Thursday, June 09, 2005

Mix and Match

A couple of weeks ago, the online magazine Salon featured an article about Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore of the group Sonic Youth, and about mix tapes in general. As Moore says, mix tapes, "whether compilations of avant-punk or classic rock standards, have a common purpose: to communicate an emotion or idea--to a new friend, a potential lover, or even to oneself." Show me the kind of mix tapes a person makes, and I'll tell you the kind of person he or she is.

As I may have mentioned here before, I am a mix-tape maker of long standing, going back to my first car with my first tape player. (8-tracks, baby.) I actually have a copy of the first mix tape I ever made with an audience in mind, which was called "Oldies to the Max Volume 4," in tribute to a college friend of mine, who made the first three volumes. The tape was recorded sometime around 1980, and despite its name, none of the songs on it were especially old back then--"The Letter" by the Box Tops is the oldest. But the tape was aimed at a college audience, mostly broadcasting majors, who listened primarily to AOR at the time, and was intended to jolt them with stuff they'd grown up with but hadn't heard for a while. (For the most part, it did.)

I wouldn't pick all of the same songs now, but what impresses me about the tape is the flow of it. Flow is a critical component of a mix tape, as Moore observes, and I'm pretty proud of the job I did in this representative sequence from somewhere in the middle:
"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You"/Sugarloaf
"Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu"/Johnny Rivers
"Black Betty"/Ram Jam
"Me and Bobby McGee"/Janis Joplin
"Bad Moon Rising"/CCR
Excellent match of tempos and styles there, I think--and good segues too, especially from Ram Jam to Janis to CCR. That's important, because unlike most mix tapes, this one was created in a radio-station production studio with two turntables, so the music was continuous. (And on reel-to-reel tape, originally.) My roommates and I prided ourselves on having the best party music in our circle of friends, and "Oldies to the Max Volume 4" was my attempt to live up to that reputation.

The single greatest mix/party tape of all time, however, was another tape produced by the same guy who created the original Oldies to the Max tapes--the Top 43 album cuts of the 1970s (actually up through 1977), compiled by the industry magazine Radio and Records. It's pretty much the list you'd expect: "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird," "Layla," "Born to Run," "Roundabout," etc.--but it was segued, so the music was continuous, and it was in countdown format. Thus the music kept getting better, so nobody would leave. We put it on about 9:00 one night, and except for one brief pause to change reels, it ran until after 2AM. That night, the silence following "and she's buying a stairway to heaven" seemed even more profound than it usually does, and the house cleared out within a few minutes afterward--because what could possibly have followed it?

Most of my mix tapes have been made by myself for myself--car tapes, to make my record collection portable on the road, in the years before I got a CD player in the car. (My primary musical companion in the car from day to day is still the tape deck--the CD changer in the trunk is used primarily for long-distance travel.) One of my favorites, which I don't have anymore, was called "Crunch Volume One," and was meant to be played while driving on the interstate: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger's "Hollywood Nights," etc. Although it's also a car tape, "Drive All Night Volume One" is stylistically opposite. More so than any other tape I've ever made, it's meant to accompany a particular state of mind--those rainy nights on the road a long way from home, when you start thinking about who you are, where you've been, and what you've learned (and not just on the trip you're currently making). So it's got introspective stuff on it, like the Eagles' "The Sad Cafe," Al Stewart's "Time Passages," and Joni Mitchell's "Carey."

I've had a CD burner for a couple of years, but since less than half of the music in my library is on CD, it hasn't been all that useful for mix-making. And besides, I tend to believe that the time and craft involved in mix-tape creation--physically manipulating the source materials, actually sitting there while the thing records in real time, and figuring out how to make the most of your C-90 or C-120 cassette, is part of the experience. I recently bought a CD player with a recording deck, thinking I could repackage mix tapes as mix CDs and dub vinyl albums to CD, but I'm finding, strangely, that recording on CDs is less satisfying than recording on analog tape. I haven't figured out why quite yet. True, I'm a bit of a Luddite, and I was an old-school guy even in old-school days. Yet I've been able to embrace other forms of new technology, so I think I'm likely to come around eventually. I just haven't, not yet.

(Earlier this year, Salon featured a debate over whether CD burners were killing the art of the mix, or helping it. You be the judge.)

Also in Salon:
If you read my other blog now and then, you may know that I'm a big fan of Salon. Earlier this week, Stephanie Zacharek reviewed a new book called Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro. What makes this book intriguing is that it's about more than just Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever--Shapiro examines the cultural forces that gave rise both to disco and to the backlash against it. If you're a child of the 1970s, disco, like it or not, is part of your legacy--and if you're younger, disco paved the way for a lot of what you're listening to today, and what you're experiencing in the broader world of popular culture, too.

(Salon is a subscriber-supported website, but you can get access to Zacharek's review and the other articles I've linked to in this post by watching a 15-second ad--so click already.)


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