There is an article in today’s Times, “Why That Trip Down Memory Lane Is Lined With Tapes”, which makes salutary reading for those of us who will never see 60 again. Some researchers (don’t these people have proper jobs?) have come up with a Top 20 list of “things we miss most” in the wake of 21st century technology. It’s certainly an interesting list, although it alarmed me that ‘Buying CDs’ came in at number 9. I still buy the occasional CD and, like many of my age, still like the idea of a non-virtual library, within which one has to shift oneself off one’s backside in order to to pick an item from one’s still- literal shelves. It at least involves some slight movement and thinking, and the use of one’s own algorhythms, rather than one chosen by YouTube or Google.
However, top of the list is ‘Making Mix Tapes’, something which is, again, not strictly moribund, as some underground genres thrive on the cassette format (as featured regularly in Wire magazine’s ‘Unofficial Channels’ section). Now cassettes were always clunky, but seemed a godsend by the mid-70s, when the reel-to-reel format appeared impractical and space-occupying in comparison. ‘Home taping are killing music’ we were all told and all promptly ignored, given how much we were saving. The problems soon became evident when filing - if you were like me, you stuck single tracks (album highlights, for example, and singles) at the end of each 45-minute side of the cassette, which made rapid retrieval a time-consuming pain. Most people ended up with unmanageable mounds of ill-assorted, precariously-labelled, plastic cover-less, difficult-to-store, unattractive tapes which had even less appeal than the soon-to-be-ubiquitous compact disc.
Peak Tape was probably around 1980. I have a few Factory cassettes, which at least made attempts to be different - the ‘art magazine’ compilation made with trendy label of that moment, Les Disques du Cresuscule, called From Brussels With Love, which was achingly up itself but good fun (from late 1980 from what I remember), the transparent green envelope that contained A Certain Ratio’s fantastic live/studio career high, From the Graveyard to the Ballroom, and the 4 x cassette box (the size of a CD boxset) which contained early Durutti Column material. The first of these had the novel idea of having the end of the music on Side One being synchronised, when you turned over the tape, with the beginning of Side Two - thus missing, if you didn’t fancy or inevitably got sick of, the 10-minute interview with Brian Eno at the end and beginning of the respective sides. These, along with the titular BowWowWow single Your Cassette Pet (1981), marked the high water point for cassette culture - they eventually proved too un-sexy, as did compact discs, which led in the end to the return of one item which hasn’t become inoperational, and actually returned from the moribund - vinyl records. Although, from what I can gather, modern vinyl collections tend to be ‘For Viewing Only’, which makes them more like museums than libraries. I’m somewhat reminded of comic collectors who keep their precious product sealed away in airtight bags. At least cassettes were intended to be practical - it’s a shame that the list didn’t include the Walkman.
Check the list out - it’s a real momento mori.