A Good Compilation Tape

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) Embarks on Another Superb Mix Tape...

Having recently been a position to digitise my sizeable music collection, I been able to reassess how I’ve enjoyed music and how I’ve discovered new things and spotted links between artists and genres. And also friendships. When looking for holes in my iTunes music library – things I will need to download or buy on CD – I’ve had to acknowledge that there are many things that I only own on minidisc, or going back even further, on cassette.

I was reminded of the significance of the compilation (or mix) tape in the opening chapter of “Starter for Ten” by David Nicholls (a book I’ve wanted to find time to read ever since he headed a very interesting and inspirational course on script editing I was fortunate to be sent on). The protagonist is about to leave for university and one of his best friends, unable to find any other way to convey his feelings (sound familiar, guys?) gives his mate a mix tape. The protagonist thanks his friend and his friend responds;

“‘Alright, Jackson, it’s only a sixty-nine pee tape from the market, no need to cry about it.’ He says that, but we’re both aware that a ninety-minute compilation tape represents a good three hours of work, more if you’re going to design an inlay card.”

I realised that this is very true. Although this story is set in 1985, things didn’t really move forward much until the digital revolution – you had to actually sit there and listen to each and every track to make sure that it recorded OK but more importantly that the order of the songs was right for the general message you wanted to convey. I immediately thought of Nick Hornby’s memorable explanation of the guidelines of preparing a successful compilation in High Fidelity;

“Making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing a rethinking and starting again… You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention, 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 black, 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 lots of rules.”

The cassettes I’ve recently found are “Schrodinger’s Astrochicken”, from my buddy Robert that he posted when I was in my first term of uni and cheered me up no end, “Fish Pan Skillet Trousers” from another good friend Liam who forwarded the cassette to me in the first term of my second year and similarly brought a smile to face, and another by my uni housemate of two years Graeme, who sent me a minidisc just after I’d moved to Brum called (rather less imaginatively) “Compilation for James”. All three were full of memorable tunes by artists I went off and bought more music by and still listen to today. As well as bringing endless enjoyment, they let me know I was missed.

I’ve made many a mix tape for friends and significant others and have each and every time been amazed at how much time and thought they have required. Because of this you knew that when you were given one, it must mean that someone had spent an equivalent effort for you. I don’t think the same can be said for assembling a playlist and burning a CD for you. It’ll still be special because you’ve carefully selected the songs and the order (even if random play can negate the structure) but won’t ever quite recapture that feeling that someone has written off a whole evening to put a smile on your face.

5 thoughts on “A Good Compilation Tape”

  1. Ah, the compilation tape. Having built up a large tape collection, then a CD collection and now a digital collection, the process of creating a compilation has certainly gotten ‘physically’ easier.
    But, having made a few recently for nostalgic reasons (for example, final year in Durham, Christmas 2005) it is still tricky! A CD is limited to a set number of tracks, and playing it in order has to have a certain effect…much as Nick Hornby writes.
    The only problem in today’s world, as you say, is the whole process is ruined by a ‘shuffle’ button on a MP3 player…something tapes never had!
    Perhaps it’s just me and my indecision as there is so much music around that makes it a complex process?

  2. Was “Fish Pan Skillet Trousers” the tape I sent anonymously with the picture of the lava lamp on the front? The one with the weird digital voice that introduced it?

    Likewise, I remember the mix tape you sent me while I was in Israel, with Way Out by Orbital, Windowlicker by the Aphex Twin and Jennifer She Said by Lloyd Cole. Quite how you bridged the gap between the styles I can’t remember, but it definitely made my ears very happy.

  3. I bet Durham at Christmas is wonderful! What went on your compilation, Greg? I think that the process can become over complicated but perhaps that’s part of the appeal, especially if your trying to put something together to remember a place or time in your life.

    Hi Liam! The FPST tape had the tracklisting for the cover but tucked inside for me to find were four pictures of head stones collectively captioned “The Four Tombstones of Jeff Beck” and then a picture of Guy Pearce with the caption “This is not Jeff Beck”. Why, I’ll probably never know. Neither, I suspect, will you!

  4. Durham at Christmas IS beautiful! … if a little cold. But I won’t get another one now *sob*

    Yep, that’s right. Rob’s little sister graduates this year! Does that make you feel old?! 😛 (especially when I took a year out and everything!)


  5. It makes me feel old and very decrepit. Rae graduates this year too and when I realised that I could have done another degree and a masters in the time since I left uni you really start to wonder where the time has flown to!

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