Famous musicians share memories of the cassette tape

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2013 12:00 am

Mix-tapes, fast-forwarding, cassingles, high-speed dubbing, tape-flipping, rewinding and recording were all a part of our lives in the cassette era.

The tape, known in the music business as the compact cassette, was in our cars and stereos and traded between friends and significant others. It's more portable than vinyl and still sounds pretty good, but the format was knocked off its pedestal by digital audio and the compact disc.

Though the cassette era is mostly over — the 2010 Lexus SC430 was the last car to have a factory-installed tape deck — some people still dig the plastic cartridges.

Brought to market by Philips in September 1963, the format has endured 50 years.

* * *

Local and national musicians reminisce about cassette tapes, which turned 50 this month.

“The punchy bass of a cassette definitely had a charming, if somewhat dull, sound. When I got a Fostex four-track cassette recorder and learned how to do overdubs, my creativity exploded. We always said, “ 'Sgt. Pepper's' was recorded on four tracks. This is plenty!” I've got a box full of old demos on tape I need to transfer to digital for posterity sometime.”

— Nick Hexum of 311

“I wrote 'Satisfaction' in my sleep. I had no idea I'd written it, it's only thank God for the little Philips cassette player. The miracle being that I looked at the cassette player that morning and I knew I'd put a brand-new tape in the previous night and I saw it was at the end.”

— Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as written in his autobiography, “Life”

“I was after eight tracks and vinyl and before CD. I was right in the middle of cassettes. We even had cassette singles. People talk about downloading singles, but I'm like, that existed for awhile on cassette. Trust me, I had some of them.

“I had a Ray Stevens cassette tape that I absolutely wore out. That was, like, your worst moment in your life is when you had a favorite cassette and you wore it out. The worst was when you'd pop a cassette tape out and it would have jammed. The tape was still stuck in part of the mechanism and I'd pull the actual tape out of the machine.”

— Country star Chris Young

“I don't know where they ended up, but I wish I still had all those mix tapes we labored over when we were young — and there were a lot of them. They would hardly come off as funny to me today, as what made it onto the mix tape was the very best of the best, you had to be extremely careful what songs you chose. The point is, to my memory, many of those songs I still love today: The Smiths, The Cure, The Jam.”

— Tim Kasher of Cursive

“I grew up on cassettes. When I lived in Minneapolis, we had a cassette-only record label called Peddling Records. We had a corresponding zine and would deliver them to friends.

“So they're a huge part of my life. Cassettes were what I grew up on. I would record stories and crap on them when I was 3 and 4 (years old).

“I also had a 'Really Rosie' compilation on cassette by Maurice Sendak, and I used to re-enact that in my attic.”

— Kate Perdoni of Eros and the Eschaton

“My buddy put a dubbed cassette of 'Slanted and Enchanted' (with) 'Crooked Rain' on the other side and put it in my car stereo in 10th grade and told me to leave it in there for two weeks.”

— Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper

“Years before I ever purchased a CD, I was a tape man. Many of my favorite albums I first heard on cassette before anything else. I like to think I mastered the art of the mix tape: It was the ultimate gift to a friend, romantic hopeful or significant other. Nothing quite says, 'This took hours!' than filling up a TDK 90-minute blank with hand-picked selections. Up until 2003, the cassette rode with me everyday, often changed out and carelessly tossed on the floor, front or back seat. (The tape still takes a punch way better than CD.)

“In 2009, I recorded one of my albums, 'Instant Heart,' entirely on a four-track cassette recorder, a format I still visit regularly. A few weeks ago, I was absolutely thrilled hand-making a limited run of 'Penny Park' cassettes for International Cassette Store day. The more I think about it, the cassette tape has been with me every step of my little musical odyssey.”

— Singer-songwriter and guitarist Matt Whipkey

“I remember recording my favorite songs on the radio on cassettes to make mix tapes.”

— Lincoln Parish, lead guitarist of Cage the Elephant

“My early definitive experiences were on cassette. The first record that I loved and put in my stereo was They Might Be Giants' 'Flood.' I was 12 years old. I had a cassette tape of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and Beastie Boys' 'License to Ill.' And I had old mix tapes that my sister's friends had made for her. I analyzed and spent time with these artifacts. It was perfect for a certain production — fuzzed-out aggressive kind of music.”

— Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus

“My first cassette tape was 'Disorderlies' by the Fat Boys. It's weird. I didn't listen to a lot of music when I was a kid. The years when I would have been influenced by my classmates, my dad was in the Air Force and we were stationed overseas. I missed the boat. I have such a weird musical vocabulary because when I should have been listening to Guns N Roses, I was listening to the 'La Bamba' soundtrack.

“Cassettes were also fun because my friends and I used to make up funny little skits and do a lot of that kind of stuff. I have a younger brother, and I remember I used to teach him bad words and record him with a cassette tape. Then I'd play the tape for my parents.”

— Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner of Man Man

“Everybody played tapes back then. It was the common currency. Not everyone had CD players yet. Tapes were the biggest section of most of the record stores in California for a good year or two. Making a tape was as simple as putting a tape in the thing you already listened to music on and pressing 'record' instead of 'play.' To do that now is to say, 'Well, I'm gonna get out the tape player that I don't actually listen to music on, and I'm gonna set it up and I'm gonna find out who in this town has my tapes, or maybe I'll mail-order some.' And at that point, it's an affectation. It's like wearing suspenders. You don't have to wear suspenders so your pants don't fall down. If you wear suspenders, you're making a fashion statement, and I think recording with the boombox now would be more of a fashion statement than a practical means of making music.”

— John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats as told to Salon.com

“Fugazi played our first show in September 1987. It just so happened that a friend of ours, Joey Picuri, who did sound and mixed bands here in D.C., was doing sound for the first Fugazi show. He just ran a tape of the show. Starting there, whenever he would do sound, he would run a tape and give it to us afterwards. That was the initial idea — tape these local shows. Then we started to play out and people asked if they could record the shows, and we said, 'Sure, just send us a copy of the tape.' We would just stick the tapes into a box.” (Fugazi ended up recording hundreds of its shows between 1987 and its last in 2003.)

— Ian MacKaye of Fugazi as told to Pitchfork.com

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