the obvious (say, “Under the Milky Way”) and the deep cut (such as the below Love Tractor song). That, of course, is the most fun part of this project so far.
I have no deadline for this particular story, but I am looking forward to spending more time on it if and when I can!
Walk in Silence, the mixtape series I’d started in 1988, was not the first mix I’d created (that goes to an unnamed multi-cassette collection from late 1982, taping songs off the radio and MTV), nor is it the first of the thematic mixes (that would be the noisy Stentorian Music from May 1988), but it’s the first one I’d made specifically to fit the mood I’d found myself in at the time. It was sort of a sibling thematic mix to the Listen in Silence mix I’d made in August, which was essentially “my favorite college radio tunes of the moment”. Walk in Silence, named of course after the first line in Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, was meant to be more about dealing with my darker side. I was still feeling the sting of nearly all my closest friends having escaped our small town for college and the bigger world out there, and I’d made this to deal with that.
College radio was indeed my oasis during my senior year, alongside those Sunday episodes of 120 Minutes. I was doing my damnedest to deal with the frustration of still being stuck in a small town. The sources of these mixtapes were equally from the records I’d bought from Main Street Music and Al Bum’s, vinyl borrowed from the local radio station I’d worked at, taped off WAMH 89.3 (Amherst College), or second-hand dubs of albums I’d borrowed from that same group of friends. I wanted to start making more of these mixtapes, now that I understood how to create a smooth mix, and more importantly, fit as many songs onto each side of a 90-minute tape with minimal leftover blank space.
I still remember opening up a new cassette from its wrapper and smelling that fresh slightly plastic scent. I was super careful with the boxes they came in and would buy empties whenever I found them. I treated these tapes just like I treated my purchased albums: I made sure they were wound correctly, had a readable label, and didn’t get worn out or erased. I rarely bought the fancy expensive hi-def brands — I usually stuck with the affordable and reliable Memorex dBS 90s — because I didn’t care so much about the quality as much as I just wanted the music itself as part of my growing library.
I cataloged these mixes in notebooks primarily so my friends could see what was on them if they wanted to borrow them. It’s only because of this that I was able to successfully recreate nearly 99% of my mixtape library digitally, missing maybe only four or five lost and unavailable songs total. I used the Walk in Silence theme off and on, and currently I make at least two of them a year alongside two Listen in Silence and end-of-year mixes.
I bring this up to personally thank Lou Ottens, who helped invent the compact cassette tape, who recently passed away at age 94. I used so many blank tapes over the years for so many things: mixtapes, recordings of jam sessions for jeb! and The Flying Bohemians, live shows, soundtracks for my novels, dubbed albums, and maybe even a few class lectures now and again. I completed then hard-to-find discographies of favorite bands. I will totally admit to spending food and lunch money on blank tapes. I’ve put scotch tape over those holes on the top to use actual albums nobody wanted as fresh blanks. I came across a blank or two recently while cleaning out and rearranging things here in Spare Oom. I have a storage box full of my mixtapes, a few I’d remade around 2000 but many of them still the originals.
And now I see that cassettes are making a comeback, believe it or not. Indie bands are selling them on Bandcamp. And Amoeba Records has a nifty little corner full of cassettes new and old.
Thanks, Lou. Your invention was a huge and important part of my life.
What a weirdass year. Yeah? Let’s not do that again. Or if we have to, let’s do it without so much of the drama, okay?
ANYWAY. Here it is, the last day of the year, and I’m squeezing this post in during the last few remaining hours of the day/month/year. I don’t use Spotify that much at all so I don’t have any “this is what you listened to most” (or, to follow the recent meme, the “your playlist sucks because…”). I know I listened to KEXP the most, with the rest of my mp3 collection coming a close second. The station kept me sane, somewhat distracted, and in a calm mood for the most part, for which I thank them, especially morning DJ John Richards and midday DJ Cheryl Waters.
Do I have anything left to say about 2020? Not really. It was a year of difference and change for me and I’ve already talked about it over at Welcome to Bridgetown. Other than that…I just want to keep moving forward.
So! Here’s the top albums, songs, and a few other bits of enjoyment that kept me going this past year. Enjoy! (NOTE: I left off the YouTube links on the mixtape on the second half here, but I may edit them in at a later date.)
