Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The first cut is the deepest: 8 great ways to start a compilation tape



Happy new (financial) year, btw.

The Field Mice "Sensitive"

What it says: Hey, I'm sensitive. Will you be my girlfriend ?

Ah, the daddy of compilation-tape starting. If (speaking hypothetically of course) you were a wet-behind-the-ears 15 yr old boy when this came out, this one would get wheeled out again and again. Only years later would you realise that there wasn't a girl in your town who would have put "sensitive" in the top ten list of qualities she required from a prospective boyf. at the time, especially when there were lads up the road with XR3s. The real reason that "Sensitive" works so well as a tape starter is that it's basically a cracking record. And, that even now, it's a statement of intent. Of sorts. The first time we heard "Sensitive" (SARAH 18), Peel had preceded it by reading extracts from an excitable covering letter from Sarah which had unsubtly indicated they thought it one of the best records ever made. As the song unfolded for the first time, we weren't sure we could quite see that, but somehow it reeled us in as it went by, and by the time Bobby's avowed favourite three Field Mice minutes - thinly sliced layers of guitar, fingers climbing the fretboard inamidst that well-drilled, repeating chord sequence - passed by, we were (a) willing it not to end (b) waiting, just waiting, for the time daylight would come and we could find a shop to buy it in.

Now there's been some debate about the lyrics. Specifically, whether they were "repugnant", "arrogant", "delusional"... True, looked at in an unforgiving light you could say the words were a bit preachy. But what you have to remember is what we were trying to kick against, then and now, frankly. Macho posturing of the type that resurfaced with a vengeance with Oasis and co around the time that Sarah sadly called it quits, and which is still in full enough effect in 2009 when we seek a quiet pint in a nearby Wetherspoon's, or try and walk down the street on matchdays, or listen to Radio 5, or, to be honest, half the time we step outside our front door at all. So I felt like *cheering* when those lines about "the beauty they're busy killing" emerged from the Mice's plaintive morass of guitar fuzz. Was even sufficiently motivated to vote for it in 1989's Festive 50 (in the old days, remember, this required purchase of a postcard and a stamp). Between us, we got it to number 26.

PS Shout out to all the anoraks in the house: the vinyl version of "Sensitive" has a lone, scuffed chord at the start, before the drum machine intro, that doesn't seem to be on the digital versions reissued since on "There And Back Again Lane", "Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way" or LTM's "Snowball + Singles". But we somehow always need that one scuffed chord to remind us of the time we did get hold of the record, and brought it home, and cued it up, and the needle landing on the groove felt like a bird flying free from our hands.

See also Blueboy's "Clearer": another, equally naked, equally unallayed, statement of intent.

King Of The Slums "The Pennine Spitter"

What it says: Sorry, did we hurt your ears ?

Putting "PLAY LOUD" on compilation tapes, indeed on any records, is a common enough trick. But it was a good way of drawing attention to some of indie's greatest ever intros. Sometimes, rather than starting a tape with a statement (as above), or soft-pedalling acoustic fluffyness (later), it was worth diving straight in to something a little busier. And "The Pennine Spitter", which begins with a scree of wondrous electric violin before unfolding into two and a half minutes of said violin plus slurred vocal, punchy Rourke-ish bass and clanging Ron Johnson guitar, is still a refreshing, raucous and original experience (not least because that flood of noisy-violin indie we fully expected in KOTS' rather shimmering wake never materialised). If your tape recipient / victim had, unwisely but as the inlay urged, pressed PLAY with the volume right up, there would always be a few seconds where they briefly recoiled and had to readjust a little.

See also J&MC's "In A Hole": the first few seconds of that are pure, sheer without-warning feedback, rather than "Pennine"'s migraine violin, but achieve a similarly disorienting effect.

MDC "Chock Full Of Shit"

What it says: You're meant to think "what's this ? it's fluffy and acoustic", but ACTUALLY it's going to end up really noisy! Deceived!

A frequent comp-tape starter, as it coquettes into view with lilting, melodic, surprisingly intricate Spanish guitar trills and arpeggios, then slowly weaving in rhythm and tempo and amplified strum before converting finally and inevitably into a much more typical Sandinist-ish (we might copyright that word) MDC thrash about worker exploitation in the developing world. As with "Sensitive" though, the real clincher is that it's a brilliant song. Plus, the lyrics are delivered with just the right mix of glee and contempt.

Now. A supplemental. We are absolutely convinced that MDC did a Peel Session, probably very late 80s or start of 90s, and that this was on it, albeit tactfully retitled "Chock Full Of It", and in a form shorn of the acoustic intro. Yet Ken Garner's epic, exhaustive, excellent Peel Sessions book doesn't seem to list MDC having done a Peel Session at all, even under any of the various alternative monikers we remember them employing (Millions of Dead Cops, "Millions of Damn Christians" (also the LP from which "Chock Full..." is taken!), Multi Death Corporations, "Guns For Nicaragua"'s tongue-in-cheek Moral and Decent Christians, etc). So if someone could tell us the Peel Session did really happen, and we know we're not going slowly gaga, that would be lovely.

