21 March 2021

In Which Tape Hisstory Repeats Itself

 


It may be a passing fancy, and in time may go, but I wish to announce that I have re-embraced the humble cassette, that much-loved companion of This Great Nation's former days, and to boast - or confess - that even though I've already got a couple of large  plastic crates piled high with 'em I've been spending most of today buying even more via a well-known auction website. 

I'm aware that this frenzy could be spent out in a matter of days: I haven't listened to any of my old tapes yet, and as one of those crates was slumbering on a shelf very near my TV it may be that they have become magnetised and unlistenable.

 


Which reminds me that I bought a demagnetiser once, and a very odd device it was, like a - well, like what Donovan euphemistically termed an "electric-a banana". If memory serves, you're meant to wave it over the tape heads a number of times in a looping motion, all the while imploring some higher power to cast out such evil spirits as may be selfishly interfering with your favourite artist's upper range. I don't really fancy doing anything as complicated as that.

It may be, then, that I shall fall at the first hurdle. But entertaining the idea of committing afresh to an ancient medium has given me a little glow of pleasure over the last few days. The secondhand tapes I've been buying aren't to replace existing CDs or vinyl but to fill gaps in my memory: some cassettes which I remember with fondness I never actually owned, borrowing them from local libraries; others which I did possess were given away when I tired of them - or perhaps lost them, or maybe even threw the odd inferior specimen away during some short-lived dream of order. (Where is that Great Lost Kinks cassette which I bought in Listen Records in Cambridge Street, Glasgow, all those years ago?)

It's strange to think that these modest, unprepossessing objects have now acquired a collectable status but it seems that they have, to judge from some of the prices asked online. And I do sort of understand: I've notice that many online sellers make a point of stating whether cassettes have paper labels stuck on, as opposed to contents lists being printed directly onto the plastic shell. It could be that it's now generally accepted that earlier musicassettes - now there's a word I never thought I'd use again - which tended to have such information glued rather than stamped on, have superior sound quality; I don't really know. I suspect, however, that for many people - certainly those besotted enough to pay good money for them - the value of these objects lies in their ability to trigger memories. Which is why the particular edition of the cassette needs to be the same in every particular as the first pressed into some cassette recorder of long ago, or the magic won't work: talismans are not interchangeable.

 

 
 
 
But sometimes it's an audio thing too. Not realising I'd only temporarily tired of it I was once foolish enough to give away a Django Reinhardt cassette, along with a pile of other tapes, to a friend. I realised my blunder shortly afterwards during a party at his flat when Honeysuckle Rose began playing through large speakers; sadly, he had already bonded with the tape and wasn't inclined to return it. I did eventually manage to find a replacement, similar to the one pictured above, but can still recall the keen disappointment at pressing play: same record label, same track listing and sleevenotes (by Ken Sykora), and both versions came with paper labels, but the colours of those labels were different and the substitute had not evidently not been produced with the same care which Decca once used to lavish on their cassettes with that distinctive yellow paper contrasting with the grey plastic.
 


 That said, it's not generally about sound quality. I came to know Pet Sounds, for example, before the recent acclaim for that album, and the library cassette which was often pressed into service on my hefty Sony Walkman in the early eighties was, in whole or in part, electronically reprocessed stereo, meaning bass and treble were weighted differently in the two channels, giving an impression of a greater fullness in the sound - or that was the misguided idea, anyway.
 
 

 When Pet Sounds first came out on CD it was a mono mix - Brian Wilson's damaged ear means he can't hear in stereo - though a Wilson-approved stereo version is now available. I have listened many times to both of those CD mixes but I suspect that getting hold of a copy of that cr*ppy, compromised cassette would give me something else ... or I'd like to think it would, anyway.

There is one recent purchase which doesn't need any hint of an apology. Ace Records' budget label Cascade issued a good compilation of blues tracks on both vinyl and cassette, which I listened to many times on that brick of a Walkman, but the later CD issue was a subtle disappointment: several songs had been replaced by others - licensing issues or the compiler had second thoughts, though I suspect the former. So the experience of that cassette, which had only been borrowed from my local library, could only be recreated by a direct replacement.

Which happens to lead me to one strong argument in favour of both vinyl and tape over CD: the sequencing. There are any number of Django Reinhardt CDs out there, and some even have good sound quality, but none has what I cannot help thinking of as the right tracks in the right order. Alright, I suppose I could take a JSP box set and piece together that Sykora album but that's a lot of faff: if there's a decent cassette out why not go for that? And what Ken Sykora writes is an integral part of the experience, anyway. That particular cassette is also dear to me because, initially, I didn't get it, felt I was listening to a sort of merry doodling, without much shape or structure. But back in those days when you couldn't immediately summon up any number of alternatives at the click of a mouse you tended to persist with the records or tapes you bought, and at some point things slotted into place - helped, no doubt, by Reinhardt's habit of calling out encouragement to his partner mid-performance: there was obviously fun to be had.

