My Years With The Cassette Tape

Updated: May 19

Compact Audio Cassettes, also known as just Cassettes or Tapes were introduced to the world, in the form we know them, in the early 1960s by Philips. They came into my life in the late 1970s, when I was in middle school, living in what was then 'Cochin Refineries Colony', in southern Kerala. It was a residential zone for the employees of Cochin Refineries and their families. Our school was within the sprawling colony, a piece of paradise of about 300 acres, encompassing two hills and the valley in between. It was full of dense greenery, a couple of hidden, largish ponds, and around 500 homes built with minimal intrusion into the existing foliage intertwined with roads winding as they went up and down, paths and ’short-cuts’ for us to get around. It was largely self contained, with everything from a stadium to parks, a full fledged clubhouse, badminton and tennis courts and a medical centre. The only compound wall, that too barely seen, was the one lining the periphery of the massive property, securing it from the outside world. Life in this beautiful place is an other blog in itself, maybe a series. There was a lot that used to go on there, with pretty much everything happening round the year - movies, sporting events, festivals, carnivals, magic shows, plays, and of course music. We had a music teacher who’d come to school to teach guitar, and I remember attending one class, the only formal music lesson I've ever taken in my life. Many of us children, teenagers, and young adults living in the colony were tuned into music. A few of us played or were learning to play some instrument or the other, the guitar being the most popular. The radio would be on most times at home, especially for broadcasts like Binaca Geet Mala, Fauji Bhaiyoon Ki Farmaish & Radio Ceylon. Me and my two sisters grew up listening to a wide range of music at home - from Harry Belafonte, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Ventures, Jim Reeves, The Beatles, The Carpenters and Village People to exponents of Indian Classical Music like Pt. Kumar Gandharva, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi (his Marathi Abhangs especially), the amazing music of the movies popular in those times, created by the likes of Naushad, O P Nayyar, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, S D & R D Burman, Madan Mohan and so on. My parents being music lovers, my father had somehow procured a Sony spool player and we also had a turntable, what was called a 'record player’ by us in those days. I don’t how my father sourced them, but he had built a tidy little collection of spools of prerecorded music, mostly Indian Classical. Music from around the world and those of Hindi Films were largely on vinyl records, finding their way to our home thanks again to our father, and to our Aunts & Uncles. My father sometimes used the spool player to record; I remember when I was maybe eight or nine, listening to a recording of me 'singing' Meri Sapno Ki Rani at the age of two or so. In this setting, suddenly appeared the ‘cassette’. While I’m not really sure which was the very first one, I clearly remember that Pop Music stormed into our lives with it. We soon had a two-in-one player (radio & cassette), with a built-in single speaker for output. Boney M, The BeeGees, Abba, Nazia Hassan’s Disco Deewane, and a collection of Disco Hits were some of the early ones. In no time, the spool player and the turntable lost favour with us and the cassette player became the musical centre point of our lives. All of us music buffs in the colony now had access to a growing pool of cassettes and the music they contained, thanks to our parents, cousins and relatives. It was the most magical time of my life - books, cassettes and friends, combined with the carefreeness of childhood & garnished with finding pure joy in simple things. 

Then the relocation to Bangalore happened in 1982. After moving us here, my father went off to work for a couple of years, first in Saudi Arabia & then Muscat before returning to Bangalore for good. His first visit home from ’The Gulf’ cannot be removed from my memory. Three things he brought with him among other gifts and household appliances remain clear in my memory - A Hitachi Stereo AM/FM/Cassette Player, Sony full size headphones, and Quality Street chocolates. With these my life changed forever. The chocolates disappeared quickly and I remember feeling absolutely stunned listening to stereo output for the first time, and then the headphones, which simply blew me away. I believe I actually heard the bass for the first time then. Even though us siblings had to share the player and the ‘phones, we didn’t squabble much as we were all totally into it, finding more music with new friends from school and the neighbourhood now giving a fresh turn to our lives. Then we discovered 'Sunny Library' a small cassette lending shop near home, run by ‘Johnny’ and this triggered a journey that pushed me towards becoming a musician. This place opened a whole new world of music for us. We were listening to and mesmerised by music that we hadn’t imagined existed! Poring over the paper inserts in the covers of the ‘original’ tapes, reading whatever information was contained in them - cover pictures, lyrics, credits. Some were thick with many folds and plenty to read, some just two sided, with an image or artwork on one side to serve as the cover with the song list printed on the other. Songs were listed under 'Side A', 'Side B' and the occasional 'Bonus Tracks'. In early players, at the end of Side A, one had to eject the tape, turn it around, place it back and then play it for Side B. The later ones had ‘auto reverse’, a super cool feature for us back then. You simply couldn’t skip to the song you wanted like you can these days. Again, in early players, you had to to stop the play function, hit either forward or reverse, make guesses to stop at appropriate points and hope for the best. Then it evolved to starting the song over again or playing the next song by hitting either forward or reversed with the play button pressed, and then to players featuring a little LED display where you could enter the track number (the one playing would be zero, so some quick counting was necessary), and the player would, most times, take you to it using the blank spaces between songs for reference. Some albums like Jethro Tull's 'Thick as a Brick' and Remixes like 'Stars on 45' gave you no such options though. Listening to music needed involvement, patience, time and the grace of god. They were an integral part of the experience.

