I recently ordered a zine about cassettes. So far, I read only half of it, but most of the time, I was smiling with nostalgia since so many of the contributors recalled the same memories that I have of audio cassettes. I decided it’s time I write a nostalgic blog post about the same topic.
My first memory of cassettes was back in my very early childhood. It was in the 80’s. My dad had a record player and records of his favorite artists – Elvis, Beatles, Charles Aznavour, some other stuff… But he also had a cassette of classical music. I remember listening to it every night to fall asleep. I lost track of it eventually, but I still remember the tunes that were on it. When my daughter was born, she had a swing that played some of these tunes and I loved it that it had the same calming effect on her as it did on me back then. Even as a metalhead, today I still love and appreciate classical music thanks in no small part to my dad’s cassette.
I also had a few tapes of children songs. Most of them were the opening songs of some children’s shows on TV. I don’t know much about American shows, but in Israel, these shows in the 80’s had some pretty elaborate opening tunes. These are songs that parents today still sing to their kids because they’re so beautiful and timeless.
After moving to Canada, I bought no cassettes because I had yet to find an artist that warranted it. I still listened to my dad’s preferred music and found a Montreal radio station that played all of our favorite songs – Oldies 990.
But then, it happened. My dad bought me a video cassette (more on those below) of Michael Jackson’s History album. I knew none of his songs (he wasn’t one of the oldies artists that we listened to) so when I first saw his classic videos – Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean, Bad, Black or White, Remember the Time, etc. – I was transfixed. Virtually hypnotized. By the end of the tape, I was head-over-heels train wreck of a fanatic for the guy.
Since I still didn’t have any of his records – either on cassette or CD – I used my tape deck and a microphone to record his songs from the video. I put the deck next to the speakers of the TV, made sure my mom wasn’t in the kitchen making a bunch of noise, and pressed play on the VCR and Play+Rec on the deck.
So for a while, I listened to that cassette (fucking endlessly) on my Walkman, and I learned the video version of his songs by heart. When I finally managed to score the actual History CD, it was the second CD I bought in my life (the first one was TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool). I heard the studio version of his songs and had to relearn them because they were so different than the songs on the videos. Take for example, the “Thriller” video – all the verses are sung one after the other without the chorus in between. The chorus comes later. Also, there’s no C-part in the video (“night creatures crawl and the dead start to walk in their masquerade” etc.)
Then there’s “Black or White”. I wonder if kids today would understand what it is they’re hearing on the intro to that song when the kid says “Too late? Sure. Eat this!” Us old farts do recognize it as the sounds of someone pressing stop, then eject, then pulls out the tape, feeds another one into the cradle, and slams the cover back into place before pressing play again.
Another memory I have of cassettes is how me and my friends recorded ourselves telling jokes, making prank calls, pretending to be celebrities on an interview asking the most ridiculous questions and answering with even more ridiculous answers:
Me, as an interviewer: “You had another girlfriend before Lisa Marie, right?”
My friend, as Michael Jackson: “Yes”
Me: “And her name was Billie Jean?”
My friend: “No.”
Me: “Well then, how come did you sing a song about Billie Jean?”
My friend: *pause* “How come you ask such bad questions?”
I still have that tape and the sound on it is so fucking bad, I have to turn the volume all the way up to be able to hear anything. But it still makes me laugh hysterically.
Memories I share with other cassette tape lovers – having the tape deck eat the ribbon out of the tape (same fucking thing happens with VHS), taking a tape apart and putting it back together, rewinding the tape with a pencil, sticking a piece of scotch tape on the hole on top of a tape to be able to record over it, making mixtapes and designing the insert by myself with collages of pictures of the artists on the tape… good times.
Today, I still have some cassettes, but I never listen to any of them. They’re stored in a drawer, under lock and key, so that my daughter doesn’t mess them up. Still, I love cassettes so much, I got one as part of a half-sleeve tattoo I have.
Also, a side-note about record players, and I’m sure to make some mortal enemies with this one – they suck. I know people who swear by them, “the sound quality is epic” they say, and bla-dee-bla. Dude, no, it’s not. First, records need to be handled with plastic gloves and fucking tweezers because one tiny scratch and the fucking thing is ruined. Second, all this snap-crackle-pop that the needle makes as it sails its way around the record is worse than listening to a radio with bad reception. So yeah, fuck record players. If you’re gonna go retro, cassettes is definitely the way to go.
Unfortunately, cassettes are obsolete for my musical preferences. Even CDs don’t work for me anymore. I find them too limiting. On a cassette, skipping from one song to the other is impossible and you keep pressing fast-forward and play back and forth until you reach the song you want. CDs fixed that problem, but there is only so many songs you can fit on a cassette or a CD, and carrying around a discman/Walkman and a whole stack of cassettes/CDs is such a schlep. But now, with mobile streaming services on a tiny device like a smartphone, you have an unlimited repertoire condensed enough to fit your palm. And you can find just the right song for your current mood. The way I listen to the hundreds of tunes I have on my Spotify playlist is playing them by alphabetical order, so every time another song comes on, it’s a surprise.
