#423: The Tyranny of Cassette in the ’80s

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#423: The Tyranny of Cassette in the ’80s

Anyone who grew up in the mid to late 1980s probably enjoyed their music on the most popular format at the time:  cassette.  Vinyl LPs were still around, and still popular, but not nearly as much as cassettes.  CDs were new and only a few of us had CD players yet.  Cassette tapes had the portability factor going for them.  Everybody had a Walkman, and those who didn’t probably had one on their Christmas list in 1985.

Vinyl was a dying breed in our highschool halls.  There were still some older kids who boasted of the superior sound quality, but none of my friends had equipment good enough to enjoy that sound quality.  I certainly didn’t.  All I had was a turntable hooked directly into a Sanyo cassette deck for amplification.  The sound was harsh and tinny.  The scratches inherent with the format were also more distracting than the tape hiss of cassette.

So, it was all about cassette!  Buy ‘em, trade ‘em, swap ‘em and re-record over them when you decide you don’t like the music anymore.  I have a cassette copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that had long ago been erased and taped over with other stuff.  When you couldn’t find a fresh blank tape to record on, you could just erase something else.  Everybody did it.  My friend Bob had a cassette of In Through the Out Door that he recorded over with us talking and goofing around!

For teenage highschool kids, cassettes were enough for our musical fixes.  A decent quality name brand tape could hold up to 110 minutes without stretching.   We used them to tape anything and everything.  (I have a tape with the sound of a friend’s dad taking a massive shit — no, I did not record it, they did!)  Since cassettes were re-recordable, that meant that every kid could even record their own music and become a rock star in his or her own basement.  You couldn’t do that with your fancy schmancy LPs, we all thought!  Don’t like your song?  Just rewind and record it again!  Those who didn’t play music could have their own fun, DJ’ing and and writing skits.  And let’s not forget about taping your friends’ albums.  Recording tape to tape would always result in excessive tape hiss, but kids didn’t seem to mind in the 1980’s.  We ignored the hiss.  It was something we considered part of the music, because we really never heard any music without hiss!

Although the flaws of cassettes are patently obvious today, in the 80’s we were just discovering these troubling issues for ourselves.  We overlooked the tape hiss, but it was harder to ignore speed issues.  The biggest problem that I had with cassettes was inconsistent speed.  Some tapes, especially those made by Polygram and EMI in Canada, seemed to have a lot of internal friction.   Grab a small screwdriver and open up an old cassette tape some time.  Inside you will find rollers, spindles, and bits and pieces all designed for the cassette tape to roll smoothly.  Whether they worked right always seemed to be a matter of random luck.  When friction inside caused the tape to run slow, it was immediately obvious.  The pitch would be noticeably lower, and often the tape would warble as your player tried to play it at normal speed, but fought against the friction.

On the other hand, sometimes the problems came down to your player.  Your tape deck had even more spindles and doo-dads to turn that tape around and around.  Those got dirty and worn out, too.  Sure, you could buy tape head cleaners and demagnetizers, but did they ever really have a noticeable effect on your listening experience?  Probably not.  I used to diligently clean the insides of my tape decks with lint-free cloths and isopropyl alcohol.  Although I could see black filth coming off the rollers when I cleaned them, the sound and speed never really improved.  It was always very frustrating when a tape would play fine on a friend’s deck, but went slow as molasses on your own.  My Sanyo went in for service and professional cleaning more than once, but that didn’t help either.

Although cassettes sounded like shit, and only got worse the longer you kept them, they did have a big advantage over CD for me, and that was portability.  I preferred cassettes in the car, up until fairly recently.  The reason for this was, working in the used CD store, I saw so many CDs that were just utterly destroyed by car CD players.  You don’t get that problem so much anymore, but in the 90’s and 2000’s, there were a lot of discs just annihilated by a lot of car decks. It didn’t seem to matter if the car player was a high-end stereo or a piece of crap.  People would bring their used CDs in to me, and ask me how they looked.  I’d usually ask, “Did you play this in a car deck?”  I could always tell.  Customers would ask me, “How did you know?”  Because the CD would be completely scratched, but always in perfect circles.  Some dirt clearly got into the car deck, and scratched up the discs as they were spinning.  Or, the disc was just scraping up against the internal workings of the car player as it spun.  Either way, the result was usually a CD that looks like a kid’s Spirograph drawing.

