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An ode to the mixtape

Each minute was precious and no song could be filler.

Updated 31 Jul, 2019 05:42pm

It may seem strange to kids today, but back in the late 1980s, getting access to music was an onerous and time-consuming task. When the place was Islamabad and the music in question was Western, matters got even more complicated.

There was only one radio station and one state-run television channel, PTV. It sometimes played good movies, but hardly any music.

There were also only a handful of music stores in Islamabad. It was a time when Pakistan was recovering from a decade of religious extremism, censorship and a war in the neighbourhood.

Islamabad was a quiet, small bureaucratic town where everybody took themselves too seriously. Occasionally the stillness could be interrupted by a rogue rocket landing in the driveway (ala Ojhri Camp incident), but these incidents were few and far between.

It was the city of stiff upper lip bureaucrats and it seemed there were far more important things on people’s minds than figuring out where to get one’s hands on some rock’n’roll music.

In this bleak scenario came MTV — like an oasis in the desert. My exposure to the music channel came in the unlikeliest of places — Gujranwala Cantonment in 1988.

My mamoo was posted there in the army and my cousins had somehow managed to get their hands on a videocassette that featured two music videos from a channel called MTV.

It was there that I saw my first few videos: ‘One’ by Metallica and ‘Rocket’ by Def Leppard. These were the latest popular bands at the time and I was hooked. I needed to get my hands on that music and somehow tap into this magical channel.

The only source of somehow getting all this music in one place was the mixtape.

Now, the concept of the mixtape differs somewhat between Pakistan and the West. In the West, the mixtape served mainly as a conversation between two lovers. One would put on tape a selection of songs about love, life and everything in between that would convey what they were feeling.

The mixtape was the audio documentation of a relationship — from its glorious initiation to its muddled and depressing dissolution.

The writer Nick Hornby talks about the mixtape extensively in his 1995 novel High Fidelity. The book is about a record store-owner who spends most of his time making top-five music lists and mourning the end of his relationship with his girlfriend. Through his character, Hornby describes the detailed process of properly making a mixtape:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again... A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with 'Got to Get You off My Mind,' but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh, there are loads of rules."

In Pakistan, the mixtape meant something less romantic entirely.

Due to budgetary constraints, most young music listeners could not just go and buy entire albums by artists. They had to be selective, and that meant handing over a blank cassette to an audio store with a selection of songs that the audio store would tape and put together from separate albums.

Even if budgets did allow, back then I didn’t know any girls who were into any of the music I was. The only conversation taking place between boys and girls was about some random useless talk of the day — nothing about rock’n’roll or discussing the merits of Slash as a guitar player.

There was also the dread and fear that parents would discover that a boy had given a girl a mixtape and both parties would be condemned to eternal purgatory.

However, putting together a good mixtape was not easy. It required thought, time and good knowledge of the different music contained within.

Mixtapes could not be put together randomly — they had to be curated carefully so nothing seemed out of place and each track could seamlessly flow into the next.

The mixtape was akin to the ultimate album — different artists coming together from varied styles and backgrounds to collectively fuse into one glorious mix.

Within the confines of two short sides of a cassette, and the limited music selection that the late 80s music shops in Islamabad had to offer, we distilled a one-of-a-kind soundtrack.

The first mixtape that my music-obsessed brothers and I curated and put together was aptly titled Selection 1.

A cassette from BackBeat with Queensrÿche's album Empire.—Photo by author
A cassette from BackBeat with Queensrÿche's album Empire.—Photo by author

Our interest in music began at an early age. My father had a collection of cassettes lying around the house, which included music he listened to as a student while he was studying in the United States in the late 1960s. The earliest music we heard was The Beatles and ABBA. It had proved an epiphany.

Soon we rummaged through his other tapes and found The Moody Blues, Simon & Garfunkel, Rainbow and Crosby, Stills & Nash. We consumed and soaked it all in, though there was a special place in our hearts for Rainbow and their legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.

When we moved houses in 1988, one of the valuable things we lost was the only Rainbow album we owned: Bent Out of Shape. We were disconsolate.

Cassettes could cost an average of Rs80-100, a substantial sum in those days, and even if we could put together that money, none of the music shops had any albums by Rainbow.

In the meantime, 1989 had come along and we had successfully harangued our parents into getting the very first and very expensive satellite dish. We had one primary objective — to watch as much MTV as possible.

School was an irritant (and homework even more so) that seemed to cut valuable time from watching MTV. The explosion of Guns N' Roses had happened and the ‘Sweet Child o' Mine’ video was on heavy rotation.

We had tried to record the song from the TV onto our tape deck but the sound quality was scratchy and not up to the mark. We wanted the high quality audio version of that song so we wouldn’t have to wait for it to come on MTV to have a listen.

We needed ‘Sweet Child o' Mine’, ‘One’ by Metallica, some of the music from Rainbow and a number of other tracks we had read about in music magazines and extracted from our father’s knowledge of music. Thus came about Selection 1.

