It really was a low-tech iPod, popping up a whole quarter century before that “game-changing” gadget from Apple appeared on the scene. Because the Walkman was a game-changer, too. Before the Walkman, if you wanted to take your music on the go with you the only means was the socially impolite and physically unwieldy purveyor of noise pollution known as the monster boom box. The Walkman was much more portable and initially marketed towards people who enjoyed an “active lifestyle”–joggers, roller skaters and bicyclists. But soon, everybody wanted one.
Cassette tapes weren’t exactly a bottomless well of music–a full-length prerecorded cassette would give you about five or six songs a side, (much more if you were listening to Napalm Death!) while blank tapes would net you roughly two full-length LPs overall. That didn’t put quite as much music at your fingertips as a 160GB iPod Classic, but you could get around this by carrying around a Jansport backpack full of cassettes with you at all times. The marriage of cassette and player wasn’t always a peaceful one, either, every now and then the machine would “eat” a tape, splashing its innards outside its case in a horrifying tangle of brown tape.
Sound quality wasn’t the best. Even when nestled inside the precision-machined well of a Nakamichi Dragon, there were always major compromises in fidelity when using cassettes. In a portable device, imperfections like “hiss” “wow and flutter” and “total harmonic distortion” were even more pronounced. So it wasn’t like walking around with a miniature concert hall attached to your head. But neither is the iPod, which employs artificially compressed files delivered through tiny ear buds that probably aren’t much better than the cheap spongy headphones that came with the Walkman. So, examined this way, even through all these years, it seems like we’ve really only made gains in capacity since the heyday of the Walkman. And that isn’t much of a gain at all.
You can still buy pre-recorded cassettes at most independent record stores and Goodwill shops for a quarter apiece. And there are exactly 1,404 listings for Sony Cassette Walkmans on Ebay right this very minute! I think the answer is obvious. Long live analog!
The Brick. You would have had to have bricks in your head not to desire one of these in the latter part of the decade. With one of these in your grip, you could do anything. There was a kid I knew in college who had been bestowed with one by his rich parents and he got laid every night by a different girl. Because of the phone. He’d set it on his desk in class and when it would ring the teacher wouldn’t even yell at him but patiently put the lecture on hold until he was done. (Most of the calls were related to making plans for getting laid.) Restaurateurs would give him a window seat and a free meal, just so potential customers could see that his place of business attracted the most well-heeled clientele in town. Policeman stuffed already-written drunk and disorderly citations into their back pockets, choosing instead to drive this kid home in their squad car with just a verbal warning–all for the trade-off of allowing the officers to call their wives with the phone and ask “Guess where I’m calling you from?”
The age of mobile communication had arrived. It would evolve slowly at first, then ferociously snowball into the 24/7 “wired in” society we live in today. Some would say this clumsy device was the first step towards things “all going wrong.” I mean, sure we can email our boss that all important PowerPoint presentation from the top of a mountain we’ve just climbed and yes, girls and guys can both send racy pictures of their body parts to close friends to help break up said friend’s otherwise moribund day. But it’s not all good. No, not at all. I’ve seen raw footage of kids as young as five years of age literally tear a family Christmas tree apart when they realize they haven’t received the iPhone they had asked for. I’ve sat next to mental midgets watching UFC fights in a wooden pew during Midnight Mass. I’ve watched helplessly as a person was mowed down by a car while they were texting while crossing the street. And, oh my God and all His angels, have you ever heard about what a fella can get up to using an app they call Grindr???
Watching Gordon Gekko wielding his DynaTAC 8000x as a blunt instrument to break apart some regional airline company seems almost quaint now…
From our technologically-advanced perch here in 2014, 8-track tapes appear to us as a monstrous “bad memory”—a ridiculous object worthy of nothing more these days than being dragged out for a good laugh at some 70s retro party hosted and attended by yuppies of a certain age unabashedly smug about their ability to carry around their entire collection of Hootie and the Blowfish songs on a media player no bigger than the head of a pin. And while it is true the 8-track tape is more of a 70s phenomenon than an 80s one, the fact is this red-headed stepchild of music media managed to avoid extermination until 1988, primarily due to its continued production and sale via the Columbia House Record & Tape Club. Certainly you remember that highly selective, not-so-secret society based in Terre Haute, Indiana? For just a single penny new members would receive 13 cassettes or LPs or CDs or, yes, 8-track tapes, but these members would then be beholden to the club for the rest of their lives or at least until they bought a certain number more of musical recordings at the club’s regular price of $8.98 plus $14.95 “shipping and handling.”
