I’ve been collecting recorded music since I was about five years old. I started with 7-inch vinyl singles that played at 45 RPM. Pretty soon I added long-playing albums at 12 inches and 33 RPM. I’m not quite old enough for 78 RPM, although I did have a handful of kiddie records at that speed.
I remember fondly one kiddie record that came with a little round mirror contraption that you placed over the spindle of the record player. The label of the record had an animation drawn on it, and as the record turned, the mirrors made a little movie. It might have been “I’m a Little White Duck.” But before long, that kid stuff was out, and Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis were in.
Vinyl records had their downsides, particularly their tendency to get scratched, which would cause all sorts of audible crackles and pops. Eventually, you’d get to know where the noises were on your records, and they became part of your impression of the song. Occasionally, some debris would get trapped in the grooves, which would cause the needle to skip. Sometimes the skip meant you’d miss a second or two of the song; other times, it meant that a single second would repeat over and over – hence the simile “like a broken record” for repetition.
To deal with these problems, as a pre-teen I became interested in tape recordings. These came on reels of various sizes, with the most popular being seven inches. No cracks or pops, no skipping. There was a little hiss, but not having to worry about scratches was worth it. And you could record! With a little square microphone that came with the tape recorder, you could do your own shows, just like the disc jockeys on the radio. I did that for several years.
A more common practice was to record one’s vinyl music onto tapes. Then the vinyl could be put away and preserved unscratched. A lot of blank tape was sold for that purpose. But you could buy pre-recorded albums on tape, too. I remember having the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper on both vinyl and record company-issued reel-to-reel tape. My friends and I devoured every second on that album, and it was useful to have the epic final chord fade out into the hiss without any clicks or pops. (I wish I still had that tape. I'll bet it's worth some dough now.)
My reel-to-reel days continued through high school and college, and the format really hit its prime for me in college radio. Many hours did I and my colleagues spend with splicing blocks, razor blades, and splicing tape, editing magnetic tape.
Somewhere in there, the eight-track tape was invented. This format was designed for the car, but some people had players in their houses as well. The tape was in a rectangular cartridge that you popped into a tape "deck." The cartridges were all pre-recorded; I don’t think any consumers were able to record on the things.
The physical configuration of the eight-track cartridge meant that songs were limited in length. And in the late ’60s, artists would think nothing of grinding out longer tracks. So you’d be cruising along digging an extended opus from some long-haired rocker when the eight-track would abruptly stop the song and pause for a while before resuming. Eight-tracks were never my thing, but they were the bomb for a lot of people.
In the mid-’70s, an older cousin, who always looked out for me, introduced me to cassette tapes. This was the revolutionary moment for me. Here were all the advantages of magnetic tape, but incredibly compact in size. Not only that, but the cassette players had noise reduction features, invented by a guy named Dolby, that eliminated a lot of the hiss. And you could record, just as on reel-to-reel.
This new format was an instant hit. Before long, I had as many homemade cassettes as reel-to-reel tapes, and soon the little tapes vastly outnumbered their big aunts and uncles. Eventually reel-to-reel disappeared from my life, except at the radio station. And eventually radio work got squeezed out by real life.
Within a few years, cassettes met up with a formidable competitor: the compact disc. This was something completely different: computer files that delivered music. Instead of magnetic impulses on a tape, the information was stored on a shiny disc that was translated into audio by a player with some kind of laser in it.
The CD sound was slightly brittle, but there was no hiss to fight, and best of all, the discs could be indexed so that you could skip from one song to another instantly, with the push of a button. The main disadvantage, and it was temporary, was that except for a few people who had mad computer skills and unusual hardware, you couldn’t record.
The arrival of the CD seemed like the death knell for vinyl records, and it definitely did put the kibosh on cassette tapes. Music lovers flocked to the new format, which ruled the roost for a couple of decades.
But then, just as the computer types had predicted, “the cloud” took over. You didn’t need a physical manifestation of the music at all – just a smart phone that could access the internet. The music sat on a server somewhere, and you called it up with your fingertip. For X dollars a month, you could listen to any recording, any time, at will. There was no longer anything you needed to collect, store, or take care of. It’s all in your phone. But when you stop paying the cloud people, you have nothing.
That’s pretty much where things have stood until recently, when suddenly vinyl made a comeback. Don’t ask me how, but the young people have discovered what I learned with my little portable record player 60 years ago. Twelve-inch vinyl records on a decent turntable make a sweet sound. And the good-sized cardboard sleeves around those albums provide a canvas for gorgeous visual art as well. So live with the clicks and pops – they’re worth it.
But man, are the vinyl records ever expensive now! What used to cost grammar-school me $2 at Two Guys from Harrison is now $30 at Music Millennium or Little Axe Records.
What prompts this trip through the history of music media is an ongoing project at Blog Central. I have hundreds of cassette tapes lying around collecting dust. Most of them are dubs of CDs, but a few are dubs of vinyl records, a few are official record-company releases, and a couple are sound checks from radio. I feel as though I need to do something with these tapes. Figuring out what to do, and getting it done, has taken longer than I thought it would. It’s given me lots of time to reflect on my relationship with the cassettes, and the material that’s on them.
