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From the Vault

July 28, 2010

Out of all radio jargon, “from the vault” is my favourite expression. If I ever hear it said on air I imagine (and sometimes this is assisted  by sound effects, depending on the calibre of the station) the big, heavy door swinging open, releasing a pale, music mole, who spends their life digging through the obscurities of the past, inside the vault.

I think about “the vault” when looking through the boxes of cassettes I have carried around with me through numerous house moves. I rarely listen to them, but am unwilling to discard them.

I used to love making cassettes from the radio. It was my favourite pastime when hanging out in the only place I ever felt happy as a teenager, my bedroom. Besides the bed, the double tape deck was the most important thing in the room. It was located on the bedside table, with the cassettes piled up on shelves underneath it. They were here with other important things, such as my diary and various analgesics (I spent a lot of my teenage years sick, my body host to persistent and mysterious pains). This self is still inside me somewhere, though I have grown many layers around her, all the adult layers of experience and confidence.

While people often branch out into new projects enabled by new technologies or forms of communication – eager Twitterers, novels for the iPad – I have found the opposite to be true for me. (How surprising.) Recently the CD component of the stereo in my study followed the radio into electrical oblivion, leaving only the tape deck functioning. A more proactive person would perhaps deem it time for a new stereo, I decided to listen to my cassettes.

I have approximately 200 of them, in various boxes, in various stages of decay. Some of them are instantly familiar, others are mysterious. Not all are mine, a fair percentage of them belonged to my friend Natasha, an even more avid cassette maker than I. After she died I inherited a few boxes of them, and they mixed in with mine.

One thing about cassettes is that the touch of the person who made the compilation remains, in the squeaks and pops of the stops and pauses between songs. In this way, they capture a moment in time from years long past. Most of my cassettes are from the 1990s, and I like to think that something of that time has been captured along with the music, an ambience, from those long ago gestures.

There is also pleasure in knowing I am listening to something that no one else is, these tapes are unique with their imperfections and jumps are the opposite of the smooth slide between files on shuffle. The moment where I pressed record at the wrong time, interrupting the song, the few seconds of a radio announcer’s voice, the song stopped halfway, when I decided I didn’t like it after all.

Many of these and other interesting ideas were elegantly described in Anwyn’s article in Mess + Noise, Memes of a Mixtape, in which I am quoted. Of all subjects I’ve ever been asked about for a story or article, this was probably my favourite. 

Before they succumb to mould, and tape players cease to be manufactured, I feel like my cassettes deserve another listen.

Exhibit A

When I started making zines back in the 1990s, some of the other zine makers I befriended were the brothers who made the zine Circumstantial Evidence, a beautiful and comprehensive music zine that, even though I knew little about the bands they wrote about, was written with so much passion and humour that it didn’t matter how much I knew about the subject.

Circumstantial Evidence was an influential force on me, not just because it was a great zine, but because they really seemed to believe in me and my zines. At the time, I wondered why, especially because I liked daggy goth music (Note: now not daggy, quite fashionable) and my zines were so slapdash in comparison.

This is a compilation of many of the bands that they wrote about in their zine, including some of my favourites, like the Cannanes, Simon Joyner, Ashtray Boy and others who I only know about from this tape like Bill Hoover. His song, “The day of the lawnmower”, is obviously home recorded, like a lot of these songs – and really home recorded, with a tape player, not the full studio that one’s parents happen to have in their garage. (I remember looking at a Brunettes CD with Kieran and him snorting in disgust at the fact they said they recorded it at home, but the engineers were people like the Neil Finn. Disingenuous!)

“The Day of the Lawnmower” is really like a short story drawled out to music, an afterthought, that just happened to be sung rather than thought, or told over the kitchen table. You can hear something in the background, maybe even someone doing the dishes, at least that’s what I choose to believe.

I was sitting on the stairway, watching this diorama, Kenneth and Margaret and Gimme-a-Break, gathered around a lawn machine. It couldn’t start. Kenneth had driven over a rock. Gimme-a-Break was standing with her arms folded across her waist. She was as big as a house, she had a t-shirt that had gimme a break spraypainted across it that’s why I call her gimme a break. (Looks like she needed one too)…

The rest of the song elaborates on this suburban crisis. Will the lawnmower be fixed? As you have probably little chance of tracking down this song (a guess, who knows, it could be #1 for all I pay attention these days) I will tell you that yes, it ends happily, the lawn machine gets fixed up again.

My other favourite on this tape is the Simon Joyner song, but I’ll save talk of him for when I eventually get to The Simon Joyner Tape. Where it is exactly, I’m not sure, but I have listened to it probably hundreds of times.

As for this one yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed my chrome 60 minute tape, thank you.

