The Cassette-Tape Revolution

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For a middle-school music-appreciation class in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the late nineteen-seventies, our teacher asked each of us to bring in a piece of recorded music to play on the classroom’s portable record player, which was a slate-blue box with a fat tone arm like a crab claw. I knew exactly the recording that I wanted to share: “Switched-On Bach,” the 1968 album by Wendy Carlos, which I’d discovered in my father’s expansive record collection. Though I’d recently started spending my allowance on albums by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel, some bootlicking part of me was certain that the teacher would prefer my classical-adjacent selection to the contemporary FM-radio favorites my classmates were likely to bring in.

There was a hitch, though. My father, a serious audiophile, refused to allow his copy of the Carlos album to be ravaged by the school’s record player. He offered to make a recording of “Switched-On Bach” on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. Did the school have one of those? The next day, the teacher confirmed that they did, but she warned that she didn’t know how to operate it. That would be up to me. My father gave me a tutorial on his TEAC at home, but when my turn came in class—after every other kid had played their selection on vinyl—I could not make the school’s reel-to-reel machine work properly. The music came out accelerated, as if performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks. I crumpled with embarrassment as my classmates laughed.

A simpler solution existed, of course: the cassette tape. Shaped like a deck of cards (or a pack of cigarettes), the cassette was cheap, portable, easy to use, and eminently shareable. A cassette could live in the footwell of the family car or the bottom of your backpack. But it was also looked down upon by audiophiles like my father. As Marc Masters notes in his recent book, “High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape,” the cassette “puts a smudgy fingerprint on everything it touches,” adding noise and hiss, the sound quality degrading with each playback. My dad never adopted the audiocassette—he jumped to compact disks in the nineties—but for my generation, the audiocassette’s virtues were instantly apparent and its flaws easy to overlook. Writing in ArtForum, Hua Hsu observed that “the cassette inaugurated an era when it was possible to control one’s private soundscape,” something we all take for granted now. The novelty of that control was thrilling to those of us raised on vinyl. Suddenly, anyone with a cheap tape player could record music, sequence it, distribute it, and—perhaps most powerfully—erase it and replace it with something else. Largely viewed as a nostalgic totem these days, the cassette tape was revelatory and revolutionary in its time; its disruptive power anticipated the even greater tectonic shift that the digital age would bring to music.

The compact audiocassette (to give it its full name) was conceived by Lou Ottens, the head of product development at the Dutch electronics company Phillips. One day, in the early nineteen-sixties, frustrated after “fiddling with that damn reel-to-reel” (as a colleague later recalled), an exasperated Ottens told his design team to create a version of their reel-to-reel tape that was small and portable, with the spools of tape contained inside a case. He wanted it to fit in a pocket and imagined it would be used by journalists and nature lovers (the latter to record birds and other outdoor sounds). Phillips introduced its new cassette system in 1963 and the immediate response was underwhelming. Before long, however, imitations of their compact cassette player began cropping up across the globe, most frequently in Japan.

Ottens then made a decision that helped boost the format. To promote standardization of the cassette, Phillips waived royalties, allowing anyone to license the design for free as long as they adhered to the company’s quality-control standards. This avoided the kind of schism that videotape would face during the VHS-Betamax war and insured that the Phillips cassette would be the dominant design. By the end of the sixties, eighty-five different manufacturers were producing cassette players, with sales of 2.5 million units. By 1983, cassettes were outselling LPs.

The ascent of the cassette caused a major freak-out among record-company executives. Nearly anyone who has ever bought vinyl will be familiar with the cassette-and-crossbones image that was for many years printed on record sleeves, accompanied by the dire warning: “Home taping is killing music.” On both sides of the Atlantic, the recording industry sought, futilely, to make the duplication of music on cassette tapes illegal. Other proposals included a compensatory tax on blank tapes. A member of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers even went so far as to equate cassettes with recreational drug use: “Very soon it becomes a hobby. And after it becomes a hobby, it becomes a habit.” None of those strategies blunted the popularity of the cassette tape. As Masters observes, the “perception that home taping was illegal or at least immoral . . . succeeded in making tapes seem even cooler and more rebellious.”

While the design of the audiocassette hasn’t changed much since its inception, the machines used to play it have evolved in magnificent and unpredictable ways. There’s a wonderful scene in Zack Taylor’s 2016 film, “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape,” in which Ottens examines a display of tape players in the Phillips archive, including a telephone-answering machine, a deck that could play a stack of cassettes in sequence, and the first AM/FM radio-cassette combo. The two most consequential innovations in the tape player, however, were the boom box and the Sony Walkman personal stereo. One allowed you to externalize your musical taste, the other to internalize it. (Indeed, a Walkman was often the best defense against the sonic assault of a boom box.)

