The Tale of the Tape
I own a tape deck, a turntable and a VCR (and I’ve used two within the last week!), but even I had to do a double take at Time’s one-page feature this week on the resurgence of cassette tapes. It seems that sales are up for both blank and re-recorded tapes, a surprising phenomenon given the digital revolution and the fact that even back in the day pre-recorded cassette tapes were the butt of jokes just shy of those for the 8-track. Store-bought cassettes, it was widely known, were recorded on poor quality tapes that never sounded right on a good cassette deck. The high ends were particularly bad and the overall sound couldn’t compare with that of LPs or CDs. When I worked at a record store (remember those?) in 1991-1992, we sold thousands tapes, including a ridiculous number of cassette singles, and I couldn’t believe how many people were willing to shell out cash for such an inferior medium.
Now I learn that new albums are being released on cassette and the collection of old tapes is gaining steam. I truly didn’t see this coming. Not two years ago, I finally decided that my studio needed to be freed of the cassette tapes that were mucking up coveted shelf-space and discarded several dozen. Some were old store-bought tapes that my wife had accumulated, but most were Maxell XLII tapes of albums I’d collected over the years. The thought that I could possibly sell these, or even find a home for them, was beyond comprehension.
Tapes were ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s. For Christmas in 1978, I received a cheap cassette deck with a built-in microphone that my friends and I used it to record skits, but it was my brother’s purchase of a high-quality tape-deck that spurred daily recordings, be it songs off the radio, my own compositions, or copies of my LPs. As soon as I purchased a vinyl LP, I transferred it onto tape in order to preserve the vinyl copy as well as have a more portable medium to play in the car. So now if I play, say, my vinyl copy of Yes’s Going for the One, it should sound pristine, as it probably hasn’t been played more than twice since I purchased it.
Maxell XLII was the tape of choice among my friends in the 80s, though some opted to pay the extra cash for the XLII-S. Currently, in my now sparse collection of old tapes, I find I’ve got some of both. The 90 minute tape was the norm, which was usually perfect because you could fit an album on each side, but some albums required a few extra minutes. Hence, the 100 minute tape. Genesis albums were the worst. You could purchase a 100 minute tape, but even then you’d have to skip a track to fit, say, A Trick of the Tale onto one side.
Aside from recording one’s own LPs, there were concerts to record off of Sunday night’s King Biscuit Flower Hour or interviews off of Monday night’s Rockline (which, I’ve come to learn, it still going strong after 32 years. Nice!). More important were the recordings shared between friends. An old girlfriend made me a concert tape of Bruce Springsteen’s second night at Alpine Valley in 1984, a particularly cool memento given that I’d attended the concert the day before. Other friends of mine made me mix tapes, exposing me to terrific bands and recordings I would have never heard on my own (Cracker’s version of the Carpenter’s song, “Rainy Days and Mondays”? Fantastic!). These, I haven’t the heart to get rid of. I still have a box of cassettes, including many recordings of my own compositions in the 1980s and several copies of my first two albums, Meals and Ulcers (1992) and Rocks Off On Humboldt (1996).
And even though I don’t have copies of the mix tapes I gave to potential girlfriends, I like to think that scattered amongst the attics of the United States, these tapes still exist, little fragments of a guy with hopes that the beautiful female specimen might look at him in a different light.
One mix tape hit pay-dirt.
I still have the tape I made for my future wife in 1993 when she was just a hope. Looking at it now, I wonder why the hell I didn’t include more selections from the very solid year of 1992. Where is the REM? Peter Gabriel? Lemonheads? XTC? But oh well. It’s a little snapshot of a lovesick boy. And it got the job done.
“A WONDERFUL LITTLE MIX”
These are Days – 10,000 Maniacs
Loveable – Elvis Costello
Under African Skies – Paul Simon
Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
Be My Number Two – Joe Jackson
Chuck E.’s In Love – Rickie Lee Jones
Oh Daddy – Adrian Belew
Sail Away – Randy Newman
High Flying Bird – Elton John
Saturday – The Judy Bats
Don’t Get Me Wrong – The Pretenders
Umbrella – Innocence Mission
Taking My Life In Your Hands – Elvis Costello
Earn Enough for Us – XTC
It’s My Job – Jimmy Buffett
Late in the Evening – Paul Simon
Candy Everybody Wants – 10,000 Maniacs
The Woman’s Work – Kate Bush
Showdown at Big Sky – Robbie Robertson
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Elton John
Real Emotional Girl – Randy Newman
The Greatest Thing – Elvis Costello
Stranger than Fiction – Joe Jackson
The Wonder of Birds – The Innocence Mission
She’s Mad – David Byrne
Selections from Randy Newman’s score to the movie Avalon.