Blast from the past (11.21)

I can’t believe I forgot to talk about cassettes last week, as the world marked the death of Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape.

Cassettes were a big part of the music culture of my youth. Yes, you could buy an album by your favourite artist in cassette format, but more likely you would use a cassette to (a) tape songs off the radio (forever cursing radio DJs who loved nothing more than to talk all the way over the song intro up to the point where they vocals kicked in); (b) record copies of your friends vinyl albums as a way of sharing music (here the C90 was always preferable to the C60, as 45 minutes each side meant you could cram on two albums; 30 minutes on one side of a C60 would never be enough); or (c) compile that holy of holies, the Mix Tape.

Mix Tapes have been hailed in many books and films over the years, and justifiably so, they were (are?) mini labours of love. It was like entering a creative meditative state. You would pull out all your vinyl, you would think about your intended subject and you would start to compile a playlist of songs you were sure they would like. And then once it was finished, each cassette had to be given a name. I would never call a cassette “Mix Tape” – bleugh! How dull. I gave one to a friend called A Confection of Perfection – a line stolen from Stephen Duffy’s album liner notes.

I had a lot of penfriends in my teenage years and cassettes were often exchanged by post. I can’t begin to convey the excitement of coming home from school and finding a chunk of new music had arrived. Sometimes with a letter explaining the bands if they were new to you, sometimes familiar bands but the sender’s much beloved album tracks. Not all of it you would like, but all of it you would listen to with open ears. My  German penfriend sent me a cassette which had a song on it called “Wegen Dir” which I loved, I could almost remember all the lyrics, even if I have never been able to track this song down again. (“Oooh, ich kann dich nicht vergessen, was ist los mit mir?”) My cousin (who was older than me and into much cooler music) taped some albums for me and introduced me to Ultravox and Big Country and Simple Minds (who I realise, looking back, were all Scottish bands… it was a sign that I was meant to go live in Scotland one day.)

As I grew older, sometimes I had access to the record collections of friends and was able to pull my own compilation tapes together from their record collections. These also would have their own distinctive names.  I have one from songs raided from a friend’s collection that was called A Million in Prizes. (Recognise the lyric reference anyone?)

As the album / cassette culture faded into CD culture, I was broke and unable to afford a CD player so still kept a lot of music on cassette. My early backpacking trips were soundtracked by cassettes (I had to limit myself to a certain number – probably 10, as they took up a lot of space in the backpack). Then there was the despair when the batteries on my Walkman died – at least for playing cassettes – but I could still listen to the radio. (Although when you’re in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia and you only have Slovak radio to listen to, it’s not always a great option.)

Spotify playlists are good, but mix tapes were mini labours of love. A C90 would take more than the 90 minutes of its duration to fill. And there were always those awkward spaces at the end that were not quite enough for a whole song. You would either have to find a short song or just accept that the cassette would click off half way through. In my very long ago childhood, I had a C60 cassette that had an ABBA album on one side and Paul Simon’s Kodachrome on the other. For years, the ABBA song “I’ve been waiting for you” ended mid-word for me: “Still, strange as it seems to be, you brought it back to me, that old fee…”

Thank you Lou Ottens for making all this possible.

Late this week, I had a message (on LinkedIn of all places) from one of my teenage penpals. LinkedIn had thrown up my name as a “here’s someone you might know”. It got me thinking about how we used to write long letters to each other and exchange cassettes. Back then we were teenagers and now we are grown up women. I haven’t written back to her yet but I will. Back then I felt my world was so small, exchanging letters with other people gave me a glimpse of what other people’s lives were like, what other places were like, and of course, what other music was like. These cassette-sending friends jolted me out of teeny bopper pop and into other music, and I’ll be forever grateful to them all.

Did you ever exchange cassettes with friends? Do you recall any bands or songs you were introduced to by mix tape?

1 thought on “Blast from the past (11.21)”

  1. Hey Michelle, it’s funny, I just finished editing a chapter in the ‘ol upcoming book on music and cassette tapes were inevitably in there. Did not know about Lou or his passing so thank you.
    I probably wasn’t as obsessed with mixed tapes as much as you (or my memory is bad) but I do remember exchanging one with my best friend. We had SUCH different tastes. She like mellow music, lots of Simon and Garfunkel, while I was heavily into rock and metal. So needless to say, it was a quirky exchange. I lured her making a soft rock mix and then I stuck a heavy and loud rock song in the middle of it. Hahahaha. I’m so evil.


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