If the truth be told, cassettes are how I got here. I can remember quite vividly when it started and why too.
In fact I had a very active relationship with music already having been raised by two amateur musicians who filled the house with radios and record players and even a “Happy Days” era jukebox that played 78’s. I loved the big LP’s and the large pieces of furniture that played them. For my 11th birthday I got two items for my birthday, a camera and a radio. I was so thrilled with the latter that the very first picture I took was of the former. I took it everywhere with me, oft infuriating my parents. I reveled in the idea of taking music with me everywhere I went.
But just a few short years later, the radio let me down quite a bit. It was the mighty KOMA blasting from OKC, a pioneer rock and roll station famous for playing regional and even local artists with a signal that could be heard anywhere in Oklahoma, and at night when they were allowed to “bounce” the signal off the atmosphere, even as far away as Tucson so I could listen in when I visited the grand parents. But the AOR format had just begun to manifest itself, along with its 10 tunes in rotation play list. Personally, I was a band geek and a freak for brass quintets, but like a lot of people I had little or no opinion about popular music I simply listened to what was on my favorite station. Then came Peter Frampton’s grindingly long and indulgent live LP with the 13 minute version of “Do You Feel Like I Do?” It showed up in “heavy” rotation on my radio, that is to say once an hour, every hour, every day. “Really? “ I thought, “This is crap.” I don’t know why, but I just HATED the tune and there it was on ALL THE TIME, you couldn’t hide form it. Change the dial if you like and chances were still good you would hear the damnable voice-box thingy, oh God the very thought of it today send me into fits. Then came Rush. REO Speedwagon. Boston (ok, I still like Boston but it has to do with my first sexual experience in the back of the band bus coming home from an away game, the 1st Boston 8 track was my soundtrack.) But you get the picture. For whatever reason, I was not impressed with what I heard on my lil’ radio and figured there was something better out there.
Another birthday, my Bar Mitzvah in fact, and I was given the key to my escape of programmed music: a brand new, Sony Walkman. For the first time in my life, I was now in control of what I listened to on the fly. I could buy any kind of music I wanted and listen to it, without bothering anyone else with the use of the new fangled ear buds. My first cassette was purchased from the cut out bin at the Record Bar at Sooner Fashion Mall: “Baroque Brass” a collection of Handel and Bach for brass quartet by an anonymous studio group. I think it was $2.99. And now that I had the format, and the itch to find stuff to play on it, I made myself well aquainted with local record shops; Peaches, Sound Warehouse, even the independent hippy run Rainbow Records. Every one of these places had big bins filled with cassettes, not one of them more than $4.99. The salesmen would stick up their noses at the little boxes I would stack up at the register. “Doesn’t compare with the sound of vinyl,” they’d offer. True enough, I reasoned, but you can’t listen to the LP when you were your bike and these things were more in the budget of the allowance afforded to the children of educators.
It wasn’t too much later, I guess I was 14 or so, that I came across a cassette that caught my eye for some reason. It wasn’t cut out, it was a full price new release and the cover was unlike the other artwork I had seen on most products. And the name was different too: DEVO. I left the store, popped the cassette into the Walkman, and hopped on my Schwinn to cross the I-35 bridge to go back to the house. By the time I did get home, I was pretty well blown away. This was a completely different approach to music; strange yet oddly compelling, classical in composition but played on rock instruments. I was confused and thrilled. “Oh you like that,” said the clerk behind the counter. “You might like this..” And so it began, my curiosity piqued and nurtured by the snobbish counter staff ,UK music magazines, and even these new handmade, homemade “zines” dedicated entirely to music that was off the grid at the time. I picked up a new Realistic “jam box” at the neighborhood Radio Shack. They were sturdy, industrial grey and really, really loud. I took to lashing mine onto the handle bars of my cruiser so I could annoy the “squares” as I rode past. Thanks to an ad in a zine, I found out that there were whole labels devoted to underground music and most of them pressed cassettes. You sent away for the catalog and then ordered them by mail. The Alternative Tentacles list had 25 or 30 bands I had never heard of, but at $6 a throw you could easily take a chance. “In God We Trust” by the Dead Kennedys was the first of many purchases there. Then a record shop wonk hipped me to a new label that was cassette only, called ROIR they only had a few releases but I saw that one of their bands was actually coming to my little Oklahoma college town. I sent away for the 1st Bad Brains release as was totally blown away by not only the intensity of the music but by the contrast of the shredding punk rock and reggae vibes. Seeing them live not but a few weeks after totally sealed the deal for me; I was a confirmed music freak and for the meantime cassettes were my ticket for admission. By now, I had customized my humble little jam box into a mobile piece of punk rock folk art, now spray painted a gloss black, covered in band stickers and festooned with dog collar spikes ala “Beyond the Thunderdome.” Damn, I wish I still had that box.
