Recordability wasn’t just for music. When I got my first cassette player, on my 10th birthday, it came with an in-built microphone. I also received a triple pack of blank Memorex dB-90 tapes, which was as exciting to me as a new sketchbook and fresh set of felt tip pens: just so many creative possibilities. Peeling off the cellophane wrapper, carefully sticking the blank name label onto this virgin rectangle of plastic [make sure it’s not wonky – you’ll never get it off in one piece], and turning the cardboard insert of the plastic box the other way around, ready for the track-listings to be neatly transcribed in pencil, became nothing short of a ritual. Despite knowing I could re-record on these tapes many times over before I wore them out, the first recording onto a pristine tape always held a special delight. No glitches, no ghost sounds from previous recordings, all pure and clean.
So what did I record? Well, for reasons that I don’t recall, I went around the house with my low-rent ghetto-blaster and captured as many household noises as I could find. From a running tap, to a slamming door, to my mother’s industrial sewing machine at full speed, to the inimitable [and endlessly amusing] fart of a balloon deflating and flying around a room. The recordable cassette offered a way to capture the overlooked, everyday soundscape of the world around and compose them into what I now realise, was a kind of avant-garde sonic mix. I also unwittingly caught a snippet of my grandmother talking in the background [an annoyance at the time – didn’t she know she was ‘on air’?], but when I came across this tape again recently, over 20 years after she died, I realised this might be the only recording anyone had of her voice.
Nostalgia, memory and emotion are an intrinsic part of our relationship to music and sound, and this also connects with the other key aspect of the tape: portability. While no doubt, the first generation of the phonograph and gramophone were equally and justifiably bowled over by the fact that they could now listen to their favourite music and performers whenever they wanted, in their own homes, the playback equipment wasn’t exactly pocket-sized: the archetypal gramophone player being larger than your average Jack Russell dog. Furthermore, vinyl records were prone to become damaged or scratched if moved while being played. Even dancing too enthusiastically in the living room [to Kate Bush, c.1978] could bounce the needle and provoke one’s father’s wrath.