Hayley Long offers an impassioned defence of cassette tapes in the latest in our series of essays on some of modern culture’s most maligned items.
There are some songs that will never sound as bad on the radio as they do in my head. Take, for example, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ That song ought to sound sublime anywhere, but in my head, there is a point – just near the beginning of the second verse – where Art Garfunkel jumps into the troubled water and almost drowns. A second or so later, he resurfaces and the moment of crisis is over. But not for me. Every time I hear that track played, I hear the ghost of a gurgle as his lungs fill up with water. Fortunately, it’s not a song that I encounter very often these days. But then there is also ‘In Bloom’ by Nirvana. Is there anyone other than me who hears Kurt Cobain burp all the way through the song’s opening line? And what about ‘Enjoy the Silence’ by Depeche Mode? Given the fact that – in my head only – the four minutes and forty seconds of this track are peppered throughout by momentary lapses into total nothingness, it’s a very appropriate title.
This is no random quirk of individual weirdness. This is the result of having songs hardwired into my brain at a young and impressionable age via the twin evils of a cheap stereo and a misused cassette tape. My fate is now sealed. I am doomed forever to remember every crinkle and crease in the magnetic tape. Some songs will make me revisit violent fluctuations in volume. In others, I will recall every gaping nanosecond of silence where I repaired my cherished teenage dreams with a sliver of Sellotape.
And now they are telling us that the cassette tape is back. Recently, a flood of artists including Ariana Grande, Kylie Minogue and Billie Eilish released albums on a format that most of us threw in the bin ages ago. Iceland’s queen of art pop, Björk, has even released her entire back catalogue on tape. But why? Why would any sane person choose the audio equivalent of a bottle of Asti when they can have Champagne?
Tapes? Are you kidding? Not for me. Not again. No way.
Except that… well… somehow… quite by accident, I’ve spent the whole of 2019 buying hundreds of them.
Let me explain. Earlier this year, I was walking past one of the many second hand record shops in Norwich when I spotted an old tape cassette in the window. Even without my glasses on, I recognised the album immediately. It was Strangeways Here We Come by The Smiths. Some strange impulse made me go in and buy it. It cost just two pounds and reconnected me at once with my sixteen year old self. What better way could there possibly be to part with a couple of quid?
It was only when I got home that I realised that the tape inside the case didn’t match. It was the right band but the wrong album. It was also the perfect starting point for my adventures in the unpredictable world of the tape cassette.
From here, I’m aware that my story gets strange and not entirely rational. One evening a few days later, I started searching Ebay for that missing Smiths tape. Before I knew it, I was bidding on cassettes by The Happy Mondays, EMF and PM Dawn. I don’t know why. Even worse, I started bidding on job lots of utter junk. But I hadn’t totally lost my mind. I kept my bids low and reassured myself that I couldn’t possibly win.
Within a week, I was the bemused owner of several boxes of used tape cassettes. Having no bigger plan, I decided to just do the obvious and listen to them.
The first tape I put into my cassette player was the self-titled debut by 80s goth-rockers All About Eve. It was an album that I’d played to death during my A Levels. Clearly this copy had been played to death too because the sound that came out of my speaker was the upsetting muffled screams of Julianne Regan being eaten alive. I quickly pressed STOP and tried a different tape. Again, the same thing happened. Five dead tapes later, I texted my friend who’d spent her teenage Saturdays working in a record shop in King’s Lynn.
None of them work, I wailed.
Fast forward through them a few times, she said. They might need waking up.
I did as I was told and whizzed repeatedly through REM’s Out of Time before trying again. And this time, as soon as the speakers burst into life, I felt my heart lift. My friend was right. Tapes are like people. Sometimes they fall asleep and take a little time to perk up. What’s more, when they’re shit, they’re best avoided but when they’re good, they’re a joy. Suddenly, I understood why Björk and so many others are enamoured with the tape cassette. A fully functioning tape sounds sublime. I’m not exaggerating. It seriously does. After years of MP3 downloads, I could hear the difference immediately. I was hearing details on this REM album that I hadn’t heard in years. It was a reminder that the convenience of a digital download isn’t everything.
And then there’s the look of them. OK, so it’s true that some of my tapes were so filthy that I didn’t want to touch them but once I’d washed the cases and carefully used a little magic eraser on the grimiest cassette shells, I was able to appreciate them as the beautiful objects that they are. Unlike vinyl which is almost always black, and digital downloads which are only ever invisible, cassettes vary enormously. The later ones sold in the 90s and early noughties are usually on transparent shells with white transfer lettering. Older ones come on shells of any colour and have co-ordinating paper labels. Amongst my favourites are the early tapes from Island Records. Rather like early Penguin paperbacks which came in a distinct orange livery, vintage releases from Island are uniform and instantly identifiable. They all have black cassette shells, pink paper labels and pink inlay cards. Back in the 1970s, somebody at Island Records had the lovely job of ensuring that their tapes looked classy and attractive. Classy attractive tapes! Who even knew? We were all so busy shoving them into our Walkmans and swapping them and losing them and taping over them that most of us never noticed.
But to my mind, the prettiest tapes of all were not Island tapes, they were the early Elton John albums, released by DJM Records. These beauties have bright green cases, matching green shells and cheerful yellow labels. They are the Brazilian football team of tape design. The one I briefly owned was called Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player and it was so magnificently handsome that I was excited to hear it even though Elton John’s music brings me out in a rash. I slid the tape into my cassette deck and – remembering my friend’s advice – pressed fast forward. Nothing happened. I turned the tape over and tried rewind. Again nothing happened. The play button gave me no joy either. After a quick investigation, I discovered the problem and experienced another of those emotional big-dippers that only a mechanical format can give you. The magnetic tape inside the shell had snapped and it was now fit only for the bin. Sometimes beauty is useless.
And as odd as it sounds, maybe that’s an essential part of tape’s appeal. In a world of digital uniformity, each tape tells its own individual story. It can sound great but it often doesn’t. Sometimes it sounds like Darth Vader is shouting at us from a distant galaxy. Tapes were never meant to last forever so if we find one which sounds perfect, it just means that it’s either very new or still waiting to find the right owner. And when the right owner finally gets hold of it, they’ll hopefully do the right thing and play it to death.
As for me and my several hundred tapes, I’m hooked now. For the sake of cupboard space, I’m trying to stay away from Ebay but my cupboards keep filling up anyway. One or two of my friends have noticed my weird fascination and kindly fed my obsession by donating their dusty tape collections to me. And as for those brand new Björk tapes? Well, I had to get hold of a set of them, obviously. And then there are car boot sales. Because… well, who knows? Maybe one Sunday morning, I’ll find a lovely old tape in the colours of the Brazilian football team. And maybe, just maybe, it will sound absolutely amazing.
Hayley Long’s latest book is Music To Make Friends By, a title in the Quick Reads series from Rily Publications.