Cassettes that inspired me during the summer of 1996

I was listening to Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose” today, and I was reminded of my music listening experiences during the summer of 1996.

Before I graduated from high school, I had gotten a Sony boom box for Christmas. It was one of those deals that had detachable speakers, a CD player on the top, and a dual cassette deck. I had also gone through a couple of Walkmen by that summer (portable cassette players were not terribly reliable – or good for cassettes – particularly when you actually walked around with them), but had not yet upgraded to a Discman (that would be 1997). Therefore, my Walkman got plenty of use around campus during my first couple of years of college.

The summer of 1996 was my first summer as a member of The Previous. We had each gone home from school, and spent almost all of our time playing apart from one another. It was also somewhat slow – I wasn’t able to work with my father at his company, so I spent the summer busing tables and washing dishes at a local diner whenever I could. Even so, I had a lot more time on my hands than I had had during previous summers, and when I wasn’t playing guitar, bass, or piano, I was listening to music.

At some point during the summer, my family and I went to North Carolina on vacation. My aunt and uncle own a place on a lake down there, and so we spent a couple of weeks there. Now, in the summer, lake water is like bath water, and temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees. Being a northern boy, I have a difficult time being comfortable in those types of temperatures. As a result, I spent a lot of my vacation on a hammock in the shade, with a huge beverage, a book, and my Walkman and cassettes, trying to sweat as little as possible.

Since I had no CD player outside, I made liberal use of my Walkman and my rechargeable AA batteries. Cassettes were beginning to go out of style at that point, but I had very practical uses for them. For one thing, I could tape recordings off the television and listen to them more carefully at my convenience. I did this for airings of MTV Unplugged (for Nirvana, Live, and Alice In Chains), as well as Live In London (Foo Fighters, The Cure) during my college years. Another benefit was that I could put an entire album on a 60 minute tape, or two albums on a 90 minute tape (less a couple of songs in some circumstances). During this portion of my life, I did this all the time.

What follows is a list of the dubbed cassettes that were mainstays of my music listening during the summer of 1996.

Soundgarden – Down On The Upside / Superunknown

Upside came out in the early part of 1996, and I snapped it up as soon as I had the opportunity. I had read about it: it was self-produced, with no restrictions on creativity, the best and most satisfying way to follow up a multi-platinum success that had taken a lot of time, effort and production to complete. I had seen the video for “Pretty Noose”, and loved the bass lines and the general vibe of the song.

At this time in my life, I was really getting into the whole concept of albums as a creative collective, as opposed to the ‘rock songs that rock’ mindset that had dominated my life during my earlier teenage years. Ultimately, I don’t necessarily believe that Down On The Upside is better or more creative than Superunknown, but for a long time I dug deeply into the sounds of the album, trying to get into the heads of the band members and reveling in the variety that could be found in different songs: the banjo solos in the frantic “Ty Cobb”, the 9/8 time signature of “Never The Machine Forever,” the vast claustrophobia of “Applebite”, and the euphoric psychedelia of “Overfloater”.

Alice In Chains – MTV Unplugged / Alice In Chains

Around this time, I was growing more interested in acoustic music. I had previously taped Nirvana’s Unplugged performance, as well as those of Live and others. Originally, I had dubbed Alice In Chains’ performance off of the television, but when it came out on CD that summer I had money set aside for it, and I drank it in. Alice In Chains was their newest album, and I picked it up around the same time, but the acoustic performance was what got most of my attention.

Pearl Jam – bootleg cassette

My friend John was a huge Pearl Jam fan, and during my sophomore year he was kind enough to let me dub a copy of a bootleg that he had acquired at some point around the time of Vitalogy. This bootleg contained some live, early versions of songs that would appear on Vitalogy, including “Already in Love” (“Satan’s Bed”) and “Three Days” (“Last Exit”). It also contained songs that were rare, had been included on fan club singles or hadn’t otherwise been released at the time, such as “Let Me Sleep,” “Alone,” and various live/studio covers including The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright”, The Rolling Stones’ “Beast Of Burden”, Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”, and Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up”.

This was a fun look at Pearl Jam. “Alone” has a classic early Pearl Jam sound, while “Let Me Sleep” is warm and somewhat lo-fi with unusual percussion, and “Sonic Reducer” is metallic and aggressive. And the live stuff is just great.

The Previous – Recital 1995; The Previous – Recital 1996

This is actually two cassettes. They were made in the spring of 1995 and 1996 during live shows at my college, and they are as low-quality as possible. The first was taped on the aforementioned boom box, and the second had to be copied from the video tape recording of the show, which was otherwise almost worthless because we only used candles for lighting. Yes, we were young and naive. But I’m sure we’d do it again if we had the chance.

