This week I’d like us all to think about the loss of the good old cassette tape. But first let’s… um… rewind a little.
Whereas our fathers and older brothers came from Planet Vinyl and our children and grandchildren were born into the CD and digital era, my young adult life was lived in the cassette age.
Time was divided into C-60s and C-90s, and one of the reasons we loved the technology was because it was made to feel futuristic by being unfathomable.
I’ve never met anyone, for instance, who could tell me what BASF or TDK is supposed to stand for, and if there was any difference in ferro oxide, chrome or chromdioxid tapes – either from each other or from bogstandard ones – then it was lost on me.
Even more baffling was Dolby, the invention that stopped your tape player from hissing.
All these years I’ve been trying to work out why you had to have a switch to flip for this – as if some people might prefer to turn off the Dolby so they could hear the hissing. That would be like having a switch on your car to choose round wheels instead of square ones.
Neither did I ever find out why all tapes had a blank bit at the front (which you always had to wind past with a pencil before starting recording) rather than starting on recordable tape.
The main appeal of cassette tapes was they were a strike for freedom.
Whereas records and later CDs had tracks forced on you by artists and record companies, with a tape you were free to tailor your own playlist – an idea so radical that they had to virtually invent a new word to describe it: the compilation.
And unlike those cheap and cheerful records that preceded the cassette – usually made by Ronco and K-Tel – which forced somebody else’s selection on you, cassette tapes left you free to make your own choices and come up with your own wacky combinations.
Of course there were drawbacks, especially the bother of trying to skip a track or rewinding to listen again to the same song instantly, but that didn’t matter so much because you were the person who chose the playlist in the first place.
Although there is a wave of nostalgia for vinyl, cassettes are more easily forgotten, but we shouldn’t forget that in 1983 sales of albums on cassette outstripped sales on vinyl for the first time, and it remained the favourite medium until 1991, when the CD took over.
And remember that’s just for pre-recorded cassette albums. Blank ones that you could record on were where the real joy was, and they were still popular after CDs became available.
I am reminded of all this because last week I discovered an old compilation cassette in a drawer. I recognised it instantly as one from my courting days. My wife had a little Ford Fiesta and we spent hours going off for trips in that, armed with a glove-compartment full of tapes we had made up and enjoyed listening to together.
So my first thought on finding the cassette again was to put it on and see what was on it, and what memories it brought back.
But it quickly dawned on me – we have nothing to play it on. The car stereo will play CDs or run off an iPod, and we have computers and other gadgets that will play digital recordings in a variety of ways, but not tapes.
First typewriters and now this. So you’ll never guess what I’ve asked Father Christmas for this year.