Time to rewind? Cassette celebrates 50th birthday

Cassette tapes. Picture: Getty
Cassette tapes. Picture: Getty
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IN OUR spare room, long disused, beneath a pile of now unloved Twilight: New Moon merchandise and outdated baby clothes, lurks a carrier bag. Farmfoods, circa 1981, I’d say. It contains a bunch of ­cassettes.

Is there a collective noun for cassettes, I wonder? A spool of cassettes? A jam? Anyway, I’ve humped this bag around for quarter of a century now, from Houses of Multiple Occupancy to mortgage. I couldn’t forsake the bag, or throw it away. You can rewind your history; but only the fool would ­attempt erasing it.

The compact cassette is 50 years old, though circumstance dictates the celebrations will be of a muted, quizzical kind. In the contemporary mind, the compact cassette approximates to the Filofax or the starting handle: a cumbersome thing, a rough draft, ­superseded to great relief. Which, of course, it was: each and every cassette longed to disgorge its long brown ­ribbons of cassette entrail. But the medium had benefits too; unique, magical benefits. And to evoke them all I need do is rummage through the Farmfoods bag.

Let’s see: a Sony BHF90 with on one side Kimono My House by Sparks, a battle for supremacy on the other: the title of Reckoning by REM scribbled out and replaced by The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, it too wiped eventually in favour of Here Come The Warm Jets by Brian Eno. A Memorex MRX3 featuring an interview I conducted in 1982 with a man who suspected Bible John was living next to Broomhill shopping centre. A Maxell UDI 46 featuring demos by my high-school rock group, the Crucible of Earthworms (it’s a long story). The top 20 rundown of July 1981, recorded to capture Spandau Ballet’s magisterial Chant No. 1 (We Don’t Need This Pressure On). A-Ha in concert, taped by my sister, I will insist to my dying day. Recordings of disembodied television documentaries and teenage parties: all the wow and flutter of youth.

Of course, any of this content could have been captured on modern ­media, CD or mini-disc (are mini-discs manufactured still? I fear a can of worms is creaking open). It would then have been filed away, shiny, efficient and anonymous, like souls in a vast ­Mormon storehouse.

The thing about cassettes was that each brand had its own personality, each brand felt as though it were alive, its character determining how the music sounded. The daddy, the David Attenborough of the cassette ecosystem, was the TDK D-C60, ­elegant and forensic and incapable of disappointment; unlike the D120, which unspooled like a schoolteacher under Stasi interrogation. TDK did the SA 46 too; a covetable thing, finished in mirrored silver. BASF cassettes, on the other hand, felt cheap and untrustworthy; Sonys were acceptable but workmanlike; JVC cassettes were nice, with their sexy transparent shells; Boots did a range, Boots Audio, but they felt a bit Fisher Price. And then there were the cheapo bootleg brands your dad brought home in bulk from the covered market: Alpha Plus, Komar, Laser.

The mid-1980s, then, were a kind of heyday for the cassette. The vinyl LP relinquished its sales crown to cassettes in 1985. By 1989 pre-recorded cassettes were selling 58 million annually, a figure not taking into ­account sales of blank cassettes.

Perhaps this explains why I’m so attached to the things. Born in 1967, I missed every youth cult there’d ever been: from Bowiemania to punk rock. And then something epochal occurred. In 1980, Sony launched the TPS-L2, the world’s first affordable portable stereo system, swiftly rechristened the Walkman. And, suddenly, here was our very own youth cult, characterised not by styles of ­expression but by modes of consumption; a tribe identified by our crappy plastic headphones and our farcical waist-attachment clips. Life hadn’t been this cool since the advent of the flexi-disc.

And so, for a moment, it seemed as though the world were ours. Reality moved on to two spools, with a little sticky label. The innovations came along faster than a Motorhead live album as the batteries faded. Maybe you remember C30, C60, C90, Go!, the pro-home taping anthem issued by Bow Bow Wow as the world’s first “cassingle”. Island Records launched the One Plus One series, featuring on one side albums by U2 or Ultravox with the reverse left blank so listeners could home-tape some proper music. The NME ran a series of cover-mounted cassette anthologies. Amazingly, Maxell saw the need for a TV ad campaign, fronted by the bloke out of Bauhaus.

And all this is reckoning without the cassette’s most noble incarnation, the home-made compilation. Without it, what might have happened to the birth-rate? Consider it this way: every child has a mum and a dad and it’s odds-on their relationship took its first steps when one of them, typically the bloke, handed over a TDK C-90 with the words: “I thought you might like this: East Anglian psychedelia, mainly, and some Bowie.” It’ll never quite be the same, to receive a text reading: “Hi! I’ve made you a Spotify playlist…”

You can purchase cassette tapes still, of course; but like antimacassars and liver salts they hang out in specialist shops now. Happily, they’re missing the worst of the carnage. The final car with a radio/cassette player was produced in 2010. Discontin­uation of the Walkman was announced in the same year, some while after the phrase “cassette tape” disappeared from the concise edition of the OED. The medium is now in the hands of the professionally ironic and nostalgic: the Routemaster worshippers, the men with the Shoreditch spectacles, archeologists of the now. Mulling on the subject, I don’t think the house contains a cassette player any longer; but I’ll always have the bag, and its slivers of real life in real time. «

Twitter: @earthworm67

Radio 6 Music Celebrates: 50 Years of the Cassette, today, 12 noon, with Neneh Cherry