Although pretty indefensible as a medium for high-fidelity musical playback, there was something solid and permanent-feeling about 8-track tapes. They were fairly big and bulky. The clunk between tracks resonated about the listening room with the significance of a Mercedes-Benz S Class door slamming shut. Plus, listeners had the added bonus of having all the songs rearranged from the order the artist originally intended. Even better, who didn’t enjoy hearing a few moments of dead silence IN THE MIDDLE of a cherished song followed by that familiar ker-chunk, and then the abrupt continuation of the song. Best of all, a lucky few with money enough to install a Sparkomatic or Kraco 8-track tape player in their car could take their tapes on the road for some truly mobile jammin’! Although if you left them on the dashboard for too long the label would fade into illegibility and the plastic case warp like a slice of melted Provolone.
Unleashing a torrent of words like the Old Testament Yahweh sending down the rain required to float the famous Ark, Drew Allan Kaplan was as prolific a wordsmith as they come. He also possessed a rare genius for uncovering, and then putting up for sale, only the choicest detritus of the Pacific Rim manufacturing juggernaut. If there was some purportedly space-age, poorly-engineered, “bells and whistles” junk to be found out there, his adoring public slept easily at night knowing Drew would soon have some full color pictures and hyperbolic written descriptions of it before long. Sent, through the U.S. Mail, directly to their home.
His products were real marvels for an incipient computer age. DAK readers could buy 700 slider graphic equalizers that sliced and diced music into hair-thin strands of sound, ultra-low frequency sub-woofers the size of a kitchen table, telephone spying devices that allowed users to snoop on just not their daughter’s conversations but their next door neighbor’s daughter as well, flimsy Olivetti daisy wheel printers that had been assembled by workers not good enough to make the cut at the notoriously shoddy factory at FIAT, home doorbell boosters that allowed musically-minded families to choose their doorbell ring from over 15,000 public-domain songs, or desktop pollution zappers that claimed to be able to gather and convert dust mites into glittering nuggets of pyrite. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
It went on for page after page after page and while it was a great read, most people had the wisdom to enjoy it for what it was and keep their checkbooks safely in the top desk drawer. However, there were also of plenty gullible misfits, impulsive pinheads and pound-foolish rubes who couldn’t control themselves and smashed their piggy banks to smithereens every time a new catalog thumped onto their welcome mat. These benighted souls are still out there today, desperately clicking away on banner ads proclaiming “85 YEAR OLD YOGA INSTRUCTOR’S ANTI-AGING SECRETS” and “HOT MILFS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD NEED SEX TONIGHT” whenever and wherever they pop up.
The technology of music recording is well over a century old–dating back to the late 1800s when ingenious pioneers used spools of wire to record the astonishing abilities of Caroliner the Singing Bull. Audio fidelity quickly progressed from those primitive methods, but at every step of the way, the pricing for pre-recorded music media always stayed within reach of every citizen with two ears to listen with. But in the 1980s, this all changed.
In 1983 anyone receiving income from a job, allowance or even a monthly welfare donation could easily afford to purchase a double-sided vinyl record (called an LP or “long player”). They listed for $8.98 and quite often the “street price” was even a dollar or two lower. Suddenly, from overseas, there came these discs—one-sided, mind you, so you were already getting half of what was offered before–with a list price of $18.98. And since it was a new, shiny thing (both literally and figuratively) people couldn’t get to the store fast enough to purchase these objects, whether they could afford them or not. (And most couldn’t). Worst of all, this new media was unplayable on the then current belt- or direct-driven turntables, so every single person who wanted to hear their favorite music had to shell out HUNDREDS of dollars on so called state-of-the-art CD “readers” with luminescent displays and cheap plastic drawers that slid in and out of the faces of these machines like the infernal bird of Hell’s very own cuckoo clock. But we were the ones who were cuckoo, for letting ourselves be so willingly bullied into submission by the pernicious overlords of Holland and Japan.
In the years since this medium’s introduction, the amount of money that has been wasted on these discs and the gadgetry that plays them would have been enough to feed and clothe every inhabitant on the planet three times over. And not only that, but clothed in designer clothes and fed with gourmet food. But times are changing, and for once it is a positive change. The age of the compact disc is finished. Digital songs (often called “mp3s” or “mp4s”) are available to everyone with a computer or smart phone and the standard pricing of 99 cents per song is something that everyone can afford. Meanwhile CDs are now almost exclusively found piled up in Goodwill stores selling for $1 or $2 apiece. Their prices have finally been brought down to a reasonable level, but it is too little, too late. No one wants them. Their true value has finally been revealed. And it is nothing.