TOP ALBUMS: 20. Hum, Inlet 19. PVRIS, Use Me 18. Indigo Girls, Look Long 17. Phish, Sigma Oasis 16. Nation of Language, Introduction, Presence 15. Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor 14. HAIM, Women in Music Pt III 13. Taylor Swift, Folklore/Evermore 12. Sault, Untitled (Rise) 11. Pearl Jam, Gigaton 10. Idles, Ultra Mono 9. Prince, Sign o’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) 8. Secret Machines, Awake in the Brain Chamber 7. The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers 6. Bob Moses, Desire EP 5. BRONSON, BRONSON 4. K-DA, All Out EP 3. EoB, Earth 2. Deserta, Black Aura My Sun 1. Doves, The Universal Want
TOP SINGLES 20. Deserta, “Monica” 19. Green Day, “Father of All…” 18. EoB, “Olympik” 17. HAIM, “The Steps” 16. Sault, “I Just Want to Dance” 15. Secret Machines, “3, 4, 5, Let’s Stay Alive” 14. The Psychedelic Furs, “You’ll Be Mine” 13. Sault, “Free” 12. Bombay Bicycle Club, “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong” 11. Bob Mould, “American Crisis” 10. The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights” 9. Hayley Williams, “Simmer” 8. K-DA, “The Baddest” 7. BRONSON, “Dawn” 6. The Beths, “I’m Not Getting Excited” 5. K-DA, “More” 4. Fontaines DC, “Televised Mind” 3. Bob Moses & ZHU, “Desire” 2. Doves, “Carousels” 1. Idles, “Grounds”
….and more Best-Ofs…
Welcome Returns: Bands Reformed/Reactivated and Newly Recorded Stabbing Westaward, Dead and Gone EP Stone Temple Pilots, Perdida The Boomtown Rats, Citizens of Boomtown X, Alphabetland Badly Drawn Boy, Banana Skin Shoes Hum, Inlet Secret Machines, Awake in the Brain Chamber Semisonic, You’re Not Alone EP Michael Penn, “A Revival” Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project EP The Network, Money Money 2020 Pt II: We Told Ya So!
Surviving the Pandemic: What Kept Me Going Elbow, #elbowrooms videos Crowded House, Live from Home videos Seatbelts, Session Starducks videos KEXP, Live from the Front Yard series
Box Sets, Reissues, and Remasters Depeche Mode, MODE Supergrass, The Strange Ones 1994-2008 Porcupine Tree, In Absentia (Deluxe Edition) The Primitives, Bloom! The Full Syory 1985-1992 Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie (Archive Collection) Prince, Sign o’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) John Lennon, Gimme Some Truth (Deluxe)
THE SINGLES 2020
SIDE A 1. Secret Machines, “3, 4, 5, Let’s Stay Alive” 2. The Beths, “I’m Not Getting Excited” 3. Bob Moses & ZHU, “Desire” 4. Fontaines DC, “Televised Mind” 5. Idles, “Grounds” 6. Bob Mould, “American Crisis” 7. Pearl Jam, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” 8. Bombay Bicycle Club, “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong” 9. K-DA, “More” 10. Deserta, “Monica” 11. Cut Copy, “Love Is All We Share”
SIDE B 1. Doves, “Carousels” 2. The Psychedelic Furs, “You’ll Be Mine” 3. Green Day, “Father of All…” 4. Pet Shop Boys, “Will-O-the-Wisp” 5. Sault, “Free” 6. Hayley Williams, “Simmer” 7. HAIM, “The Steps” 8. Run the Jewels, “Ooh LA LA” 9. Nation of Language, “The Wall & I” 10. BRONSON, “Dawn”
SIDE C 1. Annie, “The Countdown to the End of the World” 2. EoB, “Shangri-La” 3. Hinds, “Good Bad Times” 4. The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights” 5. Green Day, “Oh Yeah!” 6. Semisonic, “You’re Not Alone” 7. beabadoobee, “Worth It” 8. Billie Eilish, “My Future” 9. Bruce Springsteen, “Letter to You” 10. Hum, “Step Into You” 11. Cults, “Spit You Out” 12. Paul McCartney, “Find My Way”
SIDE D 1. BRONSON, “Heart Attack” 2. Secret Machines, “Everything Starts” 3. Pearl Jam, “Superblood Wolfmoon” 4. Gorillaz, “Désolé” 5. GoGo Penguin, “Atomised” 6. Hotels, “Queens (West African Peanut Soup)” 7. Idles, “A Hymn” 8. Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto” 9. Working Men’s Club, “John Cooper Clarke” 10. The Avalanches, “Interstellar Love”
SIDE E 1. Gorillaz, “Strange Timez” 2. Billie Joe Armstrong, “Kids in America” 3. Throwing Muses, “Dark Blue” 4. Hayley Williams, “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” 5. Glass Animals, “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” 6. Phantogram, “Ceremony” 7. Doves, “Universal Want”” 8. Deserta, “Save Me” 9. EoB, “Olympik”
