Growing up in the ’80s, we didn’t have your fancy Spotify and Pandora and Deezer and whatnot, but we sure as hell knew how to share our music. And our social media platforms of choices were TDK, BASF and Maxell XLII-S. All y’all Gen-Xers know what I’m talking about. Blank cassette tapes were the bomb diggity.
In junior high and high school we swapped homemade tapes around like auditory STDs. These copyright violations amongst friends were way more influential on our musical tastes (and long-term musical spending) than what was popular on the radio and MTV. Thinking back to what I listened to as a teenager, the majority originated with traded cassettes. Trendsetting proto-goth Tim made me tapes of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and early U2. From Robby I got INXS, from Chris I got Tears for Fears (before their big hits), from Regina I got R.E.M., from Amy I got The Beatles. My good friend Ruffin gave me cassettes of Talking Heads, The Police and The Waterboys, introduced me to jazz with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and changed my life with tapes he brought back from a summer camp by a punk rock band called the Minutemen.
As much as I pride myself on being an independent-minded music connoisseur, the number of acts I discovered fully on my own is a fairly short list: Madness, The Specials, The English Beat, The Jam, Big Country, Modern English. Naturally these were the main artists I drew upon to inject my own influence into my friends’ collective music-swap canon. And Madness was the band I pushed the hardest, like a missionary spreading the nutty gospel. I racked up a respectable score of converts and contended with heretics through the course of my cassette crusade.
In my social circles we didn’t do a lot of trade in actual mixtapes. We were literally album-oriented rockers, capitalizing on the 90-minute cassette’s capacity to put one album on Side A and another album – almost always by the same artist – on Side B. I had a sweet dual cassette deck specifically made for copying tapes at optimum quality, with the priceless “high-speed dubbing” mode so you could seriously crank ’em out without real-time listening. The standard practice was to fill any leftover space at the end of each side with a bonus track or two, preferably a related non-album release or B-side you might have on hand.
Cherrypicking only the “good songs” and building party playlists was not the way we rolled. I think it was mainly because we respected the album as an artistic unit. If you were a fan of a band, it was incumbent on you to have their full albums, “bad songs” and all. On top of which, curating a various-artists mixtape was regarded as a more intimate gesture, reserved for teenage courtship rituals. Dubbing off a tape of Boy and October was not so apt to be interpreted as “he/she likes you.”
I distributed many a copy of One Step Beyond plus Absolutely, emulating the Sire 2-on-1 cassette release that blew my mind. Ready-made for tape sharing, that double dose of seminal Madness laid out a convincing case that this band had more to offer than that one “Our House” song. Quite a few of my friends were impressed. As you might guess, the lead track on One Step Beyond went down the biggest, though I managed to stir interest in some deep cuts as well. “Tarzan’s Nuts” was always an attention-getter, probably owing to the testicular double entendre as much as anything. I proudly recall one day in gym class while we were running laps, I led a small troop calling cadence with “Chipmunks Are Go!” I wonder what the P.E. coach thought about that crew of weirdos declaring themselves roaring chipmunks?
Of course, Madness didn’t win universal adulation from my peers. Chris and Ruffin ridiculed “In the Middle of the Night” for its trifling and pervy subject matter. “Better watch out, ’cause he steals your un-der-wear! Oh no!” they mockingly misquoted the tale of Nice Man George. I think “Baggy Trousers” didn’t land right, either. Since we didn’t share the frame of reference on British schooldays terminology, the bouncy tune came across more like kindergarten hijinks than juvenile delinquency.
Subsequent albums in the Madness catalog brought me diminishing returns on the tape-trading circuit. I learned from my own independent trials how right Geffen had been that 7 and The Rise and Fall did not appeal to general American tastes. No one else saw the relentless brilliance I found in Keep Moving, much to my discouragement, and Mad Not Mad met with “thanks no thanks.”
I cringe and howl with laughter to recall the most epic taping faux pas I ever committed. I was making a copy of The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry for my friend Stephen, a coal-black-dyed goth and not much of a Madness fan. There was some blank tape left at the end, and I had just got the spiffy new 1985 Madness album, so why not? I stuck “I’ll Compete” on as a bonus track! Just imagine it: the segue from Robert Smith wailing “Can you help me? Can you… help me?” into an over-caffeinated technicolor lasershow of synths, horns and bongos. Inevitably, when I asked Stephen what he thought about “I’ll Compete,” he grumbled that he had to erase that shit. I felt offended at the time, but of course who could blame him? I had broken the unwritten covenant of bonus tracks – make it something by the same artist, or any least in the same tone and genre. Idiot moves like that could sure ruin your reputation on the tape-trader scene.
There remained a small core of friends who continued to like Madness: Robby, Nick, Alex. None of them ascended to my rank in the Madhead ministry, but they remain loyal apostles even to this day. I fondly recall once when we were discussing what music to play, and Alex enthused “Let’s listen to the MAD Men of NESS!” Such a goofy but endearing thing to say. At one point we were feeling jealous of friends who’d started a couple of garage bands, playing punk and goth stuff, and we decided by golly, we’d form our own band – a ska band! The fragmentary notion was that I would be on lead vocals (ha), and Robby, Nick and Alex would learn how to play… something. This bullshit idea never went anywhere. All we managed was to pick out a Madness song to name ourselves after, just as they had named themselves after a Price Buster tune. We settled on something from the new Madness record to call our imaginary band: White Heat. Wet Fart, more like.
Ironically enough, the biggest threat to Madness in our cassette-sharing ring was a predator that I myself introduced to the ecosystem: The Specials. The Jerry Dammers combo proved way more popular to my friends’ varied tastes, whether punk or ska or goth or jazz or rock. Having bought the debut The Specials album, I was quite astounded at what I’d found, though I didn’t like all the songs at first. When I shared a tape with Ruffin, I warned him not to be put off by the weird first song, which was so slow with plodding harmonica and trombone. “Don’t worry, it gets better with the fast songs,” I promised.
Later he came back with glowing praise. “And you know which song I like best?” Ruffin said. “‘A Message to You Rudy’!” As a jazz listener, he was quite at home with Rico’s lead trombone, and equipped to tune into the song’s vibe much more readily than I could. In time I would learn this track was the closest thing to genuine Jamaican ska I had ever heard up to that point. To bring things full circle, Ruffin would later share with me The Skatalites’ phenomenal Stretching Out reunion album, exclusively released on cassette in 1987, and finally things started to piece together. So that’s what ska really was.
As I spread more tapes around, everybody loved The Specials. Compared to Madness, they were angrier, more political, more serious, and oh so much cooler. Never mind that the band was long broken up by the time of our belated discovery. Contrary to the fighting sentiment of that goth-repellant bonus track, Madness could not compete. My friends basically decided The Specials were their British ska band of choice, which I feel is the most popular opinion among American music fans who know the genre.
And you know, that’s okay. I can look back with pride on my legacy of spreading awareness of 2 Tone music from both London and Coventry across Haywood County, NC, on traded cassettes back in the day. I wouldn’t rewind a thing.