Friday, October 05, 2007

The Cassette Experience

I clearly remember the first time I saw a Beatles' cassette. In was in a shopping center in Southwest Portland at a little record store. They had the White Album, and it was in a brown jacket with gold lettering and a little gold Apple logo. I had to have it.

I thought it was odd that the order of the songs had been tampered with, and didn't give it much thought. I later learned it was because Captiol wanted the tapes to run the same length on each side, making for a better listening experience. But messing with the running order of the White Album is kind of like putting a Picasso in an ill-fitting frame. Still, I thought the little package was fun to have.

8-Tracks had come out a few years before, and compared to that whacky format, cassettes were much better. By the late 70's, 8-Tracks were history. I never had reel-to-reel albums. They seemed like a lot of trouble, but my brother had some and they did sound good, as I recall. And the packaging was nice. But it was an obscure format. I don't even remember ever seeing them in record stores.

Throughout the 70's I would get most of my music on vinyl, but would sometimes get a tape as well. I remember having Ram on cassette only, but generally my tapes were simply a way to listen to albums somewhere besides the stereo at home.

They were really just a novelty back then. But as we all got our driver's licences, car stereos became a big thing. We all knew the best models, the best speakers and how to install them. Some of the players also had FM, which was nice, since most of us only had AM radios in our cars. Nowadays, all cars come with great music systems, but not then.

I remember having all of John Lennon's albums on cassette and driving around Portland playing them and thinking that that was super cool. While other kids were blasting Led Zepplin or Alice Cooper, I was listening to the Lennon angst of Plastic Ono Band.

Then in the early 80's, cassettes overtook vinyl. Eventually, it seemed, that you couldn't buy anything except cassettes.

I remember a young guy at my workplace showing me his cassette copy of Rubber Soul that he'd just bought. It was cool that he was discovering the Beatles some 20 years after the album had come out, but the magic of pouring over the cover (and back-cover) was something he's never experience. That was always part of the fun of a new album. Laying around in your bedroom, reading the liner notes and examining the cover while you listened to it for the first time. A cassette box is just that. A little plastic box. Nothing much to read or look at.

For a whole decade or so, that's all there was. Cassettes. If you needed a new copy of a Beatles' album, you had to get it on tape. And again, Capitol messed up the song order. On Abbey Road for instance, they stuck the only two George Harrison songs ("Something" and "Here Comes the Sun") as the first and second cuts on Side One. What a lousy job of editing that was.

Only a few albums escaped the wrath of Capitol's editors: Meet the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. And sometimes, the editing (which, as stated above, was supposedly done to make the two sides running time as close as possible) made no sense. Hey Jude simply swapped Side One and Side Two (thus sabotaging the chronological order of the LP). And on Beatles '65, they actually increased the time difference by moving a couple of songs around. And while Captiol seemed obsessed with altering the cassettes of Beatle albums, none of the groups' solo albums were changed for tapes.

The madness all ended with the advent of CDs. The Capitol versions of the cassettes were eventually phased out and the Beatles' catalog reverted to the original British versions, in their original running order, worldwide. And the packaging, although a far cry from the original vinyl versions, was a big improvement over the tiny cassettes.

And because I'm a collector, and an obsessed Beatles' completest, I do have the entire Beatles' Capitol catalog on cassette. They sit on a bottom shelf of my Beatles' CD tower. I look at them now and then, and think back on those days when they first appeared as a cute novelty, then became our "car" music, and those dark days in the 80's when they were the only format we had (except for our well worn vinyl copies if you still had a working turntable).

Now I have it all. Vinyl, cassettes and CDs. And while I may play the CD, I still like to lay around and pour over those original cardboard album covers. Finding some drawing or photo I never noticed (or more likely, forgot about) on Revolver, reading the lyrics on the back of Sgt. Pepper, or opening up the gate fold of Capitol's version of Help!. And remembering...


Blogger Mark Verheiden said...

I bought all the Elvis Costello remasters on cassette, back before there were viable CD car players, and I still have them all somewhere. (Even a couple of late-model eight tracks, which I got strictly for the novelty. Costello should release a reel-to-reel, 78 and an Edison cylinder, then he'd have all the media wrapped up.) There was a short period when cassettes were actually being touted as some sort of audiophile medium, with noise reduction and other bells and whistles... THAT was kind of a joke.

7:49 AM  
Blogger John Goins said...

Yeah, it was a bad time for music when cassettes ruled. I hated them, as you can probably tell from my blog.

12:12 PM  
Blogger HaarFager said...

Yeah, I hated the cassettes, too. I have a bunch, but hardly ever play them anymore. Just one correction: Revolver was indeed one they messed with the running order on. It was touted as the original British mixes and version, but the running order was jumbled. It started with Good Day Sunshine. I played that tape a lot. So much, that I ended up ripping a copy of my Revolver CD and reburning it in the order I was used to hearing on my old cassette!

12:20 AM  

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