SIDE F 1. Gerogia, “About Work the Dancefloor” 2. K-DA, “The Baddest” 3. I DONT KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME, “Leave Me Alone” 4. Holy Fuck, “Luxe” 5. The Naked and Famous, “Recover” 6. Future Islands, “For Sure” 7. Michael Penn, “A Revival” 8. Kestrels, “Don’t Dream” 9. Soccer Mommy, “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” 10. Supercrush, “Be Kind to Me” 11. Wire, “Cactused”
SIDE G 1. I DONT KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME, “Nobody Likes the Opening Band” 2. Secret Machines, “Everything’s Under” 3. Gorillaz, “Aries” 4. PVRIS, “Use Me” 5. Tunde Adebimpe, “People” 6. Semisonic, “Basement Tapes” 7. Destroyer, “Crimson Tide” 8. Pearl Jam, “Alright” 9. Annie, “The Streets Where I Belong” 10. Ty Segall, “Jump Into the Fire” 11. BRONSON, “Keep Moving”
SIDE H 1. Indigo Girls, “Look Long” 2. Khruangbin & Leon Bridges, “Texas Sun” 3. Hinds, “Spanish Bombs” 4. The Avalanches, “Running Red Lights” 5. Sault, “I Just Want to Dance” 6. Idles, “Mr. Motivator” 7. Bob Mould, “Next Generation” 8. Stone Temple Pilots, “Perdida” 9. Phish, “Leaves” 10. Jónsi & Elizabeth Fraser, “Cannibal” 11. Death Cab for Cutie, “Fall On Me”
Yes, the current volume of Listen In Silence is number twenty-four. Not bad for a mixtape series I started back in 1988, yeah? Missed a few years in between, but I’m glad to say after I resurrected it, it’s still going strong. The links are for the YouTube videos because I can’t be arsed to attempt to build a Spotify playlist right now. Enjoy!
I know, I know… they call it making a playlist now. You grab a few tracks from Spotify and gather them together and call it done. Where it used to take a good couple of hours to make one on a 90-minute cassette, now it only takes an hour, if that.
As I’ve explained before, my current mixtape creation process is by way of copying mp3s into a new folder, shuffling them into some semblance of order, and retagging them accordingly. I’m keeping it old-school by having a sort-of-physical end result instead of a playlist.
I’ve noticed over the past few years that one thing hasn’t changed: the urge to make a mixtape usually comes from hearing a specific song that I truly love. For instance, my current obsession with Bob Moses’ “Heaven Only Knows” has inspired me to throw the next Listen in Silence mix together. From there I’ll think a bit about what other songs caught my attention over the last few months. They’ll just as often be tracks I’ve been hearing on Indie617 or SiriusXM as they’ll be deep cuts from newer albums I’ve downloaded. The rest of the process is still the same, asking the same questions: what’s the best opening track? Closing track? Which songs segue the best? Which ones sound awkward? The only thing really missing is writing out the tracks on the c-card.
Do I listen to these after I’ve made them? Sure! I listen to them a lot, actually, just as I always have. I listen to them during writing sessions, during the Day Job, or when I’m at the gym. And they’re great to listen to on long flights as well. I’ll even listen to older ones I’d made a few years previous.
I don’t share them as much as I used to, though. Back in high school I’d give my buddy Chris the track list or make a copy of it for him. I used to make the occasional mixtape for my then girlfriends of course, but for the most part I made them for my own enjoyment. And that’s cool too. Come to think of it, I should probably start posting some of them here. I haven’t used my Spotify account in ages, so perhaps it’s time to dust it off and create some of my mixtapes for your enjoyment!
A while back I was visiting a music blog I enjoy but haven’t checked out in some time called Musicophilia. Sometime in April they had an entry regarding an incredibly huge mix they’d built sometime last decade (and recently updated to twice its original size!), the entire collection containing post-punk songs from 1981.
