A love letter to the humble cassette – a source of joy, a source of pain

The inventor of the format, Lou Ottens, has sadly died at the age of 94. Our columnist remembers the good old days of romantic mixtapes and Walkmans

If you’d been a fly on my bedroom wall circa 1997 to 2002, you’d firstly be saddened to know that I never did get to kiss a boy until 2003, so you left before things really started getting exciting. Secondly, you’d have seen something wonderful that was happening every Sunday night between four and 7pm up and down the land: taping the Top 40 off the radio onto a cassette.

Peter Kay did a great bit, which I can’t rival, about trying to stop the tape before the DJ rambled on over the top so it would sound like a proper mixtape. Spoiler alert! It never worked: there was always someone shouting, “That was the Spice Girls there!”, as I ran over from the other side of the room where I was finishing my dance routine. And cassettes were a source of joy even when they were legit. When I was about 12 I had a swimming party (are they still a thing!?) and a friend had wrapped up two for my birthday present – Bryan Adams and Mel C‘s ‘Baby When You’re Gone’ and Garbage‘s ‘When I grow up’. Singles! Remember them?

I haven’t thought about cassettes much since until this week, when it was announced that their creator, Lou Ottens, had sadly passed away at the age of 94. I wonder if they’ll have to turn him over halfway through the funeral so it can carry on? It’s what he would have wanted. Anyway, Ottens and his team at Royal Philips in Belgium presented the revolutionary new device in 1963, just in time for one of the greatest period of music in Western history – it was the year that The Beatles released their first album, ‘Please Please Me’.

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Last year NME reported that sales of cassettes were up 103 per cent from the previous year. What’s going on? I was incredulous at first, but then 2019 was the year of the vinyl revival – my parents were similarly baffled when I bought a turntable. Why shouldn’t cassettes, like vinyl, become symbols of a simpler time? Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’, Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’, Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’, The 1975’s ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ and The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ were among last year’s best-selling cassettes.

I had no idea artists were even still releasing music on cassette – I would have doubted you slightly if you’d have even told me people aside from Alfie Boe and Michael Buble still released music on CDs. Then again, cassettes are now inherently cooler than the first time round because they’re in short supply. The aforementioned artists only release a certain number with each drop. Are cassettes the new Supreme release?

Perhaps people are seeing the value in taking life a little slower – maybe the frustration we felt as kids, winding tapes back and cutting and editing and recording over our one remaining blank cassette, feels a bit more creative than putting a playlist together on Spotify. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more romantic than giving someone a mixtape. Your beau knows you’ve carefully curated it, spent time recording each song in the best order and, if you have anything about you, written out the tracklisting by hand and maybe even done some illustrations and signed it. (I really need a date, OK?)

There’s an inherent romance to analogue music – the ritual of using a pencil or your little finger to wind it back if the tape has gone askew and blowing the dust off it so it’ll play properly, hearing the slight crackle at the start of a song, which almost transports you to the room where it was recorded.

And that’s before we even get to the Walkman, the first portable way of taking your music with you anywhere you went. I can’t tell you the number of emotional walks I  took as a teenager, lamenting a boy who didn’t want to kiss me (2003 was the glory year, remember) while probably listening to Bryan Adams sing something similar about Mel C. Then Britney Spears released ‘…Baby One More Time’ – I bought it on CD, and the cassette was gone from my life.

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But not forever, it now seems. I’m a sucker for nostalgia and even as I’ve been writing this, a part of me has wondered if I might have a quick look on eBay and see if there’s a Walkman and a few tapes going cheap. And why stop there? Cassette Store Day will hopefully return in 2021, and after a year in which we could appreciate the simpler things, I hope more people visit record shops to pore over tapes as well as vinyl, and start collecting them.

And maybe one day I’ll marvel at my kids spending so much money on a rare Dua Lipa album on cassette.

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