C30 C60 C90 Go
Shop Around part 40

I was flicking through that Thurston Moore book on the Mix Tape and the art of cassette culture the other day.  I know it’s got mixed reviews.  One reviewer was struggling with the question why someone like Thurston should want to be associated with something as supposedly anachronistic as putting together a collection of songs on a cassette tape.  I would have thought anyone who knows Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth would understand why he would feel compelled to celebrate the mix tape. 

Okay, the concept may seem oddly dated for those up with their technology, but there can be no denying why a mix tape can be so special, and a labour of love.  Like many people, I have my shoeboxes full of old mix tapes special people have put together for me, and which I would be loathe to lose.  I have been listening to Bow Wow Wow a lot lately, and naturally their early premise was to celebrate the subversiveness of the cassette tape and the effect this would have on the music industry.  Of course the debate has moved on hugely, but as far as I know no one has yet come up with a slice of pop as wonderful as C30 C60 C90 Go to celebrate the possibilities of digital downloads. 

I have been rummaging around in my shoeboxes recently, digging out my live Fire Engines tapes in anticipation of the Domino-sponsored compilation shortly, which I am ridiculously excited about.  I am even more excited about the fact that for lots of people these demos and live recordings will be the first exposure to the Fire Engines.  I am sure there is a very good contractual reason why the Fire Engines’ real recordings remain available, so I’ll let that go.  What I was also searching out was the second Fire Engines Peel session, just before they slipped quietly out into the eternal night, which as far as I know has never been released on CD.

While searching for the Fire Engines, I came across a couple of old Motown cassettes from goodness knows when.  They are, however, beautiful objects which come in cardboard covers which open like matchboxes for blue plastic trays to slide out.  “The sound of young America” is printed down one spine, and the delightful whole begs the question why other cassettes aren’t as cute.  The cassettes, incidentally, are Mary Wells’ Greatest Hits, and The Supremes sing Holland Dozier Holland.  I did once have a copy of Marvin Gaye’s MPG in the same series, but the tape broke many years ago.

That, of course, is the heartbreaking risk and worry about cassettes.  How many times has something special been gobbled up by the tape deck?  Oh that sinking feeling when that happens.  I used to be terrified that my copy of the A Certain Ratio tape, The Graveyard and The Ballroom, would be chewed up and destroyed for ever.  Now that was a classic example of how to package a cassette tape in a special way, and I still treasure the plastic wallet the cassette came in.  Of course now it’s been salvaged on CD at least twice (by Rev-ola and Soul Jazz), so there’s no excuse for not playing vintage ACR. 

The goodly souls at LTM have also issued a CD of live ACR from 1980, almost exactly a year on from the Ballroom set, and for ACR devotees it’s a must.  I do sort of baulk at so much additional material becoming available.  This 1980 live set is a classic example of something your mates would copy on to a cassette for you.  Now it’s part of a growing ACR related catologue, and there is a risk of overexposure and a degree of mystery being lost.  I have to say I do veer towards the Felt protectionist approach rather than the “chuck it all out there” attitude of The Fall to its past.

Far more essential for those interested in such times is the reissue of the two classic Defunkt sets (Defunkt/Thermonuclear Sweat) on one great value Hannibal CD.  Approaching the punk/funk/jazz thing from a completely different angles ACR and Defunkt were nevertheless very much soul mates, and I would urge anyone whose interest in early 1980s music to explore the Defunkt sets.  Led by Joe Bowie, there are links all over the place to explore leading to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ze Records via James Chance and the Contortions.  The music has worn well, and the single Razor’s Edge is as good as anything still.

Interestingly I still aver that it was the likes of Defunkt and Ze, the possibilities hinted at by others such as Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, that were responsible for the death of the Fire Engines.  The group’s determination to distance itself from rock orthodoxy is symbolised by the Valentino’s poster being used by Domino to promote the Fire Engines compilation which refers to A Tribute to Frank Sinatra show in 1980 featuring Scars, Josef K, Fire Engines, and Associates.  That surely must have been the best show ever!

This was about the time the Associates released their debut Affectionate Punch set, which also has been salvaged, polished up, and returned to us sounding better than ever.  I really had forgotten how great this record is.  Fourth Drawer Down and the hit singles may be acknowledged classics, but the Affectionate Punch has been buried.  It’s terrific to rediscover the sense of drama Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine generate, and I’m struggling to think what matches it now.

Which reminds me of something a Jasmine Mink once said about a group that took its name from an old Fire Engines song, which went something along the lines of “the only thing they have in common with the Fire Engines is a certain resemblance to the brown bread on the cover of Lubricate The Living Room”.  I think the same still applies to some who think they deserve credit for honouring prophets.

Having said that, I did read a comment from the Boards of Canada this week which said: “Let’s just for a minute try and backtrack a way up here, and imagine what would have happened if, in 1982, music had taken this other branch on this side, and where it would be now, and what would it be sounding like now?”  Interesting.  I must dig out those old Boards of Canada records.

© 2005John Carney