Cockney Rejects' "Lumon"

What it says: You're meant to think "what's this ? it's fluffy and acoustic" and then that will probably make you suspicious and think "ACTUALLY it's going to end up really noisy!" but in fact it's just going to carry on being fluffy and acoustic and not go noisy at all! Deceived!

The complex psychology of the mixtape, huh ? Of course, it would depend a little on whether you were going for the "mixtape with tracklist" or a pure lucky dip: if the former, then the victim would alight on the words "Cockney Rejects" on the inlay and expect they were in for some entertaining / wearisome (depending on your PoV) second division Pistols, so for them to get a fetchingly lilting guitar instrumental (btw it's track four on their "Power and the Glory" LP) at least would demonstrate there was a bit more width in later Rejects outings (and it was at this point that you could layer things by following "Lumon" with "Chock Full Of Shit" (q.v.) and if lucky double-bluff them). If, on the other hand, this was a "white label" mixtape, then they'd probably just think "err... what was the point of that ?" and wait for all the Subway Organisation stuff they knew you'd put on later.

There were, of course, a couple of halfway houses that a few of us (word to Matt and Simon especially) used for comp tapes in day, if either "full tracklist" or "no tracklist" didn't quite cut it: you could pluck for the "mystery track" route, so that there would be a tracklist, but every 2 or 3 songs you would resort to virtual Tipp-ex and replace the excised track name with "Mystery track #1" or whatever, which stopped your listener just fast-forwarding through a tune they didn't like the look of - in our case most mystery tracks were, of course, Chas n' Dave: OR you could go down the "non-specific track list" route, where there would be some text but it might be along the lines of "After a couple of indie-pop classics, the tape moves via some Italo-house and a classic Postcard tune to a brace of golden era West Coast bangers..." or even something more obtuse like "after a few songs about death and loneliness, there's a tune about life and loveliness. And then one named after one of Henry VIII's wives. And then one about travelling to heaven to see if there's any precipitation up there..."

God, looking back, we really should have got out more.

Hood "Dismissed Army Brought Us Knives"

What it says: Ha! I bamboozle you with lo-fi!

A truly special song that we first picked up from side two of the "Lee Faust's Million Piece Orchestra" 7" on 555 and loved partly because it felt like the music we might have made right then if we'd had the muse, and an ounce of the ability: deliciously rough, home-made, stumbling, shambling, off-key conversational, a fuller version of the equally gorgeous and teenage "Biochemistry Revision Can Wait" on side one. On a compilation tape, "Dismissed" did a good job of queering the pitch right from kick-off, sometimes provoking a bemused response from the recipient along the lines of "Is this your band ?" Oh, if only.

The tune has since reappeared on both the "Structured Disasters" CD on Happy-Go-Lucky and Misplaced Music's "Singles Compiled", if that helps.

McCarthy "Red Sleeping Beauty". Or "Frans Hals"

What it says: There can be beauty in politics. And vice versa

Sometimes an old song can reel in a new listener simply by soothing 'em in: the deployment of something understated, yet intriguing. And if you want a classic intro - let's say eighty seconds' worth of instrumental, hinging around mysterious guitars that tingled with desire and brooding, but then followed by brittle, plaintive yet powerful lyrics - both these early McCarthy singles deliver in spades. And buckets.

In "Red Sleeping Beauty", when Malcolm Eden's voice does emerge from the dense thicket of finding-their-feet guitars, it's to softly, shyly pluck out articles of faith ("while there's still a world to win...") at the same time as fixing the hardest stare - "NOTHING STIRS THE SOUND ASLEEP" - on the complacent and the cowed who created the climate in which Thatcherism could survive, and has done since. The gently rolling drums strike up a quiet march: later, of course, McCarthy would more formally document "the procession of popular capitalism". With "Frans Hals", the words are initially unsure, even nervy, but as the guitars keep to their drilled chimes, the music begins to display a kind of cards-to-chest menace, while the words cast off the velvet glove completely ("Make your will out, mate... We'll really deal with you"). Yet the sheer, I dunno, *pulchritude* of both songs remains intact, utterly untainted by all the polemic.

The other reason these songs matter to us is that, well, they represent a tradition of unashamed, unabashed, unafraid *politics*. And we're unbowed defenders of music suffused, even drenched in the stuff: we prostrate ourselves at the feet of McCarthy, yes, but also genuflect to "Fear Of A Black Planet", "Meat Is Murder", "Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing", "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder", to Napalm Death's most seismically-charged attacks on the '-isms ("Evolved As One", "Missing Link", "Unchallenged Hate"), to bristling vegetarian / vegan diatribes over the generation from ENT's "Murder" to Cattle Decapitation's latest collection of songs about animal slaughter. The memory of Billy Bragg gatecrashing TOTP in the middle of the miner's strike, standing there alone pounding out "Between The Wars" to a perplexed studio audience (just like McCarthy, a voice of reason, or at least opposition, when mainstream pop in the 80s had all but embraced capitalist rhetoric) still makes our cockles moist with warmth; we share with Mark Steel a strange um, satisfaction in the fact that "the Redskins accomplished the extraordinary feat of getting into the top forty with a dance song about Russia being state capitalist". And we still find ourselves fighting to remind those who really should know better that the music was only the half of the resplendence of Sarah Records.