Somehow, Rs80 were cobbled together and the decision was made to curate a playlist and then have BackBeat record it. BackBeat was a music shop based in Jinnah Market and had the best-sounding audio cassettes in Islamabad back then.

This was the first mixtape of our lives and resources were scarce, so the 60 minutes of music on Selection 1 had to be carefully put together. Each minute was precious and no song could be filler.

Making the tape

The first thing discussed at length was music from Rainbow. We had lost Bent Out of Shape and we wanted most songs from it. But there was an innate acknowledgement of the fact that there couldn't be more than two tracks on a mixtape from the same band.

We hadn’t read this anywhere. We just somehow knew that urban legend dictated this fact. Getting three brothers (each with their own strong opinions) to decide on two songs from Bent Out of Shape was a tough ask.

Ultimately we decided on ‘Desperate Heart’ and ‘Anybody There’, an instrumental featuring some stellar guitar work by Ritchie Blackmore.

Selection 1.
Selection 1.

I guess you can tell how much we liked the electric guitar by the fact that we featured an electric guitar instrumental.

‘Sweet Child o' Mine’ had to be in there and it had to be the first song. Looking back at it now, I don’t think there could have been a better way to kick off Selection 1 than that joyous riff played by Slash.

The first song had to lead into something mid-tempo and here we fitted in Skid Row’s ’18 and life’. From Axl to Sebastian Bach, I guess we liked high-pitched rock singers.

We had read about Led Zeppelin in a magazine and our father had mentioned it being the ultimate rock band. Their most famous song was ‘Stairway To Heaven’ so that had to be in there.

The drawback: it was an epic seven minutes — or roughly 11.6 per cent of the total cassette’s playing time.

Seven minutes could fit in two other songs, but a tough decision had to be made. If this was (as magazines claimed) the greatest rock song ever written, we needed to listen to it.

The back of Selection 1.
The back of Selection 1.

‘Stairway To Heaven’ also gave Selection 1 a dynamic of light and shade — especially after the attack of the first two songs.

Frankly, at the time we put together the selection, we did not know that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was a ballad so the accident was a happy one.

‘Stairway To Heaven’ gave way to ‘Desperate Heart’ and to the last song on Side 1: ‘Hysteria’ by Def Leppard.

The flip side started with ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. We were big Beatles fans and had heard that this was John Lennon’s biggest solo hit. The rest of the side was dedicated to the music of the 80s.

It included ‘With or Without You’ by U2, ‘One’ by Metallica and the collection ended with Poison’s ‘Fallen Angels.’

Over the years, our tastes in music became more sophisticated. Our fondness for rock music was replaced by a keen interest in jazz, blues, tango and reggae. Thankfully, none of the music has proved to be embarrassing to own up to all these years later and I can still walk around showing off Selection 1 and not be embarrassed by my peers.

In today’s world we don’t have nor need cassettes. We can organise digital playlists of any length and can go on adjusting them endlessly. Time has become more limited and attention spans shorter, so the thought of painstakingly putting together a collection of songs on tape has been replaced with a quick and efficient fast-food model of music consumption.

The idea of the mixtape, however, remains stronger than ever; in the 2014 movie Guardians of the Galaxy, it serves as a key part of the narrative.

It could well be the fact that even with infinite choice and the ease of playing whatever music you would like to, there is still a simple pleasure in being bound to a collection of songs on a cassette.

The mixtape is also a gateway into a quieter, simpler time — where brothers would endlessly debate on song selection and patience had to be cultivated. Where rock music was the only music we knew and the disappointments, cynicism and moroseness that are part and parcel of adult life were still a long time away.

Selection 1 seems to be, now, not just a collection of songs. It transcends that realm and serves as a snapshot of a past. A past that is long gone but can be heard every time the cassette is played — and the first refrain of ‘Sweet Child o' Mine’ plays gently through the speakers.

Selection 1

Side A

  1. Sweet Child o' Mine
  2. 18 and Life
  3. Stairway To Heaven
  4. Desperate Heart
  5. Hysteria

Side B

  1. Imagine
  2. Anybody There
  3. Stay With Me Tonight
  4. One
  5. With Or Without You
  6. Fallen Angels

Are you holding on to analog memories? Share them with us at


Author Image

Shahrukh Ali Mirza is a vinyl collector and honey bee farmer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

