The Way We Listened Then
Have you read that, yet? Okay, now read this: “Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture,” by PopMatters’ Calum Marsh.
If the idea of a “cassette tape revival” completely freaks you out, then think back to our July 2009 interview with Thurston Moore, guitarist of Sonic Youth. When the conversation turned to preferred music formats, Moore, a fan of the vinyl LP, admitted to finding the most new music via cassette tape:
I’m really into bands who put out stuff on cassette only. There’s still a cassette underground that puts out a lot of the best music I hear.
These are strong words, coming from someone who is a founding member of one of our most innovative and influential rock bands. And it was sort of a shock. Cassettes?
As soon as I read it, though, I started seeing the colorful, plastic cases everywhere I went. Walk into Hospital Productions, clairvoyants of dark and heavy cool, and you’ll find an entire floor-to-ceiling wall of cassettes, released by bands with names like These Feathers Have Plumes, Chaos Majik, and A Murder of Angels. Or visit Fusetron, or Hanson Records. Or walk into Brooklyn’s Academy Annex or Desert Island. You’ll find tapes. And tapes. Or, for that matter, check out Period Tapes, releasing exciting new music from Anthony Mangicapra’s Hoor-paar-Kraat and Sarah Lipstate’s Noveller. This isn’t what you might think: These are heady, meticulously crafted pieces from young, forward-thinking artists. Released on cassette.
But why? Why cassette?
That’s the question Calum Marsh tries to answer. And I think he does a very good job at tackling it. His conclusion seems practical enough:
At best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value; but at worst, it’s a confused, regressive cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit. There is danger here, and despite the intentions of its advocates, this is a trend that’s less a tribute to the DIY mentality than a betrayal of its basic premise.
Clearly Marsh feels there are better avenues for artists to explorean undeniably fine point. But I can’t help from feeling that Marsh is somehow, albeit slightly, mistaken: The artists have some say in this, no doubt. And if they have decided to communicate their art through cassette tape, then there will inevitably be those of usas music lovers, mind you, and not as audiophileswho acknowledge the inherent value of that art. And, perhaps it is not a mistake to trudge about in confused, regressive steps. Maybe it's exactly what we should be doing. After all, isn’t that what the world around us is doing?
We are lost (aren’t we?), searching for something to hold onto, waiting for the next strong light, struggling to keep up. In the meantime, we are flooded by extraordinary art, and I feel a responsibility to appreciate it while it lasts. But what I want to know is this: When was the last time something like this happened? When was there such an explosion of new, outstanding art, and what were the circumstances? When my friends and I discuss the greatest, most adventurous time for popular music, we find ourselves always turning to the late 1960s, and especially, 1969. Think about what was happening then. First Woodstock, then Altamont; albums released include: The Band; The Stooges; The Velvet Underground; Led Zeppelin; Yes; Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma; The Bee Gees’ Odessa; Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline; Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde; Let It Bleed; Abbey Road; Tommy; this could go on for a very long time. WTF?
What was going on in the music industry back then? Music cassettes were first introduced to the US market in September 1966. Through the 1970s, cassettes battled for space alongside the popular vinyl LP. Along the way, the 8-track tape came in to muddle everything up. In the 1980s, with the arrival of the Sony Walkman and all the convenience it provided, cassettes gained a dominant market position. There are many comparisons to be drawn between that music cassette and today’s MP3. What am I trying to say? I’m not sure, but I hope you’ll help me figure this out. In any case, we are living through a confused, confusing time, and I’m beginning to think we should embrace that confusion, in the best possible way.
“CD” stands for “Cassette Deck,” in case you were wondering. Funny.