The other day my wife and I were reminiscing about the songs that we both enjoyed listening to during our youth in the car when Ryan (my 10-year-old son) leaned forward and asked:
“What’s a cassette?”
“It’s the small square thingy with that long string coiled inside”, his sister offered an explanation. “I loved to pull it out!”, she added as an afterthought. (We still had a few cassettes lying around the house when my daughter was a tiny tot so she knew what they were; by the time Ryan came along, they had been thrown away).
“It wasn’t a string!”, I said.
The cassette reminds me of an era gone by. My youth was centred around the cassette, the only source of ‘cool’ music then (the radio sucked – as it still do today). I remember buying my first cassette when I was twelve. It cost me a fortune – RM 3 for a ‘generic’ cassette (that’s a fortune in those days when my daily pocket-money was only 20 sen). An original cassette would cost between RM 12 – 15. My first cassette contained a compilation of Abba’s greatest hits.
I fell in love with Abba then, and Air Supply, and the Bee Gees and John Denver (ya, ya, I know…quite cringe-worthy).
A typical cassette held about 60 – 90 minutes of music, typically around 10-12 songs. Those days I would compile a list of songs that I liked and then pedal out on my old trusty bicycle to ‘June Music’, a music store near my house where I’d surrender the list to the lady at the counter, pay her some money (typically RM 10 or so) and she would then source for the songs I liked and record them onto a brand new cassette. I would return a few days later to collect the precious new acquisition.
To listen to music, a cassette player was needed. My dad wouldn’t buy us one and so, during the school holidays, I made some extra pocket-money working in shopping malls or factories. My first ‘boom’box’ was a black Toshiba Mini-compo bought with my own hard-earned money when I was 15. It allowed me to not only expand my own collection of music on cassettes, it also allowed me to annoy the blinking daylights out of my family and everyone within a 500 meter radius from my home with loud music blasting from my boom-box.
Listening to music on the cassette was tricky. Since the tape only moved forward, if I wanted to listen to a particular song again, I’d have to rewind the cassette – hence in most cassette players those days, there was a counter built into the console – I had to remember at which number a song began so that I could rewind the cassette to that particular spot if I wanted to hear it again.
Rewinding a cassette using the mini-compo was a long tedious process – especially if the tape is extra long and the desired song was at the beginning of the tape! In order to speed things up, sometimes it was faster to just remove the cassette from the player, stick a pen or pencil into one of the holes in the cassette and do a rapid twirl – rotating the cassette on the pencil rapidly! (People from my generation would understand what I mean).
Over time, iron oxide from the cassette tape would accumulate on the player’s ‘head’ which would muffle the music – so I had to clean the ‘head’ frequently using a cotton-bud soaked in ethanol. It’s not an ideal solution because eventually the ‘head’ would be caked in so much dirt that it was impossible to remove all of them and so I had to contend with listening to inferior music.
Then came the Sony Walkman which allowed me to take my music anywhere I went. I got myself a Walkman when I went to med school. It was my pride and joy (it cost a bomb – my mum bought it for me). Of course, I didn’t realize I was lugging something the size of a brick by today’s standard – back then it was cool. It wasn’t cool when my senior borrowed my Walkman and broke it – which left me miserable and music-less for a while! Thankfully a junior gave me his mini-compo because he got a better one – to be stuck in India for years without a cassette player would be tragic.
And of course cassettes didn’t last very long. After a while, the music recorded on it would fade, or the tape would get ‘rusty’ with accumulation of iron oxide or fungus would grow on the tape (during the Indian monsoon, fungus grew on practically everything I owned!) or perhaps by mishap, the tape would get stuck in the player and the whole rim of tape would become undone when I yanked the damn thing out!
I think my interest in music waned with the advent of CDs and the eventual demise of the cassette. CDs were priced far beyond my budget (typically priced at RM 35-40 – strangely the price hasn’t changed much all these years).
Now, my son has an MP3 player smaller than the size of an Oreo biscuit which can store up to a thousand songs and capable of playing high-definition music over and over and over again till the cows come home (or at least until the battery dies) without any loss of quality. Even this will become obsolete as cloud computing is being embraced by more and more people.
Perhaps someday, my grandson would lean over and ask his dad this question:
“Dad, what’s an MP3 player?”