Farewell to cassettes: Tales of the tape

Audio cassettes provided the soundtrack to a generation. Now they are about to become obsolete. Lisa Williams and Andy Dykes track down memories of their golden age
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'Prince was a guilty pleasure': Alan Carr, comedian

I used to collect tapes in one of those rectangular boxes from Poundland. I was a big fan of Prince and one of my favourite tapes was his album Dirty Mind. The cover photo was Prince in pixie boots and a thong, and on it were songs with great names such as "Head".

I listened to it when I was going through puberty and questioning my sexuality. I didn't fancy Prince himself, but he had mystique like Boy George. I would wonder whether they were male or female, straight or gay. They were interesting for people like me who were discovering their sexuality. Perhaps looking at pictures of Prince in pixie boots and a thong wasn't the best thing for me to be doing at that time. Musically, it was when Prince was going through his God-bothering phase, with songs about sexuality and religion. I listened to it as a bit of a guilty pleasure. I also had other embarrassing tapes such as Taylor Dayne. I think they're all at my mum's house now. I might see if I can get a copy of Dirty Mind in a bargain bin somewhere. Prince's next releases were much more popular. My friends then decided they liked him too, but I liked him before he could afford clothes.

'They remind me of a lover': Marcelle D'Argy Smith, ex-editor of Cosmopolitan

I had a boyfriend called Tommy who used to make me cassettes. It was a long time ago so they had things like Earth, Wind and Fire on them.

It's interesting because he died a few years ago and I can still play those tapes to remind me of him. It's incredible, when I listen to them I can still remember what we were doing when we listened to them for the first time. One had a Harry Nilsson song called "The Point" on it and it was so funny. He also put on songs by a songwriter called Paul Williams. No one will have heard of them now. Tommy was there for sex and affection, and even after we stopped going out we stayed close and were always nice to one another. He even carried on sending me tapes - he made me a mix tape of Christmas songs not so long ago.

I have a Sony stereo that plays cassettes and I still won't throw it away because it's the only way I can listen to these tapes. CDs have a shelf life but some of the tapes are 30 years old and I can still play them now. I don't know about letters but these tapes are real memories. I thought I fell in love with Tommy but I could have fallen in love with the music.

'I used to tape the Top 40': Konnie Huq, television presenter

When I was 15 or 16, my friend from school made me this compilation tape of James, the Charlatans and The La's and stuff like that. It had "Groove is in the Heart" by Deelite on it and I remember taping it for lots of people - everyone liked it.

In the early days when I was nine or 10, my favourite would have been my compilations from the charts. I used to tape the Top 40 on Sundays and would have the tape recorder on record/ play/ pause. At the end of the song, you'd be getting ready to re-pause it so you'd cut out the DJ talking. I used to make the covers and call them "Konnie's 32 Great Hits". I had Volume 1 and Volume 2. I made a proper collection and I taped them for other people. A tape of a tape hasn't got great quality but then we were kids so it didn't matter. We used to go to Makro and buy a 10-pack of Memorex or TDK blank cassettes and me and my sisters would divide them up. I'm a real hoarder - I've still got Now That's What I Call Music. And I've still got a double tape deck.

We also used to have this computer and you had to buy your games on cassette. You linked up the tape recorder to the computer and played Pac Man or Space Raiders.

'We'd sing along to Grease': Alex James, musician and writer

My favourite tape was the soundtrack to Grease. All my family liked it and it got us through many long car journeys. The best song was "Summer Nights". My sister, my mum and I would sing along and my dad would join in if he was in a good mood. I still love that song as it reminds me of summer. As a song, it has everything: it's really poppy, it has nice undulation in the verse when it changes key, it has a girl's part and a boy's part. It's a perfect duet and a perfect love song. If someone thought Grease shouldn't be my favourite tape, I would say "Walla walla walla huh" to them.

Tapes were perfect to listen to in the car. I think they were the most durable format of music recording. Even when they broke, you could get your biro out and fix them. I also used to make mix tapes, and I suppose recording from the radio was the illegal downloading of its day. But rather than discourage me from buying music, it encouraged me, as I would always want the song in full, not cut off by the voice of Tony Blackburn.

Making tape recordings was all part of growing up - you could pretend to be a DJ.

'It's a way for guys to bond': Alex Zane, DJ and presenter

My lasting memory of the cassette is when I was 15 and I went on a school trip to France. I had my Walkman and one cassette with me. It was a C90 and I had looped "Trouble" by Shampoo on both sides. I hadn't even bothered to buy it. I had taped it off the radio and at the end of it there were people talking. It was the only thing I listened to for two weeks. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, it's all I can hear.

I have loads of compilation tapes that friends have made for me. It's a lot more sterile now.

It's not like when your mates would sit in their bedrooms and press play and record to make a compilation, just to educate you in the songs they felt you needed to be educated in. It was in many ways a bond between guys at school with the time and effort it took to make a tape, taking tapes in and out. Each tape was a testament to how much that friend loved you.