* * * * *
It was late spring of 1975, and I was about to leave my family in New Jersey and head out to California on my own. I was going to drive my VW Beetle across country, solo, with my earthly belongings in the back. I had done a sort of trial run of this drive the previous summer with some friends, but this time, with no riders, I would need good sounds to keep me on the road. The bug had a decent radio, but there would be long stretches with no reception.
My cousin knew just what I needed. He had a car cassette player that he gave me, and he urged me to go and procure a cassette deck for home as well. With the cassette deck, I could copy a bunch of vinyl albums onto blank tapes and take them on the road with me. He even offered to let me use his outrageously good stereo system and album collection to do the recording.
The auto cassette deck sat in the glove box in the Beetle. The deck was pretty big and clunky by today’s standards for gadgets, and it was too deep. But the VW glove box was essentially just a glorified cardboard box, and so I cut a flap out of the back of it to make the thing fit.
I also went out and for $100 bought a nice home cassette deck with Dolby noise reduction. I didn’t have a lot of time to do the dubbing, but I did manage to get maybe 10 cassettes ready in time for the trip. I remember Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits – the old Steve Miller – Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, and both albums by that guy Bruce Springsteen that nobody ever heard of. They got me across country in one piece, and for that I am forever grateful.
Among the stuff I was hauling in the back of the car were the speakers for my home stereo. I hooked them up to the car cassette deck and hoped for the best. Lo and behold, they worked! And so as I roared through Nebraska, I had The E Street Shuffle absolutely blasting off the corn. It’s amazing that I didn’t get stopped.
Within a few years, the frustrated DJ in me led to the creation of a number of mix tapes. These started out as attempts to get people to dance at house parties, efforts that had mixed success. But they expanded to include soundtracks for workouts, and mood music for my team in the Hood-to-Coast Relay. Such projects became even more numerous with the advent of the Walkman, a miracle device that allowed you to listen to cassette tapes through headphones while walking, running, or doing just about anything except swimming.
The record companies would put albums out on cassette as well. They were cheaper than CDs, and for a while I bought a few.
When the newer formats pushed cassettes out of the running for home listening, my cassettes were banished to the car. My car is old enough to drink, and to this day it has its original cassette player/radio combo in it. And so for several years I had a dozen or so cassettes rattling around in various nooks and crannies of the car. But eventually the dashboard cassette player gave out, and that was the end of that.
So now the cassettes sit in large piles in a bookcase in the attic. Between album dubs, mix tapes, and factory-made cassettes, a few hundred have accumulated. Except for the factory-made tapes, nobody wants them. But there is some good stuff in there. I can’t just toss them all, can I? What to do?
I am not the only one grappling with this question. A friend of mine mentioned a few dozen cassettes he had lying around that he was getting ready to throw away. He said I could have them, so I took them. His pile was added to mine.
* * * * *
After thinking about it for a while, I devised a plan. I would go through the whole pile, throwing out what was readily available elsewhere – especially if I still had the CD, but even if I didn’t. Anything that was not readily available elsewhere, like old sound checks from radio shows, I would keep. There wouldn’t be much of that. And as for the mix tapes, I’d create an Apple Music playlist out of each one, and then toss them.
This is not a quick errand. Just to listen to the mix tapes to figure out what’s on them, dozens of hours are required. (Almost none of them have track listings.) And although creating a playlist in the cloud is relatively easy, it too takes time. Thus, I’ve been going at it in fits and starts.
The other day, I felt a fire under me to make some more headway on this, and so I grabbed a dozen cassettes off the pile to start listening again. I was sitting down to play them on a boombox the kids had as toddlers, with radio, CD, and cassette capabilities. But for some reason, the boombox wouldn’t play the cassettes. In fact, it wouldn’t play CDs, either, and even the radio wouldn’t work. It had power, and it looked like it should work, but it didn’t.
No worries, there’s another boombox out in the garage. I bring it in, pop in a mix tape called “45s on CD,” and start grooving to “Love is All Around,” by the Troggs. But a few minutes into it, the boombox starts making a horrible screeching noise whenever the cassette deck is engaged. Not only that, but the tape slows down to a bizarre-sounding low speed, which gets slower and slower.
Could it be the cassette? It’s probably pushing 40 years old. So I pop in another one – same problems. Ditto for a third. And so, I conclude, another boombox bites the dust. Strike two.
But don’t fret, I tell myself, there’s always the serious cassette deck downstairs with the stereo components. So I take the tape down there and get to work on that playlist. A few songs into it, disaster strikes for a third time. When I hit the stop button on the deck, instead of stopping, it winds one reel uncontrollably, so that the tape spools out of the cassette and into the machine! And the only way to stop it is to turn the power off.
I try it again. It does it again. Strike three.
And with that, I’m out of cassette decks. I root around in the basement for an old Walkman, but then I recall that we sold it (along with some homemade cassettes) at a garage sale a year or two ago. And so there will be no further progress on this project for a while.
None of the cassette players are worth repairing. For $40, you can get a new Wakman-like gadget that works with bluetooth. It’s playback only, but I can’t imagine recording onto cassette ever again.
And so I place my order and wait for the new player to get here. In the meantime, the Troggs are waiting, to spark joy or not. Either way, they’re going to the landfill soon.