Lookback: My Mixtape Days – Inventor of the Cassette Tape Dies at 94

unnamed

I got up one day last week, as I thankfully do every day, and I checked the news. I’m not a morning person so there’s no TV involved. I prefer a lot of silence in the morning so I just checked on-line. I was scrolling through headlines and I noticed a Dutch gentlemen named Lou Ottens had died at the age of 94. He was a scientist and inventor for the Philips company. In my still sleep riddled mind I couldn’t help but think, big deal some scientist passed in the Netherlands. I kept scrolling, still half-asleep drinking hot coffee as quickly as the scalding liquid would allow, when I stopped and went back to the Ottens’ article. It was then that I saw that Lou was the inventor of the cassette tape. Oh man, that took me back. In this age of streaming and MP3s people forget what a revolution cassettes were. Portable music was a reality. We weren’t all chained to the home stereo any more. 

Prior to Mr. Ottens’ invention, other than vinyl the only way to consume music was on those bulky reel-to-reel tapes, but lets be honest only beatnik, jazzbo types owned reel-to-reel tapes. I have an image of groovy dudes in black turtlenecks and shades even though they’re indoors, smoking joints and talking about Miles Davis’ feel as In A Silent Way spools through the reel-to-reel player. Although as I type that sentence I’m reminded that my father-in-law owned a reel-to-reel player and as a rancher/farmer he was only into country music like C.J. McCall…”Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy…” Gads. His reel-to-reel gear was long gone by the time I came along but I would have loved to hear what that sounded like. 

In an attempt to make music more portable, the industry had tried a more “compact” tape version of the album on the now legendary 8-track tape. If you couldn’t get a turntable into a car, by God, lets try 8-tracks. A lot of people jumped on the 8-track bandwagon, thankfully I was not one of them. First of all, I never thought they were very compact. They were the size of a small paperback novel. My buddy Brewster had an 8-track player in his car and we’d listen to Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan all the time. I thought it was because Brewster loved that album but looking back it may have been the only 8-track he owned. I could never figure out 8-tracks. It was years before I learned what the actual playing order of that Cheap Trick live album was. 

Enter Mr. Ottens and his magic cassettes. I’ll be honest, I was a vinyl guy from the start. I only purchased two albums on proper cassettes. I purchased AC/DC’s Highway To Hell on cassette because I wanted to listen to that album in the car. I actually bought that LP on cassette for the reason they were invented – so you could take your music anywhere and you were free from having to have a turntable which would have been hard in the car considering what a reckless driver I was (am?). I also bought Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass on cassette prior to that because I saw that was how a lot of people were buying albums and I thought I was missing out on some sound sensation. Was there something I was missing? Well, no but it was still a nice portable way to consume music. If you were tired of your local radio station – or if you lived in a godforsaken place like Ft. Smith, Arkansas with terrible radio – you could just pop in a cassette and magically you were listening to your own music, arranged how you wanted it. 

The real magic in cassettes were the blank cassettes that allowed you to record anything you wanted to. It was indeed, a blank canvass. There were so many different brands of cassette tapes. Early on I purchased strictly TDK brand but quickly “upgraded” to Maxell who had an infinite number of different types of cassette tapes, each one of a higher quality than the last. Cassettes would hold 90 minutes of music – 45 minutes on each side. The average album back then was around 40 minutes, usually less. If it was a Van Halen album it was more likely 30 minutes long. You could put 1 album per side and leave the last bit of tape blank or you could add your own “bonus tracks” by the same artist at the end. Each tape had a small lead tape that wouldn’t hold music but was there to protect the cassette when fully rewound. You had to be careful if you were recording on vinyl that you’d gotten past those 10 seconds of lead tape or you’d cut off the first few seconds of the first track. The struggle was as real as the skills you needed to create a good tape recording. 

