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An ode to the mixtape

Each minute was precious and no song could be filler.
Published June 24, 2019

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

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