My life as a tape-head

 

From unsplash.com / © Tobias Tullius

 

I was surprised to hear the news last month that the inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, had passed away at the age of 94.  Surprised because the audio cassette seemed such an elderly piece of technology to me that I’d assumed its inventor had been dead for many years, indeed, many decades already.

 

I used to love cassettes.  They were small, light and portable whilst at the same time durable and not vulnerable to the scratches and occasional breakages that bedevilled my vinyl records.  Though of course when their tape got caught in the tape-heads of a cassette player, having to free and unravel the ensuing tangle was a pain in the neck.  Much of my music collection consists of cassettes and I suspect I must have something in the region of a thousand albums in that format.  But, like most of my worldly possessions, they’ve spent the 21st century occupying boxes in my Dad’s attic in Scotland.

 

Cassettes seemed old-fashioned even in the days before the appearance of the compact disc, a type of technology that itself must seem prehistoric to modern youngsters brought up in a world of Internet streaming.  I remember in 2019 entering a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh and being amazed, and delighted, to find that it still had several shelf-loads of cassettes on sale.  (The shop was the Record Shak on Clerk Street and sadly, due to its owner’s death, it’s closed down since then.  But at least the Record Shak managed to outlive most of the other record shops that once populated south-central Edinburgh, like Avalanche, Coda Music, Ripping Records and Hog’s Head Music, so in its humble, durable way it was like the retailing equivalent of a cassette.)

 

I was such a tape-head that even during the 1990s, when the CD was supposed to have achieved market dominance, I still indulged in that most cassette-ish of pastimes – creating cassette compilations of my favourite music of the moment, which I’d then inflict on my friends.

 

I also made party cassettes.  For much of that decade I lived in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, was something of a party animal and would hold regular shindigs in my apartment.  My home was a typically modest, urban-Japanese one, consisting of two normal-sized rooms plus a little bathroom and toilet, but that didn’t prevent me from piling in the guests.  During one do, I did a count and discovered I’d squeezed 48 people into the place.  I even managed somehow to set aside one room as the ‘dance floor’.  And before each party, for the dance-floor room, I’d compile a few cassettes of songs that I judged likely to get the guests shaking a leg.  How could anyone not shake a leg when, in quick succession, they were subjected to the boisterous likes of the Cramps singing Bend Over I’ll Drive, the Jesus and Mary Chain doing their cover of Guitar Man, Motorhead with Killed by Death, the Reverend Horton Heat with Wiggle Stick, AC/DC with Touch Too Much and the Ramones with I Wanna be Sedated?

 

At the party’s end, if somebody complimented me on the quality of the music, I’d simply give them the party cassettes and tell them to keep them as souvenirs.  By the time of my next hooley, I’d have discovered a new set of tunes and slapped them onto some new cassettes.  Who knows?  Maybe those 1990s party cassettes are still being played at gatherings in Sapporo, where the partygoers are no longer young and wild, but grey and arthritic instead.  Surely they’d be considered priceless antiques today – the cassettes, not the partygoers.

 

Anyway, feeling nostalgic, I thought I would list here the most memorable cassette compilations that other people have given to me over the years.

 

© Factory

 

Untitled compilation – Gareth Smith, 1991

I never imagined that in 2021 I’d still be humming tunes performed by the now-forgotten New Jersey alternative rock band the Smithereens or the equally forgotten 1980s Bath / London combo Eat.  The fact that I am is due to a splendid compilation cassette that my brother put together and sent to me while I was working in Japan. Actually, the reason why I’m humming those tunes today is probably because they weren’t actually written by the Smithereens or Eat.  The Smithereens’ track was a cover of the Who’s song The Seeker, while the Eat one was another cover, of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

 

As well as featuring those, the cassette contained the epic six-minute club mix of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays.  No, this wasn’t a cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, but the Mondays’ impeccably shambling dance track that begins with a falsetto voice exclaiming, “Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!” and then proceeds with Shaun Ryder intoning such lyrical gems as, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re here to pull ya!”

 

On the other hand, the cassette contained the hit single Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones, which I thought was quite good and which induced me to buy their new album when I saw it on sale soon afterwards in my local Japanese record shop.  Big mistake.

 

Songs from Brad’s Land – Brad Ambury, 1991

Around the same time, I received a compilation cassette from a Canadian guy called Brad Ambury, who worked on the same programme that I was working on but in a different part of northern Japan.  I think Brad saw it as his mission to convince me that there was more to Canadian music than the then-popular output of Bryan Adams.  He must have despaired when several years later Celine Dion popped up and usurped Bryan as Canada’s number-one international musical superstar.

