From the crack of the vinyl, to the hiss of the tape
My name is Felix Patrick Sogra, and when I was fourteen I killed a boy with a C90 cassette. His name was Freddie Beaumont. He liked Leeds United and Level 42, but that’s not why I killed him. Turned out he also liked Ann-Marie Hayward.
Side A, Track 1: Andrew Gold – Thank You For Being A Friend.
Ann-Marie Hayward had scabs on her knees like a child who’d fallen off the swings. She wore her hair in a cute 60’s bob while so many of her contemporaries favoured a Molly Ringwald perm. Her white knee socks, pulled up to just below those scabby dots, were my constant preoccupation throughout double maths. She played piano and violin and got off the bus at the same stop as me. We talked. A lot. I made her laugh. She touched my arm – right on the lump from my TB jab. It didn’t hurt.
“I’ve stopped shaving my legs for winter,” she told me one afternoon. “Fuzzy down will keep them warm and toasty through ‘til spring.” I could’ve cried, I wanted to touch those legs so much.
Side A, Track 4: Elvis Costello – I Stand Accused.
Freddie Beaumont was my best friend until the fourth year. Together we formed a band, Intastellar. Freddie chose the name. I wrote the songs (though mostly we played covers by Echo & The Bunnymen, Squeeze, and Arthur Lee & Love) and played bass; Freddie sang and posed with lead guitar. Steven Wimpenny played drums; I was working up to asking Ann-Marie to join us on keyboards. For some reason, that was an even scarier prospect than asking her to come down the ice rink with me on a Saturday afternoon. With, just me.
Intastellar played only one gig, at the end of term disco, December ’86. Richard Slater, who thought himself the next Ben Elton but sells wallpaper for a living now, introduced us. “Put your hands together for a band that’s like Dr. & The Medics, without Dr. & The Meh—!“
We went down pretty well despite him. Ann-Marie danced, anyway.
Side A, Track 6: Billy Bragg – The Myth Of Trust.
That Christmas, Freddie Beaumont gave me my first ever CD. I should have been more grateful, because CDs were still really expensive back then; the record would have been a lot cheaper. I should have been more grateful, but it was Through The Barricades by Spandau Ballet, and I knew he got it from his Uncle Adrian who worked down the market, so he wouldn’t have paid full price for it anyway. Besides, I hated Christmas and I wasn’t sure I didn’t feel exactly the same about CDs. I didn’t like their silence. Their silvery compact silence. No clunk of needle on groove. No hiss, no fireside spit, no getting-up-to-speed wooooow from a mid-album cold start. No shining a light on the disc, trying to find the space between songs, so you could listen back to that special one that phonographed your whole life. It was all too easy to skip between tracks now. No side one / no side two – how could you choose a favourite? I don’t claim these as original observations, but they are the truth: there was no soul.
Some things are going to happen whether you want them to or not.
Side A, Track 9: Jimmy Ruffin – Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me.
“You fancy her, right?”
I didn’t reply to questions like that, because in my mind I was always better than fourteen. We were playing Hearts in the quad with Wimpenny and Syko (Intastellar’s would-be Tony Wilson) and Wimps had just taken a real kicking – the Queen of Spades and all but one heart. He thought he was going for them all; the rest of us knew he never stood a chance.
“Come on, mate – it’s obvious.” Ignoring Freddie was like ignoring George Michael. He wasn’t going to quit, and girls would still want his photo on their bedroom wall. For a time, anyway. “I don’t blame you. She’s got something, she’s certainly got… something. It’s not a blatantly sexy thing, not like say Adele Sloan, who – bless me, I would, if she hadn’t been with that moron Ian Deakin on the French trip – but I’m fucked if I’m snogging a mouth what’s had that in it.”
“Eurrrghh!” said Syko, and slapped Freddie hard in the chest. “Freddie! I’ve just had me chips!”
Freddie waved a retaliatory fist in Syko’s snout, then ploughed on like his brakes were bust. “But, y’know – Ann-Marie, yeah… you and Ann-Marie, I can see that, mate. So what the fuck you waiting for? Ask her!”
“Yeah!” said Wimpenny
“Ask her!” added Syko.
“Before some other chump…”
“She’s not…” Oh, I realised this wasn’t the time or place for a sincere declaration of my feelings, but sometimes you just can’t help myself. The words were vetted before they came out, and I was well aware of the consequence, but I wasn’t ashamed to be mocked. Did Smokey Robinson give a toss if his mates took the piss out of him when he poured his heart into ‘I Second That Emotion’? I don’t think so.
“She’s not like other girls.”
Syko spewed into his fist, Wimps wrapped his hands round his shoulders and made a kissy face. Freddie was the only one who put it into words. Well, word.
“Shit,” he said, dropping the Queen on Wimpenny one final time and ending the game.
Side A, Track 11: Ronnie Milsap – I’m Trying To Hate You Right Out Of My Mind.
