“Get Into The Mix – Hip Hop / Dance / Electro 1979-’84” Mix Tape

We set the clocks back an hour on Sunday. When I was younger that felt like getting an extra hour of sleep. As I get older, I still wake up at the same “time” on Sunday morning, meaning I’m actually up an hour earlier than normal and end up staying awake for an extra hour. It also means that my 2.5 hour round-trip commute happens entirely in the dark due to the 11 hour days I’m putting in on a project. And as icing on the winter cake, this morning I walked outside to get into my ride at 5:30AM only to realize that for the first time this winter I needed to scrape the ice off my car windows. It’s a glamorous life I lead, my friends.

Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane has been out of town this week for work, so it’s been just me and the Pup in the Vinyl Lane holding down the fort. It also means I don’t eat as well and often can’t muster enough momentum to actually do anything worthwhile. By time I was done with dinner and various odds and ends tonight I found myself with about an hour until I should hit the sack. The smart play would be to read for a bit and then go to bed early… but frankly I’m going to be just as tired at work tomorrow by lunch time whether I do it or not, so I figured screw it, I’m putting on some jams.

Calvin Johnson of K Records fame put out a whole series of homemade mix tapes a while back, and a local shop ended up getting a bunch of them in as apparently they’re being made again. Calvin is all over the place with this stuff – hip hop, new wave, funk, gospel, girl bands, reggae, you name it. Last weekend I grabbed about a half dozen of them. I wasn’t planning on writing about ’em, but what the hell; I’m hanging out on the sofa playing Get Into The Mix – Hip Hop / Dance / Electro 1979-’84 while the Thursday night NFL game passes me by silently on the TV, so I may as well rock the laptop keyboard too.

This is the third of Johnson’s tapes I’ve played, and I’ve enjoyed them all. You can tell most if not all these songs were played on vinyl – the music comes with all the requisite pops and clicks. The packaging is strictly handmade – stickers with handwritten labels on the cassettes, the J cards clearly printed onto paper and cut roughly to size. Exactly what you’d expect from a proper mix tape. The jams are well-curated, and I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve heard of any of these artists – Eartha Kitt, Dimples D, DJ Devine… no clue who they are, but I’m digging this early 1980s electro hip hop. It’s literally brightening my mood despite the fact it’s pitch black outside (the white icicle Christmas lights along the wall, which we keep up year-round, are also helping). Hell, I might even muster up enough energy to go pour myself a cocktail.

I have no clue if these things are licensed or what, but they exist, so if you can find ’em, they’re definitely worth snagging. Allegedly there are over 30 different tapes out there, and I’ve seen them going for anywhere from $8-15. There’s enough music on each one to make them well worth the price.

Mecca Normal – “Calico Kills The Cat” (1988)

One woman said,
“I don’t like the way things are going.”
One woman said,
“I think I’ll change it all.”
— “One Woman”

This encapsulates the Riot Grrrl dream. The Riot Grrrls didn’t get there, because society moves slowly, like a glacier. But it was a step in the right direction. Today we have #MeToo. We’re continuing to make progress. It’s just sad that after this many years we still have so far to go.

Mecca Normal were a duo from Vancouver, BC, and their sophomore album Calico Kills The Cat was released on Olympia, Washington’s forward-thinking label K Records. I’m not sure I can truly say that Mecca Normal remind me of anyone else. The songs are simple – David Lester on guitar and Jean Smith doing vocals. That’s basically it. You don’t even notice the true simplicity of their sound until you focus on it, because you’re so focused on Smith’s forceful and agitated singing.

Their songs are forceful and message-driven. There’s an honesty here that runs deep. And I like everything about it.

The Beakers – “Four Steps Toward A Cultural Revolution” (2004)

I mentioned the The Beakers a few weeks back in a post about 3 Swimmers. The Beakers were the predecessors to much of what became Seattle’s punk scene in the early 1980s, a weird saxophone-wielding-funk-bass-playing collections of art rockers. Fortunately for us during their roughly 13-month lifespan the band left behind enough studio and live material for K Records to put out a compilation of their music in 2004.

There’s a heavy funk element to the bass and the presence of saxophone definitely give many of the tracks an early new wave vibe, and much of it maintains the raw experimental feel of four musicians exploring various spaces and ideas. If you told me that a track like “What’s Important?” was an early Talking Heads song I’d totally believe you, from the David Byrne-esque vocals to the sometimes jarring disjointedness of the music. The half dozen live tracks sound very similar to those recorded in the studio, meaning The Beakers were either adept at intentionally sounding unintentional or, more like, they brought that same experimentation with them to both the studio and the stage.

