My daughter Sian and I are going to the Beanbag Cinema in Belfast this Saturday night to see the Frank Zappa documentary, Eat That Question. And tonight I’m remembering an old cassette of Zappa tracks that I was given (unbelievably) 30 years ago, and which I still have…
Everybody’s talking about vinyl these days, but few of us seem to miss the cassette – the compact little box which contained a multitude of riches, the mixtape and the occasionally strange bedfellows that cassette recording would make - I have a number of those in mind, Big Star next to Marc Cohn or Elton John on the other side of Steely Dan, for example.
There’s a cardboard box somewhere full of these little boxes that I just couldn’t throw away – many of them had been put together for me by the late Phil Sinclair from his shop in Portrush, who crosses my mind from time to time. So I see his handwriting on old Curtis Mayfield collections, and I just can’t throw them away, even though I have all these tracks on CD now...
There’s one that Phil had nothing to do with though, and it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a TDK chrome tape, 90 minutes, and on the front it says simply one word in Orange felt tip – ZAPPA. No track listing, just that one word.
Here’s why it’s special. The first job I ever had in my life was in Kentucky Fried Chicken in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast. I lasted four days – not because of any fault on my part, but because I ended up getting another job and leaving. The first guy I met, after the manager, was Keith. I remember him as a stocky, reddish-haired guy about my age.
He showed me the ropes – he’d been there for ages and he knew all the angles. And he was good fun. He was my first workmate, when I think of it. He was a hi-fi fanatic, and he once asked me to accompany him on a lunchtime run to Lyric Hi-Fi to look at some separates – amplifiers, speakers, receivers, etc. I remember it was a rain-soaked afternoon, and we got into his mini. The car was a flying machine – he had shoehorned a bigger engine into the chassis, and stripped out everything that could potentially weigh it down and slow it up – so there were roll bars, but no back seats and no carpets. There was a hole in the floor between my feet. I could see the road racing by underneath, and occasionally we sloshed through deep puddles and my ankles would be awash with rain water.
We had a conversation on the way, about music, and he raved about Frank Zappa, as Zappa fans will do to this day. I had only ever heard ‘City of Tiny Lites’, with an extraordinary early claymation video, on The Old Grey Whistle Test (which had transfixed me) and he assured me there were riches galore to be savoured.
On the day that I was leaving he presented me with the cassette, simply with the word ZAPPA on the front. I took it home and was hooked, and have been hooked ever since. There was no way of knowing what was on there – lots of bizarre instrumentals, and no indication of which versions they were. There’s a beautiful version of Peaches En Regalia, for example, but it’s not the original. There’s Trouble Every Day with some INCENDIARY guitar (the hair goes up on my arms as I think of it) and lots more beside – Love of My Life, City of Tiny Lites, Cheepnis, Ship Ahoy, all kinds of wonderful stuff.
It’s made all the more remarkable by the quality of the sound – a good strong signal on a chrome tape is a lasting thing. It sounds as fresh today as it ever did, and it reminds me pungently of that time. And the weird thing is – I don’t really WANT the original albums on CD. I just want to put that tape on again, and NOT KNOW what comes up next.