Freddie was right, of course. But what could I do? It wasn’t as though I hadn’t asked girls out before. Some of them even said yes. It hadn’t really mattered either way. Until now.
“Well, do you want me to ask her for you then?” He’d waited ‘til the others were on their way to French to table this proposition.
“What?” I was simultaneously both appalled and exhilarated. “No! I mean – no! Anyway, what would you say? ‘My mate fancies you!’?”
“I think I can come up with something a bit more sophisticated than that.”
I was certain he could. I might have been the one who wrote the songs, but Freddie was the one who lived them.
“I’ll just sound her out, that’s all.”
Side B, Track 1: Felt – All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead.
Three years earlier, after the accident at ICI, I inherited my old man’s record collection. More than three thousand albums, maybe twice that many singles. From The Night Before to After The Gold Rush; from Andersson & Ulvaeus to Argent, Blunstone & White; from a dark desert highway to the dock of the bay. The last record my dad ever bought was Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits. He never got the chance to listen to it. His mate Barry brought it round with the rest of his things, from his locker at work.
“I guess this is yours now, Felix.”
Eric Alexander Sogra wasn’t a big one for giving out fatherly advice. Maybe he’d have given out more if he’d been around when I got older. Maybe the advice he had was more appropriate to a teenager than a ten year-old, I’ll never know. I do know the one thing he left me was his record collection, and I’d been cultivating that ever since. But with three thousand albums, plus all the ones I’d bought myself – at least one a week, as far as my pocket money would stretch – where did you begin? I couldn’t listen to them all at once, not even with three thousand turntables. The only way was bit by bit. One piece at a time, like Johnny Cash sang. That’s why I started making the tapes.
Side B, Track 3: Cat Stevens – I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun.
“There’s something we have to tell you, Fee, and I know you’re gonna be pissed off, mate, but…”
This was Freddie Beaumont’s opening line.
“We both consider you a really good friend, Felix, and the last thing we’d ever want is to hurt you…”
This was Ann-Marie Hayward’s.
“Sometimes these things just happen, mate – you know how it is…”
No. No, I didn’t know how it was. I didn’t know how it was that the two people I cared most about in the whole world could rip out my too-vulnerable heart and stamp all over it in football boots and stilettos ‘til it was little more than offal to be swilled down the drain with the rest of the spit and piss and shit of the human race. (The above, taken word-for-word from my diary and lyrics notebook, Tuesday the 27th of January, 1987.)
Side B, Track 6: Bill Withers – Better Off Dead.
“I don’t want you to think I had this planned, Fee. I honestly had the best of intentions, but when me and Ann-Marie got talking…”
“Something just… clicked.”
“But we don’t want this to affect our friendship, mate. That’s why we came to you like this, today, before…”
“We didn’t want you to think we were sneaking around behind your back, Felix.”
“We were both hoping—“
The palm of my hand knocked the needle from the record. Dragon’s breath huffed from my nostrils in the frosty sunlight. To the drifting stench of tray upon tray of small pink sausages cooking in the kitchens of the school canteen, I turned and walked away. I never spoke to either Freddie Beaumont or Ann-Marie Hayward again.
Side B, Track 8: The Shangri-La’s – He Cried.
Much has been written about the art of the compilation tape, by men (and it is men, almost invariably) far more learned than me. The execution of a really good compilation is an artform, and the end result can be a work of great beauty. It is surely though, the most introverted and self-indulgent of artforms. The creator will, almost always, derive more satisfaction from the finished work than any intended recipient. The sense of achievement, of fulfilment, you feel – just from reading back your finished tracklisting – that feeling will rarely be duly reciprocated. To appreciate the compilation the way it is intended, you must be part of its conception, and a great compilation can never be achieved by committee. Compromise will always sully the accomplishment.
Still, like the ingredients in a witch’s ointment, the precise combination of songs can have magical effects. Substitute Madonna for Belladonna, Chuck Berry for Elderberry, and Sly & The Family for Brimstone – get it right and you might actually achieve your heart’s desire. This I learned the day I slipped that tape into the pocket of Freddie Beaumont’s parka, while everyone else was in the showers after games.
Side B, Track 10: The Clash – Somebody Got Murdered.
Now it’s safe to say that if there is magic, and arcane possibility, within the perfect compilation tape… it is a selfish magic. Then again, isn’t all magic?
However, it wasn’t magic I sought when I made that tape for Freddie; I merely wanted to communicate something words (as the entries from my diary and lyrics notebook hold testament) could never do justice. That’s all.
The magic then, was an entirely unexpected consequence. A glorious, felicitous and supremely gratifying accident, but an accident all the same. It was also the beginning, for me, of a life filled with the most incredible potential…
But other tapes will tell that story.
Side B, Track 13: Curtis Mayfield – Freddie’s Dead