It starts as a dull heat in the back of my brain, usually triggered subconsciously by a plosive ‘B’, as in the phrases ‘the nominees for this year’s Brit Awards include’, or ‘here’s a clip of the new single from Bastille’. Within a few seconds the studio seems to grey and drift away, as if I’m melting into the dimension one removed from reality where Theresa May lives. The faces of the other guests freeze in the sort of aghast expressions usually reserved for excreto-porn or Louis CK jokes, presenters motion in slo-mo for other people to speak, but it’s just me, ranting, breathless and dizzy, no end or focus to my point in sight, and no audience at the other end of the microphone except my own frenzied inner voices, gibbering and gabbling with the excitement of finally speaking to millions, like the Oxford Circus Jesus preacher getting to guest-host The One Show.
Psychiatrists are only now beginning to recognise a syndrome that I call my Radio Red Mist. I last had it just yesterday, when I was invited to discuss the sudden increase in sales of cassettes on Radio 4’s consumer and business programme You And Yours, the only forum for visceral, firebrand rock’n’roll polemic that’ll have me since I’m clearly too hot for Steve Lamacq’s Round Table to handle. One minute I was talking, quite coherently, about the revival in a physical connection to musical artefacts and the pros and cons of cassettes. The fiddly fast-forwarding. The clunky mechanics. The cold terror of hearing Black Francis start sounding like Nick Cave drowning that tells you, moments too late, that your tape deck is eating your precious spools like it’s ravenous for more of your tasty, tasty money oh god oh god I can’t take it any more…
The Radio Red Mist descended. “I’m embarrassed to have drawers full of old cassettes,” I barked at a shocked audience of economists tuned in for the latest growth predictions, and the thousands who hadn’t changed station after this week’s instalment of Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years. “It’s an obsolete technology that should STAY THAT WAY!”
As with many psychological defects, the Radio Red Mist comes with a euphoric after-rush. I left the BBC studio thinking ‘Yes! Boom! I fucking handed cassettes their arse on a platter, the twats!’. Then comes the guilt, the regret. Why had I been so hard on cassettes? What had cassettes ever done to me? Some of my most formative musical experiences had come via those musical housebricks: delivering local newspapers to the Walkman sounds of Elvis Costello, They Might Be Giants or one of the many ’70s prog albums I’d inadvisedly taped from my dad’s extensive collection; racing down the M2 to university with ‘Doolittle’ roaring from the tape deck like I’m a rubber-burning road demon of sacrilegious gore pop and Canterbury is the gate to hell.
Then there were the lovingly compiled mix-tapes from friends and ex-girlfriends that introduced me to the likes of The Cure, the Manics and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and made me the hopeless indie loser I am today. I owe my entire personality, career and wardrobe full of unwearably skinny, tie-dyed Carter USM t-shirts – not to mention my lifelong disdain of much of the rest of humanity – to those cassettes.
And there, deep at the root of my shameful soul, was the rub. I hate cassettes, want them erased from history with the passion of Piers Morgan retching over a snowflake-flavoured foodstuff, because I was utterly shit at making mix-tapes.
Of the dozens upon dozens of compilations I made for people in my teens and early 20s, none had anything like the desired effect. Not once did I change anyone’s life – no-one’s even thanked me in passing for turning them on to The New Fast Automatic Daffodils or Neutral Milk Hotel. Nobody ever decided I was the love of their life because I’d filled a C90 full of the most seductive Inspiral Carpets tunes and Pulp’s ‘Babies’, and no-one ever came back to me after I sent them a tear-sodden mulch of This Mortal Coil, The Wedding Present and ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay.
My worst ever break-up tape, circa 1993, was actually deemed “terrifying” by its recipient. So fundamentally annihilated was I that our post-uni summer of two-hour phone calls and fortnight of torrid shagging was over that I decided to litter a subtle and tasteful selection of heartbreak songs with snippets of ‘meaningful’ lyrics between the tracks. Little realising that it would have roughly the same aural affect as writing a poignant, heartfelt poetic paean then filling every inch of remaining space on the page with the words ‘DON’T LEAVE ME’ written in pigeon’s blood. I might as well have titled it “Lucky Escape”.
I can’t even say I’ve changed. As making mix-tapes became burning CDs and then curating personal playlists, they’ve still spectacularly failed me. I’ve had arguments about how Spotify playlists aren’t just supposed to be 50 Magnetic Fields songs in a row, and had to stop one particularly magical bedroom moment because ‘Just A Song About Ping Pong’ by Operator Please came on the wooing CD that had worked a charm up until that point. In mood-killing terms, it might as well have been an archive Hitler speech, or an advert for Grammarly.
That’s really why I hate cassettes. They remind me of my most acute failings, my deepest emotional vulnerabilities, my most unfixable weaknesses. Of memories I wish I could change; naïve, broken idiots I wish I’d never been. And that annoying five-minute silence when side one was shorter than side two. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Five Live want to talk to me about the Brits nominations oh god oh god please make it stooooppppp…