Wednesday 25 January 2023

In praise of cassettes and how they made music democratic

Perhaps the most revolutionary musical invention ever was the Cassette tape and player. Around the 1970's, most players were chunky mono players, the sleek Walkman was invented later. Records were expensive. In 1977, my main income had been a paper round. I earned 50p a day, £3.50 a week. An album was around £3.99. When a mate got a new album, we’d tape it. 

I was pondering why there were some inexplicable holes in my vinyl collection (The Buzzcocks 2nd Album, Elvis Costello, etc) and I remembered that a good mate from that time, Dermot had bought the albums and run off cassette copies for me. There was no concept of the collectability of records, we just wanted to hear the music. I’d guess that in the punk community, there would be around five cassette copies of every album. Cassettes were far more portable, record decks and stereo systems were things from your parents house, that you could only use when your parents were out. 

The other great thing about cassettes was that you could record the radio. To hear new music, the options were limited. Only John Peel on Radio 1 at 10pm would really play punk. I had several mates who’d record all his shows, then make mixtapes of the best bits. Peel knew this, so wouldn’t talk over the songs. He also got bands in to do live sessions. Cassettes were the mechanism that generally you heard new music by at mates houses or in the playground at school. Another great thing about cassettes was that you could do recordings of your band and play them to mates. 

In the case of  my band, the False Dots, this had been a bad mistake, as we played them some truly rubbish music when we started.  However, I also heard some amazing music. I well recall bumping into Foxy, guitarist of the Ruts. He told me that he had a great new song and had a cassette of it in his pocket. Despite his reluctance, I managed to persuade him to lend it to me. He made me promise to drop it back ASAP and not record it (which I immediately did when I got home). It was the band rehearsing Babylons Burning and another couple of numbers. As with most cassette recordings, the quality was appalling but the song was brilliant. When the single came out, I was gutted. To my ears, all of the energy had been ripped out (a phrase known as being well produced). It took years for me to realise that the single is a masterpiece. 

The one downside of cassettes is they get chewed up eventually, which is sadly what happened to that gem. I got very proficient at putting chewed up tapes back together, with Sellotape and a pencil to wind them. Sadly, eventually you always seemed to lose the war. For some reason, it was the best ones that always broke, probably through overplay. 

Another aspect of tapes were the mixtapes that our mates would make up. Derm bought a massive ghetto blaster and would spend hours taping his favourite tracks on albums and organising them into tapes. He’d make statements like “I quite like the Fall, but half their songs are rubbish, so I’ve made a selection of the best ones”. They weren’t called “Mix Tapes” then. Derm would lug the Ghetto blaster everywhere and would ensure that our lives always had a soundtrack. When the False Dots recorded our first demo, I gave Derm a cassette copy. He added a selection of music he thought was in keeping. I was delighted that the first track he put on was “Psykick Dancehall” by the Fall. I took that as a massive compliment.

Cassettes were a huge force in democratising music, long before Youtube and Soundcloud. Before cassettes, you only heard what the labels wanted you to hear, unless you went to gigs. Cassettes gave every band a chance to share music and gave everyone the chance to be a DJ!
An edited extract from my forthcoming autobiograpy "How to make it in the music industry with no talent at all". 

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