The cassette’s democratization of music production and reproduction paved the way for new musical genres. None was more important than hip-hop. Long before rap made it to the airwaves, taped live performances by m.c.s and d.j.s at parties in the Bronx circulated to the rest of the city—and, ultimately, the world—via cassette. Masters quotes Fred Brathwaite (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy) who recalled, “A big part of this hip-hop culture in the beginning was putting things in your face, whether you liked it or not. That was graffiti, or a break-dance battle right at your feet . . . or this music blasting loud.” Unlike a record player—or the reel-to-reel tape player—the boom box was both portable and commensurate with the scale and the volume of the city. “Cassettes were hip-hop,” Bobbito Garcia, of the Rock Steady Crew, says in Taylor’s documentary.

For other musicians, the limitations of the cassette became a creative boon. Keith Richards loved the effect he could achieve by recording his guitar on a cheap cassette player. “Playing an acoustic, you’d overload the Phillips cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back, it was effectively an electric guitar,” he wrote in his memoir, “Life.” His guitar parts on the Rolling Stones’ hits “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” were recorded in this way. “That grinding, dirty sound,” Richards reflected, “It’s unexplainable.”

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen used a TEAC 144 four-track machine to record the stripped-down acoustic songs that became “Nebraska.” The TEAC was one of the first consoles that allowed musicians to do multi-track recording on a conventional cassette tape. (Springsteen used Maxells and mixed the recordings down on a water-damaged Panasonic boom box.) Though he originally intended those “Nebraska” tapes to be demos for a studio album, when Springsteen got into the studio with his band, he found that he couldn’t reproduce the aura of those cassette recordings. “The slightest alteration really ruined it,” Springsteen told the writer and musician Warren Zanes. “The nature of the unbelievably basic equipment we used was just unique.”

Though much eulogized in the decades since it was overtaken by the compact disk, the cassette tape, even in our digital era, is far from dead. As CDs in turn gave way to downloads and then to streaming, the cassette faded from the mainstream, but found refuge on the fringes, in the basements and bedrooms, the backs of zines and the depths of Bandcamp, the merch table in the alcove at the club (and, more recently, at Urban Outfitters). A few years ago, cassettes even got their own annual promotion, like Record Store Day. (You just missed it.) Simple nostalgia is not enough to explain why the cassette endures so persistently. Again and again in Masters’s book and Taylor’s documentary, aficionados of the cassette tout its limitations and imperfections as essential to its ongoing appeal. Like human beings, the cassette tape is analog, flawed, and perishable. “Our bodies are not digital,” the former Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore tells Taylor. “We’re not robots.”

The second half of Masters’s book is given over to documenting myriad groups of tape enthusiasts, collectors, and sharers, as well as the busy network of small labels that continues to release new music on cassette. Much of this work is experimental and non-commercial. (If you don’t have access to a tape deck and would like to hear some of it, you could tune in to the rambunctious and nerdy Tabs Out Cassette Podcast, which will soon post its two hundredth monthly episode.) “High Bias” makes a persuasive case that all of this cassette-based activity functions as a sort of understory in the forest of music, a substructure in the shadows that nurtures and fortifies the canopy of successful commercial artists above.

For me, however, the most revelatory chapter was on the cassette’s potency and longevity in non-Western countries, many of which had state-controlled radio and music distribution systems. The cassette provided a way of subverting those authoritarian gatekeepers, spreading protest songs—or in some cases, dance music and wedding music—that were deemed improper, offensive, or dangerous. Masters profiles a group of “tape hunters” who have spent years searching the bazaars, kiosks, and market stalls of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for musical novelty. It was while reading this chapter that I embraced “High Bias” as an extended, paperbound mixtape of cassette-based music. No longer owning a cassette player myself, I made a playlist (on Spotify, alas) of some of the artists featured by Masters, including the keyboardist Hailu Mergia, of Ethiopia; Omar Khorshid, an Egyptian composer and guitarist who recorded his albums in Lebanon; Sun City Girls, an experimental rock band from Phoenix; and the funky fusion of Ghana’s Ata Kak. But the artist I’ve most enjoyed discovering is Mamman Sani, a Nigerien-Ghanaian electronic-music pioneer, whose composition “Five Hundred Miles”—originally recorded and distributed on cassette—calls to mind some of the selections Wendy Carlos played on “Switched-On Bach.” ♦


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