Apparently it’s 50 years since the cassette tape came out, apart from that making me feel hideously old it’s sent me spiralling on a nostalgia trip from my misguided youth. I’ve written about this before, a few years ago, but it feels like time to dust down the thoughts and ponder on the significance of the humble cassette tape.
Cassettes changed how we experienced music, suddenly it was portable and plugged into our ears we could have a real life soundtrack to our day to day comings and goings. Obviously the iPod owes lots to its battered and ancient cousin the Walkman. Thinking about it they also probably contributed to the privatisation of our selves but that’s one poncy blog post too far…
Cassettes provided the opportunity to curate our own listening experience, they ensured we could pick out all tracks we liked from albums and put them together in another space. The mixtape was born, a beautiful invention.
The mixtape was how I communicated to my friends in my teenage years, I’d make them tapes to confirm friendships, music saying many things that are hard to express in mere words. I can clearly remember my old tape to tape recorder, the skill of not getting clunks between tracks, getting the right amount of pause between songs, the joy of compiling just the right sequence of songs, making sure there was progression from loud to soft and back again, maintaining a theme and finding the perfect end song for each side. Nick Hornby in High Fidelity lists the rules better than I could:
“is a very subtle art: many dos and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel; this is a delicate thing. …It takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” (well John Cusack’s words in the film)
The creation of a perfect mixtape is a fine, somewhat lost, art restricted to a certain generation. My iPhone cover is in the shape of a cassette tape and children give it bemused looks. The cassette tape belongs to just a few of us and for that I love it.
It was obviously flawed. My car regularly ate tapes, the sound wasn’t great, none of the smoothness of CDs or the raw feeling of LPs. It was more for what cassette could do for you that made them significant and a thing of great joy.
Making a CD for my friends and family each year at Christmas of all the music that’s been significant throughout the year is the closest I get to the mixtape now. It’s not quite as time consuming (a good tape was a work of a whole afternoon rather than the 20 min or so that it takes to drag, drop and burn) but its still very satisfying. I thank the time of the cassette for pioneering the way to making music portable and flexible. Well done you brown weird tape stuff so easily broken.