The isolation that characterized the Seattle punk scene contributed an environment of unbridled creativity. The artists and musicians of the era were free of the corrupting influence of economics and audience.
— Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, from the liner notes of Four Steps Toward A Cultural Revolution

Lest anyone think The Beakers were just some kind of Talking Heads copycats, let’s just be clear that there is a strong undercurrent of garage rock here as well; we need to remember that some of the OG down-and-dirty Northwest rockers were also fond of the saxophone, and there’s a certain dirtiness to some of their sound. Songs like “Fig. 21” could, with just a little tweaking, be turned into respectable surf jams that would have been right at home on a California beach in the 1960s. But it’s their experimentalism that sets The Beakers apart. “I’m Crawling” is arguably the most challenging piece on the record, a sax scatfest that sounds like it’s stabbing Mark H. Smith over and over again based on his tortured and writhing vocals. And that live cover of “Funky Town”? Just put that thing on repeat and play it over and over (and over).

Often these kinds of comps are of primary interest to the localist, the person interested in diving deep into their city’s musical past. And while I kind of expected Four Steps Toward A Cultural Revolution to fit into that category, it’s actually much more than that. It’s an artifact of a certain period of time when there was an undercurrent of music that was trying to discover itself, one operating in an environment that provided enough freedom to encourage taking risks and with just enough of an audience of like-minded seekers to offer a bit of moral support. Much like the No Wave movement that came and went in the blink of an eye, bands like The Beakers are like a transitional fossil in the musical strata, a way to connect the dots and see how we got from A to Z or in this case from punk to new wave and eventually to grunge. And this comp is one small piece of that progression.

“International Pop Underground Convention” (1992)

The International Pop Underground Convention happened in Olympia, Washington in August, 1991, all of about an hour south of where I was living at the time (mind you, I only live about four miles from where I was living then… so I’m still only an hour away)… yet I never heard about it. At all. But when you look at the lineup of bands that played there, it seems like it would have been hard to miss.

One can argue about where the Riot Grrrl movement originated, but certainly one of it’s two or three major strongholds was Olympia, Washington. Now, Olympia is the state capital, so you may think, “Oh, that’s probably a decent sized city and pretty cosmopolitan”. Um, no. That’s no dis on Olympia, mind you – it’s a cool place that seems a lot more like a college town than the hub of state politics (i.e. a nest of serpents). It’s the home of Evergreen State College, arguably one of the most unique accredited colleges in the United States, one that doesn’t give grades for classes but instead written performance reviews of student progress by the faculty, and has a reputation for being very free thinking. Which is also the school Bruce Pavitt was attending when he started his Subterranean Pop (later Sub Pop… and later still Sub Pop records) fanzine as a school project. So in many ways it was the perfect place for something like Riot Grrrl.

It’s also where Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening founded K Records, one of the more out there, truly independent labels of all time and one that put out records (and actually a ton of cassettes) by all kinds of indie and DIY bands. Johnson was also one of the main driving forces behind the International Pop Underground Convention in 1991, a weeklong event that was kicked off by what was at the time a revolutionary idea, an entire show of nothing but female bands from all kinds of genres. That probably doesn’t seem revolutionary today… but in 1991 it was hard for women to get respect in a lot of musical genres like punk, grunge, and metal. It was an important moment in the Riot Grrrl movement.

In 1992 K Records released a live compilation from the festival simply titled International Pop Underground Convention. It features 23 songs by 23 different bands, and the roster is impressive: The Melvins, L7, Courtney Love, Fugazi, Bratmobile, Girl Trouble, The Fastbacks, and of course Beat Happening. The sound quality is solid overall, though since these songs were recorded at different times and different shows, it is a bit inconsistent. Stylistically the bands are all over the place, though the one common factor is the very lo-fi, low-tech, DIY ethic that the bands bring to their songs. It’s all here from the straight up punk of L7 to stripped down pop by the Spinnanes.

I found this record at a shop down in San Diego for less than $10, and I think it’s a bargain at that price. I love live stuff, and I love a comp that not only gives me different bands, but also different styles, so this one is easy to put on the turntable and just let it go.

If you’re interested in more info about the convention, Riot Grrrl, K Records, or any of that stuff, I strongly recommend the 2012 book by Mark Baumgarten, Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. Check it out. It’ll give you something to read while you’re listening to your copy of International Pop Underground Convention.