Remember mixtapes? It’s strange to think that just a decade ago cassette tapes and by extension mixtapes were a big part of my life, and other music-obsessed teens’ social and cultural lives. When I was a kid, I’d tape myself and my sisters singing and play-acting, or myself and my cousin singing songs we’d written ourselves, such as the classic ‘Working at the Grocer’s’. We’d entertain/torment our parents by making them listen back to our shrieking and giggling, convinced that we were super talented young girls.
One summer, when I was about seven, I went through a phase of making ‘radio shows’ in my bedroom. I’d sing little advert breaks about Kit Kats and washing up powders and once tried to shoehorn the word ‘coy’ into a jingle as I thought it sounded great. My dad had a huge hi-fi system (or at least it seemed huge to me when I was little) with a double tape-deck which boasted hi-speed dubbing. This gave us hours of entertainment as it meant we could record our voices and then play them back at double speed, making us sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Once I discovered that you could put sellotape over the holes on the top of ‘proper’ cassettes (i.e actual albums as opposed to blank cassettes), no tape – regardless of how precious – was safe. I had started recording songs off the radio and being able to record onto old tapes that I thought no one had a use for became a hobby of mine. When I was eight, I won a tape on 96FM, the Cork radio station (for the record, this is one of about three things I’ve ever won in my life). It was ‘Entreat’, a live Cure album recorded in Paris.
I gave the prize to my dad, but two years later I found it again in a pile of old tapes. What did I do? Only stick some sellotape on it and record Culture Beat’s ‘Mr Vain’ onto Side B…
Recording songs off the radio was a particularly fun pursuit, and one which I think helped me become more aware of what music was out there, and what music I had been missing. When I was in my cousins’ house one day I heard a song blasting from my elder cousin Mark’s bedroom; as soon as the announcer started speaking, he was cut off and another song played. ‘What’s that?’ I inquired, curious about how my cousin had managed to get the DJ to shut up and put another song on so quickly. ‘Oh that’s the top 40, I taped it off the radio’, he told me. I couldn’t wait to get home and do the same. Why hadn’t I thought of it sooner, I asked myself.
I bet I’m not the only one who, when they hear a favourite song from an old mixtape (such as Belle & Sebastian’s ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’) instantly hears the next song on that mixtape in their head (The Frames, ‘Revelate’, all taped from Dave Fanning’s 2FM show), and even the snippets of ads, jingles or links that you didn’t manage to tape over.
There was a ‘home taping is killing music’ movement back in the 1980s, but the ironic thing is that home taping only encouraged my friends and I to save for the must-have new albums. If it wasn’t for home taping music, how many of us would have record collections today?
In my teens, mixtapes were the way to woo an admirer and impress others with your musical taste. I was a bit late catching up on grunge so it was a way of grounding myself in the back catalogue of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins et al, and discovering Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith.
We all have those tapes that remind us of certain times; I’ll never forget that first summer holiday away with friends, in the sweltering hot Zakynthos sun and stormy night times listening to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack on my trusty Sony Walkman (the brand has recently been discontinued, sadly). It kept me company on school trips and even those car journeys where my younger siblings’ yapping was too much for my 13 year old ears.
When CDs became de rigeur, I kept up with making mix cds; when MP3s came in I recorded data CDs with about 10 albums on them. But it was never quite the same as making a mixtape. I still have a few tapes that I brought with me from Cork which I must listen to soon and try to remember those days when music was harder to come by and you didn’t have 15 albums waiting on your desktop to listen to. There was something special about those times, wasn’t there?
So why the trip down memory lane? Well, mixtapes haven’t died – they’ve just been transferred to a more modern format. Nowadays people make MP3 mixtapes and The Quarter Inch Collective has been inviting people to create them for their site.
And I’d love to hear your tape memories – what were your favourite mixtapes?
When did you stop recording off the radio – or have you ever stopped?