Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Rewinding: in praise of compilations (especially on tape?)

Cloud knows when I haven't read something, because usually certain subjects will always get me raving and if I read them first I'll immediately get him to read the inspiring article.

So when he presented me with Laura Barton's article from the Guardian Film and Music supplement published last Friday, I knew from first glance I hadn't read it and that if I had I would have still been ranting about it. So belatedly I will now have a rant. You know this is a topic I love.

Anyway, the topic of Barton's piece was the music compilation: specifically the differences between tapes (the beloved C90 cassette) and CDs (those brittle bits of... what are they made of again?)

Barton identifies two particular types of compilation: firstly, there is the introduction. This sets the scene for a new friend by passing on what you think of as tracks that identify the compilation as by you. Barton picks out "Heroin by the Velvet Undergound, Them's Gloria, Pixies' Hey and Frankie and the Classicals' What Shall I Do?" I'd probably go with something by Pulp (I'm especially fond of 'Seconds' from the Babies EP), something by Ballboy (possibly the exquisite duet version of 'I Lost You but I Found Country Music' with Laura Cantrell), a quirky cover version (I'm currently with Paul Morley on the beauty and majesty of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra's version of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart') and classic tracks by The Clash, The Beatles 'To Know Her is to Love Her (from the BBC sessions) and a good bit of jangly 80s pop (say ABC, The Smiths). I've also regularly passed on 'Tarmac' by Hazeldine from the cracking Uncut compilation 'Sounds of the New West', mostly for the classic line at the end of the first verse (I generally avoid swearing here, so let's just say you blink at the invocation of Batman...)

Then there is, as Barton notes, the compilations that are "crafted for your musical co-conspirators, when the compilation itself becomes part of your conversation - a Masonic handshake, if you will." These definitely describe the conversation we have with George, but I was intrigued by what Barton goes on to say:
A friend and I have a CD compilation conversation that has been going on for three years. But he said to me recently that even a decade ago he could not have made me such compilations because his wife would have divorced him, and quite rightly so - for back then they would have been cassettes, and they're different things altogether.
I have a certain sympathy with this idea of intimacy being part of the compilation tape, not least because, as she goes on to say, the physical act of making a cassette is entirely different to that of a CD: "making a compilation tape was akin to writing a poem...They took all Sunday afternoon, crouched beside your tape player with pins and needles in your feet, your finger hovering above the pause button ..." She's right about that physicality element as I fondly recall - before my tape player died along with the rest of the antiquated stereo system I had - the hours and hours I would spend in front of the tape recorder selecting tracks from both CD and tape to transfer to a new compilation. Cloud's "Derrida's Deconstruction" wasn't made for me (it was for his own pleasure) but every join was lovingly crafted and selected, the pausing not always (quite) right but sometimes you would end up almost breaking the tape as you paused, rewound, reset and restarted playing a track to get the join 'just so'.

Barton also wisely comments on the construction of the cassette: "At night you would lie awake puzzling over its structure: What song should you put on first? What should come last? The first of course has to be arresting. The last has to be the one you want to linger in their thoughts." But what she doesn't explicitly comment on is the fact that the cassette allowed you not one beginning but two, not one ending but two; moreover, the very first track of side one had a greater significance than that for side two, and the final track of side one had a lesser significance than that for side two.

Inevitably, by circumstance of my tape machine dying and not being replaced (though I am tempted - oh so tempted - to get one from Richer Sounds while such technology still exisits) I have shifted to CD making. She's right that it lacks the labour intensive practices of making a tape, especially when you work out that you need to play each track through in real time, plus the time it takes to cue up the next and start recording (though frankly I had that off pat by the time I made my last compilation tape: usually only just over 100 mins to make a C90, which isn't bad all things considered.

But where I part company with Barton's argument is on the issue of CDs inherently lacking thought: compilations may now indeed appear to be "made in minutes" but I would deny that "dragging and clicking and burning" means that "beautiful things go unsaid." In most instances, the time I spend preparing the CD is no less than I would have invested in making the tape: it is a careful process of playing selected tracks, playing them next to each other, mentally singing or humming the opening or closing bars to see how they sound as an overall narrative flow. What is made easier by the CD is the playing of the tracks (where I have them on the computer: as yet only a proportion of our music collection - ever expanded by Rough Trade, 1-Up and Selectadisc - is on either of our computers).