By the time I was into my 11th & 12th Grades, Pre University College as it was known here, not too many days passed by without me and my friends listening to music at one of our homes. The Sony Walkman had made a massive entry by then and some of us had the luxury of owning one. I didn’t, and remember being envious of those who did. Those of us whose families owned cars during the time would remember the inconclusive debate of which was a better ‘car deck’, Clarion or Pioneer. To me, both sounded great as long as they had good speakers, and many of them! Meanwhile at college, we soon had a ‘band' and got a chance to perform at a college event. Suffice to say It was a horrible performance at best but we loved it; we had lived a dream of being on stage like our musical heroes, jackets, shades and all! A couple of us had tasted blood with this and went on to be a part of many more live performances as proper musicians in later years. Back to the tapes, they were now ruling many of our lives. The magical record function helped us make copies of song-sets to share (we didn’t know anything about piracy then), and also to randomly record audio both, musical and not, just for the fun of it. There was nothing else we could do with what we recorded other than listen, make others listen and generally feel good about it. Often, accidents would happen; an example - the tape wouldn’t have had the plastic safety ‘tab’ removed and someone would hit the record button instead of play, and by the time realisation kicked in, a good part of the song would get wiped out. Years after, I’ve had the occasional ‘Ah, so that’s how the song started’ moment, finally listening to some songs in full. The cassette tape played a huge role in making, influencing and breaking relationships as well, of the romantic kind and otherwise. From ‘customised’ song lists on expensive ‘metal’ (coated, not the music genre) TDK tapes for someone one liked or courted, to situations around ‘where’s my tape you *&!%%?’, ‘who asked you to give it to him?’, ‘throw your &^%&$#!! player out, this is my third tape it’s eating up’! The cassette tape held a lot of power in a music lover’s world and threw its weight around without any discrimination whatsoever. Another cool aspect was that you could write on the cassette sticker and the cover insert, and then replace them if you recorded something else over it.

Then engineering college happened and inside the first year, I got into the college rock band because I was willing to play bass (had never seen or played one before). The bass player had passed out of college and the band was looking out, not finding anyone who had or could play the instrument. Although I considered myself a ‘guitar player’, I grabbed the chance and have never regretted it. In hindsight, I’d probably have even agreed to play the cowbell just to get in. It was a really good band made up of my seniors who were naturally gifted musicians. They chose unusual, challenging songs for shows and invariably performed them like professionals. The first year of actually playing an electric bass, figuring out the songs and my parts was possible because of the hours & hours I spent listening over and over again to the songs on tape. Cleaning the ‘head’, fixing the ‘sponge’, replacing broken belts (a trip to SP Road was necessary to procure these), sticky rollers messing up the tape frequently were all a part and parcel of listening to music. Many a times, the tape got stuck so badly in the rollers and spindles of the player, that we had to chop and stick the ends together, a delicate operation that only a few were capable of. One needed really steady hands for it (and also to flip the tape over to listen to it play in reverse - a topic for another day). Huge collateral damage was quite common, large sections of songs, and sometimes entire songs ceased to exist, on both ‘sides’ of precious tapes. And thus it went on.

Through engineering and for a couple of years after, I played guitar and then bass for several city bands, with my last stint of the time ending sometime around 1994. Although I'd moved away from being a musician (until much later), I continued to listen to music on my walkman, and in my car as well. I had a amassed a pretty varied collection of music on tapes which I eventually lost track of when CDs became the norm. By the turn of the new century, my journey with the cassette tape had ended leaving behind plenty of warm nostalgia. I cannot deny that if not for cassette tapes, I’d have never taken to music the way I did, and my days of childhood and youth wouldn’t have been what they were. Rest in peace, you wonderful example of human creativity and innovation, your contribution to the cause of music worldwide can never be appreciated enough. There are millions of us around the world who knew you well, and keep you safely and fondly in our memories.

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