Cassettes - the music carrier that time forgot

TDK  C90 - the cassette medium of the masses
TDK C90 - the cassette medium of the masses | Source

Cassette cache

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C30, C60, C90 go - the cassette years

If you have reached a certain age, it's guaranteed that somewhere, you have a secret stash of cassettes. Maybe they are stacked under the bed, perhaps gathering dust in the attic, but you feel reassured that they are there. In my case they squat on top of my computer shelves, a mere three feet from where I am tapping out this requiem, and if I look up I can see them in an unruly pile: Warren Zevon, Kate Bush, The House Of Love, Buzzcocks, like the unlikely guest list at a thoroughly memorable 1980s party.

We keep them because they were important to us, and because, lurking in the depths of our suspicious psyche is the belief that one dark day, a digital virus will strike, wiping away all traces of that compressed modern music that is collated in so many 0s and 1s. Then we will laugh, clean our tape-decks with that fluid that smelled like Thunderbird, and enjoy the obligatory six seconds of hiss before track one kicks in. And if it's playing slightly slowly after all these years, well, so be it.

Tell kids today that you spent a lot of your formative years pressing buttons called "Rewind" and "Fast Forward" and hearing the whirring hiss of magnetic tape taking its own sweet time locating the track you wanted to hear, and they'll, . . well actually they wandered off halfway through your reminiscence, mumbling "laters". But the principle holds. The all-important experience of listening to music has been one of the most startling technological changes between the last years of the 20th century, and the feverish gambolling of the early 200s, when everyone was celebrating dodging the Year 2K bullet.

We forget, so quickly that cassettes were once regarded as the bright future of easy, portable music. Sony gave us the Walkman, and music on the move, albeit punctuated by the frequent scrabble for the rewind, was a late 20th century liberty.

The appeal to the consumer of course was that the cassette meant you could program your own listening, compile your own best-of collections, soundtrack your road-trip or walk to school with exactly the right mix of upbeat, consoling or moody tunes. Providing you were happy breaking the law to do it. Everytime you pressed that record switch, unless you were making a message for granny in Australia, you were a criminal.




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Cassettes - the copyright killers

There was a brief period, OK probably a whole decade, when record companies tried to persuade us to use the term "Musicassettes" as if it were some fantastic new technological breakthrough. It was part of a doomed attempt to get people to buy pre-recorded cassettes, undermined by the fact that the cassettes were invariably of a poor quality, and retailed at the same price as a vinyl album (the story of the music industry's decline and eventual death is an elongated parable of greed).

Nobody ever used the word "musicassettes". In fact, where I came from, the notion of using those two tiring syllables in "cassettes" was just too much effort. We called them tapes. It was the verb that defined early adolescence. "Can you tape it for me?" was the sentence that launched our music collections.

It was one of the harsh ironies of the 1970s and 80s that when you were 14 and 15 and at the stage of your life when music meant everything to you, in fact was the focus of your entire existence (there may have been one other subject that occupied more of your imagination, but it wasn't quite as accessible to the average schoolkid), you simply didn't have the money to indulge your passion.

Maybe you would be able to buy an album once a month. Your friends would be in the same situation. Any leftover cash would be spent on a five pack of C90s, TDK if you had the cash, Woolworth's own brand if not.

Then you would dutifully press pause and record, cue up the turntable, briefly smile at the "Home taping is killing music" and a big skull and crossbones logo on the inner sleeve of the album, and indulge in the analogue age's precursor of file-sharing.

While the sixth-formers carried around their portentous bags with gatefold viinyl of some risible album like Tales of Topographic Tosh, the cooler kids were swapping their Cure, Jam and Fall cassettes, many of them taped off the radio. John Peel was aparticular favourite, because he was on FM, and was the only DJ that insisted on playing records all the way through.

We measured out our musical upbringing in metallic dust on magnetic tape, and it's why we are loath to add our collections to the landfill sites. I have a Turkish cassette of the Queen Jazz album (underrated among their oeuvre I still think) which was one of the first tapes I bought, before I hit my teens. I daren't play it, because I know its ancient mechanism will fail, but it's there; an exhibit in an evocative personal music museum.


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