When an old technology is old
Recently unearthed during what amounted to an archeological dig in the boot of a car we imported into Ireland was a stash of old tapes. I couldn’t help but reflect both on the social life of these tapes – their biography but also, with apologies to Arjun Appadurai, the regimes of value through which they passed. First, the tapes. In roughly chronological order.
The first is a mix tape made for a weekend in an old Manse house on the west coast of Scotland when we were a merry bunch of friends at university in Edinburgh. The house was in a place called Grogport and the tape contains some classic tunes – like Genocide 2’s Narro Minds – and some classic crappy house from 1991-2.
Next up from ‘the dig’ in the VW Golf is a tape from circa 1994. A mix tape recorded by a friend in memory of a friend’s brother who died tragically in a car crash. I can name only a few of the tracks – one or two from Leftfield’s Leftism – but the rest is what I would call, in an amateur, unknowledgeable sort of way, deep housey trance….
In the summer of 1996 I went to India to do my doctoral fieldwork and before I departed I spent what felt like weeks creating a stash of tapes that were lovingly collated into some Case Logic cases. The idea was these would sustain me aurally whilst away and remind me of home and friends. I brought together a bunch of favourite tunes by Aphex Twin on one tape – and always meant to call it Collected and Selected by somehow got that wrong at the time of writing the label. It features many of the tracks from Collected Ambient Works 85-92 – in my view one of the 20th century’s best albums [Warp Records has billed the album as "both the birthplace and the benchmark of modern electronic music … every home should have a copy."] – as well as tracks from other albums such as "I care because you do". If this tape has gone round 100 times it has gone round 1000. It has enriched my life beyond measure. I later took the prudent step of making a near copy of it from what I had in digital format.
Finally, from my time in India, a tape I associate not only with one of the happiest times living in Varanasi doing fieldwork, but also my return, in 1998, and meeting Lucy, the woman who would later become my wife. Lata Mangeshkar is probably the most recorded artist ever with circa 25,000 songs recorded. This album features duets with Kishore Kumar, the doyen of Hindi film music. Lucy and I used to sing it in the car when we was courting. She was suitably impressed by my Hindi skills. Needless to say she grew out of that. Despite the obvious dent I am please to report that "In a Romantic Mood" stills works a treat.
So here, in four tapes, is a short, and evidently highly abbreviated history of the 1990s as I experienced them.
I’m struck by a couple of things. One is the how enduring not only the music has been – I still like much of it, most of it I remember all too findly – but I am more struck by how enduring the medium is. If I had found my iPod in the back of a dank smelling car boot would it still be working after this many years? Tapes, for all the apparent flimsyness are actually pretty indestructible (until the little fingers of little children start to play with them). The other point is that my ‘new car’ has no CD player so I’ve moved back to the future and started listening to them over again. The country lanes to work are different with the tinny boom of 1990s house music compared to the swish stereo on our newer car…
CDs are even more destructible than an iPod I reckon. Anyone with kids will tell you how useless they are during this stage of family life, particularly if they live in cars. Quickly splattered with milk, sticky with the remains of lolly drips and scratched beyond oblivion. The same is true of DVDs. A waste of space. Give me a old Postman Pat video anytime. Second hand it will still last longer than any DVD. Bet you anything. This ‘dig’ has inspired in me a paen to the old. The sturdy. The solid. An antidote to the shiney but flimsy new.
Of course tapes are not wholly enduring. In fact, the reverse is true. Many, actually probably, most of the tapes I have owned have not endured and if had all the tapes that had once been in my possession and not lost in the whirlygig of things I’d have a wonderful stash of music, most of it not available as albums in shops that documents a (mis)spent youth. (Of course, I’d have Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle and Howard Jones’ Human Lib – but that’s another story or confession).
Now that neat little USB devices that turn tapes into zeros and ones are available it would be nice to get a little potlatch of tapes started whereby people could revive their memories of years gone by listing tapes they have available – with a mix of subjective and objective data about their contents – and making them available for others to borrow. There’s one particular mix tape that I’d love to find but never will – it was called All Mixed Up. I don’t know who made, but I know who made me a copy. She came to Grogport with me. Perhaps I should be bold enough to ask her to look in the boot of her car?
[Update – it seems that Giles Turnbull has had a similar bout of nostalgia for tapes at exactly the same time as me]