 

Anyway, he made this cassette a smorgasbord of Canadian indie and alternative-rock bands with quirky names: Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, the Northern Pikes, SNFU, Spirit of the West, the Doughboys and so on.  During the rest of the 1990s, whenever I was introduced to Canadian people, I’d waste no time in impressing them with my encyclopaedic knowledge – well, my shameless name-dropping – of their country’s indie / alt-rock musical scene.  All thanks to that one cassette.

 

Actually, stirred by curiosity 30 years on, I’ve tried Googling Brad and discovered he has a twitter feed that’s headed by the logo for the Edmonton ‘punk-country’ band Jr. Gone Wild.  So it’s good to know he hasn’t succumbed to senile old age and started listening to The Best of Bryan Adams just yet.

 

© Jr. Gone Wild

 

A Kick up the Eighties – Keith Sanderson, 1993

I must have received dozens of cassette compilations from my music-loving Scottish friend Keith Sanderson and this one was my favourite.  It even looked distinctive because, for a sleeve, he packaged it in a piece of flocked, crimson wallpaper.  As its title indicates, A Kick up the Eighties was a nostalgic collection of tunes from the then recently departed 1980s. These included pop hits, new wave and indie classics, Goth anthems and lesser-known tunes that were both ruminative and raucous: the Associates’ Party Fears Two, Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives, Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood, Aztec Camera’s Down the Dip and Girlschool’s Emergency.  The collection was disparate yet weirdly balanced, and even songs I hadn’t particularly liked before, such as Rush’s Spirit of Radio and UFO’s Only You Can Rock Me, seemed good due to their calibration with the music around them.

 

However, when I played this cassette at parties, I had to make sure I stopped it before it reached the final track on Side A.  For my friend Keith had sneakily inserted there, like a street-credibility-destroying booby trap, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

 

Japanese and English Guitar Pop – Yoko Koyama, 1994    

By the mid-1990s I was lecturing in a university in Sapporo.  My Japanese students there gradually came to the realisation that, despite being a curmudgeonly git, I had one redeeming quality, which was that I was into music.  So a steady stream of them presented me with cassettes of tunes they’d recorded, which they thought I might be interested in.  I can’t remember who presented me with a recording of the Flower Travellin’ Band, but well done that person.

 

A smart indie-kid in one of my classes called Yoko Koyama gave me a cassette compilation of what she termed ‘modern guitar pop’, i.e. melodic pop-rock stuff with lots of pleasantly jangly guitars.  Apparently, this was a sound that a few Japanese bands of the time, like Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, were into.  She’d interspersed their tracks with ones by what she described as four ‘English’ practitioners of the same sub-genre.  These were Teenage Fanclub and the BMX Bandits, from Bellshill near Glasgow; Aztec Camera, from East Kilbride in Lanarkshire; and the Trash Can Sinatras, from Irvine in North Ayrshire.

 

© Polystar

 

I expressed my thanks but observed with some bemusement that the four so-called English bands on the collection were actually all from Scotland.  Yoko smiled politely but said nothing.  However, a year later, she wrote a feature about this type of music for our faculty’s English-language students’ newspaper (which I edited) and made a point of talking about ‘Scottish guitar pop’.  So despite my multiple failings as a teacher, I managed at least to teach one fact to one person during the 1990s.

 

Guns N’ Roses bootlegs – the guy who collected my Daily Yomiuri payments, 1996

While living in Sapporo, I subscribed to the English-language newspaper the Daily Yomiuri, which is now the Japan News.  One evening every month, a young guy would arrive at my apartment door with the newspaper’s monthly bill, which I paid in cash.  (Direct debits didn’t seem to be a thing at the time.)  When I opened the door for him one evening, The Spaghetti Incident by Guns N’ Roses happened to be playing on my stereo.  The guy’s face immediately lit up and he exclaimed, “Ah, you like Guns N’ Roses?”  We then had an enthusiastic ten-minute conversation – well, as enthusiastic as my rudimentary Japanese would allow – about the gloriousness of Axl Rose, Slash and the gang.

 

A month later, when the guy came to collect my next Daily Yomiuri payment, I was immensely touched when he presented me with two cassettes, on which he’d recorded two Guns N’ Roses bootleg albums.