The Magnetic Fields Metro 15th May


This is the bootleg cassette I made on my dictaphone when I went to see this show in 2001. Being in love with 69 Love Songs, and then the complete back catalogue (including side projects) of the Magnetic Fields, I was beside myself when they came out to Australia.

My goth period well and truly over, I had devoted myself to the land of pop by this stage. The shorter and poppier the song, the odder the lyrics, the better.

I guess I made this tape to re-live the night, or perhaps just to have something of it that I could take away, some tangible memory. I don’t know that I imagined I would be listening to it 10 years later – I almost surely wasn’t considering life 10 years later at the time, I think I was still convinced that at some point I’d have to “grow up”, and didn’t like the thought. I should not have worried.

We were seated at one of the front tables at the Metro, and my tape captures the loud and distinctive laugh of one of my friends, which is, unfortunately the dominant feature of the tape. The in between song banter is barely perceptible, even if I turn up the volume and go right up to the speaker. Stephin Merritt’s deadpan jokes are somewhere lost under layers of fuzz and my friend’s lively laugh cuts through it periodically. Listening to the tape of the show, despite my best efforts, is like looking back at an old photograph album, rather than a restoration of past times in my imagination.

I still love the songs though, listen to 69 Love Songs reasonably regularly, and enjoy making mental top tens of my favourite songs from it. On any day, that list will be different and sometimes I will rediscover a song I previously disregarded, and it will be my favourite for a little while. Of all the albums I’ve ever bought, it has probably given me the greatest value for money in this regard!

White-out Ghost Tape (Natasha)

I can see under the white out on the label that this once had This Mortal Coil on it, which I believe she replaced with a CD, leaving this one open for something new.

These tapes are always an adventure, on which I encounter all sorts of shreds of songs from Triple J in the 90s (she lived in the country and this was the only decent station she could get – and Triple J was reasonable in the 1990s, though if I listen to it now I feel my intelligence decreasing by the minute), songs taped from other sources, five second grabs of songs from the tape’s previous incarnations.

One section of this tape has selections from the Richard Kingsmill show “The J Files” which I now remember used to have specials on particular bands and years. This time it is a special on 1983, and Karma Chameleon appears, a song I have never felt completely convinced by, due to the harmonica, though I like the way the lyrics tumble around. After it is I Hear Motion by the Models, which is more my thing. I have loved the album Local and/or General for almost half my lifetime. It helps me to imagine my dream version of the 1980s, which is a world of crumbling old buildings in the inner west and people with floppy hair and ragged clothes having adventures and week long parties, driving old bombs around, and then either dying of overdoses or becoming parents/yoga instructors by the time I was old enough to join in.

Every now and again a familiar announcers voice cuts in, Helen Razer (whose books turn up with great regularity in op shops, I find), or other announcers whose voices I know but whose names I don’t. One chap is enthusing about the abusive messages that Courtney Love had been leaving on people’s websites. Has anything much really changed? She’s still doing it on Twitter if the Mx newspaper is to be believed.

Songs I was happy to hear again included: Aquamarine by the Clouds, Be My Light, Be My Guide by Gene (though I didn’t like it at the time, now it reminds me of the time), and Custard’s first single, which I think was called Bedford. The name isn’t mentioned in the song but I managed to dredge it up through the oceans of my memory for pop music, a vast place where outdated facts and gossip swims.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. tim permalink
    July 29, 2010 2:41 pm

    Great! Looking forward to the next issue. This makes me think that Karma Chameleon is best listened to in a laundromat.

  2. Fionaberryf permalink
    August 7, 2010 2:29 pm

    Do you remember sitting in your room with the door closed, hunched over the tape player with our ears pressed to the speakers, straining to hear late 80s pop on the radio, played at low volume in case Mum heard that we were listening to rubbish music?

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      August 7, 2010 5:43 pm

      Yes! And now all I like is rubbish music. . .
      That tape player was a very significant object.

  3. Mick permalink
    November 19, 2012 7:15 am

    Stumbled on this article looking for links to Simon Joyner. I remember the C.E mix tapes very fondly. I can remember almost all the words to the lawnmower song even now almost 15 years later- I love the bit where Gimme-a-Break says ” oooooh ooooh I love you ” near the end. My tape is lost to time- do you know where I could get a copy or even an MP3 ? Thanks Mick. P.s I found an album of old singles by Simon Joyner on Spotify called beautiful losers which has “fearful man” on it- an all time favorite of mine. Cheers

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      November 19, 2012 9:13 pm

      Yes those C.E. tapes were fantastic. I still have mine but have no way to duplicate them. I sometimes hear from the C.E. folks and next time I do, I will ask about maybe putting an mp3 copy into the world.
      So many good Simon Joyner songs. When I was listening through cassettes one mixtape had The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll on it, I love that song.

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