In the summer of 1979, after ‘having a go’ in a couple of noisesome and loathsome punk groups, I found myself in a bedsit on the outer fringes of the DIY universe recording experimental soundscapes for avant-garde tape compilations under various pseudonyms. Inspired and informed by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle in particular, but also by This Heat, Alternative TV and the most famous unknown group in my hometown The Lemon Kittens, aural terrorism seemed like the logical next step for punk’s Do It Yourself ideal. Why bother with three chords when one or none at all would do?
In the cracks and margins across the land, hordes of youthful, similarly inspired, non-musicians were doing likewise, messing around with cheap synths, primitive drum machines, reel to reels, radios, and any other bits of circuitry they could get their hands on. Much like my own rudimentary scrapings, the blips, bleeps, cacophonous symphonies and noisescapes they created came as something of a shock to unsuspecting listeners conditioned by the regular time signatures and instrumentation of Trad Rock. Rejected out of hand by the new independent labels, and without the necessary funds to put out their own records, these sonic adventurers sought salvation in the cassette.
For those in the margins it was the ultimate product of convenience. All that was needed to become an active participant in the DIY underground was a couple of cassette decks, cheap blank tapes, access to a photocopier, a few Jiffy bags and some stamps. Distributed exclusively by post and publicised via the fanzine network and subsequent word of mouth, cassette culture began to flourish like rampant weeds. With no-one to please but themselves, not only did experimentalists push the limits of what was possible sonically, visually and physically the ever increasing number of releases looked and felt like an authentic counter culture, purposefully created to oppose commercialism.
Of course, that wasn’t quite the whole story. Despite the torrent of C60’s and C90’s, vinyl remained the Holy Grail with even the most unlistenable experimentalist harboring a desire to make a record. After all, Throbbing Gristle had been doing it for years? Consequently, one way or another, almost every cassette label or artist of any note made the transition to vinyl as soon as they possibly could, so much so that by the end of 1982, cassette culture had moved out of the bedroom to become just another forgotten footnote in the murky annals of post punk history.
While I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I guess cassettes were a means to an end for me too, a 20 year old kid releasing some of the great music he was hearing the only way he could. After setting up X Cassettes in 1980 to release a smorgasbord of experimental and more conventional DIY, through sheer, dogged persistence and determination I worked my way through a number of self-financed record labels before the relative success of Criminal Damage Records which kept me away from the soul sapping reality of a ‘proper’ job for another five years. Through it all, I never did forget it had been the humble cassette that set me off on my years of brilliant misadventures, but not for a moment did I consider they held any long lasting value. I didn’t even keep copies for myself!
In fact, I didn’t give cassette culture a second thought until the 21st century when the new DIY revolution of MP3’s and file sharing rekindled an interest in this most obscure of sub cultures. Thanks to writers like Tim Naylor, sites like Die Or DIY and Hyped To Death’s Messthetics series, the thousands of cassettes forgotten by all but the most ardent collectors, were dug up, digitised and made freely available, which is where the ten tracks here come in. Featuring the odd familiar name, they represent some of the more enigmatic sounds from my long distant past; the ghosts in the machinery operating so far off the dial no-one noticed they were missing.
01 KARL BLAKE ‘Love So Much Like Violent Death’ (The New Pollution 1979 Daark Inc)
Introduced to the music of Karl Blake by my friendly second hand record dealer Baz Wall who just happened to be a part time Lemon Kitten and DIY dabbler himself, I spent many a happy hour being plied with tea and cake by his lovely Mum while he educated me in the relative merits of the European avant-garde, The Kittens and Karl Blake’s Daark Inc tapes. It was Baz’s teaching and hearing the likes of The New Pollution for the first time that ultimately led to my purchase of a cheap catalogue synth, a not so cheap Sharps double cassette recorder and my own sonic experiments.
02 PHILIP JOHNSON ‘Radio City’ (Radio City May 1979 Philip Johnson Tapes)
The absolute epitome of early DIY, Radio City provided a fantastic step by step to guide to non-musicianship for the uninitiated. Releasing around 20 cassettes between 1979 and 1981 alone, Philip Johnson seems to have been forgotten in the most recent wave of interest, but given how his seemingly random soundscapes tended to operate far beyond even the outer limits of experimentation, I can’t say I’m surprised.
