Cassette Tape Culture: The ‘80s

4 April 2018

‘Hit it, pause it, record it and play/ Turn it, rewind and rub it away’- the lyrics to an ‘80s Bow Wow Wow song, which salute the trusty cassette tape. A flat, three-by-four inch rectangular piece of plastic that fits perfectly in a coat pocket, the tape has a warbling sound quality suggestive of an American blue jay. Its metallic scent isn’t just retro, though, it also smells of rebellion against ‘80s music culture – a zeitgeist wholly embodied by cassette tape culture.

‘80s mainstream music culture consisted of accessible content like Stevie Wonder, and capitalist ideals of commercial success. This meant there was no room for anything that would give your gramps a heart attack. Ripped t-shirts and raspy vocals were praised for ‘edginess’, but you couldn’t count on them for gas money. Dubbed too ‘experimental’ and ‘inaccessible’, indie tunes stewed underground in the basements and bedrooms. But that was where tapes came in! Tapes had your back when it came to the indie stuff. Record labels didn’t. They didn’t demand commercial conformity like record labels did. So, bands too turned away from major record labels and towards self-produced tapes instead. The cassette was a means of transport; a device capable of fishing punk and heavy metal from its dingy, underground depths, and into the broad daylight of your local record store.

Tunes were less disposable then, savoured both as physical objects and immaterial art pieces. The physicality of a mixtape and its faithful Walkman, earphones and a 2B pencil ensemble (in case its spools became tangled and hence rendered the tape useless), embodied the sense of pleasure we got when listening to music. It’s a mood dramatically different to today’s careless musical consumption. Nowadays, listening to music has lost its place as a sacred activity. Its status has been reduced to background noise whilst doing yoga, or as a means of defrosting awkward social gatherings. But back in 1985, there was no comfort greater than the heartbroken tones of Nina Simone vibrating in your eardrums – we’d savour each morsel of radio hit, sinking into pools of auditory pleasure.

Yet, commercialism was threatened by the craftiness of cassette culture. Who’d go to the trouble of walking to the record store to buy a Rolling Stones album, when you could just record a radio snippet of the songs on a dirt-cheap, blank tape instead? As Bow Wow Wow sang, “So I don’t buy records in your shop/ I tape them all”. Commercial campaigns against cassettes were launched, yet their slogans were only mocked and parodied by the artists who relied on these tapes for popularity. The Dead Kennedys topped the cake by releasing tapes with, “Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help” scrawled on the sides. And yet, the recording industry’s fears were never realised. Kids may have gotten shoulder cramps from hovering over the cassette pause buttons to stop our recordings before the radio host began speaking, but they never totally stopped buying albums. In retrospect, it maybe seems silly to have worried that tapes would bankrupt the industry when Spotify was brewing in the corner.

It’s safe to say, though, that tapes brought us many things. They brought us punk and heavy metal – genres that may have otherwise remained underground. They brought us albums in a very physical, tangible way. Knowing our tapes would wear and tear is something we’ll never quite understand in the time of Spotify and Youtube. Our living room radios and blank cassettes let us record our own fuzzy mixtapes whilst pissing off big name corporations. After all, cassettes weren’t just about the tunes, they were about the politics behind these bangers. In the words of Bow Wow Wow, “I breeze with the sleaze of my new cassette.”

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