INTRODUCTION: Maybe, it's in the gray hairs that I've started finding in my thinning hair. Maybe, it's that dreaded third decade of life that seems to have been rearing it's ugly face around every corner. Maybe, it's a quarter life crisis, but something has been keeping me up at night. I sometimes, stay awake into the early hours of the morning spinning records and fumbling with CD jackets from high school, grasping hold of my youth for dear life. I search out elusive first presses of albums I'd somehow, lost to time, hoping that they'll somehow, tighten the thread leading from middle school to adulthood.
To be clear, I'm not fishing my torn band T-shirts or bondage pants from the depths of my closet, but as I make the transition into my 30's, shedding roommates and getting oil changes at regularly scheduled intervals, I can't help ruminating on where these albums came from and how they've shaped me. I can't help begging the question, "How did I get here?"
How I've come to be surrounded by this specific collection of music is largely, the consequence of efforts made by larger labels and their annual sampler CD's, but even today, I search out small Indie labels that pump out quality collections of exclusivities and excellent representations of a variety of music scenes.
Typically, priced at $4-5.00 and featuring, sometimes, up to 40 songs from just as many bands, compilations have always served as convenient and affordable ways to discover new and obscure bands. This is imperative to the formative years of a generation of listeners; compilations were the compass that one used to navigate the endless sea of Punk Rock and consequently, Hip-Hop, Hardcore, Indie, Reggae, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Many of these discs were used as shovels to tunnel into cozy nests of Punk records and artistic eccentricities.
It's this ability to influence and inform listeners that I'll be here every month to discuss. I'll be stopping The Witzard by to shed light on those discount albums in the so often overlooked "Various Artists" bins of the world, along with their influences within their communities, within their genres, and within the chronology of listener interests all across the globe, here in, Various Artists: How Compilations Influenced a Generation.
VARIOUS ARTISTS IV: In the throes of the cassette revival of the last half decade or so, it would be criminal to overlook the crucial role that Burger Records has played in bringing an affordable physical medium to the marketplace. Having released hundreds of cassettes to date, Burger has helped to validate and nurture a growing sub-culture founded on DIY culture and nostalgia. They've stoked a fire under the youth of America, who are too poor to afford rising vinyl costs, bored with digitized music libraries, and embarrassed for DJ's with iPods.
MP3's promised a lot of convenience and ingenuity, but listeners were never warned of the alienating consequences of streaming intangible pieces of art; of never fully attaining that which they love, never owning that which they've paid for. Likewise, artists are estranged from their work, never actually able to touch that which they've created.
We long for proof of purchase. We long for an affordable means of production. Probably, it is mostly for nostalgia that cassettes have enjoyed such a marked increase in sales in these more recent years, but it may also, be a sign of an active and persistent call for accessible physical formats. It's unlikely that this is a canary in the coal mine for the digital market, but clearly, listeners and artists alike are demanding options.
But format is not the only consequence of this nostalgia. There's something to be said about Burger Records' ability to not only flourish in this digital age, but to also, re-garner interest in cassette re-issues of albums that are nearly 40 years old. No strangers to the double-label release, Burger has been spotted working alongside Frontier Records as recently as 2014 to re-issue seminal classics, such as Circle Jerks' Group Sex (1980) as well as The Adolescents' 1981 self-titled debut album, proving that the young label plays well with others.
Given the label's role in archiving some of the more definitive releases within the Alternative music cannon, it seems fitting that, for 2016's Cassette Store Day, Burger Records would celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sire Records by compiling this retrospective collection of songs, bringing to us a history lesson by way of cross-label, multi-generational compilation limited to 300 yellow shelled cassette tapes.
It comes as no surprise that Burger Records, with their swelling catalog of playful Bubble Gum-tinted Rock "N" Roll, would take such interest in Sire Records' career. In fact, a cursory glance at Sire's work shows a label with a long history of searching the margins of the music industry for unlikely heroes in Rock "N" Roll. This, as evidenced by their 1976 discovery of The Ramones, followed shortly thereafter by the 1977 unveiling of Cleveland ex-pats The Dead Boys and their genre-defining Young, Loud & Snotty.
Clearly, Sire has never been a label that fears the struggling artist; one anecdote tells of a young Marc "Marky Ramone" Bell (Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Ramones) eating dog food in an attempt to make ends meet, while awaiting the success of Blank Generation (1977.) With a catalog of over 500 albums from more than 200 artists to choose from, it's impressive that Burger was able to condense Sire's career down to just 11 songs.
More surprising still, these 11 songs do so much to highlight some of Sire's more influential contributions to music history, showcasing P.J. Soles (actress Pamela Jayne Hardon)'s only musical endeavor—a guest vocal on The Ramones' "Rock "N" Roll High School" from the film of the same name—and Madonna's "Lucky Star" from her 1983 self-titled LP, to say nothing of the aforementioned Dead Boys and The Voidoids.
There's much to be said about bringing these artists to the ears of young people in today's age. Surely, The Ramones won't be disappearing into the aether anytime soon, but in an industry over-saturated with albums that are recorded, released, consumed, and forgotten about over the course of an afternoon, it's important to acknowledge the genesis of the movement. It's important that we recognize the influence that these bands and labels have had in bringing the Avant-Garde to the forefront of the cultural consciousness.
John E. Swan (@midwest_stress) is a novelist and short story writer, as well as freelance editor and journalist. His first novel, Any Way to Elsewhere, takes its name from a compilation cassette that he curated during his time with Berserk Records. When he's not writing, he can be found making music under the moniker "t h e m e s" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lives with his girlfriend and their dog, Diesel.