At least when playing a cassette in the car, those things could take a beating.  I only ever had one or two that were “eaten” by the player.  Compare that to the thousands of CDs that I saw destroyed by car decks over the years.

If life is a musical journey, then cassettes were my travelling companions for over a decade.  We had a necessary parting of ways, and now I am happy to stick to CD and flash drives when on the road!

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90 comments

  1. You obviously new more about the format than I did back in the day. I didn’t know the sound quality was so bad until I started listening to CDs. My biggest issue was when the tape would become lost but that’s what we kept ball point pens handy for, right?

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I just played them and loved them. A lot. But even brand new, like my Pearl Jam Momma Son tape sounds muffled. Like I have ear plugs in. And that one is brand new!

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        2. Near the end of my Sony Sports Walkman’s life, the motor started dying so the speed got a bit wonky and would wreak havoc on my tapes.

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        3. Momma Son cassette? Say what? Was that in the Ten reissue?

          I dunno, man. Does your tape player have separate EQ on it, or something? Have you had the thing serviced and you know it’s at correct play speeds? A brand new cassette should give no issues at all!

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        4. Sure yep, I had a walkman (not a Sony) die off. I just got another one. :) And that new one was the bomb. I wish I could find it, but I have this sinking feeling I may have given it away years ago. Shame, that. It still worked fine after all the abuse I gave it.

          Liked by 1 person

        1. For me, age wise, I think cassettes were better because I would abuse them to no end, and I didn’t have tons of storage I could take up in my parents house for vinyl. I could put the tapes in a carrying case and go from the car to my home stereo, or ghetto blaster. I put up with the sound because the tape player was one I could afford, and I wasn’t as picky back then. besides it was often at 10 on the dial anyway, so it didn’t matter what media was being used.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Agreed. Cassettes were perfect at the time. I only had a handful of records when I was a teen but plenty of tapes. I couldn’t imagine fiddling with them nowadays though. I’m good with my MP3s and records.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha, I remember the speed-warble problem. You’d be playing a cassette and it’d be like, “Theeeeeeeeeereeees a laaaaaaaaady whoooooooos suuuuuuuuuuuuure ALLTHATGLITTERSISGOLDANDSHE’SBUYING a staaaaaaaaaaiiiirrrrrrrrrrwwayyyyyyyy tooooooooo heeeeeeeaven…”

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  3. I agree that most cassettes and decks were crap, but the high end ones such as Nakamichi, Tandberg, Revox, Luxman etc sound awesome and make great recordings.
    The other thing is you can get decent audiophile quality cassette players for a good price and the cassettes are cheap.
    Also bands are starting to get back into cassettes. I bet the new Metallica record store day cassette(another future post) will have bands moving in this direction, since vinyl is so expensive to produce and this will be an altenative to the cd, and the hipsters dig it.
    This has me wanting to move my Nakamichi cassette deck repair post to the front of the pack.
    I also want to do a challenge similar to the Pepsi Challenge. I will play a cassette, vinyl and cd on the same stereo using quality equipment and see if the listener can tell the difference. I bet they can’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got that Metallica cassette from Record Store Day. Haven’t opened it yet. I dunno if I will. Maybe it’ll be collectible! Discogs says they’re $25-$30, though one seller in Germany lists it as €129.99 (almost $190 CDN, at today’s rates)! Haha what. Anyway, I guess we’ll see.

      I’d be up for that Pepsi Challenge, I own a few records on all three formats. I don’t know if my old Sony stereo would be considered quality equipment, but my Rega turntable is! And I’ve been very happy with those PSB speakers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I will be doing a post about that exact thing. Whether or not to open a cassette/cd/vinyl etc due to the value. Personally I think the Metallica cassette value will die down in the future. I believe it was the number one item sold this past Record Store Day and they sold tons of them, so since the market is flooded, they will retain their value of purchase price, but the huge prices will not last.
        I am torn with tons of my stuff as to whether to open them. It kind of reminds me of a “trailer queen“ show car that is never driven. Cars are meant to be driven. Music is meant to be played. However, I am a hypocrite, and have a ton still sealed that may never get opened. I know as soon as it is opened it may be worth only 5% of the sealed value.
        Another post may be a week of opening sealed albums and reviewing them. That could be a challenge to the fellow bloggers out there to try the same.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The same could be said of vinyl. I remember when tons of them turned up in landfills. I still see people giving them away.
          There is still a loyal enough following for cassette, and bands that don’t have a ton of cash to lay down on vinyl can catch the wave and do a release on cassette. I want to also do a post on the history of vinyl, the process of making a record and the reasons many bands can’t afford to do a vinyl release.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I look forward to these planned posts. I’m gonna learn stuff.

