Side one: Home Taping is Thrilling Music

I can still recall the first album I taped: Not the Nine O Clock News’ Hedgehog Sandwich. It was recorded tape-to-tape by placing two mono, low-end radio cassette players speaker-to-speaker and pressing play and record. There is very little to recommend using this approach, a point perfectly illustrated by the finished cassette in this instance, as halfway through my mum comes in to ask suspiciously what we’re up to.

 

 

 

Now, before we start, I should point out that I LOVE my iPod. I make no excuses for this – unless they enable me to go off and be alone with my music; my girlfriend still believes that I enjoy grocery shopping, and, given the time each visit takes, is probably under the impression that the supermarket is in the next county. My iPod provides a constant soundtrack when I am out and about. Everyday you’ll find me, earphones in, music blasting, lost in the joy of musical reverie, insulated from the ennui of life. (I’m often singing as well, which, given that I have an appalling voice, and I’m not exaggerating here, is not an enjoyable experience – ask anyone unlucky enough to encounter me caterwauling along to Joy Division’s Atmosphere in the cheese aisle. I suppose, on a deep psychological level, I am a very insecure person who needs passers-by to realise how edgy my music is, and, by association, how dangerous and unpredictable I must be. Mad, bad and dangerous to known, that’s me. I realise that they probably just find me annoying, but, as it interrupts my narrative, let’s not dwell on that, or the fact they are probably immersed in their own, far inferior, musical milieu.)

Like most technological innovations, the toaster, the trouser press, the electronic tea cosy, I’m sure I could happily live without my iPod, but my life would be a more desolate place. (For one, how would I annoy all the people I encountered in the supermarket?) I used the word love earlier when I described my feeling for my Portable Music Player and I do not use that word lightly, however, this is not the first passionate affair I’ve had with an inanimate object (the charges brought were subsequently dropped). Despite all their flaws, and there were many, I still have very fond memories of a previous relationship: the one I had with the Compact Cassette, or, to use the diminutive, mawkish, moniker I preferred when alone, ‘tape’. (I should point out that if I was trying to impress I would use C60 or C90, or occasionally, if involved in a specialist project, say a Pink Floyd or Rick Wakeman album, C120.)

My passion for tapes started, as far as I can remember (and as a veteran visitor to the ’Dam’s Greenhouse Effect my memory is anything but reliable), at the same time I discovered popular music. Most people start their record collections with singles, which are relatively cheap and hence easily accessible. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t concur with Friedrich Nietzsche’s adage that ‘without music, life would be an error’, and I was forced to grow up in a house sans record player. I believe such wantonly abusive behaviour should be against the Geneva Convention, and, if my plans for a worldwide petition and direct-action, protest movement come to fruition, then, maybe, like malaria and polio, children growing up without adequate access to high-end hi-fi systems will be a thing of the past. Let our battle cry ring out in households worldwide: ‘Linn Sondeks for all!’

Due to my parents’ cruelty and neglect my only access to pop was via the BBC’s then cutting-edge (and now I imagine, if it’s still on) music show Top of the Pops, the radio (typically Junior Choice on Radio 1, for my sins) and my friends’ record collections (which I coveted relentlessly, and plotted constantly to steal; although as I had nothing to play then on this seemed an exercise in futility). If I wanted to listen to a song when I wanted to though, it was impossible, I was disenfranchised from the world of music. Or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, salvation was at hand. Or, if I’m being pedantic, salvation was in my father’s hand, when, in an act of unprecedented generosity, he walked into the front room and presented me with the radio cassette player he was holding. I was finally emancipated. The years of struggle were finally over. Now, if I sat by my radio cassette player, day and night, the songs I desired would eventually be played and I could record them. No longer was my aural pleasure dependent on the whims and caprice of DJs, producers and nameless record industry bureaucrats (who I hope have died painful or humiliating deaths, and preferably both). Once I had a song on one of my precious tapes I could listen to it whenever I wanted.