That’s one hell of a fantastic mix, even by my standards. I’ve been listening to it off and on, and the first thing that hits me is how similar a lot of this stuff is to the indie music out there now. It’s pure college rock in a sense — the non-commercial stuff you’d hear on your favorite college radio station back in the day, even further afield than the Big Names we all know and remember now. You may think of Depeche Mode and the Cure and The Replacements and so on, and those bands definitely have their own spot in this mix, but you’ll also see tracks from Crispy Ambulance, The Swimming Pool Qs, Pere Ubu, Flux of Pink Indians, and so on. Bands you know of and most likely don’t have in your collection, but you remember that station playing those tracks late at night while doing your homework.
To be honest, it kind of makes me think that I’m not even close to doing justice to my own retrospective mixes or delving deep enough into the sounds of the past. Who knows, maybe I’ll do one of my own versions of this megamix one of these days.
[I’m not sure if the mix is still available, but go ahead and follow Musicophilia anyway, they do post some great streaming mixes as well that’ll really open your ears to some deep cuts and forgotten gems. [And I do mean forgotten — not the ‘oh yeah, that Cure single I used to hear all the time in 1992 and they’re now playing again for a brief time’. I’m talking tunes I haven’t heard since maybe 1987 or so.]
Yes, I know I’ve gone on about making mixtapes how many times here? Bear with me, I’m about to go on just a bit more.
Every now and again I return to my catalog of mixtapes — that is, the mp3 recreations — and give them another listen. By now I can tell which ones worked for me and which could probably have used a bit more planning. Not that I’m going to change any of them, though…they’re a specific part of my past, and changing them now would only turn them into something different. [Case in point, when I remade a few of them in 1999 and 2000, I was missing a few songs on each and replaced them with different tracks from the same era. The mix worked just as well, but it didn’t feel like a true recreation…it felt like a ‘remastered reissue’ instead.]
As I’ve mentioned before, around 2014 I chose to reinstate the mixtape rules when making new mp3 mixes: double batches of roughly 45 minutes each, just as I would on one of those Memorix DBS I 90s you see above. This forces me to think further about the flow of the music and the balance of the mix. The upside to this is that the end result is a pretty solid and well-flowing mix.
The downside? Well, I seem to still be throwing songs that don’t quite fit into the context of the rest of the mix. They’re good songs, they just don’t quite work with the rest. I’m thinking the main reason for this is that I’m no longer building the mixtape the true old-fashioned way, dubbing from tape or cd or vinyl, listening all the way through the song before adding the next one. I’m just that little bit distanced from the mix, just enough where I don’t always catch when it doesn’t sound right.
I’m making up for it with these last few mixes by taking that extra time to select the music I think will work best, and listen to a rough set list so I can get the songs in the right order.
Why do this in this digital age, you ask? Who makes mixtapes anymore? Well, these are for my own enjoyment. I listen to them at the gym, on long plane rides, during my writing sessions, and during Day Job hours. I’ve only ever shared my mixtapes with a few others, and in truth I’ve only made maybe four or five tops specifically for other people. I’m merely continuing the art of mixtape making as I know it.
Every time I think I’m escaping the rabbit hole of 80s college rock and moving on, I end up slinking back in again! Well, this time I’m not working on a related writing project…I’m just enjoying the music this time out, while I wait for new releases to come out.
Plus, I get to listen to some of my radio mixtapes from back in the day! It was a little over thirty years ago that I decided to put a blank tape in my Jonzbox and let it record 30 to 45 minutes of whatever WMUA was playing that evening, just to get a taste of their playlist. I’d just bought a six-foot retractable antenna for the radio, which boosted the signal considerably, so I could go nuts at any time of day. Soon I’d expand to other stations, with WAMH becoming my home base for the rest of the decade.
By early 1987 I’d changed things up in my bedroom. It had gotten a new coat of paint, I’d gotten rid of some furniture I’d grown out of, and my radio had moved across the room to the top of the bookcase, where the few books that I had were slowly being shoved out to make way for my growing cassette collection. I was hanging out with the Vanishing Misfits gang, which meant that a goodly amount of my collection at the time was borrowed albums dubbed onto tapes of questionable quality and age. But hey, as long as I had the tunage, that’s all that mattered!
Interestingly, I only made one college radio tape that year, but I think it was because all my hard-earned money was going to buy albums down in the Pioneer Valley! I did make a few mixtapes that year, though, mainly commercial radio stuff, but by the end of that year I was itching to make more. I had one of my buddies who was into the hardcore punk/metal scene (he also introduced me to Slayer’s Reign in Blood…at catechism class, no less!) make me a mix on the back of a cassette dub I had of The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland (my favorite album of the moment and possibly my number 2 favorite of the year, just under Music for the Masses).
