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Sony Walkman at 40: How the million-selling gadget took music portable and inspired the mixtape

Cassettes liberated listeners from their bedrooms and became an icon of Eighties consumerism

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 01 July 2019 16:40 BST
High Fidelity: John Cusack ponders the art of making a good mixtape

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Japanese consumer electronics giant Sony's introduction of the Walkman to an unsuspecting world.

Dutch firm Philips had been the first to develop magnetic cassette technology in 1963, enabling the roll out of home stereos capable of playing pre-recorded tapes over the following decade and inadvertently declaring war on vinyl LPs in the process.

It was Sony though that realised the true potential of the advance, liberating the business of listening to music from the bedroom and making it mobile, its headphones giving owners an intimate, personal experience when listening to Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls and Bros even while out in public and on the go.

The first blue-and-silver Walkman TPS-L2, developed at the instigation of company co-founder Masaru Ibuka, quickly became an instant hit and something of an icon of the Yuppie era in New York: Patrick Bateman is seldom heard from without his in American Psycho (1991).

Although the portable tape player was often imitated, Sony’s original became a design classic and survived well into the new century, seeing off challenges from supposedly superior upgrades like portable CD and MiniDisc players and only ceasing production in October 2010.

It was Apple’s iPod that finally did for the Walkman by eliminating the need for unwieldily pre-recorded cartridges altogether, replacing them with uploaded desktop MP3 files. The accompanying iTunes software meant a complete library of all your favourite records was right there in your pocket, a clockwise thumb-scroll away. You no longer needed to remember to take the album you wanted to listen to with you when you left in the morning.

But, in the Darwinian jungle of consumer electronics, even the mighty iPod would ultimately be conquered by the coming of smartphones and streaming platforms.

Like vinyl though, the Walkman has survived as an icon of kitsch Tokyo tech and Eighties nostalgia and has even been put on display among the historic artefacts of the Victoria and Albert Museum in West London.

In its pomp, the device quickly wormed its way to the heart of the period’s youth culture. In a film like The Terminator (1984), to take a random example, Sarah Connor’s roommate Ginger is killed by the time-travelling assassin when she gets up in the night for a glass of milk, not realising the robot killer has broken into her apartment because she is listening to “Intimacy” by Lin Van Hek at full blast.

One of the reasons for the product’s unique appeal was that tape technology allowed consumers to record their own mixes for the first time on a cheap, durable, readily available medium and pass around the result, lovingly curated, among their friends.

A thing of beauty (Getty)

While the likes of successor tech such as iTunes and Spotify allow users to build playlists of their favourite songs quickly and conveniently, the evolution arguably lacks the same romance.

However personal the songs on a playlist might be, however carefully the running order planned out, the very ease with which they can be compiled means they can never represent a labour of love to the same degree as their ancestors, loaded up with Minutemen and Geto Boys.

Mixtapes were fiddly to make, an arduous business of recording from one device on to another - their very existence testament to the creator’s desire and commitment to making something unique.

And that’s before you factor in the hours spent agonising over which choice cuts to include, an almost unbelievably nebulous and fraught process.

As Rob Gordon explains in Stephen Frears’ film of High Fidelity (2000):

“The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.

“You’ve got to kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you’ve got to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you’ve got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

In making a mixtape, the creator sought to impress the recipient with his or her unimpeachable taste without being aloof, dropping enough nailed-on classics to show they are a populist at heart but with the right deep-cuts thrown in to quash any suggestion they might be a “Best of the Beatles” Partridge.

The goal was to appear discerning but fun, cutting edge but endearingly nostalgic, across all genres and entirely confident about kicking off with “Groove is in the Heart”.

The same goes for the artwork. A mixtape and its contents were a declaration about who the individual was and/or what the person it was being gifted to meant to them. A nice punky cut-and-paste collage on the cover or some careful felt-tip lettering on the spine was a chance to reflect that. Done properly, the tape ought to be able to hold its own on a shelf alongside 3 Feet High and Rising (1989).

Even if one were to burn a playlist on to a CD today and forge the equivalent creative opportunity, the format still lacks the clattery plastic charm of a tape cassette, an item so cheerily low-tech it could be rewound with a pencil.

And what about the road trip mix?

“I’ve made cassette mixes featuring music from every part of the country we’ve planned to pass through. I drive… and the sound of Memphis rockabilly gives way to Mississippi country blues. Then, before we know it, Professor Longhair’s piano is rolling us into Louisiana and the Big Easy.”

That’s Bruce Springsteen, the Boss himself, writing about the joys of the process in his recent memoir Born to Run (2016).

Marvel’s recent Guardians of the Galaxy movies made a great case for compilation tape nostalgia (“Awesome Mix Vol. 1”) just as Baby Driver made a persuasive argument in 2017 for the already-retro glories of the iPod Classic.

Perhaps the real value of a tangible mixtape compared with a digital playlist is that it left you with a souvenir, a memento of lost love, absent friends or an unforgettable trip to cherish. An artefact to dig out periodically from the back of a drawer or a shoebox of memories when feeling especially wistful about the unstoppable passage of time and the sun setting on the promise of a once golden youth.

Actually, perhaps they’re best off in the bin after all...

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