I was in the audience for the first show, and being there did much to enhance my friendship with Kirk, who has lead the band since its inception. I was blown away by the songs and the sound during their performance, and the following fall I was fortunate enough to be a part of the band. The music still moves me to this day, and if I could get my hands on a cassette deck, I would listen to all of my material by The Previous before I listened to anything else.

L.S.U. – The Grape Prophet / Cash In Chaos: World Tour;

Michael Knott – Screaming Brittle Siren / L.S.U. – Grace Shaker

These four albums on two cassettes represented most of my friend Kirk’s collection of Michael Knott/L.S.U. material. Knott, a prolific musician and painter, has released over thirty albums over the past 29 years under a number of band names and as a solo artist. A Christian, he was truly alternative in that he did not conform to musical trends or the expectations of the Christian music industry. His music and lyrics are edgy while also paying tribute at times to artists that he enjoys.

I particularly enjoyed his solo album, Screaming Brittle Siren, although my favorite of his songs is a solo acoustic number called “Deaf and Dumb”, which was released on the Brow Beat Unplugged Alternative compilation. Unfortunately, all of this stuff is out of print. I guess I need to get that cassette deck…

**ooh, I found “Deaf and Dumb” on YouTube! Sweet… šŸ™‚

Metallica – Load

Load is not one of those albums that Metallica fans generally offer as one of their favorites. However, at the time of its release, Metallica had not released a new studio album in five years, and so for a few months I devoured this album.

As many people know, Load was the first of Metallica’s releases to feature less of an in-your-face sound and writing style. Continuing with certain themes introduced on their previous, eponymous album, the songs were even less thrashy than those on Metallica, and the production was top-notch. However, with Load we saw the band dialing back the tight, crisp guitar sounds, instead setting fuller tones back in the mix in order to highlight the vocals, which themselves had less bark and bite (and more actual singing) than ever before. Most of the songs also featured blended, complementary guitar sounds, a direct contrast to the staccato ‘twin-guitar’ attack that had characterized the first five albums. For the first time, Kirk Hammett played rhythm guitars on the album, and often played parts that filled out the sound, resulting in songs that sounded more akin to Soundgarden than Metallica’s thrash brethren.

I said that I devoured the album, hungry Metallica fan that I was. On one hand, I found myself disappointed in the sound, since I loved the tones from Metallica and the aggressiveness of Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All. (Being the ever-hopeful Metallica fan, I wondered if the sound might just be the result of the crappy system that I played the album on at work, but realized that that wasn’t the case when I brought it home and played it on the stereo, where no amount of knob-twisting could compensate for the lack of thrashiness.) On the other hand, I found the album to still be very good, filled with beautifully-blended guitars, bluesier playing, and great songs – they just weren’t thrash metal songs.

The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album);

Cream – Fresh Cream / Disraeli Gears / Wheels of Fire

I had listened to The Beatles – along with other sixties titans Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, etc. – quite a bit as a child, since they were a significant part of my parents’ record collection. In my teens, they fell into the background of my musical consciousness, but came back to the forefront during my college years. In 1996, I began to dub several of my parents’ records onto cassettes to take back to school with me. Of these, the ‘White Album’ and these three Cream albums got the most wear and tear.

The White Album got a lot of play. The cassette with the three Cream albums on it got even more. For several years (beginning around this time), I was high on the music of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton. Cream released four studio albums, but Fresh Cream is an interesting debut, and their second and third were their most fully realized. This was the period of Clapton’s career when I enjoyed his playing the most. The vocals of Jack Bruce had a mysterious vibe to them, which was definitely attractive to me, as was their mix of rocked-up blues songs and psychedelic originals, with lyrics ranging from obscure to humorous to mythological.

While Cream and The Beatles could be difficult to listen to with headphones (due to the ridiculous stereo separation techniques used back then – drums and bass on the left, everything else on the right? Really?? I felt like I was in some weird aural twilight zone…), these were mainstays in my backpack during my college days.

* * * * *

Thinking about my experiences listening to these albums back then is fun. College was a learning experience, but not just in the classroom. Music was my closest companion during these years, and the start of college was the beginning of a ten-year music discovery phase that I will never have the privilege of experiencing again.

Life is different now. Music is digitized, cassettes and players are in the grave, and if I want to listen to music while I walk around, I have my iPod. Cassettes were not a very good portable medium – other than the fact that they were pretty inexpensive – but they were the last physical format that fostered (forced!) a linear listening experience. Within the limitations of the cassette format, it was awesome to be able to absorb the music from these albums from start to finish, over and over, during those years.

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