Lou Ottens, the inventor responsible for making music literally fit in the palm of your hand, has died at the age of 94. The Dutch native was the head of product development at Philips in the early 1960s when he began developing cassettes as an answer to the large and unwieldy reel-to-reel tape format. He started with a small wooden block that fit in his pocket as the model of what he hoped to achieve: making music more accessible and portable. Ottens and Philips unveiled the first “compact cassette” in 1963, and it immediately took off.
Adam Horowitz remembers the cassette tape era in the Beastie Boys Book
The cassette-tape era. You had to plan your day around your cassettes. How many could you fit in your pockets? (Obviously, winter was an easier time ’cause you had way more storage options…jackets, coats, down vests, etc. More pockets.) You had to think this shit through. What did you wanna listen to that day? Who were you gonna run into, because you did not wanna get busted with only the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk tape on you. Even though you loved that shit. You had to have the cool shit on you, just in case. You might end up at someone’s apartment and wanna put some music on. You had to have variety. Oh, and also…remember, this is the ’80s so there’s no baggy anything. It’s just tight pants with bulging rectangular pockets. No, that’s not a knot of cash in my pocket, it’s the Minor Threat (A side) / Black Flag (B side) tape, and the Slits (A side) / Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits (B side), and so on. Having eight cassette tapes shoved into your front and back pants pockets, walking around all day, is a schleppy look. I WOULD HAVE FUCKING LOVED THE SHIT OUT OF HAVING AN IPHONE. For real. Anyone who’s trying to convince you that tapes are cool, and that iPhones are corny, is dead wrong. I can tell you from experience, and with a professional’s opinion: the cassette vs. vinyl vs. CD vs. mp3 argument is boring. If I made you a mixtape and you’ve just heard the J.B.’s song “Pass the Peas” for the first time…the song would be just as fucking awesome if I emailed you an mp3 instead. I promise. Being able to scroll and click to get to the next song is a wonderful new feature. “Yeah, but…mp3s sound terrible.” Who cares?! Try Scotch-taping a broken cassette tape four or five times in different places on the tape, and then listen back to that after it’s been in various linty pockets for a year and a half. To me, the only thing that’s really missing with the iPhone is that physical relationship to your music. If I added it up, I feel like I’ve wasted 261 solid hours of my life just watching cassette tapes rewinding and fast-forwarding. There was no drag and drop onto a playlist to make a mixtape. To record X-Ray Spex’s song “Identity” onto a tape, you had to listen to the whole song as you recorded it. So a whole album took a while. Jimmy Spicer’s song “Adventures of Super Rhyme” is, like, fifteen minutes long. Just that one song. Maybe that’s why my attention was so limited when it came to doing homework. If I had fuckin’ iTunes I would’ve had time to read the book for school instead of glancing at the Cliffs Notes. Or asking my best friend, Arthur Africano, to describe what happened in that book, because he would actually read the books for homework. You couldn’t just Google search for a podcast to listen to. No Spotifying anything. You had to wait until the radio show you wanted to tape came on (Tim Sommer’s Noise the Show, the Red Alert show, the Mr. Magic show, the Gil & Pat Bailey show, etc.) and then actually sit there for the whole hour that it took to tape it. Live streaming meant just that. If your stereo couldn’t record what the radio was playing, you’d have to put a tape recorder right up next to the speakers so you could tape that radio show you wanted. The physical thing of taking the record out, cueing up the song you wanna record on the turntable, letting it play, pushing the Play+Record buttons on the cassette recorder at the perfect time (you don’t want a lot of dead airspace on your tape), then repeating that for 45, 60, or 90 minutes was an all-day/all-night event. It might’ve been the most physical labor I’ve ever done in my life. And if the tape you were making was meant to be a gift for someone, it took serious focus. It was rarely just about sharing songs via a cassette. It’s way bigger than that. Artistic decisions, emotional decisions, and, depending on who you’re making it for, strategic decisions went into its making. For certain people, you gotta remind them that you have a way better record collection than they do. And this tape I’m giving you now will show and prove it. (Not that it’s a competition…but it always is.) You could keep it brief with a 30-minute tape. But maybe that’s too brief. The 90-minute tape is a bit much. It can get tiresome, unless that tape was meant for background music. The 120-minute tape is for obsessive-compulsives with too much time on their hands. In my opinion, the 60-minute tape is the best of the cassette-tape lengths. You’re putting work in but not going overboard. (If you have romantic intentions, don’t get creepy. For sure, go with the 60.) After you finished making your tape, you’d have to make a cover for it. You couldn’t just have the white TDK sleeve with song titles. You’d want your tapes to have cool covers like your LPs, flyers, and fanzines. The outside cover would be some kind of picture you’d cut out of a magazine, or your science book, or whatever. You’d Scotch-tape it to the blank cover that came with the cassette so that you could write down the songs on the tape on the back. And then you’d doctor up the actual tape itself. You’d draw a few different colors for outlines around the band’s name, or the title you’d given the mixtape. (Paint pens were a game changer when they came out.) It was a process. But you know, you can fit more tapes in your pockets without the cases, so the tapes themselves gotta look fresh. Oh, also…very important…the tabs. Every blank cassette tape has these two little rectangular plastic tabs on top. You can record on a tape only if the tabs are still there. If the tabs have been taken off, like every store-bought album on cassette, you’d have to put Scotch tape, or a sticker, over