When you see a box full of cassette tapes and a tape player at a boot sale going cheap, then if you are wise you will shake your head and walk on by, safe in the knowledge that you have managed to avoid having a scar on your left buttock like I have from handbrake lever while fighting one of these infernal beasts…

I find it rather perverse that with the advances in technology we are seeing in the shape of streaming and portable digital music on a memory stick, the heyday of listening to music as a form of home entertainment and relaxation has long since passed I fear.  Let me explain.  Way back in the 1970’s and 1980’s most homes as I recall had some sort of music reproduction equipment, which might have been a stacking system of branded separates from the likes of Pioneer or Toshiba, or one that had the appearance of being a stacking system but was little more than a façade of a fancy front panel behind which was a single printed circuit board on which the amplifier, tuner and cassette mechanism were all fused together and a turntable perhaps plonked on top.  With that there would be a small collection of LP’s and cassette tapes, with somewhat dubious artistes playing somewhat dubious music too, so there never was any chance of second guessing what the public would buy for their amusement, but we do see a frozen history of that particular musical era at car boot sales nowadays.  Most of these music systems would gather dust and provide a cosy home for Arachnids and other insect life for most of their lives and it was on the rare occasion that there was “nowt on’t box” that anyone would bother to insert a cassette or an LP onto the turntable and hit the power button.    The records themselves usually looked like they had been left out on a motorway’s fast lane for several hours and may also have some mysteriously erroneous sticky substances like jam on them, but never mind, you could always sellotape a coin onto the headshell to make the ‘needle’ plough through all that muck and refreshing the record’s  grooves at the same time.tapes

I seem to remember several programmes on television over the years explaining the correct way to store, clean and handle records, with one in particular of a man wearing a pin stripe suit and speaking with a clipped BBC accent saying how one should only handle the records by the edges, the best way being to cradle the record upright with your fingers and steady/balancing it on the thumb by the label surface only, inserting and removing the record from it’s paper sleeve vertically.  It then came as a bit of a shock seeing my neighbour’s children using his records as makeshift pads for a game of Twister laid out on a white sheet in the living room, while the family dog was doing a grand job of converting his collection of 45 singles into a pile of shiny black shards.  The man with the BBC accent would have succumbed to a bout of apoplexy had he witnessed that.

If that wasn’t enough fun, there was plenty to be had from cassette tapes.  Those of a tender age like myself will fondly recall the moment of sheer elation when you took out a cassette tape from a machine to find that the cassette tape itself had formed a close attachment to the cassette mechanism and withdrawing the cassette was being closely shadowed by two thin brown strips of tape unraveling from the cassette’s reels as you pulled it out of the drawer.  Car tape players were the worst of all as there was a spring loaded door to the mechanism that would clamp onto the tape pretty firmly, causing creases in the tape as well for good measure.  Many was the time I would be forcing myself into the footwell of the car on my knees peering into the blackness of the mechanism hoping a swift blow would lift the tape off whatever was gripping it.  No chance.  Usually a yard and a half had wound itself around the pinch roller and the tape was playing PERFECTLY while the machine was positively embalming that small rubber roller with magnetic tape.  When the blow through the door failed, it was time to get the serious tools out, so what was available to the motorist in the glove box of the average car to wield against this vicious brute that had hold of your tape and was somewhat reluctant to let it go?  Pencils were good – if you had one.  A comb could produce mixed results.  The wheel brace was far too big of course as were fingers and talking of fingers, I wish manufacturers of the time could have realised on Health and Safety grounds alone that extricating fingers from these sprung loaded doors was a serious hazard to a person’s digits wellbeing and these blasted doors ALWAYS had sharp edges to them.  I could have sworn I once saw a group of firefighters surrounding a car and the ambulance crew taking away a man on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance with a cassette radio still attached to his fingers and blood dripping down the wires the firemen had to cut to release the machine from the dashboard.

The fun didn’t end their either;  assuming you had managed to get all the tape out of the machine safely without snapping it, you then had the enviable job of getting all that tape back onto the spools.  A three to six inch loop was a doddle, anything more than that was courting disaster in grand style.  A pencil (your best friend back then) could be used to ram into the drive spool and a steady rhythm on the fingers rolling the pencil could get the tape swiftly back into the case, but without that trusty pencil it was only a quarter turn at a time with the fingertips.  No matter how carefully you tried to keep it straight and fairly taut, that wretched tape would latch on to the gear stick, the handbrake, the indicator lever, the overdrive lever, the steering wheel height adjuster, you name, it the tape wanted to embrace and cling to it. At the end of all that painful struggle, you would often be bemused by the fact that on one spool the tape was right way up and the other spool had it upside down, or there was a knot that would baffle a master magician how it got there when both ends of the knot are tethered to a captive spool each end.

I have saved the best until last of course.  If the humble cassette could make your life an utter misery in a heartbeat and turn you into a gibbering wreck, that was nothing compared to what an 8 track tape could do to your sanity in a mere fraction of that time.  It too would disgorge many yards of magnetic tape into mechanisms and fresh air and the inevitable sprung loaded door on the player would wreak the same havoc as with a cassette machine, but and this is a huge but, how in the name of all that’s holy do you wind a tape onto just one spool on it’s own and that tape is endless to boot?     No matter which way you twiddled the drive gear, even more of it spilled out of the case into your lap.  Grrrrrrrrrr!  I always have been pretty handy with a set of hand tools and good at figuring out how things work to repair them, but I was once foolhardy enough to take one of these 8 track tapes apart and wished I never had done so.  Still have nightmares about it even now and I’m sure it gave me PTSD in the process as often I wake in the middle of the night with the same recurring dream of drowning in a sea of 8 track tape unspooled and tangled.  With a knot the middle.

If you are a person not of that tender age, then of course this is a mere glimpse of what things were like back in time and we can look back and laugh about it all now.  When you see a box full of cassette tapes and a tape player at a boot sale going cheap, then if you are wise you will shake your head and walk on by, safe in the knowledge that you have managed to avoid having a scar on your left buttock like I have from handbrake lever while fighting one of these infernal beasts.

So the next time your Bluetooth or wireless broadband signal drops out, or you cannot find your memory stick full of MP3 music because it’s hiding behind the settee cushions, or your earphoneds lead gets tangled up, cast your mind back to this article and be smug in the knowledge that you will certainly endure far less than we did back in the 70’s and 80’s in the name of audiophilia.

Dominic Marsh

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