Jun 24, 2019 07:47pm
Aah Nostalgia...
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Jun 24, 2019 08:09pm
Wonderful read. Took me back to the early days when music was so hard to come by.
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Seemin Masood
Jun 24, 2019 09:41pm
Well done! I remember the struggle to get music and videos back in those days.
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Amer Malik
Jun 24, 2019 09:52pm
I have been trying to fix an old AKAI cassette player just so I can play my tapes and go back to those times. Thank you for these words. Somebody gets it.
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Jun 24, 2019 09:57pm
Did BackBeat change its name to Off Beat at some stage? My dad can distinctly recall 'Off Beat' in Jinnah Super Market.
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Jun 24, 2019 10:12pm
This reminds me of my college days in Karachi in the late '80s. Recording songs on a hi fi blank tape was a luxury in those days apart from cheaper cassettes mass produced with lowest recording quality. Although the technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, the charm of cassettes and playing them on a hi fi deck can never fade away. It has its own manual dexterity.
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Shahrukh Ali Mirza
Jun 24, 2019 11:17pm
@RIHAAB FAREED DHARIWAL, No. Off Beat and Back Beat were two separate shops. Back Beat shut down fairly early (I think by 1991 it was over) and it was located where most of the jewellery shops are) while Off Beat stuck around until the early days of MP3's (the early 2000's).
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Amer Malik
Jun 24, 2019 11:35pm
@Amer Malik, OFF BEAT was a Lahori party that hung around for a long time after BACKBEAT.but even then BACKBEAT was it.
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Usman Khan
Jun 24, 2019 11:43pm
Well Said. When MTV came, my mother had gone to US for a visit. When she came back, my brother and I tried to glean the latest musical trends in US so that we could make our mixed tape. My poor mom did not know anything apart from the fact although most singers were bedraggled and ill shaven, only one used to dress up in a sharp suite to sign the song (and thus was an Acha Bucha). We wrecked our brains until I finally figured out that she meant Rick Astley in the "Never Gonna Give you up" video. Needless to say, our mixed tape project was dead in water to begin with in the "Sleepy city of Islamabad".
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sam a
Jun 25, 2019 12:44am
@RIHAAB FAREED DHARIWAL, there was definitely Off Beat somewhere, there was also something similar in Lahore. i still have loads of cassettes, the first i got made in Lahore was Bob Seger's live Silver Bullet album. Made many mixed tapes in Islamabad over the years, and the handwriting on the first pic in the article is the same on all of ours!
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Jun 25, 2019 02:25am
Wow! This was fun reading...brought back many good memories from yesteryears. I used to make my own mixed cassette songs by using my sterio deck at home. Although it did take considerable time to prepare the tapes, the end result was very satisfying. Used to love listening to Def leopard, especially their songs from the Hysteria album.
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Jun 25, 2019 08:57am
That song selection itself wins.
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Dr Accountant
Jun 25, 2019 09:32am
Aaah the sweet memories that this write-up brings back !! I'm sure in late 80's it was tough getting hands on decent music in Islamabad, however imagine the same but in Peshawar !! We weren't allowed to listen to Indian music and I am so thankful to this day to my parents for not allowing us to watch Indian movies and listen to Indian music but anyway, our only option was English music. Although I did have plenty of cassettes, but a friend of mine who had moved from Lahore to Peshawar shared a mix-tape by his older brother with me and God I still remember and love all of those songs (some pop mostly rock). I listen to Alone by Hearts and Paradise by Phil Collins and La Isla Bonita by Madonna to this day, but instead of cassettes it's on my phone and my USB and laptop !
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Syed Adeeb
Jun 25, 2019 10:31am
Oh! so beautifully written, takes me back in time, great music it is. Thoroughly enjoyed the article and would request the writer to keep 'em coming. I am still holding on to a huge collection of the cassettes despite getting various warnings from my better half on space utilization!
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Jun 25, 2019 11:15am
Excellent article. nostalgic and could connect with a similar feeling with Western music audio in the 80s, Nazia Hassan songs in the 80s. Well written, kudos.
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Jun 25, 2019 11:40am
I still have two original cassettes of Boney-M from oden music Japan which I bought from Bara Peshawar 70s.
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Jun 25, 2019 12:25pm
A wonderful article about simpler quieter times.
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Jun 25, 2019 12:59pm
"Islamabad was a quiet, small bureaucratic town where everybody took themselves too seriously." Wow. I'd really like to read about your thoughts on Islamabad.
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Jun 25, 2019 01:21pm
A wonderful article about quieter simpler times.
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Jun 25, 2019 04:52pm
I remember radio city also did mix tabes in Islamabad and then there was blue bells in Peshawar. The times, the constraints and the music what memories. From the old is gold to pink floyd, led zapplin, def leppard, mettalica, pantera, Nirvana ........
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Jun 25, 2019 05:07pm
Wholesome..I still have all of my cassette collection from the 90's..some of them were mixtapes but many of them were albums by rock bands as at that time there weren't any pre-recorded mix cassettes readily available, since a mixed tape costed more, I had to save up 25 rupees to finally get my hands on favorite rock album I had my eyes on! Good times!
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Jun 25, 2019 06:07pm
Wow!!! Dawn . Its a please always pleasure reading the offbeat articles published. It is like chicken soup for the soul....Thanks
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Jun 25, 2019 08:43pm
Great nostalgia! I remember those mixtapes well. It involved a lot of time, effort and money to put them together.
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