My colleague Stacey Yates is also a photographer, and she inveigled me into an interesting project that’s recently been published in the magazine Under The Influence, in their ‘Thatcher’s Children‘ edition. The project was to ‘mix the ’80s’ – to produce a mixtape that reflected my experience of living through the heady days of Thatcherism. Of course, you can’t make a mixtape without a recipient, but she and her journalist collaborator Nina Hervé had thought of that. They matched me up with Phil Adams, who works for Rough Trade; we’d not met before, but having exchanged some light touch autobiography, he made a tape for me and I for him.
One of my conventions when I used to make mix tapes in the ’80s was that I’d write a letter with it, to explain the choice of music, and (partly to my surprise) Under The Influence published all of my mixtape letter and all of Phil’s. The pdf of the letter, with the tracklisting, can be downloaded below. I’ll be honest; I didn’t realise that it was going to be published when I wrote it.
Of course, the business of trying to replicate in a largely digital era the essentially analogue experience of the mixtape wasn’t straightforward – one of the conditions was that it had to be delivered on a cassette. I still have a record deck, but the cassette deck that used to be plugged into it packed up a couple of years ago. So, of course, I cheated, and made the tape on my computer and copied it via a portable CD/tape/radio unit. Phil, who sometimes DJs, seemed more at home rewiring his equipment to make it work, and sent us a photo afterwards. (It took him all day.) And at least I had an old TDK C-90 to tape it on. TDK were the best, by far, and I still have some thirty year old TDK tapes in my house (even play them sometimes, if that doesn’t seem impossibly retro) when the Maxell, BASF, and Boots tapes have long shedded their oxide or wrapped themselves around the tape capstans.
But it all brought back a sense of why the analogue mixtape is inherently a more personal, intimate experience than the digital playlist, and, without going all Walter Benjamin on you, this is essentially because it’s a lot more work and much harder to copy – in other words, precisely because it’s analogue. (Coincidentally, Russell Davies was blogging about this recently). And oddly, although it’s clearly easier to shuffle tracks around in iTunes, it’s harder to get the same level of control over the music, whether that’s about the gap between different tracks (some need less space, some more) and it was impossible, at least on my equipment, to get the right fit of music to length of tape (they never were exactly 45 minutes on each side). The digital equivalent of the tastefully judged ‘fade to zero’ exists technically, but without the tape counter it’s impossible to know what you’re aiming at.
Once we’d made the tapes, and listened to each other’s, Stacey brought Phil and I together in a cafe to talk tapes and talk the 80s. She thought we’d talk music, but actually we got more excited by the mechanics of mixtapes. So here are Phil and Andrew’s rules for making mixtapes; who knows, they may even come in handy in some future ‘powerdown‘ post-digital world:
- The first three or four tracks on side one really matter. Get those right and the rest will flow.
- Side two also needs to start well.
- The flow matters – always sacrifice a favourite song if it wrecks the flow
- The texture of the music matters as well as the rhythm
- Don’t waste space – try to close within seconds of the end of the cassette
Stacey took a portrait of each of us – and some pictures of the tapes – to go with the article. She’s just put them up on her blog. And I should add – as someone who lived through the ’80s as an adult – that the edition of the magazine, largely written and photographed by people who were barely in nursery school at the time of Thatcher’s Iron Pomp – is a fascinating take on the decade.