In praise of cassette tape

This weekend marks 50 years of the humble cassette tape.

These days, we only have one cassette machine.  iTunes has changed my life, but it always feels, somehow, a little grey and flat.

In the olden days, I made a lot of cassette recordings.  To begin with, I used our battery-powered portable recorder, and placed the little mic on the loudspeaker in our dining room.  My dad hadn’t moved onto stereo, but anyway, the mono gramophone matched the mono cassette recorder.  The trouble was, the budgie’s cage hung above the loudspeaker, and as she couldn’t read the “Recording – Silence!” notice pinned to the door, she wasn’t silent.  One of those early tapes was The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, and even today when I listen to the CD/MP3, it doesn’t sound quite right without the budgie’s cheerful chirping.

My dad gave in to progress in the end, which meant that I could make good recordings of records, or songs from the radio.  I would record a new LP on the first playing, and then wear out the cassette rather than the vinyl.   Using C90 cassettes meant that I could fit two records onto one tape.   Always having had a broad taste in music, some of the combinations are a bit incongruous, e.g. Beethoven’s 7th on side A and Dark Side Of The Moon on side B.   Want to listen to Pink Floyd?  Fast forward, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Recording a tape was a technical challenge.   There was skill in getting the recording level just right, and skill in not missing the start of the record because of the leader tape.   There was also skill in working out the timing.  If the record was too long for one side of the tape, would I cut a track, or use a C60 and fill out the tape with something else, and if so, what?

I loved making compilation tapes.  This was where working out timing really became a challenge, especially if the record sleeve didn’t give timings for the tracks.  Making a compilation tape could easily be an evening or two’s happy labour to get it just right.  Each track had to be tested for correct sound level, and care taken not to record the sound of the needle going down onto the vinyl.   Getting the order right was important too, as changing it, once recorded, could mean re-recording most of the tape.  iTunes is just too easy.

Compilation tapes made good gifts for friends.  They could be for special occasions, or just for sharing music.   Compilations I remember include one for a friend going through woman-related troubles; for a friend moving to a northern town (The Goodies – Black Pudding Bertha featured, I think); and of course for Mrs Mabbsonsea when she was still Miss Briggs-nowhere-near-the-sea.

With a cassette, it was even harder to skip around or just play a particular track than with an LP.  The easy option, really, was to listen to the tape in its own sequence.  OK – this could be irritating, but it meant I used to listen to an album as the artist meant it to be – and some tracks need time to grow on you.  These days I’m too impatient, just pressing Skip and never listening to some tracks more than once, if that.  Cassettes meant a certain slow approach to music, I guess.

Well, I don’t suppose I’ll go back to cassettes very often.  But it’s nice to be nostalgic.  So in that nostalgic mood, I’ll finish by sharing with you the playlist of one of my favourite compilation tapes.  I made it in 1984, when, early on in my first full-time job, I bought a fairly good quality cassette deck with Dolby C and B(!)  It’s called “Classic Nostalgia”…

Side A: The Beatles – Something / Boston – More Than A Feeling / Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight / Joe Walsh – Life’s Been Good To Me So Far / The Beatles – Till There Was You / Lt. Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough / Marmalade – Reflections Of My Life / Wings – With A Little Luck / Pink Floyd – Time / Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street.    Side B: Barclay James Harvest – Someone There You Know / Mike Oldfield – Five Miles Out / The Rutles – I Must Be In Love / Eric Clapton – Let It Grow / Dire Straits – Private Investigations / 10CC – I’m Not In Love / The Band – To Kingdom Come / Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water / The Carpenters – Yesterday Once More.

Indeed – Yesterday once more.  Happy days!


3 thoughts on “In praise of cassette tape

  1. Good music never gets old no matter the media device. I’m with you on the cassette tapes (and vinyl). Seems I have not really caught up with the times – I only own a couple dozen CDs, do not have MP3 or any of that, most of my music is back at the Lower Farm in New Mexico. I have to laugh when I open the cabinet which is full of cassettes.

    1. Most of my listening these days is digital, mostly MP3s. It’s so easy, but I think it’s too easy and somehow this makes it less valuable. I think at the end of the day, you can’t beat live music, whether a proper performance or singing in the bath.

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