It all started with Lee Davies*, on our annual church coach trip to the seaside, sometime in the early 90s.
“Here, have a listen to this”, he enthusiastically commanded, shoving a pair of scratchy foam Walkman headphones onto my ringleted ten-year-old head.
Lee was two years older than me, friends with my cousin, and my first crush. I couldn’t even look at him without turning to blancmange.
And here he was, inviting me into his world, via ‘Song For Whoever’ by the Beautiful South and ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ by Colour Me Badd on a homemade mixtape.
Inappropriate? Sure. But my nan had no idea what filth was being pumped into the head of her angelic-looking charge, as I clutched the headphones tightly to my ears, never wanting the music to end.
For me, it was the beginning of a love affair. Not with the be-curtained scoundrel who’d been thrown out of Boys Brigade for smoking (the shame!), I hasten to add, but with the power of music to spark, seal and soundtrack friendships and relationships.
The mixtape became a totemic item to me; a little box of plastic and spooled magnetic tape fizzing with intrigue, discovery and – later on – seduction. Bored of the musical diet of Michael Jackson, Michael Bolton and Meatloaf force-fed to me at home (I remain unsure whether my parents’ record collection ever expanded beyond the letter ‘M’), carefully crafted mix tapes from friends and crushes became passports to new musical galaxies.
I loved everything about them. The excitement of being handed one in the schoolyard, scanning the little inlay card for what hidden treasures lay within. The anticipation of getting home, the tape burning a metaphorical hole in my school bag for the entire bus journey; the sound of the plastic case opening and the little magnetic hiss when I pressed play and the head engaged.
An hour later, my world would be pulsating with melodies and lyrics previously unknown to me. The Clash. The Lemonheads. Oasis. Dinosaur Jr. Nirvana. They all entered my world thanks to mixtapes collected from crushes and peers at Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw, 1992-1998.
Today, algorithms track what we listen to and pump out more of the same. But wasn’t it more magical when another human being you liked or fancied chanced their arm on you loving whatever lo-fi navel-gazing indie was floating their boat at the time?
I recently mentioned mixtapes to my twelve-year-old son, and I may as well have been explaining the mangle or telegrams. The very idea that people used to spend hours agonising over track listings, carefully splicing songs together with a physical machine, is as unfathomable to him as bathing in a giant tin was to my generation.
In today’s heady internet streaming age, it’s hard for kids to understand that until recently, all technology was mechanical. Something had to physically interact, bash, slide, or clunk with another thing for anything to happen.
And therein lay the magic of the mixtape. Because the physical space available on each cassette was finite, every song had to count. You said things with track names and lyrics you were too shy to say in person.
Dead space was a wasted opportunity to impress someone, so there was real satisfaction in finding that elusive short song or weird hidden album track to fill the spare minute at the end of a side.
At their peak, millions of carefully crafted plastic boxes covered in pen ink, Tipp-ex and fingerprint smudges carried teenage hormones, fantasies, fears and new musical horizons from one bedroom to another. The act of giving one was as exhilarating as receiving one, mainly due to the sheer amount of effort involved. When you handed over your work of art, invariably put together on homework time, you silently prayed the recipient appreciated the contents. And when you got one, it was like getting an airline ticket to a new continent.
These days it’s all drag, drop and hyperlink; thanks to Spotify it’s easy to build a playlist and ping someone the link within minutes. But it’s just not the same.
I recently undertook the very post-modern act of swapping “Most listened to in 2018” Spotify playlists (automatically collated by the software) with an old school mate.
We spent a Friday evening listening to each other’s playlists, commenting on the tracks via Whatsapp in real time. It was fun discovering songs in common, but I found myself longing for those mix tapes of our youth.
Will my son ever nervously press a mixtape into the palm of someone he fancies, I wonder?
It’s not out of the question, because we know that tech can rise again. Just look at the way Millennials have embraced vinyl records, sales of which out-stripped digital downloads in 2017. That Lazarus-like resurgence came a full 30 years after vinyl’s 1981 sales peak, and five years after its nadir.
It’s almost as if, as the digital revolution marches ever onwards, we increasingly yearn for the tactile nature of analog.
So perhaps it’s just a matter of time before the humble C90 cassette makes a long-overdue comeback.
I predict this with all the hubris of an ageing Indie dinosaur clinging desperately to a tradition that made my own child look at me like I’m mildly insane, of course.
But it turns out Apple has already patented technology that will allow you to make “digital mixtapes” for friends, complete with hidden tracklistings and everything. Meanwhile, cassette tape sales in the US rose by 23% in 2018.
It just needs a few hipsters this side of the pond to start investing in clunky old cassette machines, and the revival will be underway. You read it here first.
* Please note, real names have been concealed to protect identities.