A rustle of the stylus on the vinyl, the play/rec and pause buttons ready to go, and the recording could begin. When songs from different records alternated, the more refined eliminated the moments of silence between one song and another with home mixes, fading or increasing the volume. The product of the operation was the cassette where titles and bands were noted, sometimes with a display of discrete graphic skills. At the dawn of digital downloads and playlists are these ultra-analogue tapes that are 60 years old, the ones that separate us from when Philips patented the audio cassette, in 1963. C-45 and C-60 – ideal formats for albums complete -, up to C-90 or less frequent C-120, codes indicating the minutes to be filled with music. Millions of kilometers of black tape that sometimes ran aground, forcing exhausting manual rerolling, drained a musical sea coming from records and radios, which people called to request the piece to be recorded… Everything was perfectly legal, but even the walls knew that audio cassettes sold for a few lire in shops and supermarkets bypassed the music market allowing the multiplication of home-made copies.
The kids at the turn of the 70s and 80s were divided between a small elite of teachers, equipped with stereo systems but above all with a musical knowledge superior to their classmates, and a less savvy majority, but at least curious to hear unknown songs. The musical education of various generations, until the advent of the CD which swept everything away in the 90s, including vinyl, has passed from this game between keys and stylus. The whimsical conceived the succession of pieces trying to give a sense – genre, mood or atmosphere – to the final composition. Who did it out of friendship, who to make themselves look good, and who for erotic-sentimental reasons: what, better than a successful assembly of romantic songs, to try to break someone’s heart?
In the short Bildungsroman that is the adolescence of each of us, the pupils who had been addicted to the cassette dealers at some point grew up, they made the stereo and gave themselves to the same activity. The most frequent destination was the portable system of the car that Toto Cotugno made immortal in the image of the “true Italian” with the stereo under his arm. That was the true realm of boxes, the cockpit of the car, in the memory of dashboards overflowing with plastic wrappings made to splinter or close badly. Since listening to the radio is adventurous due to the chaotic alternation of stations on the same frequency, home-made music from tapes was the best solution, especially for long journeys.
When the walkman arrived in the 80s (the first example sold in Japan by Sony in 1979), it was triumph for the cassette: goodbye to the traditional cassette player, the “mangetto” that many kids had at home, and green light to wandering listening in a general flourishing of caps on the head. The circulation of the tapes was more impetuous than ever, with the growth of a parallel market – this one largely illegal – of concert recordings that ended up on the stalls: in London in the early 80s there were cassettes of Siouxsie and The Banshees and other new bands wave, certainly not high fidelity, but still precious live tracks for diehard fans. Much less demanding and expensive than the “bootlegs”, the illegal concert vinyls, and within the reach of anyone who opens the microphone of a Walkman during a live performance. The sounds often distorted on the highs and lows, but in the meantime you took home the concert.
Today there are remains of analogue archeology only on cars registered up to the mid-2000s, or in old home stereo systems, but otherwise the cassettes are unusable. Among magnetic tape fetishists, collectors and simple nostalgics, however, some cassette tapes still go around, bringing back that background noise which, by dint of listening, grew until it suffocated the recorded sound. Yes, because cassettes deteriorated quickly and even suffered from the heat of the car exposed to the sun, so they lasted what they lasted, but always longer than the CD lasted, which was in turn disintegrated by online music. Ironically, now that everything is in the virtual cloud drawn from mobile phones, playlists are appearing that vaguely recall the old tape compilations.