Recording a visit back to the '80s (on cassette)

Recording a visit back to the '80s (on cassette)

For the past six-plus months, I have had the good fortune of hanging out in Bomont with the Wooster High School Drama Club and our production of “Footloose.” Aside from the creative rewards of watching students tackle demanding roles, always exceeding expectations, it has been a fun time revisiting the 1980s and reflecting on the days of my adolescence.

Recalling images and trends and styles and being asked a slew of questions — “what was high school in the ‘80s really like?” being the most common — forced me to immerse my consciousness in my youth, which is a much more pleasant experience when you know the visit is only temporary.

But for whatever reason, the first image that came to mind was my Sony Walkman. Probably a gift around my 11th or 12th birthday, I remember opening that box and taking in all the stylized glory of the device: its sleek black design, “WALKMAN” emblazoned in silver across the cassette case lid matching the silver play/rewind/fast forward buttons, and the glorious foam ear pads covering the pieces that bookended the headset, gently clamped to my head. It was a piece of technological wizardry.

My older brothers established a firm rule that stated choosing the musical selection that first emanated from a new piece of technology had to be chosen wisely; one could not simply grab any cassette tape to insert and listen to. It had to be a calculated decision. In the case of this Walkman, that cassette tape was Duran Duran’s "Seven and the Ragged Tiger," and the first song was “The Reflex” (note: all good “Duranies” know that song would be the album version, not the one remixed, produced and released by Nile Rodgers, providing Duran Duran with their first number-one single in the United States).

Looking back, I think the reason this gift was so memorable is because of the freedom it allowed. Children of the ‘80s were ruled by cords, mostly. Our one-phone household, albeit with a long cord so we could talk secretly on our stairsteps, limited our movements, as did our record player and boombox (who could afford six D batteries in those days?). When my oldest brother was eventually gifted the Intellivision Gaming System, we were stuck there too.

The Walkman, with its small design and less demanding four AA batteries, allowed for one to live the vagabond life, meandering the neighborhood as Billy Joel or Berlin or Men Without Hats blasted from the headphones. Moms could not tell us to “turn that music down” if they could not hear it themselves. The Walkman, at least to me, symbolized a sense of self-freedom prior to obtaining a driver’s license, which is the usual moment teens get to experience that taste.

The Walkman eventually led to better “everythings,” most notably the dual cassette stereo, which allowed one to record from tape to tape or radio to tape or record to tape. And making those mixtapes, a staple in so many of our lives in the 1980s, was a labor of love, symbolizing road trips, best-of’s and/or relationships where song lyrics, because of the inability to formulate coherent sentences around girlfriend crushes, better captured those powerful and memorable young feelings.

Ugh, and the hours spent typing the song lists on a typewriter and getting them to fit on the inside of the cassette case; and let us not even spend time worrying about the challenges of formulating the perfect title for the song compilations (although I do remember, after a silly sophomore year break-up, being quite proud of coming up with “Shattered Images”).

And if you were like me, you looked at the cassette tape and haphazardly guessed how much time you had left before it ran out, agonizing over finding the perfect song of the perfect length so it was not cut off before the tape came to its end (a huge faux pas in the mixtape creation world).

Listening to NPR a few weeks back, I learned Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer/inventor of the cassette tape, recently passed away at the age of 94. The story was so engaging it led me to Amazon Prime and the viewing of “Cassette: A Documentary” — the story of Ottens’ unheralded influence on the music industry. It is a must-see, for any fan of ‘80s music.

In the years leading up to his retirement in 1986, Ottens learned his invention not only changed the recording industry, but also provided millions of people around the world the chance to become their own DJ’s or recording artists. He is the reason we still have a recording of my grandmother, who passed away in 1982, singing “Happy Birthday” to my brother.

Well before the ease of digital downloads, Spotify or iTunes playlists, there was the mixtape and the time, energy and thought that went into making those perfect reflections of time. It is a hobby now making a resurgence.

“The people who use it (the cassette) nowadays, they are special people. They love their cassettes and mixtapes. It’s not really rational, hm? It’s a rather irrational activity. I like that,” Ottens said in the 2016 documentary.

Ultimately, my biggest take-away from my trip down nostalgia lane is how perfectly those songs capture a period in my life. The mixtape taught us how to use our own musical voice, even when the message came from someone else’s songs. And finding one's voice, especially as a teenager, can often be a challenging task. Thank goodness the cassette tape was around to help me find mine.

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load