Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Labour of Love

I posted a link on my Facebook page earlier this week that generated quite a lengthy thread. The link was this blogpost from Michele Catalano (click here) over at which looked at the lost art of the mixtape. The post generated plenty of comment, and no little amount of collective nostalgia, proving it was a subject near and dear to the hearts of people of a certain generation.

Catalano completely nails what it was that made a mixtape something special, and offers some food for thought on how a lot of the love has been lost with the throwaway nature of the way we consume and share music today.

Let’s be clear, by “mixtape”, we’re talking about collections of tracks or songs compiled from vinyl to actual cassette tape. Or in later years, those recorded from CD to cassette tape, rather than any of the more recent definitions of the word. It’s interesting too, that much of the “art” itself was lost during that very transition between vinyl and CD. 

Funkin' Marvellous (1987)
But mixtapes were never just random sets of songs transferred from one medium to another. A quality mixtape had to have a theme or a specific person in mind (usually the recipient). They had to include songs/tracks from a variety of source material. Across a 90 minute time-span – with a C90 always preferable to a C60 – you couldn’t include more than a “couple” of tunes (at most) from the same artist. The title of the mix had to be specific and relevant, and preferably the cover or inlay had to be handwritten by the compiler.

Most of all, a great mixtape had to be made with love and care; be painstakingly compiled and crafted, not clinically thrown together like we tend to do with mp3 or wav file playlists today.

These were just a few of the basics, and not rules unique only to everythingsgonegreen. These things were more or less unwritten but widely accepted prerequisites when it came to the now lost art of making a mixtape.

I made dozens of mixtapes through the course of the mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties. I’d buy boxes of TDK or Sony cassette tapes in bulk, and I loved the sense of anticipation involved in opening a new box, and removing the cellophane from the first hitherto virginal untouched tape. It was something of a ritual.

Some tapes were made for purely selfish reasons – often taping music from the collections of friends or flatmates simply to “acquire it” – but mostly I made tapes as gifts for friends and acquaintances of the era. Because I loved the music and genuinely wanted to share it, or as with a few cases, because I wanted to be “the guy” who shared it. Sometimes I just needed an excuse to pass on my “message” – whatever that message may have been on any given day or week. Ahem.
A Festive Compromise (1988)
So Catalano’s post was inspirational and as the Facebook thread evolved and started to take on a life of its own I was able to share a few photos of mixtapes made for me by a few of the friends involved (in the discussion), and they were able to share photos of long-since-forgotten-about tapes I’d made for them.

One particularly astute commenter, no stranger to compiling mixes himself, made the point that “the perfect mixtape is always just out of reach. There’s always at least one track that doesn’t quite work, or another that would be better” and how we were always “limited by what records we owned or could scrounge from friends.” Quite something, coming from a guy who owns more than 3,000 records.

As the owner of several boxes full of cassette tapes, many of them being those of the home-produced variety, I also understand the significance of the mixtape as a time-marker. Or the idea that each tape works as a standalone reminder of the period during which it was made. Each tape being representative of something, be it a genre, a place, a friend, or a lost love. Each has a short story behind it, and works as a memorial for days we’ll never get back again. A snapshot of a brief moment in time. And I like that.

*Funkin' Marvellous (September 1987, mixed): This was compiled and created in the DJ booth at Clares Nightclub one afternoon in 1987 by my (then) best friend, who also happened to be the resident DJ at that club. This is a good mix of funk and pop, with a hint of nascent hip hop and house music flavours. The value of 12-inch extended dance mixes is aptly demonstrated on this one, near the end – during the fade for the wonderful State of Grace tune – when DJ turns MC briefly to apologise for a messy transition: he’d been disturbed and the record played out longer than was ideal … a nice personal touch that always made me smile when I heard it.

*A Festive Compromise (December 1988, unmixed): This was compiled and created by yours truly in the lounge of my Hataitai (Wellington) flat during the week between Christmas and New Year in 1988. My partner/flatmate of the era was a design student who had returned “home” to Auckland to spend the festive season with family. I worked in hospitality and time off at New Year was nigh impossible. Thus, I was stuck at home and perhaps feeling a little dark (you think? – Ed). I partly raided the record collection of our other flatmate – who was also (rather more mysteriously) absent – to create what would later become one of my all-time favourite road-trip tapes. The title, of course, references a lyric from the Cure track featured.
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