25th June 2020

Culture / Featured / Jimmy Sandison

The Cassette Tape: A Labour of Love

13 4 mins 0

OOriginally developed by Philips in 1962, the cassette tape’s ‘cultural moment’ really took off after the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979. By the mid-1980s, it had overtaken vinyl and was the most popular audio format in Britain until the early 90s, when CDs snuck into the spotlight.  

Although perhaps a short-lived period in mainstream popularity, the cassette tape made a big impact. They were small, cheap and portable, allowing people to take their music anywhere with ease for the first time. All new cars were fitted with a tape deck. This was the era of the Boom Box, of the raw and unrefined sounds of a home-made mix tape; music was personal and shareable.

As with the majority of ground-breaking inventions, it was the cassette’s innovative features that were met with the most controversy within the music industry. Shoplifters could easily slip a cassette tape into their pocket and walk out unnoticed. To fight this, retailers placed the tapes inside restricted containers or locked display cases, which significantly inhibited browsing and reduced cassette sales.

This was the era of the Boom Box, of the raw and unrefined sounds of a home-made mix tape; music was personal and shareable.

Jimmy Sandison

The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), created an anti-copyright infringement campaign with the slogan, “Home Taping is Killing Music”, taking aim at people who were recording songs off the radio, instead of purchasing records. Of course, this created a surge of parodies and creativity from the post-punk crowd, such as Bow Wow Wow, who released their cassette single with a blank B-side that urged listeners to record their own music. The Dead Kennedys repeated the blank B-side windup with, In God We Trust, Inc, printing the message, “Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help”.

It was also their size and ease of copying that helped smuggle underground rock and punk music through the Iron Curtain, creating a foothold for Western culture among the younger generations of East Germany.

Whereas vinyl has long been recognised as an object of beauty and a collector’s item, the understated cassette has discreetly remained part of the grunge and DIY culture, cherished for its imperfections.


We asked for your cassette memories and the answers came flooding in. It was obvious from the responses, how the little tape holds dear memories close to peoples’ hearts.

@jimparkyn “Trees being swathed in the unspooled tape where someone had a musical disaster!”

@notjustaprettyplate “Obviously half-holding down the pause button so every artist sounded like the Bee Gees.”

@adventuresingreyandgreen “Making mixtapes for loved ones (and potential loved ones).”

@adventuresingreyandgreen “Recording off the radio, fingers at the ready at the end of each song, just in case.”

@leady_fern “My first album was on cassette: ‘Spice’ by The Spice Girls.”

@shethoughtaboutit “Hitting the record button on Sunday’s Top 40. Good times!”

@trgladstone “I remember recording S Club 7 with my sister in her room and it taking ages. But we loved it!”

@grumpybearmum “I still have my ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ first cassette.

@ieatbees “It getting unravelled and using a pencil to wind it back up. Never quite sounded the same.”

@ceri_shone85 “Having a homemade mixtape run out halfway through a song.”

@nellieandeve “Battery cassette player in my Mini Clubman estate because it didn’t even have a radio!”

@anthonyoram “’Hit The F**king Road Vol 1’ a mixtape we used to make our mates.”

@tequile_mockingbird_ “Recording and pausing as my life depended on it when Radio 1 played the top ten.”

@drinkcupboard “Getting dad to drive around with the car radio one so I could record the charts on tape.”

@signsbyumberto “I would buy cassettes with a gift voucher from my paper round.”

@signsbyumberto “The Inspiral Carpets LIFE album.”

@mattcoyne “Recording Gary Davies chart show every Tuesday lunchtime before I ran back to school.”

@sophievpitt “Right Said Fred #deeplydipp.”

@leejohnphilips “Sony Walkman released a mat black and totally opaque cassettes. Oooof!”

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Jimmy Sandison

Jimmy Sandison is passionate about the climate, food sustainability, design, craft and equality, which makes her quite a good fit as the editor of Some Good Ideas.

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