My Punk Rock Tape, ca. 1978
I used to have a cassette tape of songs recorded from the radio, from late night punk/new wave themed shows on AOR stations, college radio, and Dr. Demento. Along with the “imports” bin at the Columbus Street Tower Records location and random issues of NME and Trouser Press that managed to come my way, that was my punk rock education right there. (As I’ve explained a bit here.) I played the tape till it broke, and then it continued playing in my mind — till it broke.
This was the first song on it, and it really spoke to me in my capacity as a guy who regarded hippies with considerable disapprobation:
I didn’t know, at the time, that the second song was “The Drawback” by Joy Division from a bootleg of the abandoned RCA recording, but I know it now.
There was, in addition, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” a song I found particularly inspiring and which more than just about anything else set my life on its future unfortunate course.
(The rough analogy here is to seeing a sword-swallower and running away to join the circus, except the only circus available to me to join was the extremely sketchy one in my head. What kind of songs would I have written in later life had I never heard “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”? We’ll never know.)
Other tunes on that tape: the Booji-boy version of Devo’s “Mongoloid”; the Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves”; “My Girlfriend is a Rock”; “We Make a Noise” by the (Leyton) Buzzards; a Buzzcocks song or two I’m sure, as well as some Swell Maps (but no TVPs yet — I didn’t discover them till a bit later); “Sonic Reducer”; “Shot by Both Sides”; “Cherry Bomb”; “I Live off You” by X-ray Spex; “The American in Me”; “Emergency Cases”; “Sick on You”; “Homicide”; the Street Band’s “Toast”; and a good chunk of “I Got My Cock in My Pocket” from the Stooges’ Metallic KO recording.
“One day,” I vowed, “I will have a band and will introduce a song by going: ‘1, 2, fuck you pricks.’” (This was never to come to pass, because, as it turned out, I was quite shy when I finally found myself on stage.)
There was a really catchy Mutants song I can still hum but have never been able to indentify since, as well as the Cortinas’ “Fascist Dictator” which was another song that loomed particularly large for 14-year-old me, for some unknowable reason:
Finally, there was this song by the Nuns that I always thought was “A Little Masturbation” but learned was actually “Mental Masturbation” when I interviewed them during one of their comeback attempts on my own college radio show years later. In fact, the song title (as I discovered just now searching for a youtube link) is “Going Down”:
I’m not sure if it was that live recording on my tape, but it could well have been, and it sure brings back memories. I used to walk around singing wildly inaccurate, much ruder, and much more meticulously rhymed lyrics to it in that quasi-psychotic under-my-breath way I had, walking through the school halls with my head down to avoid inadvertant eye contact with mean kids.
So yeah, I could reconstruct most of the contents of this tape if I had to, though there are some tunes I still haven’t ever located or identified. (I think there may have been one song whose chorus went “they’re just mammary glands” — I can hear it in my head, but maybe I’m projecting because there seems to be no trace of it out in the world. Pretty good idea for a song though, whether it exists or not. Also there was what I remember as a great cover of “Puppy Love” that was mostly drums. )And I certainly may be conflating it with other tapes or mis-remembering in a variety of ways. The reason it feels remarkable that I can remember so many details about it is that so much else about what sort of person I was and what things were like at the time are so fuzzy.
But there are two things about my punk rock tape, ca. 1978, that can never be reconstructed.
One is the audible artifact of the method of compilation, which was to press play at the beginning of each song played on the radio, hoping it would be good, and rewinding if it turned out not to be and starting again when the next song came along. So the songs were separated by the loud shuffly noise caused by doing that (because I didn’t always use the pause-record method like I should have.) Most of the songs had bits of other songs at the beginning and end from the segues. All of these features are still very much present when the songs play in my head. To this day, if I hear “Mongoloid” without a big snare roll starting during the fade out and cutting off with a guy going “waaaah” followed by a tape head smother-y sound that lasts several seconds, it just sounds wrong. The quality really varied, too, because though some were recorded from a tape deck directly connected a stereo, many were also added by playing friends’ similarly-compiled tapes and holding our two portable cassette players up against each other, resulting in a muffled, distorted, and sometimes warped sound, along with some occasional background noise as well. That’s another thing that still happens when these songs “play” in my head.
The other thing that can’t be reconstructed is the veil of ignorance and mystery that lay over the tape and its contents and the greater world they reflected. There was no reliable way of learning very much about this music, these bands, and the history or context which produced them. For actual information, I substituted private folklore, imaginative constructions of what a band might be called, where they might be from, what the record cover might look like, what the lyrics might have been had they been intelligible, etc. Pretty much everything I imagined I knew about punk rock, like pretty much everything I imagined I knew about everything, was almost totally wrong, but it took on a life of its own.
There’s something weird about saying you value and would like to resurrect a state of profound ignorance but, you know, I kind of do.
And I wish I still had that tape, if only so I could ascertain whether “They’re Just Mammary Glands” was real or merely imagined and projected. I think it may have been real.