A few years ago I was moving house. Cleaning up, getting rid of all the junk (I thought), when I came upon a drawer full of cassettes.
That’s right, the very audio cassettes that Lou Ottens — who passed away last week — helped pioneer back in the early ’60s. It was a treasure trove: Cream, REM, Van Morrison and of course The Rolling Stones.
What do to with them? Or to (nearly) quote The Clash, “should they stay or should they go?”.
I still had a cassette tape player as part of my sound system, that was true. However, the cassettes were clearly inferior technology when I compared them to my CDs.
Then I looked at the boxes; so shiny, miniaturised and in some cases quite rare. What to do? They seemed like some wonderful relic of things past and boy, had they changed the way we viewed music back in the early ’70s.
Did it get any better than this?
Picture this. I am first year out of school. We’re heading down the coast and as we made the turn into Bendalong, my mate Geoff Parsons pulls out his cassette player with an entire album of The Grateful Dead. It didn’t end there either. After a surf he played us a Jefferson Airplane album. Did it get any better than this?
Wikipedia (Jordi Huisman)
For this combination of choice and mobility we owe a great debt of thanks to Lou Ottens. A man, apparently not very good at threading a reel-to-reel tape recorder, who decided with the backing of the Philips Company that he was going to take the same essential idea as the reel-to-reel but enclose the tape. Better than that, he waived the rights so everyone would accept the technology.
Up until that point the relationship between music and the audience was simple. You could listen to it when it was played live. You listened at home if you were lucky enough to have a record player and the means to buy records. Or, you took what you were given, on what were mainly transistor radios back then.
Not any more though. Ottens’ invention meant you could buy blank cassettes and record your own music. If you were like my friend Geoff, you’d simply go into a quiet room, take your microphone from the cassette, and record the sound coming out of the record player.
You would have to stop the tape player when the first side of the record finished but what the heck. Or you could pick and choose the tracks you wanted which meant putting the tape machine on pause and jumping from album to album, or artist to artist.
I had a friend who would send me copies of what we now call playlists, with his own humorous commentary he had added between tracks.
This process became just that much easier and higher quality too once you connected the amplifier directly into the cassette recorder (and it cut out my mate’s commentary, too).
The thing is that sometimes you got more than you bargained for by putting very different artists together. Sometimes it worked. Suddenly Simon and Garfunkel got to meet the Byrds, or Love on the West Coast of America teamed up with The Velvet Underground.
Sometimes it didn’t work.
I can remember going up the coast and listening to a mixed tape back in 1977. For some reason I had interspersed rock music with Charlie Parker. The impact on everyone in the car was like they’d been hit by a hammer, every time Parker’s horn set to work, there was a palpable sense of sadness that invaded the car. It’s impact was so profound Charlie was banned for the rest of the trip.
Should cassettes have been banned?
This extraordinary licence to record whatever you wanted of course created an industry to stop you having too much fun. Should they be banned? Should there be taxes on tapes?
When the issue came to court, because electronic companies put two cassettes in one machine, the courts ruled in favour of the companies saying they were not authorising a reproduction.
The Beatles’ company Apple Corps got dragged into a financial pit by self-declared electronic genius Yannis Alexis Mardas, or Magic Alex, who promised among other things that he would create an LP that could never be recorded. It didn’t happen.
Instead, the Apple Corps fell into the clutches of accountant Allen Klein, and Magic Alex disappeared in a puff of smoke along with about $450,000 he’d spent on various projects.
Every once in a while things went the other way of course. Keith Richards was given a brand spanking new cassette machine. Placing it carefully by his bed he fell asleep, only to wake up (well sort of, it was the ’60s, after all) in the middle of the night, play the riff that runs through (I Can’t Get No), Satisfaction, then fall back to sleep without turning the machine off.
Next day, wondering why the cassette was at the wrong end, he re-wound it and played it back. There was the riff and another 40 minutes of snoring. It wasn’t the only time he employed the technique, but it certainly was right up there with the moon landing (in my book, anyway) when it came to ingenuity.
The cassette’s high point was yet to come
Monique le Luhandre/Dorling Kindersley
Perhaps the high point of the cassette came with the Sony Walkman. Remember the ’80s — complete with leg warmers, Jane Fonda exercises and earbuds attached to a cassette player. Between 1985 and 1992 the cassette was the most popular format in Britain before CDs set to work undermining its popularity. The Britpop boom gave some respite but it didn’t last long. The cassette was being digitised.
There were of course a few problems with cassettes too. Not least of all was the ability to unwind at the worst possible moment. We’ve all been there. I used to find an HB pencil was great for winding back cassette tape after it had wandered out of the capsule.
Which is why, when I heard that a number of new bands, ever in search of low-fi sound, were trying to re-establish the cassette as a vehicle for music I asked myself “why?”.
The answer I suppose was simply to differentiate themselves in a market that conveniently tends to forget what went before.
So, what did I do with that drawer of old cassettes?
By the way that drawer of cassettes that I found just before moving? Well, I have to admit they got turfed. Sad really, but such was our premium on space in the place we were moving to they just had to go.
I still think about them. And I have to admit I did keep one: Disraeli Gears by Cream.
The last track is called Mother’s Lament. In the song a mother is washing her baby, which is so “skinny and thin”, it should have been washed in a jug. When she lets the bathwater out the baby goes down the plughole.
In true music hall fashion the last lines of the song delivered by the entire band says, “Your baby is perfectly happy, he don’t need a bath anymore, he’s a mucking about with the angels above, not lost but just gone before.”
Vale Mr Ottens, and long live the cassette.