Memories of a Tape Head: Hooray for Obsolete Media!
Former Tape Heads Unite!
You almost have to pity the poor cassette tape. Though it was once the dominant format for recorded music during the glorious Eighties, the audio cassette has become a barely-remembered punch line, loved only by retro-minded collectors of obsolete audio ephemera, or snarky hipster douche bags who record and release their own music on tapes because it's the properly "ironic" thing to do
It may have taken a while, but cassettes were slowly edged out of the marketplace during the 1990s by shiny silver Compact Discs - a format which is now teetering on the brink of similar extinction thanks to the Internet, but that's a whole 'nother story. My point is, for a large portion of my formative music-buying years in the '80s, cassettes were where it was at. They were affordable, portable and required less storage space than those bulky vinyl LPs, which made them the logical format choice for my pre-teen self. The first rock album I ever owned (at the tender age of 11) was on cassette - AC/DC's Let There Be Rock, which I received as a Christmas gift in 1981. Over the course of the next decade, I would buy hundreds of tapes by dozens of bands before I finally succumbed to the Compact Disc revolution around 1992. I really didn't have much choice at that point, because every time I went to a record store, the cassette section kept getting smaller and smaller as the CDs continued to take over more floor space. I could see the writing on the wall!
Time To Upgrade!!
This change in format added a new, even more obsessive level to my music collecting mania: in addition to buying any and all of my new releases on CD, I began scrounging through record store "used" bins in order to replace as many of my old cassettes as I could with CD copies. As it turned out, the early 1990s were an excellent time to take on such a project, because my personal musical tastes (hard rock/heavy metal/thrash) were considered "passe" by the general public at that time. When people dumped their "un-hip" hard rock and metal CD collections onto the second-hand market and moved on to college rock, gangsta rap or whatever other early '90s nonsense the music-biz Powers That Be were spoon feeding them, I was more than glad to give their cast-offs a good home. Every time I "upgraded" an old tape to CD, my cassette would go in a box, where it would eventually be offered up at one of my family's semi-regular yard sales. I did a pretty brisk business with them for several years; I guess I wasn't the only one who was reluctant to let go of cassettes. At one such sale, a massive biker looking dude went absolutely ape-sh*t when he saw my pile of tapes, which I'd priced to move at 25 cents apiece. He bought about 40 of them, and as he handed me his money he said, "This is all great stuff! Why are you gettin' rid of these?" I was tempted to say "Well, they've got these new fangled things called CDs now, have you heard of'em?" but since he was a rather intimidating lookin' fella, I merely explained that my "upgrading" system had made them obsolete.
At the peak of my cassette collecting mania, I owned somewhere between 400 and 500 tapes. After years of bargain CD-bin diving, I was down to less than 100 by the early 2000s, but used-CD stores to replace the ones that remained were becoming fewer and farther between. By this point, most of the tapes I had left were long out-of-print items whose CD versions were commanding obscene prices on the Internet, or stuff I simply didn't care much for in the first place. My "upgrading" project slowly ground to a halt and the remaining tapes were stashed away in my closet, because I didn't have the heart to simply throw them away. There they sat... till about two months ago, when my nosey 7-year old son rediscovered the box while poking around in my closet...which he's not supposed to do, but I let it slide this time. "What are these, Dad?" he asked. When I told him they were "some of Daddy's old tapes," he said, "Cool! Can we watch one?" I explained to him that these were not video tapes, but the kind that played music, "like Daddy's CDs." Naturally, he then asked, "Can we listen to one?" but that wasn't possible because I no longer had a tape player in the house - which is ironic, but true. As strange as it may sound in light of my ongoing CD-collecting obsession, I very rarely, if ever, listen to music around my house anymore - I do it mostly while driving in my truck or sitting at my desk at work. We never replaced our last stereo system when it crapped out in the early 2000s, and I hadn't owned a Walkman in nearly 20 years. The last vehicle I'd driven with a cassette deck in it had given up the ghost just about the time my son was born!!
I do, however, still have a cassette player at work - nothing fancy, just a cheap little AM/FM/tape/CD boom box that I'd brought in ages ago so I could have something to listen to my CDs with at my desk. I hadn't put a tape in it in at least ten years, but the next day I brought a bag full of my remainders to work with me and had a little Retro Cassette Music Festival, which was tons of fun. For the next several days I reveled in the analog awesomeness of such long-forgotten delights as Faith No More's The Real Thing (which I really should upgrade to a CD copy, cuz that album still sounds great today), AC/DC's Blow Up Your Video (ditto!), Dokken's Dream Warriors maxi-single and Helloween's Judas EP.
I noticed that an unusually large percentage of my "remainder" tapes were refugees from the late 80s/early 90s Christian rock/metal scene - including the seminal CCM rock compilation California Metal, X-Sinner's Get It and Peace Treaty and Stryper's Yellow & Black Attack (the original 6-track EP version, which has never been released on CD!). I always had terrible luck at upgrading those; Christian rock albums tended to go out of print fairly quickly, therefore prices for CD copies on the second-hand market were usually too rich for my blood. (Side note: those two X-Sinner albums are still the top Holy Grails on my CD want list after all these years... so if anyone out there has got extra copies, I will gladly give you a kidney for them!)
The real prize of my Christian rock batch is an unintentionally hilarious ministry tape called The Peters Brothers Interview Stryper: Whose Side Are They On? - a spoken word release in which two self-styled "anti-rock" preachers (who look like they could be related to Ned Flanders) investigate whether Stryper are really workin' for the Lord or if they're undercover agents for Satan. Their "interview" consists of two minutes of chatting with one member of the actual band, and the rest of the program's run time is spent listening to the Brothers praying and trying to sell the listener their anti-rock book and tape sets. I'm fairly sure that this recording never saw the light of day on CD, which is a real shame, because it's absolute comedy gold.
I now keep a stash of two dozen or so tapes in my desk drawer and still dip into it when I'm in the mood for some truly old school listening. It's probably just nostalgia talking, but I swear, vintage stuff like Aerosmith's Draw the Line, Black Sabbath's Sabotage, or Van Halen's Fair Warning just sounds... right when it's being played through a squeaky old lo-fi cassette player. Unfortunately, as I worked through the remainder pile, I discovered that a few of these oldies simply weren't playable anymore, so they had to hit the wastebasket (choke!!). Still, there are more than enough left to keep me entertained for a while... or at least, until I finally finish upgrading them all to CD, which at the rate I'm going will probably be around the year 2027.
Tapes may be dead... but I say long live the tapes!!
© 2015 Keith Abt