[***Tolstoy-length rant about people who want to take the "politics out of music" (i.e. "explicit and / or left-wing politics out of music" excised***]

Yes, like any political animal, McCarthy could get a little too deliberate, even high-horsey. The likes of "Get A Knife Between Your Teeth" or "Boy Meets Girl, So What ?" gave the impression they felt they could only get attention by making their point rather painfully obvious. It was a shame they never quite sustained the economy in the lyrics that so profited "Red Sleeping Beauty" or most of the rollicking "I Am A Wallet": even Peel pronounced himself a little bemused that by the time of the "At War" EP they were penning mocking couplets as cumbersome as "Let's hope to God that the unions will negotiate / Militancy is no answer", although he was at pains to say his problem was with the band's scansion rather than their sentiment. Yet even when it didn't quite work, at least they were trying to communicate things that did matter. And "Red Sleeping Beauty" was feted in "Are You Scared To Get Happy?", the one fanzine which displayed an invective and brilliance to match.

And oh, when their music did work: the sublime jangling guitar spirals of "An MP Speaks", the deceptively sparkling, power-poppy sensibilities of "Write To Your MP Today", the slow, subdued, simmering "And Tomorrow The Stock Exchange Will Be The Human Race", the almost jaunty way that "Governing Takes Brains" shakes the cri de coeur of the Right, "You know that equality / Is an impossible dream" into a glorious, hook-laden outro: it was beautiful and chilling. And just as chilling now, what with that being the unending mantra of our beloved press hammering away at largely their own construct, "political correctness" (and talking of AYSTGH, we're unapologetically with greater minds than us on this issue too).

E-A Ski "Blast If I Have To"

What it says: I blast if I have to. Don't make me have to

Remember that halcyon summer of 1998 ? You know, when everyone sat around on Clapham Common having picnics, listening to Belle and Sebastian and discussing foreign films ? We don't.

Instead, D'Alma and I were in the XR3 (yes, by now we'd finally acquired our own!) rolling around town pumping out mostly hip-hop and dance at absurd volumes and getting into the sort of scrapes we wouldn't ever contemplate risking (or admitting to) now. But it was a brilliant, if mildly crazed, time, and while there were a few car stereo staples - Etienne de Crecy, Alex Gopher, Junkie XL, "Know The Ledge", that jumping Def Jam cassette with "Slam", "Regulate" and LL's "Ain't Nobody" - it was the soundtrack to the Ice Cube / Chris Tucker comic flick "Friday" that was the don. The record is more celebrated, probably, for stuff like Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'". But "Blast If I Have To", which we think is used to soundtrack the drive-by scene in the movie, is the one that we loved - still love - the most, because from the get-go it's not only uncompromising, violent and expletive-strewn, yet *crucially* is musically just as tight, urgent, compelling. And danceable. It made perfect sense that any mixtape we did you in '98 would not start with "Falling And Laughing", as you thought and hoped (though that was bound to turn up later). It would start with this, something just as great, but from a slightly different world.

The most intriguing thing about "Blast If I Have To" is perhaps the fact that as a solo artist E-A Ski has never done anything else, which is remarkable considering how ace it is (a loose equivalent might be how Slumber did the Sleep EP, blatantly one of the acest maxi-singles in world history, but otherwise belong only to obscurity). What with today's internet superhighways and superbyways, it's now possible to find about a little about Mr Ski, and sure, it seems he was always a hyper-prolific producer, but to us "Blast" suggests he should have done more in his own name. Still, what he left us with will last.

Sea Urchins "Solace"

What it says: Nothing. We just really like this record.

Confession one. We don't own this on 7". Maybe pocket money at the time was a bit short. We taped it off a mate. Sorry.

Confession two. (Deep breath). We prefer "Solace" to "Please Rain Fall". (Pause for jaws to drop, knives to be sharpened). Always have done. Can't discern for a second why we're in such a tiny minority on this (if, pleasingly, not alone). "Rain Fall", on the other side of the 7" of course (SARAH 8), is a redeeming, bittersweet, picturesque song, and so deftly executed, but for us "Solace" reminds us of "Sensitive" in its marriage of lyrics that bowl you over and feral, pacey guitars. The words appealed to us,and still appeal to us, in just the same way as those of "Sensitive": they rail against the same distant "they": this time, instead of killing beauty, those evil bastards "they" are "getting kicks giving / the kicks they are giving", when all the while the Urchins are marvelling at the gorgeousness of nature, just as we did when we were sixteen when we lived in town and escaped it by walking to the first set of fields just west of Mountnessing Road, and just as we do now, when we live in the city but marvel at the blackbirds and the robins and the magpies all around us even here. And that might make certain discussion-thread dwellers mock us, but we're uninclined to care. Meanwhile, the comp tape starts, after a few secs the drums bundle in and from thereon in the guitars just power along, a force of nature in themselves. And the song eventually dissolves magically in echoing "Blind to it"'s. We still adore.

PS Confession three. We prefer "Solace" to "Pristine Christine", too. Have we been excommunicated yet ?

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