03 ANOTHER VIEW ‘Dance’ (A Career In Dancing September 1980 Abstractions)
I remember A Career In Dancing being something of a revelation when it first came out, largely because it was light years away from the predominantly absurdist image foisted on cassette culture by the old hippies at Fuck Off Records and groups like Danny & The Dressmakers. I hated all that puerile shit. Thankfully, Another View were very serious chaps indeed and sounded like they knew exactly what they were doing, as opposed to bumbling along singing songs about ‘Ernie Bishop’s Dead Body’ or ‘Edward Exposing Her Mammary Glands’!
04 ROBERT LAWRENCE & MARK PHILLIPS ‘Production Line (No Human)’ (The Dadacomputer 1981 Quick Stab Productions)
Deep within the underbelly of cassette culture there were a handful of releases regarded as bonafide classics of the format. A Career In Dancing was one of them, The Dadacomputer another. The fascinating result of a postal collaboration between budding electronica genius Robert Lawrence in Bristol and Mark Phillips in Cardiff, their synthesis of Cold War pop, disembodied voices and surreal experimentation produced a hidden gem that sounds like the perfect soundtrack for some bleak, retro futurist, dance party.
05 PORTION CONTROL ‘In Pursuit Of Excellence’ (Gaining Momentum 1981 In Phaze)
With their handful of vinyl albums and the proto dance majesty of ‘Raise The Pulse’, the first incarnation of Portion Control were belatedly revered as EBM pioneers. And yet, like thousands of others, they started out as youthful DIY’ers seeking a future. The result on Gaining Momentum was some fine, minimalist electronica with a modicum of originality that was fairly typical of what was going on in bedrooms from South London to West Lothian.
06 COLIN POTTER ‘Power’ (The Scythe August 1981 Integrated Circuits)
Colin Potter was a slightly mysterious, older figure from a village near York who in his own innocuous, unobtrusive way blurred the lines between experimentation and a crude kind of homemade pop. Despite untold dedication running his own Integrated Circuit studio and label, recording numerous cassettes in his own name, collaborating with everyone who was anyone and appearing on almost every compilation of note, he remains a complete unknown.
07 CUSTOMER SERVICE ‘Call Me Dynamic’ (Bits Compilation October 1981 X Cassettes)
Reconnecting with the music you administered into the world way back when is like a disturbing outer body experience, forcing you to confront your 21 year old self when you’d almost certainly rather not. Like many cassette compilations of the period, Bits is a weirdly fascinating time capsule of the amazing, insanely creative, post punk year that was 1981. And for me at least, Customer Service, one of Steve Fisk and Steve Peter’s many sound experiments, were an integral part of all that.
08 CULTURAL AMNESIA ‘Repetition For This World’ (Endzeit Compilation February 1982 Power Focus Records)
Known more for the involvement of their mentor and occasional collaborator John Balance of Psychic TV and Coil than in their own right, Cultural Amnesia’s industrial post punk slotted perfectly into the DIY underground. With only three cassette releases in as many years before going their separate ways, their reputation came via appearances on highly regarded compilations like Snatch Tapes 2, Endzeit and Rising From The Red Sand.
09 MUSLIMGAUZE ‘Milena Jesenska’ (Opaques 1983 Product Kinematograph)
One of the more intriguing characters within the DIY milieu was Bryn Jones and his recordings as Muslimgauze. Named in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, his interest in the politics of the Middle East would become an obsession that confounded even his own family. In fact, in his short lifetime (he died in 1999, aged just 37) he was never a Muslim, never had any direct contact with the Arab world, never travelled to the Middle East and had no desire to do so. Recorded before Jones infatuation was fully formed, ‘Milena Jesenska’ is his tribute to the renowned Czech ideologist and writer.
10 NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS ‘Going Under’ (Rising From The Red Sand Volume Four Compilation September 1983 Third Mind)
The crème de la crème of cassette compilations, the Rising From The Red Sand series provided such a wealth of innovative experimentation so different to the norm that it has long been considered the absolute apex of the DIY underground. Following the last of its five volumes, the lo-fi, low budget constraints of cassette culture really did have have no place left to go but vinyl, which funnily enough is exactly where Rising From The Red Sand ended up, albeit 30 years later.