Americana Vinyl Treasures: Various Artists “The Tape With No Name”

NME 1987

For many, in its 70s and 80s heyday, the New Musical Express was a profound force in shaping their musical DNA. Its championing of the snotty nosed punk brats and its ensuing devotion to the new and the challenging set the future path for many. A path that some would say became overgrown with their intellectually pretentious advocating of any noisy and tuneless ‘art-driven’ music that could be erroneously tagged with a philosophical label – post-modern, situationist, deconstructionist pop music anyone?

What tends to be forgotten by those misty eyed souls reliving the halcyon days of Morley and Penman as some kind of anarchic, free for all journalistic freakshow, where Barthes or Debord might crop up in a review of The Distractions first single, is that it was oh so much more than that. As well as its righteously angry left-leaning politics and its fundamentalist obliteration of prog-rock, heavy metal and all such ‘neanderthal’ pursuits the NME was also a mighty vessel of music we had never come across before. In its attempts to chronicle “Where the music’s been, where it’s going but mostly what the hell it’s doing now” the paper produced a series of cassette tapes that can be said to have done just that. For 7 years between 1981’s Dancing Master and 1988’s Indie City II they released 37 compilations, including the iconic C86 set and plenty of others filled with whatever indie, indie pop/rock, indie-funk, indie-jazz or indie-(insert your own genre here) that was of the moment.

So much for the “…what the hell it’s doing now” part of the manifesto but “Where it’s been” was equally well served. In the first two years of these tapes there were compilations of soul, latin jazz and boogaloo, R&B and jump-blues, jazz and reggae. In the early 80s though, country music was far less acceptable to the UK audience of growing up punks, nascent indie kids and emerging new romantics than blues, soul or jazz.

There wasn’t much in the early days of these tapes that would have sat well with AUK, with only tracks by The Long Ryders, Gun Club, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, The Daintees and The Boothill Footappers coming even close. It took nearly four years to get the ‘contemporary country’ cassette ‘Neon West’ and even then this was little more than a promo vehicle for the 70s and 80s back catalogue of RCA (side 1) and Warners’ (side 2).

Compiled, as most of the tapes were, by Roy Carr and Fred Dellar, ‘Neon West’ tried hard to fit some kind of outsider (outlaw?) template that was in line with NME’s worldview. Despite introducing Guy Clark, Emmylou, Waylon and GP to this new audience, ‘Neon West’ just had too many flat out crap selections that far too easily fitted the stereotype of flabby, soulless country music by rote, which was our received wisdom of the time. Too much of ‘Neon West’ was too close to the preening coiffed Nashville of the 70s and 80s and couldn’t have seemed less relevant to the NME audience if it had offered up Emerson, Lake and Palmer in rhinestone suits.

‘Neon West’ then did little to change the perception of country as corny, conservative, and crass, which much of it was if truth be told. Whilst this may be similar to lots of other genres, the bias against country was more profound than most. This sniffy attitude remains, occasionally raising its head, unashamedly parading its narrow – yet somehow also superior minded – prejudice as if it were a badge of honour, a sign of some innate superiority. It remains disappointing to very occasionally note that the AUK community is not immune to an odd case of the country sniffles either.

Still, ‘Neon West’ had breached the country music barricades and three years later came the full scale invasion, with ‘The Tape with No Name’. There had been rave reviews of the occasional country-ish LP such as Jason and The Scorchers and The Blasters it’s true. But these could easily be tarred with the punky brush and passed off as having little to do with actual country music and it helped that they came ready stamped with the Cali-punks seal of approval too. When ‘The Tape with No Name’ arrived, for a lot of the NME’s punk raised, post-punk weaned and indie fed massive this was the final nod of approval for country (alt or not), or as Roy Carr would have it in his sleeve notes; “The Hard Core of New Country”.

The new artists featured on the compilation (Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Highway 101 and Patty Loveless…) drew inspiration from their gritty, stripped-down roots and some of these roots were presented alongside, as an easy primer for the uninitiated (Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine). The tape jumps in with both feet, leading off with Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’ as it sets out to prove that country can be as varied, affecting, creative, funny, pulse racing, and achingly lovely as any music on the planet. It also chimes with the socially aware left leaning position of the NME at the time. Whilst neither the compilation nor the artists who appear on it are overtly political like say Rock Against Racism or Red Wedge were, there was still a sense that they were on the side of the angels.

For many (100s, 1,000s tens of 1,000s?) this compilation laid the foundations of alt-country and, ultimately, americana. It may seem a little old hat now, seeing as how such a large number of these artists and their songs have passed into country (oh go on then…) americana elder stateshood. Even most of the ones who didn’t quite achieve this status have managed decent lengthy careers, whilst one or two remain little more than a footnote to the moment – Georgia Brown anyone?

The status of ‘The Tape with No Name’ in the NME firmament, the esteem with which it was held even, can be seen by noting that it was one of only 5 out of 37 tapes to be pressed on vinyl (at last!). A mere 750 ‘Not for Sale’ copies were produced, in packaging that reflected the tape with that cool as fuck pic of new country poster boy Dwight on the cover. This LP is now a careworn artefact to which I turn on a regular basis, when I want to remember just how thrilling it felt to be part of what I thought at the time was really something to be part of. Putting on this record rolls the years away and for 70 plus minutes makes all the possibilities and potential of 1987 real again.

Availability

Despite it’s relative scarcity copies of the 2-LP vinyl version do crop up from time to time and are likely to set you back around £25-£30. The cassette version is more easily obtainable for £3-£5.

Fun fact: there is a neat direct reference to this George Strait track on Margo Cilker’s latest LP.

About Guy Lincoln 74 Articles
Americana, New Country, Alt-country, No Depression, Twangcore, Cow-punk, Neo-traditionalists, Countrypolitan... whatever.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

3 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sandison

Bloody brilliant review. Takes me right back – in a good way 😄

Andrew Riggs

Interesting read bur the likes of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks took this to different place.

Michael

Great article. No exaggeration to say that my listening was changed forever by that cassette. My first introduction to Lyle (still my favourite), Nanci, Dwight, John Prine, k.d. and others. There is a re-created version on Spotify, missing a couple of tracks but a great listen.