          To me, the bug differences are two. One, cassettes naturally degrade. A vinyl Record won’t degrade just by looking at it. Meanwhile you can’t stop a tape from degrading over time. Two is tape hiss. I would rather listen to a youtube video with its poor sound than a tape.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Sure tape is a fad. But that Metallica tape, if I hold onto it long enough, will become some sort artifact for hipster three or four generations of hipsters down the line. It’s not like it takes up a whole lot of space in the man cave anyway. ;)

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    2. I look forward to all these stuff. I’ve HEARD of Revox…never seen one. I hope you do a big post about this.

      That Metallica tape was just a ripoff for me. I’ll wait for CD. The tape will be unplayable in a few decades, so who cares.

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  4. I still have tons of cassettes, and play them regularly (my stereo has a double cassette component). Many of the tapes I own I’m fine with having them that way, no need to upgrade to CD. In fact, several of them would probably be too expensive/impossible to get on CD anyway, so hooray for $0.25 – $1.00 tapes!

    And I dunno, I don’t often notice sound issues. I own a few cassettes of albums I also own on CD and I don’t hear much of a difference on them. Hardly ever is there a speed wobble/problem. Hm. I must not be an audiophile. ;)

    My vote is for Whatever Gets The Tunes In My Ears. LP, cassette, CD, MP3, I don’t really mind!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know you love the tapes! Me, I can’t listen to one all the way through. I just can’t stand them. It’s hard enough for me to listen to the one or two things that are only out on cassette, that I have ripped to PC. So muddy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can deal with tapes, they usually sound fine to me. I’ve had a couple of them recently that were a bit off, but it’s no big deal. Often, people sell them cheap – hell, I’ve had people just give me boxes of them! The AAAA always takes in orphans. ;) It’s an easy, cheap way to collect a lot of albums I wouldn’t have otherwise heard, and they are really easy to store. I think if my tape player ever died out, I would just get another one.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. There was also a great jazz station out of Chicago that I could pick up on the far left of the dial, but only really late at night. I would try to record some of that but my parents always busted me and told me to go to bed already! hahaha.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. When I was camping at a friends place in Tobermory we could pick up great American stations. It is nice being near the water with no interference, and the amount of stars you could see at night was also amazing.

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        1. I live a two minutes’ drive from Georgian Bay, and I’ve never tried the radio like that! I am remiss! Haha. I hardly ever listen to the radio anymore, with 30k+ songs in my iTunes, it never crosses my mind.

          Yeah, night times up here are gorgeous. I can sit out on my deck, even here in town, and see skies that blow the mind.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Sure! Bloggers meet up!

          Well… thrift store (not plural). And even then it’s more often miss than hit! I can go quite a while between visits and still all they have is crap. But then I find gems and it’s all worth it!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Absolutely do let us know when you’re here!

          They did catch the last arsonist, yesterday. People here are shocked and angry and those people are in BIG trouble.

          http://www.owensoundsuntimes.com/2015/08/13/third-arson-suspect-arrested

          I really have to commend our emergrncy services. The fire department handled multiple fires at separated addresses, coordinating with two other fire departments, and handled it all with absolute aplomb. The EMTs had everybody cleared out and seen to in no time. And the police services, oh man. They have all three suspects in custody in well under one week. They were as mad about it as everyone else, and in a position to do something about it. They wasted NO time. I read that they had cops coming in off holiday time, working overtime 18 hour days etc. And bang bang bang they got ’em all. Crazy efficient! Absolute kudos to them all.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I’m glad they caught him. I did stupid shit when I was young, but nothing that could take human life or put people out of a home. I felt worst for the couple that lost the last momentos of their dead child, some pictures and old baby shoes. I say we lock the arsonists in a room with those parents for a few hours before going to jail, then send them to spend their entire sentence with a huge creeper named Bubba.

