Cassette Container Treasure Trove
I went down to the basement on Monday to find some old photos. I found something better: a couple of containers full of old cassettes I thought had been lost to the elements. It’s not like I don’t already have several boxes full of cassettes in the storage room behind my office, including tapes of my pre-pubescent bedroom band from back in the late 1970s, mix tapes from the 80s and more promo tapes than I’ll ever know what to do with from the 90s. It’s that those tapes don’t tell the whole story, that of the obsessive future music journalist who practiced for taping John Peel shows on Radio 1/2 by frequently recording the Roger Scott show on Capital Radio as early as 1975; a kid who often seemed intent on taping every single track that ever came out and who, naturally, catalogued his cassettes along the way.
As I’ve hinted at in recent months, I’ve been busy with Boy About Town, a memoir (of sorts) of my secondary school years, the period from 1975-80 in which I transitioned from precocious/bratty hard rock fan to precocious/bratty (post) punk rocker, years in which I started a fanzine and a band, interviewed established rock stars and obscure new artists alike, hung out at the Rough Trade store and the Town House studio, saw gigs on what was often a nightly basis, tried to digest the complex politics of the changing country around us, participated in the mod revival and less so in the ska revival, and all the while chased girls – or, to be honest, meekly stared at them while hoping they’d get the hint and invite me into bed with them. While writing these stories – a Top 50 of them, at the last count, a number that may yet got down to the talismatic 45 – I was forlornly recalling all the borrowed records I had put down on cassette back in those years, and all the nights I sat by the radio, taping the Peel show. I could remember certain Peel sessions, even specific tapes and their precise track listings. I wondered what happened to those cassettes even as I wrote about some of the music from memory (and searched out the rest of it, of course, on the web).
No longer. They’re all here. And what a slice of history they provide. Try this running order, all from a single Peel show of October ’79: “Nite Klub” by the Specials, “Funtime” by the Spitfire Boys, “Let’s Talk About Girls” by the Undertones, “Wait and See” by Stiff Little Fingers, “Transmission” by Joy Division, and “Face In The Crowd” by the Merton Parkas. There’s also the cassette with the Damned’s 5th Peel session followed by Adam and the Ants’ second Peel session, both from 1980, backed by Teardrop Explodes and Bunnymen sessions from later that same year that I obviously didn’t know well enough to fill in by song title. There’s what appears to be the second part of our Jamming interview with the Damned at Rendezvous Studios opposite the Crystal Palace FC (remember them?) ground in the spring of 1980, possibly the very funniest interview I’ve ever conducted. And there are tapes that appear to leave massive gaps in the track listing, as if I had intended to fill those gaps – presumably songs I already owned, or no longer liked – with more raw material.
There’s reggae from Capital Letters, Dennis Brown, Lee Perry, and Reggae Regulars. Punk from Menace, Suburban Studs, Leyton Buzzards, and the Outcasts. And reggae punk from the Members and the Ruts. There’s my interview with Spizz Energi in the summer of 79 and then the whole of that night’s gig at the Nashville. There’s the Guillotine 10” compilation and the best part of the Akron compilation. Early Magazine. Early Bauhaus. The first Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark session. And the first Patrik Fitzgerald EP – absent one track, which I’m desperately keen to find, that had lines like “You have a Conservative government, then a Labour government, then a Conservative government, then a Labour government.” (If anyone recalls this song and can point me to the full lyrics, I’d appreciate it.) And there’s also this magnificent song I remember from the Business Unusual compilation on Cherry Red, one of the first LPs I ever received for free in the mail. (I guess I must have subsequently sold it; can’t think why else I taped some of it.) I have it jotted down as “Like A Glove” – as in, “your body fits me…” – and it’s like the Stranglers meets the Undertones by way of the Beat’s “Best Friend.” I did not write down the artist, however. I just looked it up on the web and see that the group was the Dole, and the song was called “New Wave Love.” You’d never think that a song with such an obviously dated title, by a band with such an obviously dated name, could ever be so could, but listen to it below (preserved via YouTube), and you’ll see/hear that it could.
There’s so many of these cassettes at hand that I can’t expect to listen to them all while working. So, Tuesday morning, I swapped out the iPod for an old Sony Sports Walkman and went running with a tape in the snow storm, trusting that I wouldn’t get the machine overly sodden on its first day back in use in at least five years. As I paced through the falling fluff, I could pretty much picture my 15-year old self sat by the radio faithfully pressing the record/play buttons, with one hand on the pause. I was pleasantly surprised by how good much of the music still sounded current; I found OMD refreshing, to be honest. It didn’t strike me how far I’d traveled in life until a track intruded from the Damned: Rat Scabies doing his best Keith Moon impression on the rough and raucous “Burglar.” We don’t have a lot of burglaries where we live; in fact, most people don’t bother locking their doors. And though the Damned were never villains, and “Burglar” was just a piece of good humor, it was jarringly out of context; it didn’t sound right when the only other sound was that of falling snow in the forest and the occasional swish of tires from a car that had decided to brave the local roads. I liked the Damned then and I like them still; I had even thought about posting the lyrics to their latest album’s stand-out track, “Diamonds,” for Valentine’s Day. “Burglar,” though, sounded like it was part of another world, another life… one that was nonetheless preserved on analogue tape.
…And yes, my machine did instantly chew up one of those tapes. Cassettes suck. But they remain the best recording medium ever made available to John Peel listeners, fanzine writers and budding cover bands of the late 1970s alike. I love all my hand-taped cassettes, regardless of content, and plan to never never let them go (again).