Initially, I had artist specific tapes, say Blondie, which I intended to fill with their tracks. However, this approach had two serious flaws. The first was if Sunday Girl or Denis started playing, I had to find and insert the relevant tape before I could press record by which time the chorus was well underway. The second was that some artists I favoured had careers that were not as popular, prolific or as prolonged as I suspected they might have been: my Goombay Dance Band C120 still has 117 minutes spare. (I’m still holding my breath waiting for that second difficult single to appear, but my hopes are high.) So, rather inevitably, I soon abandoned this approach, and focused on non-artist specific tapes. However, all this was set to change on 10th March 1979, the day I received Tubeway Army’s The Pleasure Principle for my birthday. On cassette, naturally.

My nascent musical identity had encountered the album, liked what it heard, and wanted more. Lots more. Which would have been fine if my weekly income was more than 25p, while an album cost about £2.99. On this pittance I found it hard enough keeping myself in sweets, fizzy drinks and comics, I certainly couldn’t afford to buy albums. (In theory, I could have purchased an LP every 12 weeks if I’d saved my money, rather than feeding my addiction to sugar and inaccurate portrayals of what happened in the war and what I could expect to occur in the future, but I was young and impetuous so that wasn’t really an option.) Luckily my more affluent friends were able to purchase them, and, as my meagre funds would stretch to a blank cassette, and assuming they were amenable to the idea, I could record, and thus own them. Bingo!!! Fortunately my tastes were far more mainstream than they are now. It was easy enough finding someone who owned One Step Beyond, harder to locate an acquaintance with Can’s Tago Mago.

I can still recall the first album I taped: Not the Nine O Clock News’ Hedgehog Sandwich. It was recorded tape-to-tape by placing two mono, low-end radio cassette players speaker-to-speaker and pressing play and record. There is very little to recommend using this approach, a point perfectly illustrated by the finished cassette in this instance, as halfway through my mum comes in to ask suspiciously what we’re up to. I can then be heard vehemently denying any wrongdoing (despite the fact that I was involved in the crime of murder, as those who wish to prevent copyright theft would have us believe). If I still had the tape I would certainly sample it and include it in any subsequent mixes I make. But I don’t. So I can’t. Another great idea is stillborn. Plus ça change.

As someone who has always imagined themselves as an outlaw (I’m dressed as a pirate as I write this), those inner sleeves with the supposedly intimidating skull and cross bones, with the cleverly substituted cassette, that proclaimed ‘home taping was killing music’ (with the addendum, in case you were in any doubt, that it was illegal) had completely the wrong effect on me. Rather than dissuading me from recording the album, I did so with added relish, enjoying, a little too much for comfort, the frisson engendered by breaking the law. If only my mother had reacted with more vehemence and violence to my first foray into the dark and dangerous world of copyright infringement, maybe things would have turned out differently, but thankfully she didn’t.

On the subject of home taping, I would like to share with you the story of a friend of mine. Let’s call him Bruce, because that was his name. I met him, like Incendiary’s Dionysian editor Richard, at Newcastle University and was astounded by how he had raised home taping to scary, vertigo-inducing new heights. His modus operandi involved buying a cassette version of an album, copying it onto a blank C60 , and then – and this is this genius, and I suspect criminal, part – he would then open up the cassettes (there’s a knack to this, but it’s easy enough on those with screws) and exchange the spools within. Once resealed, he would return the cassette to the store (now containing the inferior home-taped version), complaining about the poor sound quality. What vision. What audacity. Even Machiavelli would have been impressed with such considered and profitable deception. I didn’t know whether to be very frightened or very impressed, so I opted for indifference.

Then, just when my tape-based relationship was in full bloom, my mum and dad did the unthinkable and bought a music centre. Oh the horror. The inhumanity. How could they do such a thing to their firstborn? Were they without conscience or pity? I had always known my father was a cruel, but violent man, yet this was too much to bear. Well I say that, but if I’m honest I wasn’t really the victim here. I was more the perpetrator, as, technically, my parents didn’t so much decide to buy a record player on a whim, as finally give in to ten years of constant harassment, begging, intimidation and bribery. (The process was akin to pulling teeth without access to synthetic, crystalline, tropane alkaloids; hopefully they have found peace in the silence of the grave.) Whoever says that nagging doesn’t work should have checked out this music centre. It was awesome. What it lacked in beauty and sound quality it made up for in dials, brushed aluminium, sizable knobs, flashing lights, faux-walnut veneer and an impressive set of sliders (masquerading as an effective graphic equalizer), and, as it was the size of a small car, it certainly had presence. Not only did we have to move the dining room table to fit it in the back room, but we also had to consider substantial structural alterations.

