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Compilations - A Dying Art?

This piece is occasioned by the appearance, in the latest (November 2019) edition of Wire, of the fifty first ‘Wire Tapper’, a compact disc given away on a regular basis with the magazine and which usually contains around twenty tracks by usually pretty obscure ‘experimental’ artists and bands. Out of this month’s twenty, for example, I’ve only heard of three, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stephen Mallinder and Hieroglyphic Being (I consider myself fairly well informed about music, so it’s usually embarrassing to be proved to be so ignorant!) and often it is even less than this. Generally the Tappers are very much a curate’s egg, and often I just can’t be bothered to wade through eighty-odd minutes of ‘filler’ to sort the wheat from the chaff, but this month’s Tapper really is jolly good, exceptionally so, in fact, so it got me thinking about the history of compilations in rock music across the past five decades or so, and how the format is, arguably, virtually moribund in today’s digital world of ‘adventures in sound and music’.

In my history of such things, rock compilations really started in the late sixties, when record labels, both large and small, decided to take advantage of the burgeoning long player format, and of the ‘underground music scene’ in general, by putting out collections of single, representative tracks of their artists, usually at a cut price rate. For young listeners like myself, these cheap prices were very tempting indeed, and several near-classic products came out of this basic grab bag of the good, the bad and the plain indifferent (and there was a lot of the latter quality, I can assure you). Two examples that I availed myself of, and enjoyed for several months thereafter, were Island Records’ Bumpers, and CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock, both double albums with striking covers and with generally a very high quality quotient. There were several others, that listeners of a certain vintage will be able to recall with affection, I’m sure. The Harvest Bag, You Can All Join In, The Vertigo Annual...This period ended when the counterculture went ‘overground’ with the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music, in and around 1972. The importance of record labels as a defining factor in a band’s presentation went dormant for a few years, until punk and Rough Trade bought it back with a vengeance.

The ‘Second Age’, as I will call it, is in many ways defined by the popular introduction of the cassette tape, from about 1975 onward (’your cassette pet’, as Malcolm McLaren would have it). This cheap and cheerful technology enabled the average fan to record 30/60/90/120 minutes of music on it’s two-sided format, and thus could potentiate a very handy, bespoke, gift for family, friends and, crucially, for people that you fancied. It provided ’the personal touch’, as it were, which had the added bonus of showing how ‘in touch’ you were (or at least aspired to be, in those days when music provided one of the biggest signifiers of personal style). You generally made the tapes up yourself, but the ‘independents caught up, at the cusp of the decade, the most famous of which was Rough Trade, whose C81 could be bought for a couple of quid through the New Musical Express, then perhaps at its most popular and influential. C81 was essentially a ‘post-punk’ compilation, and ‘every hip home had one’ in 1981. I’m listening to C81 as I write this, and am reminded as to how good most of the tracks still are. Cherry Red’s 1982 compilation Pillows and Prayers is another gem from that time. 

The early eighties also saw compilations that celebrated the previous generation’s mavericks - Julian Copes’ Scott Walker tribute Fire Escape in the Sky, and various records, by labels such Bam Caruso, celebrating sixties psychedelia, in the wake of Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets. All these were as much organic collections as were the latest ‘waxing’ by the likes of U2 or ABC. I certainly listen to Chocolate Soup for Diabetics as much as I do to The Lexicon of Love (which, I know, says as much about me as about the discs concerned).


To be continued

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