Cassette, a nostalgic look back at the days of cassette culture, featuring the man who invented them, the people who used them and the people trying to revive them. Yes, you heard right, revive them.
In a world where you don’t even get CD players in new cars, many young people will look on incredulously at the archaic tape format. But they were invaluable in the pre-digital world.
First hitting the market back 1963, developed by the Dutch Phillips company to replace the reel-to-reel format, they soon took over the world. Philips made a point of not copyrighting them, to avoid hundreds of different formats emerging. They felt standardisation was key to its growth.
Machines that played the tapes took many forms. There were stand-alone players, players integrated into hi fi systems and ‘ghetto blasters’. Many cars were fitted with cassette radios. When Sony got in on the act they came up with the incredibly portable Sony Walkman, which could be strapped to your belt so you could listen whilst walking or jogging.
They were so handy they revolutionised the music industry. Bands could suddenly record their own demos and get them out to fans at gigs without relying on record labels. Several hip-hop artists appear inl the film taking about how it was the only way to record a DJ set at a house party so without tapes, hip-hop would be very different now. And of course, those ghetto blasters played a massive part in hip hop culture, with body poppers spinning on their heads next to a block rocking beatbox.
Bootleggers could use them to record gigs, fans could use them to record the top twenty off the radio and you could borrow a mate’s album and record it yourself to save buying it.
Many music fans would make mixtapes for each other and often for themselves. Every tape I put together was lovingly tailor-made for the individual I was making it for. I used to spend hours compiling a tape, getting the right mix that I thought the recipient would appreciate. I was a bit geeky about it and made a point of ensuring that the music did not cut off abruptly because I had run out of tape and there was not too big a gap at the end. This often meant going back to the start and re-recording a tape that did not quite fit, adjusting the gaps between songs. I would check to see how much time was available for the last song and pick one that would fit – which sometimes led to bizarre novelty songs on the end. Then I would come up with an appropriate title for my mix and design a groovy cover. During the film, Henry Rollins of Black Flag recalls being similarly meticulous.
There was probably an element of showing off how cool you were with compiling a tape, but they were a good way of sharing knowledge. I often received tapes that would send me off down more rabbit holes chasing the back catalogue of a band a mate’s mix tape had introduced me to. They were also a cheap alternative to going out and buying all these singles yourself. Particularly the soul tapes my mate Edwin used to do for me. I would never have been able to track down the MVPs, the King Casuals or Bobby Bland – at least not until someone realised there was a market for ‘The Sound of Wigan’ or ‘Floor Fillers from The Torch’, type compilation CDs. In the seventies and eighties there were incredibly rare singles by the likes of Satan’s Rats, The Bureau and The Fruit Eating Bears that were incredibly difficult to track down, so I had to make do with tape copies from mates – but through the magic of reissue labels like Cherry Red and Bristol Archive Records, many are more readily available now than they were when first released – or at least CD versions are.
A mix tape – or compilation tape as we called them at the time – was also a good way of getting out of loaning out records. Sometimes it would take years for a record to be returned and in the case of records lent out to Johnny Rock, records would come back scratched and even covered in paint. He couldn’t work out the balance on his record player arm so just used to put two pence pieces on the stylus head.
There was a downside though. Tapes would snap, get tangled and in the process possibly wreck your machine, with the tape heads wrapped in tape. A Hawkwind tape killed my sisters dog when he ate it – the vet found several feet of tape inside him. Tapes, as far as I was concerned, were always a very poor substitute for a vinyl album. I used to buy the vinyl, then tape the album to listen to in the car.
Tapes and vinyl inevitably went into decline with the arrival of the CD, and CDs went into decline with the arrival of MP3s and streaming.
Now I can understand the revival of vinyl. An album can be a work of art, something to behold and cherish. Something far more tangible than an MP3. And you can’t skin up on an MP3. But cassettes? Why on earth would anyone want to revive them? It is beyond me, but some people are trying to do it.
The inventor of the cassette agrees. He is nostalgic about the old days but cannot comprehend why people would bring it back. “When something better comes along, adopt that”.
Other interviewees are similarly incredulous. There is the small matter of machines that play cassettes not being manufactured any more. A one contributor states; “why put out music in a format that hardly anyone can listen? It is as if the band don’t want anyone to hear them”.
I sat watching the film incredulous that anyone would want to bring it back, but they have Tape Store Day, along the lines of Record Store Day; there are tape labels and there is a factory that is knocking out blank tapes using factory equipment they cannot get parts for anymore. They interview several young music lovers who swear by the format. One of them says, “If I didn’t spend money on tapes, I’d be spending it on drugs”. I can’t help thinking he would have been better off with drugs. Although the best use for a cassette i have seen in the last ten years was when a guest on my radio show pulled out a cassette and took it apart to reveal several grams of wizz. (I suppose that is proof that you can do drugs and cassettes at the same time.)
Despite all my criticism of the format, there was a time when they played a massive part of my life, they were invaluable. I had hundreds of tapes that I had recorded albums on, together with mix tapes etc. If it was available, I would always go for the vinyl, but some bands could only afford to put out a tape, so I did have some interesting tapes in the collection. Tofu Love Frogs, Bhang II Rites and The Snapping Bog Seats spring to mind.
If you are of a similar age to me, this film will bring back memories and raise more than a few nostalgic smiles. There will be moments when you think, “Yep, I did that…” You will remember pressing play and record at same time, you will remember creating covers for your own mixtapes, you will wince when you remember how a tape would lose quality every time. Great times. It was cutting edge in its day but returning to those days makes as much sense as returning to having a tin bath in front of the fire.
How can you watch? It is currently available on Amazon Prime and Vimo.