Like a Swedish au pair a paramour had moved into our marital home and threatened to destroy a relationship that had take years to mature into something truly meaningful. I have always been a capricious gentleman, and within an instant my love for tapes stood on the brink, ready to be thrown into the abyss. Yet, despite this intrusion, this intimate encounter, instead of being replaced, my dalliance with the cassette proved that it was certainly no casual fling. Instead of being discarded, it survived. In fact, it did so much more than that, it entered a renaissance. Admittedly, it was neither as sublime nor beautiful as the original, and it certainly didn’t have the same impact, but it was a renaissance none the less.

I will not claim my head was not turned, or that my eye did not rove, and, if we are being candid, my fingers also wandered too, on many occasions, but my amorous attentions very soon I returned to my first love. You see I grew up in a modern English house with walls so thin you could hear every conversation (and, occasionally, even internal dialogues) being held and punch through the walls with ease if you needed anything from the next room. Now, as I prefer my music loud – I’m talking 12 or even 13 here – there were always going to be problems. The situation was exacerbated by a neurotic mother, who was known to become incandescent with rage and chastise me physically for turning the pages of my books over without due care and attention, and a father who preferred not to make a fuss and made me turn the car stereo down as I washed his Escort every Sunday morning, in case I disturbed the neighbours. At the time I found my pater’s considerate approach infuriating, but in retrospect he probably had a point as very few people in the locale probably appreciated The Specials or Fun Boy Three as much as I did, especially not at top volume when they were lying in bed attempting to cope with the indulgences of the night before. The upshot of this meant that – despite having access to a record player, and, due to my car washing and other odd jobs, having sufficient funds to keep it supplied with the latest hits, and albums – if I wanted to listen to my music at the volumes my predilection demanded it had to be either on my Walkman or, when I passed my test, the car.

Unfortunately, like the majority of my generation I preferred to buy vinyl – due to mainly aesthetic reasons which I will detail in future column – when, from a functional point of view, tapes were far better suited to my requirements. There was, however, a solution to this conundrum: my old faithful C90s. As soon as I got my latest purchase back home I would record it onto a tape, allowing me to listen to it wherever I desired and, more importantly, at whatever volume I desired. (As an aside it has just occurred to me, that given that I rarely listened to my records, how did they ended up being so scratched? And who was responsible for it? Questions will be asked at the highest levels.)

However, having access to a music centre had an unexpected benefit, apart from that of allowing me to experience the joy of vinyl ownership firsthand, it also enabled me to delve much deeper into the outlaw world of home taping, but this time free from the constraints of national radio’s playlists and without having to listen to hour-after-hour of inane chatter spouted by what I am assuming were former mental patients, who, despite quite obviously not having been rehabilitated, had managed to find employment as DJs (a fortuitous event, which allowed them to annoy an entire country rather than just those unlucky enough to encounter them on the street).

Next issue it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get dirty with Side Two: ‘Try this at home’.

* Throughout this article – and in my everyday conversation, whenever the subject arises – I refer to my Portable Music Player as an iPod rather than the more generic MP3 player. This is because I am an Apple man through-and-through (bisect me and you’ll probably find a couple of pips and a core), that said, I refuse to buy into the personality cult of Steve Jobs as Siddhartha Gautama did a lot more than walk around without shoes and socks on. I have never used another MP3 player and have no desire to. I listen to my music on an iPod and so that is how I refer to it. If you don’t use an iPod then you should. It’s as simple as that. If you can show me another MP3 player which surpasses the iPod in either beauty or functionality, then I will stop using my iPod and will alter the following article accordingly. You will have to send me one though, so I can compare and contrast (the editor has the necessary details on file).