where the tab was. The top left corner, that’s the Record tab on the side of the tape you’re recording. So…when you’re done, don’t forget to pop the tabs, or peel the tape off the popped tabs, or else you’re gonna record over what’s on the tape on accident. Like how I have a tape of The Jam’s Sound Affects that I recorded me+Yauch having a super boring conversation over. Funny now, but aggravating then. If you were reading this when you were in high school in 1981 you would really thank me for saving you the time of figuring all this out for yourself. Not only was it not cool to wear a backpack, it was really uncool to be like, Hey…um…can you show me how to do this thing that I don’t know how to do? Also…who would you ask? An older kid? No way. Pre-YouTube you were on your own. Cassette-tape upkeep is fucking delicate. After carrying the same tapes in your tight, linty pockets for months, and playing them a thousand and one times…the tape would inevitably get wound up and stuck in the tape heads. Everything would stop. Through the little window on the cassette, you could see the gears of the tape moving around like a dryer at the laundromat. Suddenly, you would see the tape you’d spent hours making all bunched up. That moment felt like when a computer freezes and a sad-face image shows up on the screen. You’d have to stop whatever you were doing and deal with this dire situation immediately. The tape would be all squished up into the machine. Mangled. Taking it out was like pulling 60 minutes of wet fettuccine out of a dog’s mouth. It was as though the tape and tape deck were mad at you for being a careless and impatient teenager. “Damn kids! Always rewinding and fast-forwarding. Just let the songs play all the way through or it’s gonna break.” To fix that tape, you’d have to gently and painstakingly pull the tape out of the deck. Knowing when to force it and when to go real slow. And finally, when you’d get all the tape out…you’d get a tiny Phillips-head screwdriver and unscrew the screws holding the tape’s housing together. You’d open it up, cut the tape at its most damaged point, unravel the tape, put a tiny piece of Scotch tape on a table, match up both ends of broken tape, join the two cut ends with that tiny piece of Scotch tape, screw the housing back together, and then…the pencil. You’d have to wind the cassette tape back into its housing so it’d be ready to play again. The pencil was the perfect tool to fit inside the cassette’s little plastic gears. So you’d sit there and wind, and wind, and wind, and wind, and wind. On tour I always used to bring Scotch tape, a pencil, and a big Swiss Army knife (that my sister gave me in the early ’80s) with me, in case a tape broke. The Swiss Army knife had a pair of scissors and the perfect tiny little Phillips-head screwdriver. And also, you know, most hotels would screw their windows shut so you couldn’t throw shit out or do whatever they didn’t want you to do out their windows. Like smoke pot and throw fireworks. Or teakettles, Scotch eggs, furniture, etc. The Swiss Army is ready for action. (AH) It seems like it’s just so easy to know things now. To know about movies, or art, or music, or food preparation, or the 1950s roller-derby circuit. But in 1978, junior high school…besides what was on the seven available TV channels, or WPLJ radio, we didn’t know anything. Important. About life. Like sex. And what you’re supposed to do and how to have it. Or anything else, really, that we actually wanted to know. The library on Tenth Street didn’t have what I was looking for at age fifteen. In 2000-whatever, if you want to learn how to play a song on the guitar, someone’s on YouTube waiting to teach you how to play that exact song. Or build that record shelf, or how to have sex and what it looks like. Does all the accessible information give you confidence as a junior high schooler, or is it too overwhelming? Like…you’re supposed to know how to do this already, dumbass. Your “record” collection is supposed to be all-encompassing of your fifteen-year-old world. You don’t have to figure out where did this come from, or how do you do this? Google will tell you that (insert whatever current band that a current fifteen-year-old would listen to here) was totally inspired by The Strokes, who were inspired by Television, who were inspired by…and so on. So, you can have Brenda Lee on your iPhone because in a random search, the band that you love was inspired by so+so, and they did this+that, and that someone loved Brenda Lee. Within minutes, you would have all of that backstoried information. And within minutes you’re now listening to Brenda Lee’s voice for the first time and you’re like, OH SHIT! With the iPhone you no longer have to worry that some square would think you were a square for carrying around that Psychedelic Furs Talk Talk Talk tape in your pocket because it’d be buried deep amongst 12 billion mp3s. I’m not trying to be all…Well, back in my day we had to carry blocks of ice up a mountain made of shards of broken glass just to get to drink a Hatful of Rain. But it’s true that the physical relationship to music was different. There was more touching, holding, caressing, and finessing. Making, listening to, and caring for cassettes is the most hands-on and personal music listening experience. For sure. You don’t just listen; you’re very involved. I do miss that, but I don’t miss schlepping all those fucking tapes around in my tight, bulky pockets like a scrub. And like so many really close friendships…sadly, me+my tapes have drifted apart. All that said, the experience of a fifteen-year-old kid obsessing over music is basically the same as it’s been since the fuckin’ gramophone or player piano. Endless hours sitting in bedrooms, or on stoops (or whatever the suburban equivalent is to a stoop), waiting for a friend to show up. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting to have sex. Waiting to understand your weird parents. Waiting to understand anything in the world. Waiting to go somewhere else. It all needs a soundtrack. Your soundtrack. Since forever in time, we’ve all had our…“I just got dumped,” “I’m gonna break up with you,” “I’ll love you forever,” “No one gets it,” and “Entrance to the party” songs. It’s just easier to physically carry them with you now.