Compilation Tapes: And their sociological importance

An old blog post here about something I’ve been keen on for most of my life.

What you may be about to read was written in 2012. Before I returned to vinyl, when our house still contained hundreds of CDs, and various digital things were still in their infancy. Anyway, I was reminded of it, here in November 2017, when I almost wrote it again. Here’s how it happened.

I’m sat in a café reading a Colm Toíbín novel, it’s a hard life, when a friend walks in. Let’s call him Paul, that being his name. Paul’s come in to do some writing about sociology, that being his job. But before he goes off to his own table to settle down with his laptop and latté we naturally, and I can’t remember how, engage in a conversational topic of top sociological importance. Namely ‘Compilation tapes and their role in getting to know girls when we were younger.’

I’m inspired and, this being how blog posts get started, start to compose one that’s more or less a transcript of our conversation on my way home. Until I remember I’ve already written more or less the same thing.

So here it is, fresh from 2012. With loads of Pandora and Spotify links taken out. Because one no longer exists, I’ve long stopped paying for the other, I don’t have a car or a CD player to my name any more and, besides, I’m now longing for the return of cassettes so I can make proper compilation tapes from my LPs again. Enjoy, if you can.

What are you listening to? iTunes, Spotify, Pandora maybe, in the United States? Or mainly CDs? We’ve got hundreds of CDs, and the only place we ever listen to any of them is in the car. Because we mostly listen to music that streams through our computers and iPods. And most of that music is on permanent ‘shuffle’ so we don’t know what’s coming next. It’s like we’re listening to massive compilation tapes. Compiled by me. Because I’ve been making compilation tapes for most of my life.

Our house, in 1995. Cassettes ready for playing in the car.

At first it was done using a hand held microphone plugged in to a cheap little cassette recorder. Later on the machinery got more sophisticated, but the cassettes really didn’t. That was ok. What mattered was having the taste to put together interesting sequences of songs, and people to then give the tapes to.

If you were a friend, especially if you were a girlfriend, the compilation tapes starting to turn up were a sure sign that things were getting serious.

Making compilations did seem to be mainly a boy thing. But when I was first getting to know Sarah, in the early 1990s, one of the first things that really impressed me about her – along with her beauty and her boundless enthusiasm for life – was that she made compilation tapes! We were clearly going to get along.

One I particularly remember was called, in honour of what she’d been drinking while she made it, ‘The Cointreau Mix’. ‘A different corner’ Wham, followed by Patrice Rushen’s ‘Forget me nots’, followed by, oh, I don’t remember now (And yes, music anoraks, George Michael did later record ‘Forget me nots’, clearly influenced by Sarah’s compilation tape).

So what makes a good compilation tape? For me it’s a mixture of mood and surprise. Plus of course, all the music has to be good. Good according to whom? Well to me of course. I can effortlessly divide all music into good and bad, always have been able to. Thus, Crowded House, virtually all good. Black Sabbath, virtually all bad. But ‘Pineapple head’ by the Crowdies is bad too. While Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ is of course magnificently good.

Still 1995. Cassettes in every room in the house.

But back to mood and surprise. If it’s a mixed artist compilation tape – and they’re the best kind – you want different kinds of moods for different kinds of times and places and uses.

A compilation tape to play while writing a blog piece about compilation tapes? Well, no words of course or it interferes with your concentration. So, some John Barry, followed by a drifty bit of Brian Eno, followed by Dawn Upchurch singing one of the ‘Songs from the Auvergne’. ‘Hang on, that’s a surprise’ I hear you say. ‘Hasn’t that got words?’ ‘Yes it’s a surprise’ I reply, ‘Because good compilations need them, remember. And yes it’s got words, but they’re French and I mostly don’t understand them. So for me that fits with the ‘no words’ rule. Ok?’

Next, a compilation tape for making a lively start to a Friday evening with a few drinks. Well obviously the Pet Shop Boys will feature (indeed a single artist Pettoes compilation would do just fine in itself), followed by some Stevie Wonder (though not the obvious ones) – and of course ‘Oh happy day’ by the Edwin Hawkins singers.

Special mention must be made here of the likes of ‘Oh happy day’ and ‘You make me feel mighty real’ by Sylvester. These are compilation tape gold. You can utterly rely on them to cause outbreaks of happiness and well-being, and they’ll be accepted as viable company by the most diverse of other compilation contents.

Some people’s music, though, just doesn’t work well in diverse company. David Bowie for example. ‘Heroes’ works, but try virtually all of his other wonderful stuff in a mixed compilation tape and it will stick out awkwardly. Don’t know why, it’s just so. Same applies to Marc Bolan and Peter Gabriel. Great, but best enjoyed on single artist compilation tapes.

And of course, in this day and age we’re not really talking about ‘compilation tapes’ at all. There’s nothing in our house and car that can play a cassette anymore. So the days of lovingly labelling and listing a C90 tape are over. As are the days of brilliant but very short songs to fill up the ends of each side. Honourable mentions here for ‘If you saw through my eyes’ by Sandy Denny, ‘Carefully taught’ by Ian Matthews and ‘September Blue’ by Chris Rea.

I love even writing the names of these lovely songs down. I love music. It colours in my life. Even when I’m not listening to anything there’s music going on in my head (at the moment it’s Talk Talk, ‘Spirit of Eden’ in case you were wondering).

And while cassettes may be over and even CDs are on the slide, compilations are of course the very stuff of streaming music now. Because let it be clearly said and understood, hardly anyone ever made a completely good album (A short and opinionated list may form a future blog piece).So we don’t want to listen to complete albums anymore. I don’t feed whole albums into our iTunes library, and I don’t put whole albums into any of our Spotify playlists.

So we listen to compilations for some or most of our evenings together, us two. Mostly in the background while we put another bit of the world to rights. But occasionally bursting into the foreground of our consciences when the blessed Emmylou, say, ‘Magdalene laundries’ segués into ‘Pacific Ocean blue’, Dennis Wilson, followed by our beloved ‘Refugees’ by Van Der Graff Generator. ‘It’s on good form tonight’ we say, beaming warmly at the computer.

Not that it’s all that random, of course. Our playlists are lovingly curated by me. And ruthlessly vetted by Sarah for my occasional excesses of taste. If, say, three German 1970s electronic tracks should turn up on the run.

And finally, a YouTube link to a classic and hard to find song by Mark Germino that fits right in with all this joy of music and compiling things you think might not go together stuff. Listen particularly for the lines about playing Madonna after George Jones. He knows what he’s talking about. Enjoy!

2 Replies to “Compilation Tapes: And their sociological importance”

  1. Food for thought Mr H…. I think my most recent compilation tape was 1976: 76 songs for a ’76 girl’s party. But, just when I’d finished it and was dead chuffed, my iPod did one of those random freezing things, and we had to listen to Rach’s Bon Jovi/A-ha-heavy ‘Pod collection. (She still tells the story about the look on my face now…) I’m sure it features I love to boogie though, which may strike against one of your principles there; it most definitely starts with Cool for cats. Obviously ;-)

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