Friday, February 17, 2006

Woah, listen to the music.

They say the longest journey starts with a single step. Or something like that at any rate. Well, no journey that I know of is complete without a suitable soundtrack. It’s at this point that I could easily go off into my anti-MP3 rant and rail against the – as I see it – sacrilege of the intangibility of the format, but I’d soon need a lie down after words of that size.

I can see the point, I suppose, of MP3s for long – or any – journeys, particularly when your record collection (how old does that make me sound? Though I do love the fact that much of it is still ON proper records…) is as large and catholic – in the true sense of the word – as mine. It would be lovely, sometimes, when travelling to suddenly be able to access the ancient Lost Soul Band track that might pop in unannounced to my head, or to put on an apposite track for the moment: something by Mojave 3 to chill out to as the waves crash nearby, a spot of Johnny Cash for the mountain passes of the west coasts of Ireland or Scotland, even – gulp – a spot of Tom Petty for those endless expanses of motorway to which our bus is such an infrequent visitor. BUT this, I would – and will, if you give me half a chance – argue is where the art of planning comes in…

CUE sad Nick Hornby High Fidelity anoraky type images as I attempt to justify the almost primal urge I have to put together – in the old days – a good tape or two for journeys or – now – a mini disc or six. The days of the compilation tape may be on the way out with the advent of 10000 song capacity I-Pods and the like but I reckon (hope?) that maybe, just maybe this overwhelming choice (is it really choice? You’re not telling me you don’t occasionally press “skip” when you get to what would have been the middle of the second side of that difficult second album by The Undertones?) will prompt people to be more discerning in their listening choices. Perhaps they might even make full use of what I believe is known as the “playlist” function on these Poddy type things. Playlist wouldn’t just be another term for “my choice a.k.a. compilation tape” would it?

My compiling days stretch back farther than I can – or care to – recall but I still have a lot of the tapes I put together back in the student years of the early 90’s right through to the ones I made just before I got the mini disc player a few years ago. Obviously there’s stuff I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to now on those tapes but I still get a bit of a thrill from discovering “Sheriff Fatman” by Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine on a collection I entitled “London ’97: The Trip – The Tape” for a post-grad journey to the capital aboard the overnight National Express (ooyah – jaggy seats and a sweaty bum. Dry mouth. Batteries running out on the walkman. Stop, stop. Too many bad memories). I digress. Or the incendiary bark of the Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” on “Pure Genius” the 1994 opus put together after a stint working as an Outdoor Activities Instructor in Shropshire. “Go! Take My Car!” the 1999 anthology complied to assist our progress on a road trip to family in Lincolnshire was named after a Bill Bryson story about Durham in “Notes from a small island.” We stopped in Durham en route from Edinburgh but the cathedral was closed. Still, the tape was good and if memory serves contained hidden gems from criminally underrated guys like Kevin McDermott and Darden Smith.

Hornby maintains in High Fidelity that there’s an art to the making of a compilation tape: bury the REALLY good stuff a few tracks in so she (he’s assuming you’re making these tapes to impress a girl but I’m so sad I make them for me. So does Nick really, he just wants us to not feel sorry for him. That’s what I tell myself…) will have to listen to some other great songs to get to it. He uses phrases like “cranking it up a notch” to illustrate that sometimes you need to put in something unexpected but which, nonetheless, somehow still fits with the overall vibe. I used to love doing stuff like that and indeed I cranked it up a notch on a personal level during a stint as a hospital radio DJ, giving myself challenges like getting from AC/DC to Otis Redding in four connected or non-jarring moves. (“Whole Lotta Rosie” – “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Guns N Roses) – “Paint It Black” (Stones) – “Satisfaction” (Otis covering) since you asked)

I took this level of obsessiveness into my home taping (killing music? Yer arse – I’ve bought more music after getting compilation tapes from pals than almost anything else!) as I strove to get seamlessly from track to track, artist to artist and genre to genre, memorably bridging the gap between the whale noises and ethereal vocals of Portishead and the feedback-fuelled alt-country twang of Wilco with a bit of Asian tinged glam rock electronica from Cornershop on an early mini disc compilation. Honest, it works.