There is an argument in favour of vinyl which applies equally to cassettes. Compared to CDs, the act of listening  feels more of a manageable experience, one you can submit to wholeheartedly: twenty or so minutes required per side, which is a reasonable time to demand total concentration. (Alright, alright, if your cassette player has auto-reverse then you could be listening to the full album in a oner, but that is still a decision you choose to make by switching that facility on or off.) But the seventy or so minutes with which so many CDs are crammed is too much to take in - or too much, at any rate, to sustain the same level of intensity throughout: there's less sense of experiencing an album, something with a beginning, middle and end. And you can't choose a favourite side with a CD.

Now, you could ask: why does it matter, if you're talking about retro compilations? These tracks were singles, after all, predating the notion of unified albums, so why not just be grateful that you're getting more bang for your buck?

The answer to that is that for me - and, I imagine, others - the sequencing on some elderly LP or cassette, played over and over in the days when you had a limited number of such things, has become an essential part of the experience of hearing those songs, even though it wasn't part of the original artists' intentions. I can't, for example, hear the end of Sonny Knight's Confidential without anticipating the first mournful wails of the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops, the final track - who, after all could follow that? - on Side Two of Original Oldies Vol. 18. 


And I am sorely tempted to buy a not unpricey Jackie Wilson Greatest Hits cassette (top image) simply because it's the same one I used to own, bought from the Wilson Stereo Library (no relation)over forty five years ago. (Come to think of it, I am about 23p in credit with the library - wonder how I go about getting a refund?) 

Is it really the best Jackie Wilson compilation ever? I don't know, but any collection which doesn't begin with Whispers (Gettin' Louder) just ain't right, somehow. 

 


And Blue Suede Shoes has to be followed by Movie Magg: them's the rules ... if the above compilation was your first introduction to Carl Perkins, anyway. I was going to say at this point that it wouldn't apply to the Beatles' generation, weaned on The Dance Album of Carl Perkins, but as it happens those are the first two tracks on that collection too, then there's a parting of the ways.

The above image, found online, of the cassette entitled Blue Suede Shoes is an American issue, which gives me a sudden moment of doubt: could it be that the UK version I possessed moved around a track or two to fill the space more evenly? I seem to remember "I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry" as the bright opening of Side Two of the tape I bought ... once more a prey to saucy doubts and fears.

And where, pray tell, is that Shirelles tape I once had which allowed me to hear Shirley Owens singing Baby It's You acapella? I can't remember the cover at all, which may be a bit of an obstacle when it comes to finding a replacement.

I recall reading a piece by an American humorist some years ago about the sudden shock of discovering that the book he happened upon in a secondhand bookshop was in fact the same copy he had once owned. I didn't place some special mark on my cassettes, or initial them or anything like that, so there is no way of knowing, but it's not impossible that the odd item I buy online might turn out to have been my own once upon a time. If that's proveable, I wonder whether that well-known auction website might offer some kind of a discount ... Still, I won't push it, just in case their attitude is that if the would-be purchaser was foolish enough to let such a treasure go in the first place they ought to impose a surcharge.

There is one cassette, not of much intrinsic worth, which I would really like to find. I can't see an image of the cover online. Around 1975 DJM issued a number of jazz and blues albums and cassettes licensed from Springboard International. The cassettes were not identical to the LPs, which were usually doubles, but functioned as cut-down versions. Now, we're not really talking high quality here - in fact I recall a critic in some magazine using the term "sonic sludge" to describe the albums, some of which had the umbrella title of "All That Jazz": they sounded like, and probably were, umpteenth-generation airshots.

 



The companion cassettes were entitled "Pieces of ..." whoever the artist might be. A few months ago, well before this cassette craze suddenly ignited within me, I bought the Fats Waller tape in the series, though I didn't listen to it: I just wanted to have it, to own a copy once again, in its distinctive yellow case, because first listening to that Waller tape, around 1976 or whenever, felt like another staging post in my education in jazz. The sleevenote writer, Stan Britt, went on about how this was the real Waller, in live performance, not cabined, cribbed and confined by the recording studio, and I truly believed I was thereby getting the better deal ... until, that is, I listened to some of his studio recordings and discovered that the level of inhibition engendered by such surroundings was so slight as to be unnoticeable, though that's another story. 

