At the end of the tape...
We’ve finally made it through to spring break. It’s not a concept we have in Australia, largely due to the fact that our spring is in October, and the equivalent break at this time of year comes at Easter. Most of our perceptions of it come from television and movies, which make it out as a time to fly somewhere warm, get blind drunk and make questionable life choices. So in that sense it’s a little like our Schoolies Week except it's for uni students and at the end of it you still have two months of school remaining.
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
I got my first walkman in 1992 for Christmas. It wasn’t a Sony one, so the pedants will be infuriated by me calling it a walkman, but it played tapes and was portable, so a walkman it was. And frankly I didn’t care if it said Sony or Sanyo on the front. It was a portable tape player and that was enough. It was bulky and weighed enough such that if I clipped it to my belt, I would have to hold my pants up when I walked.
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.
The second tape I owned was also a sequel, but of a different kind. After relentless badgering of my parents, I convinced them to buy me a copy of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion II” on the proviso that it would be taken away from me if I was caught using any of the profanities on the album (which by today’s standards is relatively tame – “Get in the Ring” is foul mouthed, sure, but not much removed from the average film or TV rant today). The first time I listened to the album, the batteries on the walkman were near dead, and so the tape had slowed down to about half speed. I couldn’t understand why the album version of the songs were so much slower and lower than what I had heard on the radio. I persisted with it for 15 minutes before it finally kicked in what was happening; I was so happy just to have the album and to be able to listen by myself.
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)
Moving to England in 1998 led to me getting my own CD player, but I still recorded my CDs on tape to listen to on the go. But it was the beginning of the end. As my CD collection grew along with my discovery of the London indie music scene, I listened to tapes less and less.
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.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.