Lamenting The Death Of…The Cassette

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Everyone I know who is an audiophile will tell you…there’s no better way to listen to music than on vinyl. Placing the record onto the player, dropping the stylus onto the record, kicking back and listening to the music as it pours from your stereophonic speakers, pops and scratches and all. I get it. Everything about records is cool. With their black, circular grooves, sweet cover art and their stackability. EVERYONE loves records! But what about the evil stepchild? In the 80’s, prior to the vinyl record spawning into a much smaller and shinier CD, there was a boom of a different form. It wasn’t round, it wasn’t flashy and it wasn’t cool. It came in a small box, was made primarily of plastic and tape and had a history of the oxide tape getting caught in it’s player. It would occasionally pop and hiss and make odd squeaky noises. It was the cassette…and I owned HUNDREDS of them.

Listening to music today, most people my age cannot argue that, in most cases, everything IS clearer and cleaner these days. MP3’s and WAVS, the digital age has cleaned up all the pops & hisses. There are no more fantastically beautiful large, square covers to have to stack. There are no more small square boxes, be they cassette or CD, to have to store. Everything is ON your computer! Despite the fact that nostalgia is normally reserved for the vinyl LP, I have to tell you…sometimes I miss the cassette. I miss how small it was. I miss how it smelled when I unwrapped it. I miss sitting in front of my radio for hours on end, waiting to press “record” when the local radio station FINALLY played that one song that I HAD to hear and I finally caught it on tape so I could play it over & over again. I don’t miss the cassette for the audio quality because truthfully? It was kind of dreadful. But for my generation that grew up ordering 10 cassettes for a penny (and I’m pretty sure I STILL owe Columbia House thousands of dollars!), making mix tapes and running out of recording room on that VERY LAST SONG and hearing the squeak, squeak, squeak of the wheel turning on a tape that was just about to crap out, I can say…I miss that old plastic box. It was a good friend for 12 years or so.

I remember have drawers full of tapes and this morning, when I fired up the Facebook, an 80’s music and memories site that I enjoy called EMF (Eighties Music Forever) had posted the photo above and I HAD to count how many of the featured cassettes hanging on the wall I used to have. Surprisingly, it was a lot lower than I would have thought. Now…MOST of them I have now on CD or on my hard drive for whenever the mood strikes me to fire up some The The or Clash, but I was never cool enough to know who The Specials were and I never listened to Jane’s Addiction until I reached college in the early 90’s. My cassette collection consisted of mostly pop and R&B. So looking at the photo above, I remember owning maybe 23 of them on cassette.

In the 90’s, the CD had started to wipe out my cassette collection by TKO. The fall of the cassette was not painful. It was a swift and merciless changing of the guard as the compact disc blew away the little plastic box and, despite the fact that cassette decks were still being implemented into cars and trucks up until the late 1990’s, most of MY collection had found itself in the trash by 1995. Oh sure…I kept a couple and I imagine I have a few stored away in a box somewhere (gotta keep that first copy of U2’s “The Joshua Tree”…right?) but for the most part, my love affair with the cassette format has died and now I am a straight audio file kind of guy. They’re just easier and it takes a LOT less time to download a song on the internet than it does to get in my car, drive to the store, sift through racks of albums, buy the few I want (at FULL price?) and then drive home. Being a father of 2 and having to pay the bills, I don’t have the time to enjoy that process anymore. But I have to tell you…I DO miss those lazy days, sitting in front of my cassette player and sorting through my old cassette tape boxes, looking for the one song that was gonna make my day and then having to rewind the tape to the beginning because I FORGOT TO REWIND IT the night before. Those were the days, my friends. Those were the days…

My buddy, Newman, posted the following on his Facebook site the other day. I think it is an extremely well written and it has gotten me to reflect on the “good old days.” I’m going to re-post it here because I think it should be seen by whoever might appreciate it like I did. The cassette will always be dear to me, more so than vinyl or CD, because it reminds me of MY youth. Would I ever want to throw in an old cassette and pine away for the days gone by? Probably not. But for memories sake, I love the cassette and all of it’s weaknesses and I remember those days before its demise with great affection.

CHRIS NEWMAN FACEBOOK POST (May 22, 2013):

The first album I ever purchased was “Sports” by Huey Lewis and the News. I can remember buying it on cassette at Sam Goody’s in Columbus for $5.99 and thinking how grown-up I felt when I took it to the counter. I was 15, I think, circa 1985. Now there’s a 30 year-anniversary edition out which I have no interest in other than nostalgia but it is as good a time as any to reflect on an obsession that has only grown since that day. In fact behind my family it ranks surprisingly high as something I value even though the ubiquitous nature of music and media has made owning music less of a treasure than it used to be. It has always been about discovery for me, I can hear a song a million times but its meaning or sound can change depending on anything from the weather that day or my level of maturity (also on that day, but that’s another issue). Music I didn’t like in the 80’s (if it didn’t have guitar riffs count me out) has new found prominence in my collection like Depeche Mode or an album with mature themes like Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits makes much more impact now as a 40ish father of three than it did as a teen. I still get giddy (yes giddy) over finding newer artists I like such as !!! or rediscovering Queen and how amazingly rich their albums are and wonder how they never were quite the sensation in the U.S. they should have been. I also get obsessed over their biographies (God help me if “Behind The Music” ends up on Netflix) especially over The Beach Boys or The Who or some other equally volatile yet creative force that continues to fascinate me. I own safe to say a thousand, two thousand, three I don’t know really, albums and surprisingly I can actually pick a favorite. (Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue, for the record).

One last memory I have to share while I’m thinking about it, I also have to blame the day I heard Led Zeppelin II on launching me into the obsessive world of rock and roll. I borrowed a homemade tape from a friend of mine back in high school, Jeff Ignatius. He loaned it to me to listen to Rush but I put on the wrong side and out came Whole Lotta Love and that was the difference between thinking music was nice background noise for a date at the local roller skating rink and realizing there was an entire world out there of things I had no idea about. That’s where “discovery” began and it’s not even close to being over with any luck. But thank you to Sports and all other touchstones on the way (Journey, I admit it). I feel like a better person because of my appreciation of rock music which is ironic since I was brought up in a time where Kiss, AC/DC and others were labeled devil music among other things so I was afraid to even be around that kind of thing as a kid. I hope thirty years from now people still buy physical albums because downloads are like getting sherbet when you really wanted ice cream. As long as artists keep putting them out, I’ll keep buying them and continue to learn odd little details about their music and about my own life.

For the record…MY first cassette that I ever bought with my own cash was Supertramp’s “Paris” double album. I can’t say it’s anywhere near close to my favorite album now but at the time it seemed like a bargain because it had all of their songs on one cassette! Well…it made sense in 1980 anyway…
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