The Phenomena that is ‘Now That’s What I Call Music…’ trundles on with, despite the availability of Spotify, ‘105’ being published in May of this year. Why these things still sell in the thousands when a large proportion of the owners can simply say, ‘Alexa, please play…’ is a mystery. Or maybe not. The answer is obviously grandma and the need to buy a ‘trendy’ present. But it is sad that a CD made up of somebody else’s choice of top tunes has replaced The Mix tape. For those of you too young to remember cassette tapes, here’s the way it worked. You copied on to a C90 (C60 was too short, whilst C120’s always taffled up in the car) your favourite tracks from album, CD or even the radio, which you then gave to the love of your life (TLOYL), or anybody else you wished to impress. The plan was that they would be so knocked out by your choice of tracks, lovingly assembled at a multitude of different volumes and slightly masked by the hiss caused by forgetting to turn the Dolby on, that they would abandon all other objections and declare themselves yours. The trick was the ‘Lovingly Assembled’. It required effort. It required thought. It required the basic application of mathematics to leave as little gap as possible at each end of the tape.
Even cometh the day of PCs and CDs and the inevitable demise of cassette tapes (I still have a cache, but sadly nothing to play them on) the idea of the Mixed Tape persisted. Almost all computers came bundled with software (accompanied with a warning that what you were doing was not legal) that allowed the production of compilation CDs. Better still, they came with ‘volume moderation’ that evened-out fluctuating volumes by recording the louder tracks through a bowlful of custard (at least that’s what it sounded like) allowing them to be played back without constant button twiddling. It is still possible to produce such discs – through iTunes or similar – with a little application and time, but I wonder if anyone still does it. My guess is that the presentation of this precious gift has been replaced with a text saying ‘Spotify This’ or ‘Spotify That’ which just strikes me as a little soulless. Where’s the bloody effort Romeo?
I suppose we all have Mix Tapes of our own in the form of iTunes playlists, but it’s not the same is it? No jeopardy there. No worrying about picking out tracks that TLOYL would find lame. No worrying about deafening her by following I’m Not In Love (10CC) by Motorhead. No worrying about her not wanting to play it on her expensive hi-fi because you’d used a cheap Tesco own-brand tape which might leave deposits on her tape-head (I know, I know!) – and anyway, she’d just got off with your best mate.
‘Anyway,’ you may ask yourself, ‘why has this occurred to you today, particularly since TLOYL has grown forty years beyond being impressed by anything you might do for her now?’ (How perceptive you are.) Well, I heard a record on the radio today that I had not heard for sometime and it started me thinking about making a Mix Tape of unexpectedly good records: songs that are far better than the back-catalogue of the artist could ever lead you to believe that they would be. This is as far as I have got so far (in no particular order) but I know there are many more out there. I would be delighted to hear of any others you might have*:
- The Monkees – ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’. A band created as a kind of American Pseudo Beatles and originally intended purely for Saturday morning TV viewing, produced, in amongst a crop of really very good pop songs, a truly classic record. Written by Gerry Goffey and Carole King in 1967, the best thing I can say about this song is that it could have been written yesterday. Not dated in either style or content. A true classic.
- Abba – ‘The Day Before You Came’. I will not say anything to detract from this band’s incredible ‘pop’ credentials, but this is a song of pure quality. Totally different to their normal super-melodic output. A wonderful, thoughtful song.
- Slade – ‘How Does It Feel?’ I once heard Stuart Maconie on his radio show introduce this as one of the best pop songs ever written. How right he was. Again it is very different to the normal output of a band finely tuned to the essential requirements of a three-minute, million-selling single. Listen to it now and, like the other songs on this list, it does not date. Brilliant.
- Kylie – ‘Confide In Me.’ Where did that come from? A simply great song, performed by the miniature Ms Minogue in a manner that she has never since managed to reproduce. I wonder why?
- Glen Campbell – ‘Wichita Lineman’. ‘And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.’ What more can I say? Great, great song. For me Glen Campbell was stuck so deeply in some strange country & western/pop middle ground that the word ‘bland’ was not sufficiently… bland for his general output, but this is truly heart wrenching. Actually, I’ve just noticed that there is a certain melancholy about all the tracks I’ve picked so far. Probably says more about me than them.
- Depeche Mode – ‘Personal Jesus.’ I remember a band that made ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and a dozen similar jaunty electro-pop songs before going bleakly bonkers, but in the brief in between came this brilliant song. I’m sixty. I never could dance. Should I try to do so, my children would probably have me put down, but if ever this song plays when I’m in the car I bash the steering wheel for all I am worth – and all of this set alongside lyrics that spoke (to me) more of all-encompassing love rather than religion. I’m probably wrong though, as Johnny Cash later recorded it as a gospel song. Anyhow, to me this remains an unexpectedly great track from a totally unexpected source – so there.
If you’ve read through so far and find that you don’t know any of the songs, I can only encourage you to check them out. If you know the artist, but not these songs, I guarantee they will blow your mind!
*Remember, the main criteria is not just that it is a great track, but that it is an unexpectedly great track given the artist(s) involved. Do your best now…
PS whilst there is no why that I can accuse Fleetwood Mac of producing an unexpectedly great song, may I encourage you to check out ‘Come’ on the ‘Say You Will’ album, in order to discover that Lindsey Buckingham is an unexpectedly great guitarist. Now, there’s an idea for a blog…