Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Cassettes, Tori Amos and Cultural Consumption: Towards an Understanding of my Fetishisation of the Box-Set

I've been buying cassettes on eBay to play in my car. This is dumb when I could just buy one of those cassette-shaped adaptors to plug my iPod into my car stereo (Or a car with a CD player, you PLEB! - Wealthy Ed.), but:

1. Wires hanging around the gearstick! AAAAGH! [Crash! Tinkle!]

2. iPod sliding around on the dashboard or perched in the what-is-this-a-drinks-holder?-it's-not-even-round! where it falls out or in my lap so that it falls under my thigh and the wire connecting it to the car stereo unplugs and the OH MY GOD IS THAT LORRY OVERTAKING?!

3. Service and petrol stations seem to have stopped selling them [Possibly because see 1. and 2.]

4. There are albums I owned on cassette as a teenager which I never got around to buying on CD, and CDs are now obsolete and I've lost the cassettes, and sure, I could just dowload them onto my iThing (and being 31 I'm at exactly the generational cross-over point where that feels like buying nothing), but see points 1. and 2. again; what am I supposed to do? Listen through headphones in my car? What if there's an ambulance? What if someone else in the car wants to tell me something like 'JUUUUNNNNCTIOOOOOOOOOOONNNN! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!' which is by no means rare.

5. In my experience the volume control between the music storage device and the car stereo is so wildly out of whack (because let's remember this is a headphone socket rather than a line-out, tech fans), that the music sounds kind of shitty anyway, all high end noise or hiss or bass throb, veering between inaudible and ear-splitting, and attempting to correct this is like working old shower controls, i.e. fiddling with the wibbly touch-screen volume control on the iThing and the rubbery nub on the car stereo and hitting the curb and careening into the central reservation.

6. If I have to put "Was trying to skip ahead to 'Starlings of the Slipstream'" on one more insurance form.


Anyway, this is a way too lengthy intro to a way too lengthy blog post. The cassettes I've just purchased for 49p and 68p, respectively, are REM's Green and Tori Amos's Boys for Pele. I love both of these records. Perhaps part of the reason I never bought them on CD is that they're permanently scored into my auditory centre and I can play them back in my head with halucinatory clarity. And the reason for that is because I listened to them on very heavy rotation, several times a night, on every childhood car journey or coach trip. I played them on my Panasonic double-tape deck at home and on my Sanyo persoal stereo on journeys. The headphones, you remember, on personal stereos were joined by a thin metal alice band, which had the dual benefit of keeping your flopppy fringe out of your bloodshot eyes. And the reason for that heavy rotation is that I was a kid, I was too lazy to get a proper Saturday job (the very thought of missing Muppet Babies and The Chart Show just to make a few measly quid was, and still is, anathema) and cassettes were expensive. Green and Boys for Pele were two of about 10 cassettes I collected over several years and I listened to those ten cassettes until I knew every backing vocal melody, every bridge section, impromptu clarinet solo and/or studio chatter backwards and forwards.

It probably makes sense, if I'm going to consider my present role as consumer, to go into the economics of it (but not in such a way that involves me doing one iota of research). In the 90s, cassette albums cost on average £13.99. i.e., although we're talking about almost two decades ago - not even factoring in inflation and the "hilarious" thing that's happened to house prices within that time - two decades! TWO! - music was way more expensive than it is now. (That's assuming you now elect to pay for music at all). I tended to spend my pocket money on a monthly computer magazine and sweets (I ate a lot of sweets, and computer magazines weren't cheap either), so my indolence combined with a chronic (lasting) inability to save money meant that getting a new cassette album was a Christmas and birthday type affair, and being a summer baby this meant every new cassette album had a six month induction period as my new record, played-to-heck-and-back-and-to-heck-again. Now what I want to suggest - regardless of whether you shared my musical taste - is that being drip-fed music by economic necessity was a good thing because it meant that I really, really appreciated the records I had. (N.B. It also gave me a life-long loyalty to those recording artists which includes slavishly buying all of their weak late stuff and listening to it about twice, however much my taste in music has broadened and deepened since). It meant I appreciated the songs in and of themselves with an attention to detail completely alien to me now, but also appreciated them as albums, as carefully sequenced collections of songs. Yeah, I know, shut up granddad - and hurry up or you'll be late for our trip to the electric lake to worship the giant robot.


Which brings me to my central thesis: I can't be bothered to actually look into it, but I'll wager that the main audience for DVD box-sets is late-twenty-to-thirtysomethings. And the reason for that is because we're completely astonished by them. When we grew up the only thing on TV was the X-Files, and if you were enough of a fan to want to own some of it, you had to spend £14.89 on a VHS tape of 2 EPISODES. And that was if you had an ID card to prove you were over 12, which I totally didn't. And it was also dependent on the video machine in your house not being on the fritz and chewing the tape up. To own a whole season of the X-Files would have cost £178.86. That you can now get whole seasons of much, much better shows for a tenner (which in early 90s money would have got you a jumbo size Yorkie bar) is something we'll never quite get over. I even buy box-sets of shows I know I'm going to hate.


Just holding the cassettes I bought on eBay is a total nostalgia fix in itself: the metallic grey wash that marks commercial releases from blank tapes, the way you have to wind the tape back in with a hexagonal pencil, the tiny floating sponge underneath the tape itself. Playing them in the car, though, was a revelation. Cassettes have a warm, bold sound which is perfect when competing with a car engine, a blow heater and the conversation of your passengers. Many's the time I've brought along a CD to play in someone-more-successful-than-me's car which I thought they might like, only to hear it reduced to thin, barely audible ear-gruel with all of the hooks and harmonies shaved off by background noise. And they're like, 'Nice record. Sounded kind of like nothing.' Cassettes are amazing and we should never have stopped making them. I'd be the first to admit that Boys for Pele isn't the best driving music. It's full of time-signature changes, volume fluctuations and shifts in style and delivery. Some of the songs are solo harpsichord, for the love of mike, but on cassette I catch every cherished, well-remembered note.

Including that jaw-droppingly wonderful moment in 'Mohammed My Friend' when she sings about getting a spot on a TV show and this saxophone breaks in for two bars, seamlessly weaving in and out of the gorgeous piano line and suddenly Wastelandish lyrics whilst simultaneously sounding like the tacky theme song of a daytime talkshow. There are about nineteen other utterly sublime bits like that, which are probably best recorded in another post.

Oh, I'm reading at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival this Saturday April 21st at 5pm and it has a kind of jukebox theme, which is kind of what made me write this in the first place. It is with the brilliant Phil Brown and Daniel Sluman, who will clearly blow me out of the water like so many rubber duckies. Details here: