heard on the wire

Home taping is killing music

JVC walkman

I was convinced that it was a flash in the pan, but five years since cassette tapes first began to reappear, their popularity, like that of vinyl, continues to grow.

Ten years ago, the only places where cassettes could be found were in the rotating racks of Hallmark releases in petrol stations, in glove boxes and in attics. They were the epitome of dead technology, only to spring to life again, a wholly surprising phenomenon of nostalgia, hipster cool, anti-piracy and DIY.

That said, I find the enthusiasm for the chewable medium hard to understand, despite attempts to explain, but there’s no question that the enthusiasm is widespread among the DIY artists and minor labels that ply their trade on Bandcamp, if not elsewhere.

Take, for example. the latest offering from the appropriately named San Diego shoegazers Tape Deck Mountain. The title of this track with a guitar riff taken straight out of the Cure songbook describes the process of rewinding a cassette with a pen to save on walkman batteries.

Tape Deck Mountain :: Slow Hell

I’ve never been a tape fan; I’ve always preferred vinyl’s aesthetics, tactual sensation and faster fast-forward. My cassette collection was rather and deliberately limited, the highlight being a secondhand copy of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope, although I also recall BA Robertson’s debut and a dodgy Bowie compilation I bought in San Marino, but I did love making and receiving mixtapes—that labour of love, finger poised over the pause button—and was never unhappy when a friend taped an LP for me.

Sadly lost was a mixtape that I acquired, possibly illicitly, some time in the eighties and whose origins remain a mystery. It was packed full of interesting tunes but had no biro-scribbled sleevenotes, so the identity of several also remained a mystery—including this track, which, in the absence of aforementioned scribblings, took me years to track down.

The Faith Brothers :: The Tradesman’s Entrance

Audio MP3


Also nailed to the cross of home taping were these tunes, which I first heard on C60s recorded by a school friend (are you out there, Chris Rhodes?); both are from LPs that I subsequently bought—on vinyl. The first is from Billy Bragg’s debut, Life’s a Riot with Spy versus Spy, an, if I recall correctly, was Chris’s favourite track. I have no idea what his favourite track was on the first Farmer’s Boys LP, Get out and Walk, but I’m very grateful for the tape which served me well for a couple of decades until a vinyl copy turned up in Reading’s finest secondhand record store: the glossy romance of fashion indeed and a rather wonderful segue.

Billy Bragg :: The Busy Girl Buys Beauty
The Farmer’s Boys :: More than a Dream

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But while music fans embraced the cassette, the money makers of the music industry complained and stuck stickers everywhere.

Home taping

Misty’s Big Adventure :: Home Taping is Killing Music

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So concerned were the pony-tailed execs that they publicly ostracised the debut single from Bow Wow Wow, described by Louis Pattison in The Guardian as, “a paean to home-taping that was deemed so dangerous that EMI refused to promote it, fearing it would bring the music industry crashing down.”

Bow Wow Wow : C30 C60 C90 Go!

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Quite clearly, it wouldn’t, in the same way that file sharing isn’t stabbing at the corpse. And at least one label didn’t buy the spiel. Rather, Island Records released an admittedly short series of One Plus One cassettes comprising one side of music and one blank side. They included Systems of Romance, the third LP by Ultravox in their pre-Midge Ure, pre-Vienna, pre-superstardom days. The audio quality of theis recording is poor, but it’s a fascinating snapshot of that moment when the emergent electronic technology collided with rock’s traditions.

Ultravox :: Slow Motion

Actually, I have that on vinyl, but you get the point. It was the age of the cassette, or so we thought until a cheap (to produce) plastic disc with a nasty, eminently breakable case came along. CDs made the music industry a lot of money, as vinyl and tape were ditched in favour of the overpriced shiny. No wonder that same industry attracted little sympathy when the CD revolution ate itself.

I wonder if, 20 years from now, the CD will be revived, dusted off, rejewelled and burnished with nostalgia. Or whether the idea of physical music will seem as strange and distant as telephones that were just telephones, typewriters and handwriting.

In 1986 such was the power of the cassette that a compilation given way with the NME gave its name to a musical current, C86, that has nourished guitar pop for almost 30 years. But although three of the bands on the tape are still making records, only one, the Wedding Present, can be said to be a true heir to the C86 tradition. Primal Scream were quick to ditch “shambling” and make loads of money instead, while Wirral’s finest were and have always been a law unto themselves. Ah, the beautiful, sparkling, healthy spa water of Bath, in Avon…

Half Man Half Biscuit :: I Hate Nerys Hughes (From The Heart)

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That’s from the band’s debut, Back in the DHSS, which for years I only had on tape.

The Pooh Sticks :: On Tape

And the JVC, that’s mine. If only I had some tapes to play on it…

Photo: JVC “Walkman” overshadows iPod; some rights reserved.

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