Thinking back, 1987 was definitely a sea change year on multiple levels for me. Changes in friendships, tastes in music, personal and emotional outlook. My writing was still crap, but it was better crap than what I’d been writing just a few years earlier. Hell, I was even changing the way I looked, letting my hair grow longer (no more 80s spike, thank god), wearing concert tees and pins of alternative bands. Taking myself a bit more seriously. Sure, I had a hell of a lot more growing up to do, but that was the year it took hold. I was no longer the annoying nerd trying to fit in. I was the kid with the Walkman, listening to bands you’d never heard of. I was the kid who spent his study periods in the library, writing away in a notebook. It was the year I’d finally figured myself out and didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.
I usually make a good handful of mixtapes/compilations every year, but I’m falling behind. The last one I made was late July, just before we headed out on our last vacation. Considering we’ll be heading out on another one in a few weeks, perhaps it’s time to make another one.
Here’s a few favorite tracks of mine that have been getting some serious play lately that may just end up on my new mixtapes!
[Note: the last two Blogging the Beatles entries will arrive soon, promise!]
My friend Mark posted a picture of a 1991 Radio Shack ad earlier today, and it got me thinking about the amount of money that I spent as a kid at that place. Back in the early to mid 80s, it was on Main Street in downtown Athol, next door to Cinnamon’s Restaurant and just a few doors from my dad’s office. A few years later it moved just over the border into Orange, just across the road from the Shop & Save strip mall, but that never stopped me from asking my parents or my sisters to drive me over there so I could pick up my “toys”.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a budding tech nerd back then, really. I wasn’t really that into most of the electronics that they had over there; no, this was more about the audio accessories they sold. Some time around 1983 or 1984 I came to the realization that I could connect our well-worn tape recorder to my stereo via a 3.5mm-to-1/4″ audio cable and dub things from vinyl, or even better, from tape to tape. This eliminated having to lay the tape recorder next to a speaker for a tinny, crappy, live sound, as well as having to worry about someone walking into the room and making noise. Pretty soon I had a small but very useful selection of audio components at my fingertips.
Radio Shack was also my go-to for the blank tapes as well. I’d bought them elsewhere, but this store had the best quality tapes, not those smalltime knockoffs with questionable quality. The store brand worked pretty well, but it was the slightly more expensive Memorex tapes that worked well for me. Their 80s version of the popular DBS 90 (see pic) was quite colorful, and decently priced as well. This was the go-to tape for your general music fan–basically, the “it doesn’t need to sound pristine, just decent…I’m listening to it on my boombox from Sears and I just want the music” music fans like myself. It was also the perfect size, for multiple reasons: if you were taping stuff off the radio or making your own mixtape, you could easily fit about ten average-length songs on each side. If you were dubbing your friends’ albums and tapes, you could fit one album on each side with a bit of room to spare for b-sides or filler. I filled a lot of holes in my early collecting years this way. And yes, I did eventually end up buying or downloading the real thing.
This of course was the age of Home Taping Is Killing Music, which was the 80s version of this generation’s file sharing controversy, which most people found quite ridiculous. For the most part, at least in my view, it didn’t kill music at all–if anything, it spread it out at a time when buying music could be quite the chore. Those like myself who were headlong into college radio then had a bitch of a time trying to find half the stuff we wanted; you would most likely not find many punk records at your local department store or small-time record shop, and record clubs rarely if ever carried what you were looking for (unless it was on Sire, then you could probably find it via Columbia House–Seymour Stein was cool that way!). Our main source for albums was our friends’ collections. And if anything, we were the type of fan who would eventually buy the album anyway, once we finally found it.
I haven’t used a blank tape at least since 2004, I think. That was probably the last time I made one of my compilations to fit a ninety-minute tape. [And for the record, those were most likely bought at Newbury Comics alongside the new cds I was buying then.] For many and varying reasons, I stopped using tapes and went mostly all digital from there on in. It’s only this past New Year’s season that I started following the “forty-five minutes a side” rule on making compilations–that is, pretending that I was in fact making this playlist via home taping, complete with attempting the perfect segue from one song to another–and to tell the truth, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
It was like making the old mixtapes again. It may even have inspired me to make more this way!