How and indeed ever, for this epic voyage around the celtic fringe I’d decided to utilise one of the mini disc’s functions which I’d hitherto regarded as being a bit like that button in the great glass elevator from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the PROPER FILM) which Mr. Wonka hasn’t ever pressed before, you know? The one that goes up and out? Yes – it was time for RANDOM!

I know, I know. As something of a purist and a pedant – a heady combination at the best of times – this concept has always grated with me. Musicians spend months, years agonising over the running order for an album and I’m sure we’ve all experienced the ones that got it wrong. I mean, what were Coldplay thinking, releasing ANY of their stuff at all? Seriously, only last week I read an interview with Belle & Sebastian’s lead singer where he mentioned them being on the verge of fisticuffs over their latest album’s track listing. I’m not sure I can picture it though. “The verge of fisticuffs” sounds as if it is one of their songs.

Nonetheless, I chose to look upon this not as a problem but – as tossers in big companies say – an opportunity in disguise. I’d opted to use a 74 minute disc and use the long play facility to give me almost two and a half hours of music – around about 40 tracks. That may not seem much in the context of MP3s and the like but bear in mind that ALL of these had to be good, nay great, AND work well together AND suit a variety of moods. So was born “Random Acts of Kindness” – one of our most trusted companions (along with RTE1 and McCarthy’s Bar) on the big trip. Being that sad, obsessive type I mentioned, I of course drew up a list. I still have it. I’m looking at it now and I can proudly say – should one be proud of such an admission? – that I barely crossed a thing out. There were one or two changes of song whilst still keeping the artist and only one outright omission, even that was only on grounds of space on the disc! There’s a scan of the original list here.

It would, were I a normal, sane, rational type, make me wince to think I could be that organised about something so seemingly trivial but as I look at it now, a proud glow sweeps over me. As Phil Daniels said in just one of the many Blur songs I don’t like, it gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing…

THE 41 THAT MADE IT: Jolene (Ray La Montagne), I’m a cuckoo (Belle and Sebastian), Petal to a bee (Nels Andrews), Wade in the water
(Marlena Shaw), Elusive (Neil Sturgeon), Tom Weir (Aberfeldy), Operator (Jim Croce), Just dropped in to see what condition… (Kenny Rogers), Tumbling Dice (Rolling Stones), Mr. Pitiful (Otis Redding), Breathless (Nick Cave), L.O.V.E. (Razorlight), You stole my heart away (Lucky Jim), The choking kind (Joss Stone), You got what I need (David Kitt), Little Discourage (Idlewild), Shine (Colour Wheel), Sha La La (Al Green), Bohemian Like You (Dandy Warhols), Diamond (Kevin McDermott Orchestra), Twisted and bent (Trashcan Sinatras), Picture (Sheryl Crow), London Still (The Waifs), Way over yonder in the minor key (Billy Bragg), Time is tight (Sound Dimension), Lord only knows (Beck), For Your Love (Possum Dixon), Firecracker (Ryan Adams), Don’t go back to Rockville (REM), Guitar Town (Steve Earle), Drag my bad name down (The 4 Of Us), Sha La Lee (Small Faces), Joyful Kilmarnock Blues (The Proclaimers), Jealous Again (The Black Crowes), Reconsider Me
(Margaret Lewis
), Silver Thunderbird (Marc Cohn), I Can’t Wait (Danny Wilson), Maggie May Unplugged (Rod Stewart), Acquiesce (Oasis), Have You Ever Seen The Rain (Teenage Fanclub), Spiritualized (Finley Quaye).

Sorry Gram Parsons and your Flying Burrito Brothers. Could you not have shaved 17 seconds off somewhere?

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