Kevin McKeever: A comeback tour of cassette tapes
I’m musically hip again.
Maybe not my musical tastes so much, but my music listening format is definitely hip again.
As hip as something can be after it has been declared so by that bastion of all things pop culture, The Wall Street Journal.
Cassette tapes are making a comeback, the newspaper of American financial record recently declared. It cited an industry report showing tape sales rose nearly 75 percent in the past year to 129,000 units. Don’t be impressed because, even in a down year, digital album downloads were still around 82 million. However, since the last time the Journal declared cassettes reincarnated — that was 2011 — sales of the deck-of-cards sized medium had grown six times from a whopping 23,000 units.
I’m not one of those new buyers. Neither am I scouring eBay for an original 1982 Atlantic Records cassette of Phil Collins’ best-selling “Hello, I Must Be Going!” (because I already own one). Instead, I’ve spent the several weeks re-living my musical past through the several hundred cassettes I bought or recorded during high school, college and beyond. And not because I’m a hipster, but because I’m cheap.
I returned from a weekend trip in late February to find my home office radio/CD/MP3 stereo system finally had had enough of my passion for quirky power pop bands like Fountains of Wayne and The Figgs. Rather than invest several months worth of column paychecks in a new system, I excavated from our basement a 17-year-old Sony boom box featuring a CD player and a tape deck. With auto reverse!
Today has been a typical day with my newfound old toy. I’ve listened to a Chicago blues compilation I taped from a friend-of-a-friend’s LPs in college, and a mixtape of 24 tunes I compiled to mark my — naturally — 24th birthday.
I banged my head to Hole’s “Live Through This,” a 1994 grunge pop classic I found much enjoyable than I expected it to be.
Shook my head through the first two volumes of Rhino Records’ “Golden Throats “celebrity singer series. Take my word for it: tape hiss and end-spool warp only improve Leonard Nimoy’s attempt at “Proud Mary”.
Then I marveled at the decent sound quality of a TDK SA90 cassette featuring a bootleg of the Robbie Robertson-less Band playing Stamford’s Palace Theatre on Oct. 5, 1985. It was the first rock concert I ever attended on my own as well as the first and only one at which I was almost tossed out of for illegally recording. (Technically, I was an accomplice. My friend, David, a Grateful Dead fan used to freely recording that band’s shows, did the actually taping.) “Did you know this theater is 100 years old?” bassist Rick Danko asks before launching into an encore of “Rag, Mama, Rag.”
And that’s what made cassette tapes great. Sure, the sound quality started mediocre and only got worse the more you played them but the tinny highs and muddy lows only added an odd warmth and familiarity to the stories they offered. Whether you bought them at Coconuts in Ridgeway Center or made them yourself from your own music collection or from someone else’s (a big thank you to the vast LP and CD selection at the Greenwich Library I accessed over the years), they were easy to stockpile, copy, trade or just give away in the 1980s and ’90s.
So, go ahead, my audiophile friends. Try to impress me by sliding a 203-gram, blue marble vinyl LP reissue of sitar guru Ravi Shankar’s “In Hollywood, 1971” onto your vacuum tube enhanced pre-amped turntable. I’d rather be simultaneously reveling in and cringing at my lo-fi treasure chest because, as Phil Collins sang, I don’t care anymor-or-ore.
Stamford native and resident Kevin McKeever, whose nationally award-winning column appears here every other Friday, is a freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .