At the end of the tape...
Due to various commitments here in Dallas (and a tight budget), I’m not travelling for it, but instead have settled for a couple of days by the pool at the apartment complex. It’s also a chance to finally read David Byrne’s book “How Music Works”, which delves into the history of music, the nature of composition, performance and where it all might be headed.
Part of it is his discussion of the history of analogue recording, including the history of the cassette tape. Byrne goes off on a wonderful tangent about his experiments with the medium as a student, and about the cultural significance of the mixtape. There’s probably a whole generation growing up without knowing the process of careful curation and recording of a tape for a friend, crush or lover. This performance from the musical Avenue Q sums it up best (Warning: NSFW language, and also puppets):
The cassette tape was a cultural icon for the last decades of the 20th Century, and they formed a core part of my introduction to music. Most of my early memories of recorded music are intertwined with the medium. The long car trips south singing along to tapes of Pavarotti, Phantom of the Opera or Peter Combe; playing with the high-speed dubbing on my cousin’s boombox to make Metallica sound even more speed thrash (eventually Dragonforce would come along and just play that way by default); marvelling at the autochanger function on my parents’ stereo system (it held 8 cassettes – revolutionary!). Cassettes were the way we got music, and how we shared it.
My First Walkman
The first tape I ever owned was Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells II”. My parents had owned the first album, and the opening riff was a knife’s edge of tension. The sequel was no different. The album opened my ears to the possibilities of orchestration and instrumentation, and that it was okay to cut across genres. You want to throw a virtuosic distorted guitar solo across the top of classical instruments? Go ahead.
Having a walkman also marked my retreat into music. School was hell most of the time, so I spent a lot of time with my headphones crammed into my ears, volume up loud, blocking out the outside world. Some years later I would find out that I had lost some hearing in the higher end of the spectrum as a result. But the cassettes kept me sane. Music let me know that there was a world outside of school where people could craft noise into something beautiful, where they could give vent to their emotions and be applauded for it rather than bullied. I dreamed of being a rockstar, attuned to an ever changing zeitgeist, evolving new sounds with every new song. Putting on the headphones was an escape to this dream.
My brother and I would swap tapes from our collections, and record copies of CDs from our parents’ collection. Our friend across the street would record songs off the radio for us on his boombox, giving us copies of the latest Snoop Doggy Dogg or Faith No More single. The recordings were sketchy, often cutting in a few seconds late or capturing half a word of the DJ on the way out, but we didn’t care. We would wear the tapes out with overplaying.
We would cut our own mix tapes for ourselves and our friends, trying to outcompete each other for the weirdest juxtapositions that nevertheless clicked, or to try to waste the least amount of tape by perfectly fitting a playlist into two 30 or 45 minute chunks. Nothing was more frustrating than 15 minutes of empty tape and having to click the fast forward button. And there was a release in that few seconds of clear tape that marked the end of a side, the way that the ambient hiss of the tape would shift to let you know it was at the end, before the dull thud of the play button springing out on the walkman.
C30, C60, C90, Go(ne)
The last cassette player I owned was in my first car, a 1982 Corolla that I drove when I returned to Australia. It was a cheap aftermarket unit, and it had a detachable face to prevent theft, but it ended up getting stolen anyway. Eventually I replaced it with a CD unit, and the last cassettes (Foo Fighters and Rage Against The Machine) gathered dust in the glovebox, warping in the Australian heat. The old walkman, no longer needed, got torn apart to see how it worked, its bare mechanisms strewn across the work table, never to play another note.
Not too long after that I would purchase my first portable MP3 player.
David Byrne notes in his book that he rarely uses CDs now. My own CDs are stored away back home, serving as physical backup to the digital collection.
We’re already well into the digital future; I cut my first MP3 mix almost a decade ago. My phone is loaded with apps that can put together an entire DJ set on command, even creating the beats and sounds from scratch to make a once-off instrumental performance. I’m writing this while listening to a digital version of Tubular Bells. My parents gave me their copy of the original vinyl pressing; it also sits in storage, an artefact of a different era, not to be played, but to be shown.
I don’t own any cassettes anymore.