I've lost many a compilation tape to that dreadful day when the tape got twisted and stuck in the machine and you lost songs you never bothered to buy yourself because you always knew you had them on tape.

'A mix tape changed my life': Conor McNicholas, editor of NME

In the same way that MP3s are almost the language of music and music sharing now, tapes fulfilled that function years ago. It's strange to see a medium you've spent years with disappear. They're now a technological anachronism.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard my first mix tape - and it really did change my life. I was listening to a friend's Walkman in the sixth form common room and it had "The Only One I Know" by the Charlatans on it, which blew me away. It really stood out. I went to Manchester University on the back of that mix tape. I met my wife there, I met my best friend there. I set up a publishing company there, which is how I got into magazines. It really did transform my life.

I spent years afterwards recreating mix tapes for other people. I remember when I first got a two-tape deck. If you were very clever and quick, you could record a tiny section of a tune, go back and record it again. It was like sampling. But it sounded awful. It's strange. The only time I ever see tapes now is wrapped around crash barriers. I don't know how they get there. Sometimes I want to get it all together, run it through a tape head and see what's on it.

'The end of Cool Britannia': Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty

James, the Britpop scene, New Labour and the audio cassette are now over - the elements of what was "Cool Britannia". My most memorable mix tapes were from my days at college at the tail end of the reign of cassettes. I had one with old indie songs on it like Blur and Oasis. "Sit Down" by James was there too.

We had cassette tapes before we had records. My first introduction to classical and pop came from cassettes. I was around when the very first Now That's What I Call Music compilation came out, and I remember hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on tape.

I didn't think much of the demise of the cassette but thinking about it now I'm realising now how important they can be. Like the characters in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I used to make mix tapes all the time and each one would have its particular significance.

I used to copy songs from records or from the radio to a tape to either keep for myself or to give to someone else. My husband and I have been together for 15 years and we made mix tapes for each other. Tapes would jam, and sometimes you could fix them with a Biro, and sometimes you couldn't.

'My special woman's hour': Sue MacGregor, radio presenter

In a corner of my basement, there's about 40 years' worth of speech cassettes kept in four ancient cardboard boxes. I collected them over the years before CDs to remind me of radio broadcasts I'd made; or of bloopers, or samizdat recordings of famous people losing their rag in the studio - bits that were never broadcast.

When my cassette deck finally conks out, how will I ever revive them? Will I ever hear again that nice "clunk" as the cassette drops into place, or curse as the darn thing sticks or the tape breaks or, having got too hot or too ancient, wobbles and slows down like an old man leaving the pub?

The cassette I value most and do listen to often in my car will be 20 years old this year. It was made specially for me when I left Woman's Hour by the deputy editor of the programme, Sally Feldman, who crafted a brilliant compilation of popular songs by and about women - Bessie Smith, Maria Muldaur, Elaine Paige, Jessie Matthews, Billie Holliday, Joni Mitchell - they're all there. It will never, as so many cassettes do, end up in a wild tangle of spaghetti after being chucked into the gutter from the car window. It's much too precious.

'3,000 miles with 3 tapes': Will Self, writer

I remember going round Australia on a motorcycle in 1984 and I had three tapes with me: some Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues, the Clash Combat Rock and Bob Dylan Desire. Those are the only three tapes you'll ever need. Actually, I had Punch the Clock by Elvis Costello with me as well.

Tape recorders were a revolution. I bought my first one in 1970 and it must have cost a tenner. You could record shakily off the radio and make compilations. Cassettes are really the definition of an analogue device, aren't they? It was nice winding them on with a Biro and sticking them together with tape when they snap. And opening them up. They had those little crosshead screws.

The first one I remember buying was probably something really pretentious. I think it was Mussorgsky's, Pictures at an Exhibition. Not that I didn't like pop music. I just didn't buy tapes. I much preferred vinyl.

I've only just acquired an iPod and I'm not convinced.

There seems to be this childlike wonder at tiny things that contain a lot. I still use cassettes for my dictaphone - I find them much handier. A lot of people use those digital machines but they always fuck up. There's something sturdy about tape.

'Cassettes were awful': Phil Alexander, editor, Mojo Magazine

The first cassette I remember buying was Thin Lizzie, Live and Dangerous. It's still a very exciting album, although I think the cassette is the most horrific medium ever. It was exciting at the time to listen to it on a Walkman. Even then cassette players were very hard to use. You had to physically turn the cassette over. It was a bit like a toaster. The tape would pop up, you'd take it out and turn it round.

It's hard to feel nostalgic about cassettes because they were so awful. But when you see pictures of an old TDK tape with handwriting on it you can't help feeling warm. It just shows you, nostalgia can creep up on you at the most unexpected times.

People love showing off with music. That's what mix tapes were about. But I don't think the death of cassettes means the death of the compilation tape - it's been transferred to MP3 format. The process of compiling stuff for your mates still happens. It's less labour intensive but if you're a real aficionado, you still take just as much time over your compilations.

Comments