Revenge of the Mix Tape

Smack My Mix UpEver since I first peeled back the plastic wrap from a cheap store brand cassette and dropped it into the small personal tape recorder I got for Christmas in 5th grade, I’ve been fascinated with the art of the mix. Back then my main piece of gear was an Emerson single-speaker recorder with thick buttons that required my tiny fingers to depress PLAY and RECORD together to engage the recording head.

My first mixes (which I still have somewhere) were mainly comprised of songs taped from WGRD, the Top 40 station in Grand Rapids, or the new and exciting music channel that had just launched, MTV. The pacing of those early tapes is jacked and the songs are often clipped or include the tail of a DJ’s talk-over. I just couldn’t get those chunky buttons to come down precisely together. Then I discovered the mechanical genius of the PAUSE button and my world changed. It was my first understanding of technology as a means to create something.

The years went by and I graduated from that Emerson to a “Ghetto Blaster” in junior high to a Fisher rack system with dual cassette in high school. The receiver and speakers were actually decent and loud as hell (much to my mother’s chagrin), but the tape deck was worthless. I soon gained a reputation among my friends as producing the lowest fidelity mixes in town. As my musical interest turned to garage rock in college, I was able to pass off mixes made on my shitty deck as purposely lo-fi. I had to make due with the technology I had.

The mid-90s brought CD burners and the concept of Side A and Side B suddenly met an untimely demise. I had to adjust as I was a HUGE fan of fading out those last 20 or so seconds of a mix with some obscure clip from Song of the South or this bizarre Pinocchio record I’ve had since I was a kid. It was not just filler to use up the end of a tape, but a final statement on each side of the mix. With the advent of CD burners and gapless play, there was no room for such feats of fancy as the mixer soon learned to be economical with the 80 minutes allotted to a good CD-R.

Enter the personal media player and again my approach to mixing has changed. I have a checkered history with my 40 gig iPod. I do love it, but it sometimes treats me as less than its devoted guardian. But that’s neither here nor there.

The first thing I wanted to do with my iPod was to employ the playlist function and see what she could do. It was the next evolution of my mix tape fascination and I was eager to dig in. I am now a full-blown playlist junky; witness my addiction.

I approach mixes like a director approaches films. I like to work in themes and moods and my mixes sometimes tell a story, but not always. Sometimes I like to simply frame the music in a new way to find its different personalities. Most illustrative of this is my Revenge series of playlists.

It started with Anton’s Revenge. I wanted a psychedelic mix to listen to on my El rides in the morning. I needed a trippy soundtrack for the gang of freaks and weirdoes who mix in daily with us working schlubs every morning as we all rail surf the Red Line to downtown Chicago. I needed something that made me feel like I was NOT going to a dull cubicle job near Navy Pier. Who better to smash that mood than Anton Alfred Newcombe and the disaster of sound he makes with the Brian Jonestown Massacre?

What I didn’t want was simply a BJM mix; I wanted the music that inspires Anton and the music he inspires. Thus, Anton’s Revenge has tracks from BJM, the Warlocks, Revolver-era Beatles, The Who Sells Out, Jefferson Airplane, the Dandy Warhols, and about a dozen other bands and albums. The entire playlist runs over 21 hours and does indeed get me to work in an appropriately stoned fashion without the employ of illicit drugs.

Another favorite is El Goodo’s Revenge, which brings together the various musical elements that you find in Big Star’s most beautiful chorus. Elliott Smith features prominently in this mix as I think he better than just about any songwriter in recent memory was able to combine the melancholy and melodic beauty of pop music that inspired Nick Hornby to ask, “What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”

Other titles in the Revenge Series:

Donger’s Revenge – Songs that make me feel like I’m in a John Hughes film

Johnny Marr’s Revenge – Everything the Smiths’ ex-guitarist touched, including the The, the Pretenders, Beck…

Ronnie Wood’s Revenge – All things Stones, Faces, Black Crows…

But just like a filmmaker, I sometimes deal with uncomfortable subjects. Most famous among my friends is the 70s Creepout Mix. There are a number of songs from the early to mid-70s that simply make me uncomfortable. I don’t know if there are some deeply repressed memories that surface when these songs play or what, but I have a distinct feeling of anxiety when Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” plays or the when the syrupy chorus of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” drifts into my mindspace. And yet, I was compelled to expand what started out as a 78 minute CD-R of this tripe into a three and a half hour exercise in CREEPINESS.

Other titles that deal with music I don’t particularly like:

Yacht Rock – Inspired by the video series and includes hits from Toto, Christopher Cross, Stephen Bishop…

Decade – Music from my own bands over the years, much of which is more cringe-worthy than anything on Yacht Rock.

My recent favorite is far more benign. Your Trilby Hat could be the music that plays behind the looming Pete Doherty (ugh, I just typed that as Doperty in what is clearly a Freudian Typo) biopic. With lots of Libertines and related tracks, this mix includes a gang of Dub tracks, some Clash, and selections form MOJO’s Raw Soul Mix—that may be seen as a cheat from mix purists but I don’t care. Again, this mix makes me feel like I’m in an early Guy Ritchie film walking in slo-mo with stylish clothes and a black eye that’s found on charming ruffians like myself.

Other favorites:

Songs of the Doomed – Music by, for, and about doomed souls. More Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Brian Jones-era Stones…

Cohen – My personal OC soundtrack with loads of Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Delays, etc. I feel like I’m 19 and dating Rachel Bilson when this music plays.

Wolfsberg Edition – This the music you would have heard in my 1987 VW Golf (Wolfsberg Edition) from mix tapes made and traded between friends when I was 19. Lots and lots of Tom Waits, NWA, Elvis, My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult, Neil Diamond, Paris, and even some Madonna. C’mon, “Justify My Love” is a great humping song with a phat beat!

Everyone says that getting an iPod changes the way you listen to music. I suppose it does in some ways, but I have found that it’s just magnified an obsession I’ve had since my earliest forays into musical creativity. Now, what would K-Fed’s Revenge sound like?

Image via the Cassette Generator. Another great site for mixmasters is Art of the Mix.

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