VHS and VCR
Another one of the ancient devices that became obsolete is the VCR and VHS tapes. When DVDs first came out, I was pissed off. I didn’t understand what was so fucking great about them. I didn’t find the sound to be any different than the sound on VHS, and the image was cut from the top and the bottom of the screen. What’s so fucking great about that? Even today, I still bemoan our now-defunct multi-system VCR that worked so perfectly for DECADES! And I can’t find any other multi-system VCR at any store. There’s simply no demand for them anymore. As a result, I had to transfer all my home videos to DVDs, and it’s not perfect. On some of them, there’s a delay between the audio and the video. It just makes the viewing experience painful. Also, there isn’t much demand for DVD players anymore. Most people watch their DVDs on computer, or just stream videos on YouTube.
We still have a stack of VHS tapes, CDs and DVDs at home, but they just sit there collecting dust. We can’t bring ourselves to toss them out though. The sentimental value is too high, and I think that deep down, we sometimes wish they would make a comeback like cassette tapes did and like vinyl did. One can hope…
Film cameras definitely have a charm to them that digital cameras do not have. But the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to digital. Since film is so expensive to develop, once you take a picture, that’s it. This is the picture you got, for better or for worse. Obviously, with digital, you can take a whole fuckload of pictures and then choose the one you want to keep. So I was kind of happy when digital cameras came out. It definitely saved me a lot of money. I still have my 35mm, semi-automatic film camera (that cost me 500 fucking Loonies at the time!) because like I said, they have their charm.
The downside of a digital camera, or even pictures you shoot on a smartphone, you don’t really see them anymore. They become little icons on your screen and flipping through them is nothing like flipping through an actual photo album. So when my daughter was born, I decided to design annual photo albums so that we can actually enjoy the pictures we took of my daughter. I make a new one on every birthday. I also made one documenting mine and my husband’s four years of courtship, plus our honeymoon. We travelled endlessly, and it was a shame to have all these amazing photos and memories just sit on our hard-disc, completely forgotten.
The excitement of picking up your developed photos from the photo shop and finally seeing what they look like is something you don’t get on digital because the gratification is instantaneous. You can see the picture you took on the screen a second after you shot it. If you ask someone to take a picture of you, you always ask to see what it looks like afterwards. This never happens with film. If you ask a person to take a picture of you with film, there’s no do-over. You got a shitty picture, that’s the price you pay with film.
And don’t even get me started on camcorders. Back then, I had a little video camera and a stack of blank 8mm cassettes. Aside from trips and videos of the family, I had hours of silly videos with my friends. Basically similar to our jokes on audio cassettes, only this time, we could also imitate people’s appearance, movements, dance moves and not just voices.
But now, all camcorders are fucking digital. Every time you press stop, it creates a new file, a separate icon on your computer screen. Scanning through those digital videos is such a pain in the ass, and it takes so fucking long, especially if your computer is slow. On video, you just watch the whole thing. Press play once and that’s it. And if there’s a part you want to skip, just press fast-forward. Easy, simple, to-the-point. We have so many digital videos of our daughter and a long-ass series of videos from our honeymoon. But we never watch it. And it’s sad.
This is undoubtedly a zinester thing but I LOVE typewriters! I use mine for my zines and I wish I had more than just one typewriter. Maybe I can score a purple one, in English this time instead of German, and maybe even a Hebrew one! But alas, I have yet to find a store that sells them. Luckily, I have no problem finding ink spools on eBay (office supplies stores don’t have them).
As you can tell, I write a lot on computer. To be honest, this is the only way I can write without hurting my fingers. My muscular dystrophy makes it harder and harder on me to write by pen or manual typewriter for extended periods of time. When I got my first computer, it was exciting to write essays for school in a neat font on Word. It was also exciting to go on chat rooms and write and receive emails. I never thought that later on, I would actually miss getting letters by mail.
And yes, typewriters also have a charm to them that a computer or a laptop does not have. Even if the print comes out a little crooked, smudged, faded, this is all part of the typewriter’s signature style. You don’t get the same effect with computer. That’s why I still risk injuring my fingers and use my typewriter for my zines. It’s so worth it!
So that’s that. I’m sure there will still be more things in the future that will become obsolete, and our kids will laugh at us for using such dinosaur devices as a “smartphone”. But maybe not. Maybe they will think it’s retro and cool. And maybe they’ll come to love analog too.
Peace, love and alte zachen