 

Okay, strictly speaking, these weren’t compilation cassettes.  But I’m mentioning them here as a testimony to the power of the audio cassette.  They allowed the Japanese guy who collected my newspaper-subscription money and I to bond over a shared love of Guns N’ Roses.

 

Yeah, beat that, Spotify.

 

From pinterest.com

They’ve got the biggest balls of them all

 

From twitter.com/acdc

 

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been the calendrical equivalent of a giant reeking pile of horse manure.  However, recently, amid the daily tsunamis of bad news, I saw a headline in the Guardian that performed the now-difficult feat of putting a smile on my face.  The headline was: AC/DC REUNITE, FEATURING THREE FORMER MEMBERS.

 

Yes, AC/DC – the proper AC/DC – are back.

 

After several years of disarray, the band has got back together with as near classic a line-up as is possible in 2020, with that famously cap-wearing and impeccably gravel-voiced Geordie Brian Johnson on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Phil Rudd on drums and Angus Young, presumably still in his schoolboy uniform, on lead guitar.  Alas, Angus’s brother Malcolm passed away in 2017 but their nephew Stevie Young has taken his place on lead guitar.  They’ve returned with a new album called Power Up, to be released in November, and a new single, A Shot in the Dark, which is available now and sounds like every song that AC/DC have done in the last half-century.  That’s an assessment that, as any bona fide fan of the band will tell you, is a compliment rather than a criticism.

 

AC/DC and I go back a long time together.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought.  The album starts with the title track and rarely have a set of opening chords sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH!  Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were single-mindedly determined to use their guitars to blow your arse off.  Which was surely what heavy metal, and for that matter, rock and roll itself, were all about.

 

Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse in Peebles, Scotland, one Friday when my parents were away for the evening.  Predictably, most of my guests turned up armed with copious and illegitimately purchased bottles and cans of booze.  They also turned up armed with AC/DC records.  Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening.  No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of dissolute and drunken teenage misbehaviour.

 

Incidentally, during the margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.  They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage.  After the discovery, the building contractor worriedly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.

 

From blabbermouth.net

 

Sadly, though with a horrible-seeming inevitability, AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning related to heavy-duty partying in 1980.  Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for Malcolm  and Angus Young, the band’s driving forces, considered calling it a day at this point.  Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further four decades.

 

It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album, 1980’s Back in Black, was a cracker.  It featured such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like ‘Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”  By now I was in my second-last year at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the upper-school common room.

 

The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events were happening in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time.  I soon tracked down and listened to their back catalogue  Their 1976 album High Voltage had an opening track called It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll, which exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes.  Despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots.  The same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap had a stonking title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls, whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best.”  Yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff.  Meanwhile, their 1978 album Powerage was identified by no less a personage than Keith Richards as one of his favourite records ever.

 

There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press of the time.  Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in the musical world, unlike their two favoured musical genres, punk rock and indie music.  For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.

 

This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who were fans of the likes of the Smiths, the Style Council and Simple Minds.  I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”

 

To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch; 1985’s Fly on the Wall; 1986’s Who Made Who, which was the musical soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive, writer and big AC/DC fan Stephen King’s ill-advised attempt to try his hand at directing a film; and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.  It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge.  Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck.  The latter track is so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it in their team coach every time they travel to their opponents’ stadium for an away game.

 

From bravewords.com

 

The band’s star was back in the ascendant too because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some overdue praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted.  Their sound is imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Beastie Boys and many more.  It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.

 

Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball.  As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ plays an important role in the AC/DC lexicon.

 

But the same year as the release of Rock or Bust everything seemed to go pear-shaped for the band.  First of all, they lost Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that year, the band parted company with Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after).  Then in 2016, Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, which he claimed was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his indulgence in auto-racing.  And in 2016 too Cliff Williams announced his retirement and played his supposedly final gig with the band.

 

What was left of AC/DC continued performing with Axl Rose, of legendary glam-metal band Guns n’ Roses, doing vocal duties.  Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses.  Indeed, their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) occupy prominent places in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice didn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.  Also, it didn’t help that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair thanks to a broken foot and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove.  This hardly seemed to bode well for the vitality of this weird new incarnation of the band.

 

Anyway, that’s all academic now because, thankfully, the real AC/DC are ready again to strut the world’s stages.  Well, once this pandemic comes to an end, whenever that will be.  Let’s hope that to the list of ghastly things to which AC/DC and their gloriously unchanging sound are impervious – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – we can add the coronavirus too.

 

© Albert Productions