The Origin Of The Species

The tape itself is some fifteen years old, from a time when buying new blank tapes seemed as big a thing as buying shoes, so the same four or five were recorded over again, and again, matted with sound and fuzz. This one probably began life as a radio compilation, then it was used for recording John’s David Bowie tapes, and then Alex’s Pixies albums, and then –

But meanwhile the tape’s started, and started with The Telescopes. All the songs on this cassette are from ’88-’89, and most of them are thick with distortion, effects, noise. “The Perfect Needle” is the only Telescopes song I know – and of course I do know it, almost by heart, because I must have listened to this tape tens of times, hundreds – but how does it sound now? Slow. Punishingly slow, the viscous sound of something vast (the noise the Telescopes heard in their heads) being pushed painfully through something immensely small (the recording budget).

(I realise I am well-disposed to the Telescopes because of an ILM poster’s insistence that they are the best band ever, which strikes me as a lovely thing to believe.)

C90 Go! is a series of articles, each one about a mixtape, written in the time it takes to listen to that tape (or CD). Once the tape is finished the writer is allowed to edit for sense, flow, grammar and factual accuracy, but is not allowed to add anything substantive to their piece. That’s the only rule. The writer can talk about as many or as few of the tracks on the CD as s/he wants, and can write about them in any way they like. If you want to do a C90 Go! piece yourself, write to Tom.

This slowness – or rather, this exhausting straining against recording limitations – is something I’m going to get used to on the tape. The Field Mice‘s “Sensitive” and the Pale Saints‘ “She Rides The Waves” pull noise-tricks which back then seemed quite unique and now seem comfortingly similar. The Field Mice in particular are careful to make sure you can hear most of what they’re saying over the top of the guitar FX, which gives the game away – they’re not using noise to assault or obliterate or even to fuck their songs up more, they’re using it as a kind of sonic overcoat, something to keep the cold away from their song’s frail skin.

“Sensitive” by the Field Mice was No.25 in the Festive Fifty, 1989. I taped the entire thing, and the next year I used the same tapes to record the 1990 rundown. This tape is what I salvaged from the ’88 and ’89 charts: songs which my 17-year old self thought worth keeping. It was a most precious collection, and then I lost it some years ago and found it in my father’s study at Christmas, lying under a pile of New Scientist magazines.

I am rather pleased with my 17-year old self for keeping 808 State‘s “Pacific State”, anyhow. It sticks out like a raised thumb amidst the general passive-agression that I and the rest of Peel’s listeners had down as cutting edge in ’89 – the graft of E-culture onto indie culture simply wasn’t quite taking yet, at least not in my house, all of 3 miles from the M25 Orbital road.

Because the tape flow is determined by what Peel’s fans voted for, and then what I’d personally picked, there’s no reason to the running order. The Inspiral Carpets made it onto the tape because there was room for them, I’d guess – I can’t remember ever being a fan except grudgingly, when Guildford HMV didn’t have anything by the Happy Mondays. But “Find Out Why” is the best thing on the tape so far – it’s short, very sharp, riffy, and full of a brutish clarity. The line at the time was that they were a gimmick act.

My line at the time was to pick through each and every track for some kind of meaningful lyric to empathise with it, then once I’d found it to let the song and the sound pivot round that. The lyrics were generally about losing in love, or obsession, or bitterness, of course. It would be very easy to paint myself as a hopeless case, but the fact was I wasn’t unhappy, or when I was it was to do with matters not generally covered in indie records. I had no girlfriend and no chance of getting one, but I didn’t listen to Peel music because it reflected that: it presented a fascinating, rich world in which boys like me did have relationships, which always ended atrociously. When I wallowed in the songs which ‘spoke to me’ it wasn’t as present-day victim but as some future tragic romantic (anti)hero. Just like, um, David Gedge.

This was of course colossally unhealthy, but in an indirect, long-term way. Mudhoney seemed doubly exotic meanwhile, because “You Got It (Keep It Out Of My Face)” was American and noisy in a different, more extrovert, jerkier way than anything else I liked, and because its emotional hook was so hostile – here was this woman who was coming on to the singer, and the singer was doing the rejecting, a staggering, exciting and unlikely concept for me. And one which I couldn’t process – of all the bands on the tape, this is one of the few I never bought a record by.

(I don’t think even at 17 I’d have had much to say about Cud.)

Another band I never bought anything by – Dinosaur Jr., whose cover of “Just Like Heaven” rocked and hooked but also seemed too abstract to reel me in. Even now I still can’t really place a lot of these American guitar bands, can’t work out what I think of them, though the music’s too familiar for me to just dismiss. I liked – and still like – how tearful J Mascis sounds, but I could never quite get a handle on why.