Probably the most liberating aspect of this discovery was how relatively cheap it was to get your “album” released on cassette. There had been many fine underground music groups operating out of Oklahoma; the Memlucks, N.O.T.A., the Hostages to name just a few. But it was not easy pressing an LP; it was expensive to set up (still is) and even more expensive to print in the small batches that any band not on the radio could hope to sell. Then, invariably, by the time they had raised all the funds to record their music properly and press the LP, the bands had broken up. You could make a 45 for not a whole lot, but you only got 2 tunes which was limiting. I recall the living rooms of musician pals filled with boxes of unsold, former band releases now repurposed as end tables and other furniture. None of us could ever hope to get radio play, so why bother with the vinyl? But the cassette was far more an effective tool for getting your music into the hands of people, people more like ourselves. My own roommate released a 6 song EP for his band Diet of Worms, the Flaming Lips first studio experiments were sold off the stage with Wayne Coyne hand drawn covers. Anybody with access to a duplication (Norman High AV Lab for instance,) and a Kinko’s could make a release. Friends of mine would have a dub of a dub of a dub of some amazing band that they heard about and that’s how I first heard Metallica for instance. It was a secret empire of music freaks turning on other music freaks.
I eventually did spring for my own turntable, mostly to play European 12” and local punk rock 45’s and frankly, I turned into one of those who looked down at the sonic quality of the cassette format. But it’s use as a tool had hardly diminished by the time I have moved to Texas. I could make an entirely separate essay about the culture of the “mix tape” and amount of attention and creativity I put into crafting them, but I still have some of those those tapes. Killbilly’s first release was cassette only as was the Bad Livers gospel release. The cassette was the thing you sent to a booking agent along with your 8 x10 and press kit.
But further, cassettes opened me up to whole other worlds of music. I was at Las Pulgas (aka the Flea Market) in south Dallas when I stumbled upon a little booth, entirely brimming with cassette tapes of Mexican performers. The vendor spoke little English but I asked him what his favorite band was and he handed me a tape by Los Algres de Teran. From then on I never missed an opportunity to visit the Mexican neighborhoods and score a few random tapes. There was a Spanish language record shop on S. Mary Street near 1st in Austin where I met a funny dude who worked the counter. I as scanned the Nick Villareal and Ramon Ayala tapes stacked under the counter, I inquired “So, which is your favorite.” His response validated my own method for buying a tape; ‘Dude, I just buy the ones that have a cool cover. How can you go wrong?” Indeed, seeing the morbidly obese Villareal surrounded by big bootied chicks in bikinis was why I knew about him at all, and Nick power-used the cassette format by recording “potpourris;” essentially a polka and ranchera medley timed to run the 15 minutes of the whole side of the tape.
While I traveled the world, I sought out these little stalls and shops coming home with Native American C&W bands from Quebec, local accordionists from Brittiany, Zydeco and Cajun releases, and bootlegged re-issues of Old Time American music taken from 78’s. Global Village in NY released an amazing catalog of folk and ethnic music from around the world, all on cassette only. Even the Smithsonian made available, for a small fee, a well-dubbed cassette of any LP ever released on the Folkways label. My education in music had a rewind if you get my drift.
Even when I finally succumbed to the CD, grudgingly and only because awesome music was being re-issued on that format now, I still had the cassettes right along side them. There was too much good stuff that had only ever been released that way and until only very recently I had something approaching 30 pounds of tapes in my house. It was a box of cassettes from Budapest that introduced me the wild sounds of Eastern Europe, where the portable and copy-able cassette is still king. And it was live taped recordings of Bill Monroe and Bronia Sakina that gave me glimpses of master musicians now since passed. Just the other day a box arrived with demos and live sets of one of my old bands that never got off the ground. I’m pleased to see the re-invigoration of the format, if only because it signals a change that I did not anticipate which marks me as now officially middle aged. And also to see that the tape is performing the function it was suited for best, allowing the workers to control the means of their own production.
Viva La Revolution.