They were portable. That was a huge part of the attraction. You could listen to music in your bedroom, take the tape into the car and put it in the player there, drive to your friend’s house, listen to more music there. All very convenient for those of us who couldn’t afford to employ a small orchestra to accompany us as we went about our daily lives. A lot lighter than vinyl, too, and you also needed an electricity source to play records, unless you had one of those wind-up gramophones about your person.
Compact cassettes came in two forms, either already containing content pre-recorded for playback, or “blank” for recording. This was great because, if you wanted the latest Warren Zevon album, say, you only had to find a friend who’d already bought it, and get them to record it onto a cassette for you. For free. (“Home Taping Is Killing Music,” the music industry protested, except, of course, it wasn’t and it didn’t.)
Pre-recorded or home-recorded, the sound was usually terrible. Fuzzy, thin, and accompanied by constant hissing. The format was not particularly durable, either. The tape in the cassettes would twist or break, the magnetic oxide would wear thin so the sound disappeared, or the tape would come loose and you’d need to wind it tight again with a suitably sized pencil.
If you wanted to skip a track on an album, you couldn’t just press “Next”. You had to fast forward blind, hoping that you landed somewhere in the right area; a manoeuvre often accompanied by an equally swift re-wind, having over-shot. The tapes cracked in the cold, melted in the heat.
No wonder, as the 1990s arrived, we abandoned our cassettes — which had only been born in 1963 — for the marvels of the shiny CD. With no moving parts sometimes unfurling themselves irretrievably within a tape player, CDs were the future. We had no idea about the digital downloads coming our way.
Despite the term “cassette player” being removed from the Concise Oxford English dictionary in 2011, as dedicated machines to play this format had largely disappeared, cassettes have never entirely vanished. They’re an easy way, if you already have the equipment, of recording conversations or concerts. They’re a way for bands to showcase their music. And, of course, you’ll always want to play that mixtape your college sweetheart so carefully crafted for you, complete with its original, fuzzy, analogue sound quality. Sometimes, zeroes and ones just don’t do it for nostalgia.