          Not quite as bad as the theme of this song, but the title is fitting….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB94kzfsUpY

          As for the emergency services, I have a brother that is a full time firefighter and my dad was a volunteer, so I agree they are awesome. Usually I found OPP and small town cops to be hard nosed pricks when I was younger and had long hair, but I have grown to realize they are people, and I respect them now more than ever. I play hockey with a group of cops and they are great guys too.

          When the media shines a spotlight on a sleepy community in a bad way, the police will do everything right down from the Chief to the constable to turn over every rock to find out who is responsible. I bet the arrest was the most shocking thing to happen in Oliphant in 100 years. I have been there many times, and it is a beautiful little villa.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg with this story. Already hearing stories about that night and those three (could all be hearsay, need to wait for official report). The second suspect, the lady, apparently already has a recent horrible history and time in jail. I dunno, I think there’s a way to go yet. At least they’re off the streets.

          I never had a long hair damn the man phase, but I grew up in a really really small town that was policed by cops over 20 minutes away and the very very very occasional and random OPP drive through. We just didn’t see cops that often. But I have absolute respect for what they do, and I know in my heart you couldn’t pay me enough money to take one of those jobs myself. I’m just not wired that way, and I am really glad that they are!

          My brother-in-law was a volunteer fire fighter for over 20 years (retired it now), and my cousin is currently an OPP officer. My great grandfather was a Chief Of Police. But even without all of that, I would still say they do a job I know I couldn’t do and I respect it for sure.

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        6. Also, yeah, I’m sure Bubba is ready for a new roommate or two.

          As for Oliphant, I think that’s just as far as he got. Maybe he was on his way up to try to cross to Manitoulin and then points north from there? If so, that was silly, I wouldn’t take the boat. I’d have gone east and around the Bay on land. Ah well. We won’t know til the story gets told, I guess.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. I used to have a huge Sears ghetto blaster(boombox) I brought to grade school. We used to listen to tunes every recess when the weather was nice. I also recorded stuff on the radio. I started with AM, then moved to FM. Whenever a new single would come out I would record it and bring it into school long before the album came out. I should have gotten a job for a music promotions company.
      I still own a JVC Kaboom. That things kicks ass.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. A few memories I have of Q107 is that they used Surfing With The Alien on the 6 o’clock Rock Report, Brother Jake and “The Champ” ( another future post),l. I even listened to Psychadelic Sunday even though at the time I thought a lot of the songs were boring (I have come to appreciate them as I have grown older). Some memories I have were yes Ratt, when Anvil came out, Motley Crue, Guns N Roses, and mostly Cinderella. When Cinderella came out I just loved his voice. I thought it was growly and smoky kind of like Brian Johnson.

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  5. Oh man, you talked about cassette player issues, I just remembered one: I had an old Civic that had a copied cassette stuck in the player. It was a mix of Me First & The Gimme Gimmes that I’d made. It just would NOT come out and I didn’t want to damage the player. So it was either the Gimmes or the radio! Good thing I like the Gimmes!

    Haha man, that tape was still stuck in there when I sold that car to some student. Wonder what he thought!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. He thought you were awesome.
      I had a Ranger with Rolling Stones-Some Girls stuck in the cassette deck. I bet I heard that album 500 times in the few years I owned the truck. I had to finally dismantle the front of the deck and pry the tape out, and the tape didn’t get shattered, and still sounded respectable.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Some Girls! That’s a great one to have stuck in the player.

        I’m glad you didn’t tell yourself some Lies and just ignore it with Far Away Away, used your Imagination and fixed the problem before it became a Beast Of Burden. And I’ve gotta ask, when you took the tape out of the player, finally, did you look down at it and say, “I’m gonna Miss You?”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, my lovely wife has sort of given me up as a lost cause, when it comes to that stuff. Trouble is, she doesn’t know the deep cut song titles, so I have to limit my word play to the hit song titles. And even then she just rolls her eyes at me! She’s a very patient, long-suffering lady.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Back in the day I used to record music onto cassette. I had ok stuff then but not audiophile quality. Sometimes there would be a bad spot on the tape or some gltch that you could hear on the recording. Whenever I heard the original without the added glitch it sounded weird because I was so used to my version with the bad spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SAME! I have a several albums like that. Black Sabbath’s TYR album was one. It had a glitch at the beginning of the first song, where the tape got crunched and you can gear a bit of the “lead-out” sound from the other side. It’s weird to NOT hear it on CD.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wasn’t that a Tony Iommi solo record? ;)

        Have you ever done a review?