But for all that I still like that tape and look forward to hearing it again. I saw some other tapes from the same jazz/blues series being offered online and suddenly found myself in the record shop, now no more, where I had first seen them.



The DJM tape I haven't been able to find online is the one for Louis Armstrong, made more difficult by the fact that a similarly titled cassette issued by another company is widely available. Have to keep looking, I suppose.

Luckily I have retained tapes I made of some library LPs, including that of Armstrong: a compilation of his (American) Decca recordings which I continue to think of as the "proper" selection, even though I've bought a CD set of the complete Decca sides. Unless I've been conned by long familiarity with my battered cassette someone did the hard work of listening to everything and selecting the best so I didn't have to. I'll look forward to hearing that again.

But before you say it, yes, I am aware that there is something rather sad in all this : hunting down souvenirs of a past which cannot now be relived ... not that I'd necessarily want to do, as it wasn't a uniformly happy experience. But I do associate listening to many of the tapes mentioned with a kind of reawakening in my life, a renewed sense of hope and possibility which calls out to me from almost forty years ago, and I suppose that's the point.

And even if it all turns to ashes, if the ravages of time (and the speaker in my telly) have rendered a lot of my collection unlistenable, then at least I can console myself that the investment in equipment for the conducting of this doomed experiment in time travel and regeneration has been relatively modest: a secondhand micro hifi with tape player bought from the aforesaid website. And I've tried to keep my spending on tapes within reasonable limits, making counter-offers where possible.

If you are wondering what has triggered this "wee phrase", as my mother used to put it, then it may be that you don't already know about the death, at 94, of this man: Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape.

 

News of his passing prompted a discussion on BBC Radio 4's Front Row about the enduring fondness which many still retain for this sound carrier. The ease of making mixtapes was seen as a factor: for the first time you didn't need expensive equipment in order to reveal yourself to a prospective partner, or deepen a friendship, through the intimacy of laying your musical enthusiasms bare. 

Not that it didn't involve putting the hours in: Laura Barton and Tom Sutcliffe talked about the way in which it could take a whole day to put a mixtape together, as I well remember myself. Ah, the nervousness when coming towards the end of a side, praying that the final song choice would fit, or trying to work out which fragment of which song might serve as a pleasing full stop or comma when you already knew there was only a minute or so left: wanting the result to be chock-full of goodness, in other words.

And there were no computer-generated, professional-looking covers back in the day: the fingerprints of the creator were all over ever aspect of the creation - literally as well as metaphorically if you were doing your annotating with a cheapo felt tip.  From my own experience of making them, and examples I've seen online, most mixtapes had a handwritten tracklisting plus sundry decorations: personal, in other words, like a letter (remember those?). 

Talking over these matters with a friend recently, I was surprised and delighted when he emailed photos of a mixtape I had made for him over three decades ago. I no longer remember the reason for the title - had there been an "Andy Kershaw Presents" cassette freebie with NME or something? I do remember hearing a gospel or doo wop group on his Radio 1 show so possibly it was in humorous reference to that. Before seeing the cover again I could only remember one of the songs chosen, but looking at the tracklist I can see that a lot of my favourites are there. It's an odd mix, stylistically, because I think my main intention was to say: "Hey, here are other genres you might not have thought about."




 

And it's not all about nostalgia: according to Front Row the cassette is enjoying a bit of a resurgence today, a cost-effective means for young bands to spread the word about their music. Laura Barton also touched on what she called "a sense of intimacy and involvement" when dealing with tapes as opposed to records or CDs: they frequently broke - who amongst us has not had a tape chewed up? - or went funny. I remember one odd moment when, for reasons I don't fully understand, the cassette I had of Ben E King : The Ultimate Collection somehow became looped around an instrumental section in his recording of I Could Have Danced All Night. I can't remember how this was solved - probably by tightening it with a pencil - but the tape didn't break and lived to play many another day.

There is no denying, however, that tapes age and deteriorate. It's unfortunate, but I suppose it also makes them - well, I want to say "human", but that's not the right word. But it does make them feel like living entities. Maybe it's a signal: when you have wrested out of them all the pleasure and joy they have to offer you must move on as that pleasure and joy can no longer be heard with such brightness. 

Which doesn't say much, now I come to think of it, for my determination to immerse myself in the listening habits of yesteryear, but we shall see what happens. In a day or two I shall plug in and start playing, and may report my reactions in these pages at a later date. 

Unless it's all too painful.


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