From time to time I get caught up in technological nostalgia. Sometimes I find myself missing phones with rotary dials: You got that tacit touch of the mechanism inside and you could guess at how things worked inside. Now phones are just black boxes that emit random beeps. In the latest iteration, they’re even trying to do away with the tacitness altogether by removing all the buttons and just having a touch screen which will feel the same no matter which function you try to use.
This tendency of minimizing the physical element of the technology and making people interface even more directly with the information is very much part of the times. And even if it is a win overall, making information freely available, accessible and modifiable, it is also a loss in the way that we have started to appreciate it less.
One of my favourite analogue technologies was the cassette tape. I spent a fair part of my younger days with a walkman. I could take all of my parents’ old LPs and pick my favourite tracks, and but them on tape. I had tapes recorded from the radio and tapes given to me by friends. Each bit of music was a physical object with a history. I exchanged mixtapes with a pen pal and got a tape full of Czech hip hop and Belgian alternative rock.
Actually, it was just like it is with digital music now, except slower and in worse quality. Both of which came from the physical media. But the limitations of the physical media – the cassette tape – is what I miss the most about it. When you put a tape on your walk-man, you knew you were in for a ride. You pretty much had to accept what was on the tape.
There was no “Shuffle” function, no “Forward” function that instantly skipped to the next song. Once you’d listened to music for half an hour or 45 minutes, you’d have to take out the tape and turn it around and reinsert it. There was a clear, physical feeling of time passing: If you wanted to skip a track, you had to fast forward, spending time listening to the tape winding. And if you weren’t careful, you might miss the next song as well.
So basically, you just had to sit there and take it, and hope that whoever had made the mixtape knew what they were doing. It was like having a radio station just for you. As Nick Hornby so eloquently put it in High Fidelity:
To me, making a tape is like writing a letter â?? there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.
To me, the cassette tape was the ideal medium for exchanging music. Because it brings context with it. It is a suitably bothersome process to make a tape that you will want to do it properly. You can’t just fill side B with top 40 junk and leave it at that. Would you write half a letter and then just paste in a tabloid article rather than finish the letter properly?
Of course not! So in the spirit of old cassette mixtapes, I’ve dug out an old 80-minute tape (2×40 minutes) and put together a mixtape. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to put together a tape containing some of the most vibrant, passionately rebellious songs I know. So here goes:
The Clash – Lost in the Supermarket
Against Me! – Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists
Tracy Chapman – Talking About A Revolution
John Lennon – Working Class Hero
Fela Kuti – Zombie
Manu Chao – Clandestino
!!! – Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard
Aretha Franklin – Think
Bob Marley and the Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up
Ton Steine Scherben – Keine Macht FĂŒr Niemand
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In the Name of
Helt Off – Det Brinner i Paris
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
Ani DiFranco – Your Next Bold Move
The The – Lonely Planet
My rules for this mix were: Only one song per artist, cover as many parts of the globe and as many kinds of music as possible. Both men and women, and of course, make the music fit as well as possible.
If you think that I have left out obvious choices, please feel free to list them below. Preferably with reasons as to why I should included them.
Oh, and since there are laws against that sort of thing, I can’t make music available here. But if you’re curious, send me message, and I’ll send you a mixtape. đ