        I would LOVE a front to back Sabbath review list like you did with Aerosmith.
        You’re not doing anything for the next month anyway, right.

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        1. Haha! Tyr is one of the few Sabbath lineups to do TWO albums instead of just one. The other is Forbidden.

          Sabbath series eh? Well here’s the problem. I’ve already reviewed a few of the Sabbath deluxe editions. Most of them actually, if not all.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. How about a series called Sabbath lesser knowns. Most people have the bigger albums, but ignored the lesser knowns. You could also link the series to the former posts of the bigger albums you already reviewed.
          Many readers would like your opinion on lesser knowns to see which ones to buy.
          You could also do a dual review in your parents basement with the real Joey. ;)

          Liked by 1 person

        3. It’s possible. I have a lot of Sabbath. I’m only missing a physical copy of ONE song. “What’s the Use” I think. I’ll consider this. But I need to check what I have already covered.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I suppose you could try to collect that one song you need but since you own everything else already, I mean, What’s The Use? ;)

          My own Sabbath collections ends where copies of the later records get really expenive. I have them on my Grail List because some of them are stupid-expensive!

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        5. I just dug up an old Grail List I made — I didn’t call it “grail list” back then but it’s the same list. It was from over a decade ago — expect to see a post regarding this soon, including items found and items STILL on the official Master Grail List!!!

          Liked by 1 person

        1. Small world. Or perhaps the Metal Health were of particularly poor quality.
          I find the pre-recorded tapes from the 90’s from bands were better quality as cd was taking over and the tapes had to compete on sound quality.
          I am hoping the new tapes will comtinue that trend.

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  7. I started buying cassettes when I was in the service. I had to due to my very limited living space. My first cassette buy was in 1978, a record your own cassette which I used to pretend to be a deejay on. The first pre-recorded cassette I bought was in January of 1980 and it was, well actually three: Cheap Trick- Dream Police, Jefferson Starship- Freedom at Point Zero and Molly Hatchet- Flirtin’ With Disaster. It wasn’t unit 2007 when I finally stopped listening to cassettes and that was because I got a car with a CD player.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Well J, I know what you mean. But towards the end, I was doing with a mix CD what I used to be able to do with a tape. I was doing voiceovers and DJing and crossfading and all those shenanigans. And I always tried to make great cover art no matter the format. It just took a while for me to gain the tech and skills to do something that used to be easy on cassette.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting! Since I’m 21 I don’t remember much about audio cassettes (I really remember CDs though), but in my childhood we’d listen to the cassette player in the car all the time. My dad never bought any albums on cassette, he just bought blank ones and then had a nice setup with his record player and a tape deck and he recorded his records onto cassette tapes to take into the car. My parents still have a few cassette players at home, but we prefer to use the turntable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Angie! Taping LPs to a blank tape with a good system would usually give you a better sound quality than store bought tapes. Your dad probably knows that pre-recorded tapes were made with cheapest quality tape. If you bought a blank, it was infinitely better quality than what the labels used!

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  9. Some of the best gifts I’ve received are mixed tapes! Playlists somehow don’t have the same effect. Maybe it’s the time commitment to the arrangement or the written track lists.

    It’s also good to see the occasional cassette collections. A few weeks ago, I came across someone who was moving…and her large cardboard box of cassettes had crashed to the sidewalk scattering her collection. Each one held a story for her, and she regaled me with them as I helped her re-pack them.

    Thanks for a great read, Mike!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Free tunes! That’s awesome Danica.

      I used to take so much time making my mix tapes. I wish more of these survived. (Long story why I don’t have them anymore — so here’s the link! Hahah. https://mikeladano.com/2014/01/30/part-264-review-motley-crue-lewd-crued-tattooed-live/)

      Anyhoo, I did a huuuuge 4 page fold out cover for one tape that I gave to my sis. It might have been a best of Rod Stewart because I remember drawing a big caricature of Rod in it. It was a cartoon version of Rod from one of his music videos:

      I hope she kept it, I thought it was really cool!

      Liked by 1 person

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