Recorded By: Tom Ewing (1988)
Recorded For: Tom Ewing (2002)

Side 1
The Telescopes – “The Perfect Needle”
The Field Mice – “Sensitive”
The Pale Saints – “She Rides The Waves”
808 State – “Pacific State”
The Inspiral Carpets – “Find Out Why”
Mudhoney – “You Got It (Keep It Out Of My Face)”
Cud – “Only A Prawn In Whitby”
Dinosaur Jr – “Just Like Heaven”
Pale Saints – “Sight Of You”
Inspiral Carpets – “Joe”
James – “Sit Down”
Side 2
Billy Bragg – “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward”
Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot”
The Wedding Present – “I’m Not Always So Stupid”
The Wedding Present – “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?”
Inspiral Carpets – “Keep The Circle Around”
The Family Cat – “Tom Verlaine”
Galaxie 500 – “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste”
Spacemen 3 – “Hypnotised”
Jesus Jones – “Info Freako”
Bob – “Convenience”

More solitude, sorrow and sloth from the Pale Saints, and now it’s getting slightly embarrassing, because I can remember thinking “Sight Of You” was beautiful and now it seems pitiably obvious. Yet again the Inspiral Carpets save the day – “Joe” is tense and compact where so much of the music on this tape is despairingly diffuse.

(What I was thinking when I put “Sit Down” on the tape I will never know. Literally, because any personal context the song might have had was swept utterly away by the track’s unexpected jump into immortality, and now I can’t stand it even if I’ve drunk a river of beer.)

Side Two takes us back to ’88, and starts with Billy Bragg: “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” sounds fantastic (it also sounds shit, because the tape is starting to show its antiquity). Instructive to compare this song with the contemporary antics of Bono – rock messianism vs gritted-teeth just-a-job troubadour pose. Yes, both are corny, but Bono wheeling out BB King for a bit-part and Billy cheerfully humping his unsold T-Shirts back to the van are images a world apart in sympathy terms. The Dylan-biting first verses are marvellously effective, too.

Sonic Youth follow – “Teenage Riot”, a song I have lived with since I first heard it and which still sounds enormous to me. “Teenage Riot” is every bit as anthemic and danceable as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but also of course is way more gauche, more straightforward, less confused. I still like it more – I didn’t want a roaring collective punk anthem to speak to me and I think I responded to “Teenage Riot” because it’s so very bad at being one. “It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now” – also this is a great line because it’s Sonic Youth admitting that they’re not teenagers, they’re lazy slacker bum turning-thirtysomethings tooling around waiting for the kids to do something cool. (The but-they’re-old criticism of SY is the lamest on so many levels!). Since this is the position rock culture’s backed itself into maybe I like “Teenage Riot” because it’s relevant!

Teenagers – going on this personal evidence – don’t generally have very good ideas about music. (I know I know, you’re 18 and listen to Penderecki – some teenagers have strong individual tastes but I was not one of them and I think I was more typical.) What I did have is a steadfast belief in the vitality of music. This is why when I read a site done by schoolkids, like, I want to read about what they’re doing with their music, how it’s feeding into their lives. When I was a teenager myself though I wanted to write music reviews like the NME did – the idea that reviews were a huge con and the number one way of missing the point and turning your writing self into a robot would have seemed absurd, they were what proper grown-up music writers did after all. This is why I didn’t write anything good about music until I was 25.

(The above patronising paragraph saves me having to comment on two Wedding Present songs, and one Inspiral Carpets track, which stops my revisionist madness in its tracks by sounding exactly like what I thought the Inspiral Carpets sounded like: fussy organ trills and boiled-cabbage vocals.)

The Family Cat maybe wanted “Tom Verlaine” to be a touching snapshot of the enduring nature of friendship. Actually its one-note vocals and niggling riff paint a ghastly picture of go-nowhere lives stuck in a miserable rut of drinking, show-going and empty nostalgia. Lucky I don’t go to any shows, eh.

Galaxie 500‘s reputation baffles me a bit, but here among their contemporaries it’s obvious they knew more about dynamics and groove than the rest put together. That said “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” has a readymade structure which they then get to play with and expand on – their own songs I still feel would be a lot less compelling.

Spacemen 3‘s “Hypnotised” is yet more mantra-rock (and now the tape is really feeling the strain) – very difficult to listen to in the light of where Jason Pierce has taken his gospel obsession now, and like most rock songs on this tape a terrible plod, but it builds and shuffles and shimmers in the right places (and to be fair I’d have loved it as little as 3 years ago). What all these songs are pointing up for me is that the Roses, and baggy – what history is recording as Happening in 1989 – were an aberration in indie music’s drift towards texture-over-content. The 1989 this tape is showing me – my own edit of history – has that trajectory dead centre.

Jesus Jones meanwhile were an odd grab for the future which now sounds a lot more like Pop Will Eat Itself than anyone liked to think at the time. Which means I’d much rather hear it again than the Pale Saints.

And finally Bob‘s “Convenience” a thoroughly charming record with a horn section and a proper chorus and the only gasp on the tape of indie-as-she-had-been (and indie-as-she-is-now: if this isn’t played regularly at Track And Field I’d like to know why not).

The rest is – give or take tape hiss, the cosy old Peel voice and some half-ghosts of even earlier recordings – silence. I’m finding it interesting writing this how much I’ve talked about the person I was, and not my reactions to the songs now. Of course this is because “my reactions” are just to think about the person I was – these songs have hardly any existence for me now, they’re mostly not strong enough to transcend the (huge) burden of memory that’s on them. And also they have so little to do with anything I listen to now – in fact if I was to hear these songs for the first time now I’d shrug and switch over (as it is I’m fond of most of them). And yet this stuff is the origin of me as an active listener, a music buyer, an obsessive. Listening to it is like seeing an old ancestral skull in a museum – you regard it with awe and respect, but you wouldn’t try to get it to talk to you.