There are so many reasons not to like cassettes. How many times did you hear something go awry as you played one through and a horrible spinning/whipping sound replaced your favourite track? - you’d press ‘eject’ and find miles of thin brown tape spewing out like intestines from its plastic casing. Or you’d left your tapes on the dashboard of your car, within handy reach of an absent-minded grope for one as you kept one hand on the wheel and your eyes on the roundabout you were just about to negotiate, only to find that the previous week’s heatwave had rendered them all into some strange, melted work of art. This abstract sculpture of plastic and magnetic polymer had also now adhered permanently to the interior of your vehicle (ironically in ways that no tax disc holder ever did, no matter how many times you wet it and tried to stick it to your windscreen).
Then there were the inlay cards. Some kind souls on the product design team at the TDK / Sony / Maxell / Dindy (or whoever) head office had thought this one through and allowed us DIY tape compilers plenty of neat lines on which to write out the full details of our track-listings, bless ‘em. Hmm. Lines that were 4cm wide with 3mm space in between, requiring the ability to scribe neatly at a fifth of the size of one’s usual scrawl, preferably using a writing implement with an impossibly micro-fine smudge-free nib.
One of few cassettes I still have - all taped off the radio, 1977
Yet I have such fond memories of recording on cassette. Early on in my taping days, as a schoolgirl without enough pocket money to spend much on records, it was the only way I would get to hear many songs more than once. I’d tune in to John Peel, desperate to hear a session from Wire or Siouxsie & the Banshees for instance, but because it was a week night and everyone else had already gone to bed I had to keep the volume right down. Between 10pm and midnight I could record Peelie’s musical choices with my ear pressed up against the speakers, straining to hear - and then play them, loudly, at last, when I got home from school the next day. Late at night in the half-light of a table lamp, I’d be on standby with two fingers at the ready on the heavy, clunky ‘record’ and ‘play’ keys, or to let the ‘pause’ button on and off at the end of one and start of the next song. I remember one fateful night when I somehow ended up getting it the wrong way round, like missing one step in a dance routine and staying out of synch for the entire duration; I was releasing the pause button when I thought I was pressing it, and ended up with all of John Peel’s dulcet-toned introductions and comments (so there were plenty of 'this one fades in slowly’s) but absolutely NO music…
Best of all, perhaps, was the chance to make compilation tapes for special people. Every tape had character, maybe even a bit of covert meaning, and a great deal of thought, care and, sometimes, passion went into the compiling of them. It still does with CDRs, of course, and with these we can have fun making up our own fancy full-colour covers (and tracklistings that are actually legible) with technology that we could only dream of back in the cassette heyday, but there was definitely something about the handmade-ness of a taped comp that was so endearing. The handwriting of the person who made it for you was somehow comforting and extremely personal, or if you were making it for someone else you might deliberate over your (miniscule) calligraphy like it was a love letter - which in some instances, perhaps, it was. Sometimes you even heard the needle in the groove of a 45rpm or - if the tape’s creator wasn’t quite spot on with the timings - the sound of it alighting on, or lifting off, the vinyl. It was like you were there.
Yes, there are many reasons not to like cassettes, but in a way there are just as many reasons to have loved them too.