Tim Van Schmidt
I recently wrote about 45 rpm vinyl records, a fun, but nearly extinct audio format.
Well, wouldn’t you know that another nearly extinct audio format — the cassette tape — has been in the news recently? First of all, the inventor of the cassette tape, Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, died this year after creating a revolutionary format that sold 100 billion tapes — and helped fuel the soundtrack of many a party and road trip.
Ottens worked for Philips and they introduced the cassette technology in 1963. Interestingly, he was also involved in the development of the compact disk, which would help kill off cassettes some thirty years later.
I got my first cassette deck as a birthday present in 1970 and it rocked my world. I was ten feet off the ground because I had a music machine I could take anywhere — and I could record anything I wanted with it too. Fantastic!
A recent tech article in the New York Times about cassette tapes — puzzling over a sales resurgence — spent a lot of line inches lambasting the sound quality, then turned on a dime when it came to enjoying the nostalgia of some old mix tapes associated with some good times.
High-quality sound or low-quality sound, it ends up being about experiencing the music that becomes important — not only what you are listening to but also where, when, and with whom.
For me anyway, cassettes meant freedom — music was on the go — and offered a new way to collect, share, and be creative.
I got busy with my new cassette deck and started recording some of my favorite albums with a microphone held up to the speakers of our record player. Eventually, I learned how to record “direct” from the record player and the tapes got better.
Soon, I also started going to rock concerts and immediately became a bootlegger. From the very first show, I saw the possibilities of taking my cassette deck with me to concerts — and a pocketful of extra batteries — and recording everything.
The playback of my “bootleg” recordings the next day was always kind of rough — yes, the sound quality was bad — but I heard rock and roll in there.
But more, I started jamming with friends on guitars and we recorded our sessions, hoping we would produce something that sounded cool — and sometimes we did.
Now, I didn’t buy many pre-recorded cassettes, though I was thrilled to get the two-tape set of Beatle George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” for Christmas one year. I also just played the stuffing out of a couple of copies of The Grateful Dead’s “Live/Dead” album.
Mostly, I used cassettes for recording music from friends’ record collections. I also taped records I took out from the library. It was another way to expand my collection in general with relatively limited expense — though I did buy a LOT of blank tapes.
With the records I did collect, I made “digest” tapes of the best songs, since not all album songs are created equal.
It’s worth mentioning that, for many years, cassette tapes were an important currency particularly among fans of The Grateful Dead. The band allowed taping at their shows and Dead Heads from all over the country traded cassettes back and forth.
Later, when I started a freelance writing career in Fort Collins, the cassette was a pivotal tool in my work, recording interviews with musicians. But more, they were also the main format for local musicians working to release and promote their work.
But my favorite use for cassettes was in creating mixtapes. I made special programs for road trips and for holidays. I made them for special people: I made my mom a tape of 1940s swing music and a 1950s hit tape for my brother-in-law.
I cherry-picked tunes, explored moods, and loved being my own DJ.
For several years in a row in the 1980s, my wife and I hosted dance parties at our house on New Year’s Eve. We cleared the furniture out, called a bunch of friends, and played raucous music into the New Year. At first, I was the live DJ for these events, but finally, I did the work ahead of time and put my top dance choices onto mixtapes — I wanted to enjoy the party. These cassette treasuries of hot tunes served us well.
So, I’d like to commemorate the passing of 2021 with a suggested “mixtape” of the best of those tracks — direct from the 1980s — for your New Year’s Eve party:
Midnight Oil “Beds are Burning”
B52s “Love Shack”
Talking Heads “Burning Down the House” (Live)
Steve Winwood “Higher Love”
Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al”
Depeche Mode “Personal Jesus”
Peter Gabriel “Shock the Monkey”
U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Cars “My Best Friend’s Girl”
Police “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”
Fine Young Cannibals “Ever Fallen in Love”
David Lindley “Mercury Blues”
Wang Chung “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”
Fixx “One Thing Leads to Another”
David Bowie “Let’s Dance”
Bryan Ferry “Don’t Stop the Dance”
Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”
Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian”
Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”
Jimmy Cliff “Sitting Here in Limbo”
Men at Work “Down Under”
Beatles “Twist and Shout”
subdudes “One Time”
UB40 “Red Red Wine”
Icehouse “Nothing Too Serious”
Rolling Stones “Miss You
Bob Marley “Get Up, Stand Up” (Live)
Bruce Springsteen “Darlington County”
Stevie Wonder “Higher Ground”
Tom Petty “Free Fallin'”
I know, people don’t make mixtapes — or even CD mixes — anymore. That’s OK, just tell “Alexa” to play these tunes and I guarantee you’ll have a good time. Happy Rockin’ New Year!
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his channel on YouTube at “Time Caspules by Tim Van Schmidt.