Back in the mists of time, in the years BCD, (Before Compact Discs) man survived on a musical diet that consisted primarily of freshly pressed vinyl, supplemented by the temperamental, fragile, also-ran of audio formats, the cassette. The sonic equivalent of a fast food bargain bucket, to vinyl’s aural banquet.
Now of course, all your music is polished and shiny; the laser etched tracks of a CD will remain unchanged pretty much forever, with only minimal maintenance and care; mp3 downloads can be copied, backed-up and re-uploaded ad infinitum at the cost of a few pence and that’s only if you want to actually own a piece of music.
If all you want to do is listen, then there are internet radio stations and streaming services at every junction on the information superhighway.
Prior to the advent of CDs in 1985, when newly converted devotees of the gleaming silver disc started their campaign to piss off vinyl fans by going on about “dynamic range” and “bass response” being so much superior and Vinyl enthusiasts (including myself) would insist that CDs were “too tinny” and “don’t have that organic sound, man”, there was one thing that everyone agreed on.
Compared to vinyl, cassettes were crap.
Don’t get me wrong, the idea to scale down the huge reel-to-reel tape recorders of the past into an easy to use, portable format which allowed anyone to make home recordings was, in principal, a brilliant one, but a system which relied on running a flimsy magnetic tape across a metal pickup head by pinching it between rubber rollers whilst under tension was always going to be fraught with problems.
If it wasn’t the tape getting wrapped around the rollers, (resulting in hours spent with a pen knife, sticky tape and that all important staple of the cassette repair tool kit, a pencil) it was the spools getting over-tightened, resulting in “tape wobble”.
Then there was something old RCA cassettes were particularly known for, the magnetic coating wearing off the tape, leaving muffled “drop outs” in the music.
And who could forget that other old favourite; twists in the tape that meant you would suddenly find yourself listening to side two, backwards, half way through side one?
But despite all that, we all bought them. Because they were cheap, because they were portable, but most of all because you could make compilations to share with your mates.
Like playlists, alright?
But in a box.
So you’d think that, what with cassettes being so prone to damage and deterioration, most of those old albums and mixtapes would be history by now, wouldn’t you?
But of course that isn’t the case at all.
There must be millions upon millions of little plastic boxes of music all over the world, because there’s something fundamentally wrong about throwing music away, so people (well, people like me anyway) keep their old LPs and cassettes, as though they’ll be passed down like family heirlooms.
Sadly, the future’s music fans won’t have much patience for a medium that requires five minutes of rewinding to allow them to play forty minutes of muffled, hissing noise and the nearest you’ll get to a cassette walkman these days is an ironically designed mp3 player, complete with rotating LCD spools.
With all that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new occasional feature, Melodic Randomiser 2: The Cassette Years., in which I will trawl the boxes of tapes that lurk in the dark recess under the stairs to find an eclectic selection of memorable musical morsels from my formative years.
This is the first of several similar boxes, totalling maybe 400 tapes.
I’m sure a good few of these will be in less than perfect condition, others will be a bit worn out from repeated playings and one or two will be completely unplayable (kept, in the spirit of hope that cassette connoisseurs everywhere will understand, against the day that I get round to repairing them) but I know for a fact there are albums in there from the early ’70s that play better than CDs which were produced fifteen years later too, so I’m looking forward to spoolling back the years and taking you along for the ride.
I know this one’s in there somewhere…
Join me for the first trio of tapes in the next post.
Don’t touch that dial.