Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Remembrance of Formats Past

I'm All Wound Up

Tonight I watched Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), the first Johnny Weismuller jungle man film for MGM - the one whose plot centered around the search for the Elephant's Graveyard, a legendary ivory-strewn final resting place where old pachederms went to pack it in. It set the mood for a remembrance of things old and in decline.

Soon after, I read a Sasha Frere-Jones music review in The New Yorker referencing the birth of "indie rock" back in the late '80s and early '90s, which the writer recalled was the time when bands released "singles on vinyl and albums on cassette."

Consensual Tape

And then, as I was getting ready for bed, I skimmed through The Encyclopaedia of Classic 80s Pop (an essential bedside reader by Daniel Blythe) and came across the entry for the world's most Chromium Oxide-friendly band, Bow Wow Wow. This was the band whose first single, "C30, C60, C90 Go!" (composed by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren), celebrated the joys of home audio cassette taping and was released only on cassette in the U.K. in July 1980, making it the world's first-ever "cassette single". Bow Wow Wow followed up the tape theme with their 1980 Christmas cassette-EP release "Cassette Pet."

Coming Unspooled

But as author Blythe points out, try asking anyone under 25 today what C30 means and you'll likely get a blank stare. But I remember a time when cassette singles (and 12-inch vinyl singles) ruled the day, though nowadays they most often turn up at yard sales and flea markets (though DJs still traffic in 12-inch records). (Good luck finding that Bow Wow Wow single now!)

Phillips introduced the compact audio cassette at the 1963 Berlin Radio Show and by the '70s it had revolutionized the way people listened and distributed music (we wouldn't have all those warehouses of Grateful Dead bootlegs without it!) and by the '80s became THE primary format for selling music.

Mix It Up

And while iTunes-friendly mix CDs (and downloadable podcasts) have taken over the role for today's computer-savvy technocrats, there still was a certain beauty to the art of making the "Mix Tape," that homemade mix of pop songs that enabled casual music fans to become DJs by virtue of the audio cassette medium. Remember how much making a good mix tape one meant to record junkie Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity (and to John Cusack in the film adaptation)?

I can remember romantic relationships that began, blossomed or ended via this musical delivery system. Everyone of my generation first showed interest in a girl by making her a mix tape, and I can recall many Valentine's Day mixes, as well as the bittersweet "Breakup Mix" tape of wrist-slitting downers. And if you were on the fence about a potential partner, all you had to do was see what songs she put on a mix tape. Right there was your lithmus test guide to how your relation would go, what shows you'd be reluctantly dragged to, and what musical bliss you could share and bond over. (I distinctly remember making a Beatles mix for a potential dating partner and seeing the handwriting on the wall when she said she didn't care for it; this is what I call "irreconciliable differences".)

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore even went so far as to publish a book on the subject, Mix Tape. As the Mix Tape book described it: "Durable, inexpensive, and portable, the new format was an instant success. By the 1970s, we were voraciously recording music onto blank cassettes. It allowed us to listen to, and, in effect, curate music in a new way. Privately. Mix tapes let us become our own DJs, creating mixes for friends, lovers, and family, for parties and road trips."

Or as Tangents writer John Carney mused in C30 C60 C90 Go:
Okay, the concept may seem oddly dated for those up with their technology, but there can be no denying why a mix tape can be so special, and a labour of love. Like many people, I have my shoeboxes full of old mix tapes special people have put together for me, and which I would be loathe to lose. I have been listening to Bow Wow Wow a lot lately, and naturally their early premise was to celebrate the subversiveness of the cassette tape and the effect this would have on the music industry. Of course the debate has moved on hugely, but as far as I know no one has yet come up with a slice of pop as wonderful as C30 C60 C90 Go to celebrate the possibilities of digital downloads.

Ok then, that's my rumination on this home-from-work snow day. I'd be glad to hear your feedback, tapeheads!

Rewind/Playback (2/18/07):
Thanks to "Anonymous," who sent me a great article from called "The Final Take: John Cusack, Fake Love & the Mix Tape Test".

Rewind/Playback (2/28/07):
Thanks to my friend Ernesto for telling me about this new book by Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mix Tape. Reviewers say it compares well with Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity.

Related Links:
Bow Wow Wow on MySpace
The Final Take (



Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole joy of a cassette mix tape was that you were forced to edit, forced to make something fit onto Side A and Side B while maximizing blank tape. If you could make your mix end just as the tape ran out you were a genius. Now the hipsters have diarrhea of the Ipod, droning indie playlists that never seem to end. In the olden days you knew you had 90 minutes to say something and that you better say it in two equal 45-minute sections. That is if you were a 90-minute tape man like me.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was an article this week on All Movie about mix tapes, John Cusack, and the role (or lack there of) of love and meaning in the whole thing. Very good stuff.


8:14 PM  

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