In the early days of my cassette taping, I was merely trying to collect music that I hadn’t purchased (for free). Cassette tapes were the early Napster, I suppose. My brother who had a crate full of albums before I’d even purchased my first album was my first source. I remember going into his room and plugging a cassette into his stereo – it was a turntable/radio/cassette tape all in one – and declaring I was going to tape some Beatles, but only the “good songs.” After filling up two whole cassettes to quote the movie Jaws, I realized, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” My mother had a friend, who  I’ll call Mrs. Smith, who had kids my age and my brother’s age. She brought over a stack of albums for me to tape that her kids owned. I’m still unsure why that happened. I think Mrs. Smith was trying to be cool. She appeared one day holding a can of beer with a cigarette dangling from her lips and handed me a stack of the heaviest metal I’d ever heard. Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Judas Priest… it was all too heavy. I was listening to blues rock… the Stones, ZZ Top, Foghat. I’ve always wondered what the hell was happening over at the Smith’s house. It was extraordinarily nice of her to share her kids’ music even though they were probably using it during human sacrifices, or so I wondered back then. I’ve grown to love metal but hey, I was 13 years old. 

After cannibalizing other people’s albums on cassette the thing that probably accelerated my cassette use was the Sony Walkman. I got a Walkman for Christmas one year and it really changed the way I listened to music. I had headphones on my home stereo, but to be able to pop a cassette in the Walkman and actually leave my room to wander around while tunes played was mind blowing back then. I remember walking around in a snow storm, we’d been let off school, and listening to Yes (The Yes Album) and feeling my brain expand. 

Pretty soon, with my cassettes I realized you didn’t have to be so linear in your thinking. You could mix up artists or songs from one artist on the cassette. You could mix music… ie, the mixtape finally occurred to me. My music collection had expanded to the point where I had enough Aerosmith LPs or Skynyrd LPs that I could cherry pick the tracks I liked from them from each album and put them on 1 cassette. I was making my own “greatest hits” album. I remember sitting in front of my first stereo, surrounded in a semi-circle of albums resting gently on their sleeves and rotating albums on and off the turntable as I carefully hit “record” or “stop.” If a band had a double-live LP, I’d typically use that as my guide to building a 2-sided 90 minute collection of their music. I had friends who made copies of my “greatest hits” mix tapes as by then the cassette industry had created the dual tape deck that allowed you to copy a cassette to another cassette… 

Eventually, even rock and roll nerds get girlfriends. By the time I was in college I was making the dreaded mixtapes for girlfriends. You always tried to find a song that said what you didn’t have the courage to say yourself. “You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel…” as the movie says. Mind you, my mixtapes were never terribly sappy. Often times it was just stuff I knew the lady liked. She’s into Sting, here’s a mix of Sting and the Police. I often tried to turn women onto the music I dug. It was always important. If she rejected my music, wasn’t she rejecting me? I know people think they’re doing much the same when they were burning CDs or putting together playlists on Spotify, but there was nothing like the engineering the perfect mixtape. There was no shuffle. The order you put the songs in was really, really important. I’ve always loved the scene from the movie High Fidelity where John Cusack explains the theory behind a great mixtape because it’s so accurate…

Nick Hornsby who wrote the novel this movie is based on is a real hero to the music nerd in me. 

I have an ex out there somewhere who now teaches yoga who occasionally emails me to thank me for turning her onto good music. I did a lot of that with the dreaded mixtapes. I actually used a mixtape to break up with someone in the early 90s… As I recall I started that tape with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Not my finest moment. I’ve even made tapes for some friends of mine way back when. I have a friend I met when I first moved to Arkansas who had no money and coveted my deep album collection. I’d tape stuff I thought he’d dig – Clapton, the Band, the Allman Brothers – and so on… I wonder what ever happened to those things… Although if I had one of those mixtapes, I couldn’t play it. As times have changed and technology has shifted, the Rock Chick forced me to finally give up the cassette player. The only cassettes I still own are some Springsteen bootlegs from the way back machine. Oh, but I do miss those wonderful afternoons in front of the stereo with a stack of vinyl on the floor and a blank cassette in the stereo… Simply glorious. 

I’m glad Mr. Ottens came along and invented the cassette. It gave me many countless happy hours. I try and share music now via playlists but there was something so intimate and personal about sharing your music with someone back when I was younger and the mixtape was my medium. The mixtape was the way I took something that was so personal – listening to music – and turned it into something more public to be shared, to help bring me closer to people, friends and lovers. Maybe I was just practicing for this blog. The mixtape will always be a part of my rock and roll experience and enabled me to start sharing music and my experiences with it that I will hold onto fondly for as long as I’m able to hit “play.” 

R.I.P Mr. Lou Ottens. Cheers!