Although I no longer have to carefully stack up the CDs and tapes, shuffling their order before I even start selecting tracks, I still do that mentally (and before I got my own computer capable of making CDs I had to carry over a bag of CDs to H's to make those early George collections). Now - providing I don't need to upload (or frustratingly I realise I only have it on tape) - I can easily pop tracks into a provisional playlist. But I still spend hours pouring over the selection and ordering process, carefully weighing the choice of tracks depending on the person and the purpose of the collection. Equally, care is taken over the production values of the sleeve: selecting and framing images, borders, and sometimes even the choice of compilation title.

I still residually miss the compilation tape with its perfectly framed 45 mins per side, echoing the approximate length of a pop album. But technology and its frailty has guided me to the CD and I am learning to love it. I sometimes even wonder if, given the pace at which I was eventually able to construct a tape, whether I'm not now probably even slower making a CD.

Does the CD talk back to me the way a tape could? I would argue 'yes', not least because I remain committed to the process of the compilation, regardless of its format. There is still a romance to it for me, a measured sifting and thinking about the recipient's taste, my taste, and how I may even sneak in some material they would never have thought of listening to but which may open up new musical avenues to them. I doubt I'm always successful, but that was the chance one took on making any compilation - whether tape or CD. Whether rewinding, or reselecting a track or sequence of tracks, there is nothing like the home made collection. And for me they will never lose their romance.


stu_n said...

And also, CD compilations give you the chance to go to town on designing covers and inlays which you never really could with mixtapes. I always do personalised tracklistings.

By the way, ABC? Jangly pop?

Andrew Brown said...

With tapes there was also the 'what can I squeeze onto the end of the side' thing. I always seemed to resort to Vaseline by Elastica.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Andrew - I had forgot to mention the issue of TIME! Thanks for that! I would carefully plot out how long each track was (fun if I was tape-to-taping where that is impossible to judge without playing the track through!) and calculate what would fit where. I would actually sometimes go for a long track at the end (Talvin Singh's "Traveller" was good) as they would often fade out or have several endings. Though I was especially proud to find once that 'Don't Marry Her' by the Beautiful South fitted perfectly on the end of a tape. BTW they never were exactly 45 mins were they?!

Stu_n: well, ya know what I mean. Bad example!

Holyhoses Rob said...

I miss the compo tape, though don't the Guardian regularly dredge this old chestnut up?

Yes, you can go to town on CD cover art, but frankly, I never do, because I rarely make CD comps for anyone but myself. I've had a crisis of faith, I think there's too much awareness of the form, and I feel too much doubt about the idea of foisting my taste on someone else.

Okay, maybe it's because I'm married now, and there's still that sense that to spend so long doing something is slightly too intimate for the "just good friends" line to work.

But I would wheel out one more, maybe, if the occasion was special enough.

Anonymous said...

If anything, I spend more time making compilatio CDs than I ever did on tapes, because it's so easy to change the playlist and obsess over the start of the last track and the beginning of the next being perfect bedfellows.

What I desperately miss about tapes is how I used to record snippets of TV and radio to put between the songs, do false starts, mix things up, a line from here, a line from there... It had far more creative possibilities. My best ever was mixing Dance of the Knights from Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet with the Mr Man Theme Tune, alternating them line by line. They went together shockingly well (try in your head). I should probably start doing mash-ups instead, but I don't know how.

Paul Fuzz said...

Feel great empathy with Rob's comment about having a crisis of faith vis a vis 'foisting' your particular cup of blare on somebody else...I guess it makes sense that bloggers should be such keen compilation freaks, 'cos the impulse to create either is exactly the same - Hello World, This Is Me And This Is What I Dig -and both demand a certain degree of nerdiness, a desire to impress and educate, and a need to express certain things about yourself that you otherwise struggle to express. I was once a very passionate compilation maker, and still enjoy making a CD/tape comp now & again, but I agree with Rob that I have begun to feel slightly unsure about inflicting my taste on people...

...that said, I DJ quite regularly and that's pretty much exactly the same, if not I'm not sure how I feel about it...