Personal Essays


Please Spool to End of Tape Before Playing Other Side

For music listeners of every era, our audio formats define us—until we grow up and upgrade. Remembering the sweet squeak of cassettes.

Show a cassette to a five-year-old, and they’ll give you a quizzical look: “What is it?” For all they know, it could be something interesting. Older children, however, are wiser, and know an artifact when they see it. When their time comes, they can indulge in nostalgic memories of their childhood mp3 collections; right now it’s my turn to indulge, and I grew up wrapped in magnetic tape.

As a kid in the late ’70s, I danced round the house to Showaddywaddy, recorded on my father’s reel-to-reel tape player. The spools were larger than my five-year-old head, and hypnotized me as they spun around on top of the enormous machine that played them.

I sang along to the Top 40, recorded from the radio directly to that reel-to-reel machine. Back in the days when having a song in the Top 40 counted for something, when songs stayed in the chart for weeks, slowly working their way to the top 10—or slowly fading from earshot. We’d sing along to the Top 40 all week, until it was time to record the next edition the following Sunday afternoon. It was a big deal back then—the number-one song was a subject of heated discussion at school. Not just number one, but the whole chart. Where had a new entry come in? Did it have a chance of rising higher the following week? And then there were those rare occasions when a song entered the chart at number one; the DJs would treat such songs like visiting heads of state, and we’d listen in awe; after all, if they debuted at number one, they must be good songs.

The Top 40 show was our source of musical entertainment for the entire week. By taping it, we had a compilation of hits at our fingertips. This was our generation’s iPod, podcast, and torrent all rolled into a two-hour-long musical indulgence; one that we tended to listen to in one go, as if it were the live radio show. No “skip” button.

The reel-to-reel was an industrial machine. When you pressed the play button, you really had to push it, applying enough pressure to engage the mechanism. Each button was an enormous inch-square lump of plastic, sitting atop a complex spring mechanism like something out of Dr. Seuss.

The machine was huge, with a wooden cabinet and brushed-metal surface, rather like some of today’s audio software. It felt like the kind of equipment that might need a regular application of oil to keep it in good condition. Fast-forwarding was exciting, as was switching the spinning platters to a faster gear and turning the music into hilarious helium-powered chattering of sound. My friends and I would dance to that, too, whirling round the room on miserable winter afternoons while a wood fire crackled and the dog snoozed in the corner, trying to ignore us.

My father preferred to buy proper records on vinyl, mostly jazz, classical, and a bit of opera, with a decent splash of Beatles (Revolver is one of my earliest musical memories). But tape was cheap, and as I grew older it was the only music format I could afford. For my eighth birthday I was given a cassette player of my own. The sound was mono, the unit itself small—about an eighth the size of my dad’s reel-to-reel. The switches were plasticky and liable to snap off. But it took standard cassettes, the kind you could buy at the shops for slightly less than the price of a vinyl LP. My music collection began with Changesonebowie and Queen’s Jazz; in later years came Business as Usual by Men at Work, Regatta da Blanc and Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police, and Vienna by Ultravox.

Furniture’s The Wrong People had to be replaced after the tape elongated several inches in a bizarre fast-forward accident; U2’s The Joshua Tree was loaned out and never returned. There was a succession of cassette decks, each one serving faithfully for a few years before breaking, or being retired in favor of something better or newer or smaller. Then one day new tape decks were called CD players, and all the record shops swept tapes to one side to make space for the shiny plastic disks.

As with vinyl, I couldn’t afford CDs, so I kept buying tapes. As my music taste matured beyond the basics inherited from my dad (which included the Joni Mitchell back catalogue) and my brother (early Billy Bragg, New Order and—oddly—Joan Armatrading), I started buying the new wave (Wire, Joy Division), avant-garde pop (Momus), synth pop (Yello, Depeche Mode), and indie (Throwing Muses, Cocteau Twins, and if I’m honest, almost every other artist signed to 4AD) sounds that defined the period.

And throughout, I stuck with tape. On becoming an undergraduate, I borrowed my mother’s car to transport my entire cassette collection to a poorly heated rented room in the dirtier part of a university town. I got sick the day I bought Doubt by Jesus Jones, and got disappointed by it while feverish in bed. That’s the last tape I can remember buying—and God, it was awful.

I left college, got a job, and starting earning some cash—and then I began buying CDs. The tapes I’d loved were consigned to a chest of drawers, listened to only when I was in the mood for something retro—a mood I’m getting into much more as I get older. Nostalgia grows. My CD collection grew. The CD players, like the cassette decks before them, got upgraded and improved.

But many of the tapes are still around. Some got given away, some broke or stretched or got mangled inside the machines designed to play them. Some were worn out through overplaying, and were replaced by shiny, laser-etched disks instead. Furniture’s The Wrong People had to be replaced after the tape elongated several inches in a bizarre fast-forward accident; U2’s The Joshua Tree was loaned out and never returned; Chris Rea’s On the Beach got eaten by my dad’s car stereo on a long drive up to Scotland, and I wasn’t all that bothered.

Recently I tipped all the survivors out on the kitchen table, and conducted triage. A handful of unwanted seconds (a Monty Python sketch compilation, Louder Than Bombs by the Smiths, and the eponymous House of Love) went into the charity bag. Some had already been replaced by CD, and followed on. But there were still 80 albums of wonderful, memory-clinging music. I have neither the money nor time to replace all that with CDs or downloads, at least not all in one go.

Which means I still have a tape deck plugged into my amplifier, and I still treasure it, because every one of those tapes brings memories: when and how it was purchased, how much it was listened to, the people I made listen to it with me, the reactions they had to each song. The songs themselves; most of them I know by heart. The lyrics, the harmonies. Had I been a vinyl collector, I’d be emotional about the objects themselves, the beauty of the sleeve artwork, the raw aural quality produced by groove and needle. But as a collector of tapes, I’m all too aware of the shoddy sound, the tendency to break, the tiny cramped inlay cards and squeaky noises from old transport mechanisms. The objects are cheap plastic tat; as it always should, the music matters most.