According to the internet, last week was “Cassette Store Day”. I haven’t bought a cassette tape in many years, but I used to buy a lot of them.
As a kid, most of my cassettes consisted of songs I recorded off the radio. One of my favorite things to record were those Christmas Eve/New Year’s Eve countdowns. Those were a good place to capture all the hits from the previous year.
(Yes, I still have them. Yes, they’ve been converted to mp3.)
The first original cassette I remember owning was “Hit Explosion,” a cassette that contained (among other hits) “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “Vacation” by the Go-Go’s, “Young Turks” by Rod Stewart, “Abracadabra” by The Steve Miller Band, “Shaodws of the Night” by Pat Benatar, “Gloria” by Larua Branigan, “Keep the Fire Burning” by REO Speedwagon and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor — not a bad compilation.
I owned a few cassette players growing up that I can remember, but my favorite was a boombox that I owned and used for many years. I can remember listening to that Hit Explosion tape on it when I was 10 years old, and I can remember using it to record episodes of Dr. Demento when I was in mid-high. That boombox had a “feature” — I had broken off the door that held cassettes in place, so when a tape came to the end and stopped it would simply fall out of the radio. For a while I had the radio sitting on the headboard of my waterbed right above where I slept and a couple of times I was awaken by a cassette popping out of the radio and hitting me square in the forehead.
In sixth and seventh grade I began swapping tapes with classmates. Around that time I got a small stereo in my room that had dual cassette decks and a record player, which allowed me to copy cassettes and also dub vinyl records to cassette. I got copies of the Fat Boys’ first two tapes from my friend Patrick and copies of Run DMC’s first two tapes from my friend Ross; in trade, I gave them each copies of some of the albums I had on vinyl, including the soundtracks to Breakin’ and Beat Street. This would have been 1984 and 1985, and I don’t remember getting too many new records after that. Around this same time my friend Matt gave me a cassette tape with the Dead Milkmen on one side and Minor Thread on the other. Tape trading was a great way to discover new bands.
Shortly after turning 14 I got a job working at concession stands for local baseball, basketball, and football games with my friends Andy and Jeff. We were paid $3/hour (plus all the food, drink and snacks you could eat!) and often worked between 20 and 30 hours a week. We got paid in cash, tax free, either on a daily or weekly basis. The only two things I can remember spending this money on are cassette tapes and Cheesaritos from Taco Bell. I made many trips to Rainbow Records, Midnight Music, and Sound Warehouse over the next several years. Midnight Music had every rock and heavy metal band I had ever heard of on cassette. More than once I would go over to the magazine section at Midnight Music, thumb through the metal magazines, find bands that looked cool, and then buy their cassettes without having ever heard them. Sometimes I would buy tapes there based solely on the cover art — the more disgusting, the better. Midnight Music was where I discovered Slayer, Fugazi, and S.O.D. I remember one time I walked up to the front counter with a tape in hand the the guy behind the counter took it from me, tossed it aside, and said, “you don’t want that, you want this,” and sold me a D.R.I. cassette. (He was right.) My method of discovery at Sound Warehouse was much simpler; I just started buying tapes alphabetically. The first week I bought AC/DC, the next week I bought Bad Brains, and so on.
These days it sure is convenient to be able to carry days, months, even weeks worth of music on your phone or a small USB stick. In 1989 (the year I turned 16), if you wanted to carry your cassette collection around with you, you bought a cassette carrier that looked like a briefcase. The most popular ones I remember held 30 cassettes, but later I bought one that actually held 60 tapes (30 tapes per side). A lot of time and effort went into sorting and cuing up those tapes.
One of the problems with these giant cassette holders was that they would not easily slide underneath your car seat. I used to leave mine in my passenger seat, and that’s the last place I saw it. I was still dragging around 60 cassette tapes on a daily basis back in 1992 when my car got broken into while I was working at Pizza Inn. I lost my 60 favorite tapes that day (along with a bunch of amplifiers and speakers) and I decided to replace them on CD.
Car cassette players remained useful for many years, mostly as a place to insert those cassette-shaped CD adapter. For several years in the early 90s I had a CD Walkman in my car with the audio running out of the headphone jack and into the cassette deck of my car. (What a pain that was, trying to find a place to put a portable CD player to keep it from skipping back then.) I replaced the cassette player in my ’96 Neon with a CD player, but both our ’99 Rodeo and ’03 Odyssey had both cassette players and in-dash CD changers. My ’06 Avalanche was the first vehicle we bought that did not come with a cassette player.
Today, none of our vehicles have one. In fact, other than a couple of modular dual cassette decks I saved from the old days, we don’t have anything that plays cassettes in our house. None of the kids’ boomboxes do. Of the remaining two boomboxes Susan and I had left over from the ’90s, the left speaker of Susan’s went out and the CD player quit working on mine. Both made their way to Goodwill years ago.
One of those old dual cassette decks I mentioned sits in my computer room, wired in to my computer’s sound card. I have a lot of tapes from Oklahoma City and Spokane bands that never made it to CD, so I used this setup to preserve the music and convert them over to mp3s. I even converted all of those old cassettes full of radio tunes to mp3 as well. I like having the commercials and the DJ banter preserved, even if some of those tapes contain the same song two or three times. (I must have really liked “The Superbowl Shuffle” and “Spies Like Us”.) For the cassettes I got from local bands, there are digital plug-ins available that will boost volume and reduce hiss, producing a very clean and listenable sound.
Out in my garage I have (of course) a box with 100 or so cassette tapes. Maybe 10 of them are ones that came from local bands; the rest… I’m not sure. Some aren’t even labeled. One of these rainy days I need to dig through them and give them one last listen before giving them a thumbs up (archive) or thumbs down (into the garbage chute, fly boy). Like any sort of magnetic-based media, these things won’t last forever so I need to get around to archiving the ones I want while I still can.