Looking back, the mix-tape cassette was the first step in being able to make our own entertainment choices
It was 1969 when the future arrived in my father’s suitcase when he came back from his first trip abroad.
I was nine and my father had brought me all sorts of goodies, so at first I didn’t pay much attention to the brick-sized box with the funny buttons in front. I knew what tape-recorders were: these cumbersome machines with two spinning wheels that recorded sound and played it back. How this little box could also be the same thing baffled me a bit, but it wasn’t important.
In a year or so, I began to pay more attention to the machine, mainly because I’d become adept at setting it up to record stuff my parents wanted. At the core of the machine were these small plastic cassettes, with sides A and B, and I enjoyed snapping them in and out of the chamber, as I did pressing down the little red button on the left while pushing the main button to ‘play’, which was how you started to record sound (of course after having attached the twin microphone jacks into a maze of asymmetrical holes).
The brick had a name, Norelco. Cassettes were not easy to find in Calcutta and they had this ‘Compact Cassette’ logo on every label, whether the cassette was made by Philips, BASF or these new Japanese companies called Hitachi and Sony. The early cassettes also said ‘C-30’ on the label, meaning you could record a total of 30 minutes, that is 15 minutes on each side. I still remember the excitement when I first saw a tape with ‘C-60’ on the label — the size of the little plastic biscuit was the same but they had doubled the recording time!
For music listening, we chiefly depended on the radio and a gramophone, combined together as a radiogram, and it took a while for the cassette-rec to be used for the purpose. Some American parental friends sent me pre-recorded cassettes; so on the gramophone I would listen to LPs of Usha Iyer, Engelbert Humperdinck and The Rolling Stones, while the cassettes wormed into my ear recordings of Roberta Flack and Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2.
Soon, I found an older friend who seemed to know everything about rock and jazz. AL was four years older than me and his father went to America every year to teach at a college. Every year, the Professor would come back carrying cartons of cassettes onto which students had transferred whole tranches of music. It took me a few years to realise how lucky I was to have stumbled upon one of the best collections of rock music in imported-record-starved India.
AL had a few vinyl albums, of course, with all the magic of the cover art and the fold-outs of double albums, but most of the treasure was contained in these neatly labelled cassettes — C-90s — which could usually take a whole album.
When I left for boarding school at 13, I was in a quandary: I had a slightly better cassette-player by now but there were only so many tapes I could take with me. AL, with extreme kindness heavily camouflaged by irritation, used two of his recorders to make me a few cassettes with assorted tracks from different bands, and these saw me through the rough and tumble of school on the other side of the country.
Cassettes accompanied people like me for over 20 years across the formative period of our lives. The basic cassette and recorder designed by Dutchman Lou Ottens in the early 60s set in motion a huge upheaval that in turn generated other great revolutions. By the late 70s, different levels of cassettes were available, with the 3.81mm-wide tape now made from various cutting-edge materials to improve the sound. The little tape-recorders had now become massive tape-decks and the top-end ones really looked as though they could control intergalactic spaceships.
As the studio decks became bigger and more elaborate, what you used in daily life became smaller with the arrival of the Walkman, on which you could only listen but not record.
Looking back, one realises that the mix-tape cassette was the first step in being able to make your own entertainment choices in a compact, portable and affordable way; the ability to reproduce and edit what you listened to was then combined with the portability of the Walkman and, for the first time in history, cheap headphones began to rule our lives.
By the mid-90s, cassettes were obsolete, not least because of the CD, which was also invented by Ottens. The Dutchman, who passed away earlier this month, lived to see his first little invention eventually spawn the iPod and, in many crucial functionalities, the smartphones that rule our lives today. While he pooh-pooed the nostalgia for cassettes, pointing out that the CD was much better sound-wise, what Ottens couldn’t improve on was the peculiar act of friendship or love that was the ritual of putting together a mix-tape.
The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.