Cassettes to some could be seen as a thing of the past. A symbol of twee 80s pop culture sprayed out in neon across clip shows, compilations and cheesy T-shirts. A format forever exiled and only ever to be seen in cars amongst spare change and rolling tobacco.
Vinyl, with its silky-smooth artwork and luxuriously deep waxy beauty may be everywhere from your local charity shop to the nearest branch of Sainsbury’s, with major artists such as Adele and One Direction etched intricately into its grooves, but cassette tape is a whole different world.
Trapped inside those two reels of magnetic tape could be anything. From harsh shoegaze to feminist punk inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the grey-tinted translucent plastic rectangles provide a physical space for music that otherwise could go unheard. Cheap to make and manufacture, the cassette is thriving, proving the physical format of choice for the broke, the disenfranchised and the truly wonderful. In the right hands they are works of art in their own right, a statement, a means of producing music in a physical format within a world which so heavily relies on streaming for its greedily-placed consumerist devouring. A symbol of impermanence, and those short-lived, almost secret thrills.
In honour of this most DIY of formats, and with the wonderfully eccentric Cassette Store Day just around the corner (set to happen on 8th October), we thought we’d raise a toast to cassette culture and those who cultivate it. In recent years, the success of labels like California’s Burger Records – which has spawned a full-on festival (Burgerama) and record store – and Jen Long’s Transgressive Records offshoot Kissability has popularised the format so that a new generation of music lovers can impart their own obsessions on it. From artists to labels, we scoured the local scene for the most interesting voices who have embraced this culture – but you have to look a little further than HMV or the O2 Academy to find them. To find Liverpool’s tape culture you have to dig a little deeper: step out of the centre of town and into hidden, dingy back rooms and old pubs, away from the mass-consumed stuff.
Gigs at Maguire’s act as an agar dish for this tape life, providing a breeding ground for music that’s a bit more off the beaten track. Whether that be noisecore, shoegaze or garage punk, you’re sure to find the freshest, rawest sounds in the venue’s back room, where you can fully expect to have your ears pushed to the limit. This is, perhaps, the spiritual home of our first label of choice, HAIL HAIL RECORDS. Founded by Sam Banks, the label have been hosting gigs in the backroom of Maguire’s for a few years now, giving people their first taste of local favourites such as the manic OHMNS and increasingly popular noir pop collective Oh Well, Goodbye, alongside producing limited runs of tapes. Perhaps due to this coupling of promoting live shows and wanting to spread that message, Hail Hail seem to have mastered the art of capturing the atmosphere of their gigs on tape. As though they have caught the sound in the room itself, the listener can play out the gig once home lying in a darkened room while the sounds reverberate with a brooding moodiness and attitude. Hail Hail, like a lepidopterist pushing pins through butterflies onto velvet display boards, collect the sounds that so few are privileged enough to hear, and expose them to larger audiences. With releases from the likes of Merseyside surfgazers Echo Beach, as well as putting on bands from across the UK and US, Hail Hail provide a voice for the voiceless; a label made for the bedroom, in the bedroom.
Sam explains the links between cassette and the scene: “We think there’s definitely a subcultural element about cassettes, it runs deep within the DIY music scene and ethos. While the vinyl market is growing again and becoming more mainstream, so to speak, the cassette market is developing more of an underground, cult following. So it can feel like being part of an exclusive club, like you’re going off the beaten track, where you’ll find real gems hidden away on cassette tapes.”
“While music ownership is dominated by the digital realm, music lovers still lust for a physical copy of their favourite records,” continues Sam, highlighting another important point of the culture. Despite living in an age that’s rife with piracy and streaming, nothing quite beats the feeling of touching, feeling and playing physical music. It’s very easy to throw on Spotify, but sometimes you just need that crackle, that clunk, that click which provides an authenticity not satisfied by the tapping of keyboard keys and the tinny speakers of a laptop. As Sam says, “Cassettes offer an accessible and affordable form of psychical music compared to that of vinyl. The analogue format fits the ethos of our label and fits the sound of the bands that we put out. Analogue provides a better, purer sound to that of digital; nothing is lost in translation.”
Another label known to lurk behind the iconic bookcase of Maguire’s is BLAK HAND. Perhaps the largest tape label in the North West, Blak Hand offer up some of the most exciting psych and garage bands from the region. From the debaucherously riotous Strange Collective to cult legends The Stairs, the label have been releasing cassettes that seem to almost be sealed with THC. So it seems only suitable that, alongside their range of tapes, they also sell grinders (for tobacco only, of course). “We are not limited to psychedelic music as a label, but certainly this type of music promotes the idea of thinking outside of the box, and letting the imagination soar,” explains head of label Brit Williams, and she’s completely right. Taking a listen to Strange Collective’s nightmare-inducing fuzz epic Super Touchy on cassette is like plugging the devil himself into your loud speakers. Equipped with that added layer of distortion, the song receives an additional layer not before heard. Filtered through those vintage imperfections of magnetic tape, the track could belong on a release by the likes of The Monks or Screaming Lord Sutch.
However, inexpensiveness and sound are not the main reasons for Blak Hand’s choice of cassettes. “The whole nostalgic factor of cassettes is the reason we chose to release them instead of vinyl. Setting aside the major price differences in production costs, cassettes put a smile on a music lover’s face. They remind us of a simpler time, whether it was recording a mixtape for our high school crush, or recording songs off the radio. There’s a connection there somewhere for everybody.” This raises a very real and honest point. For both Generations X and Y, brought up on the format, there seems a childlike hope to keep it alive. Less expensive than vinyl and with more soul than a CD, cassettes juxtapose nostalgia with the joy of new music. “Music fans have reverted to loving the sound flaws in vinyl, and really value the work that goes into creating a record, which is why throwing on a psych cassette brings the listener closer to the music,” says Brit.
Beyond nostalgia, cost and the love of physical music, perhaps the most important thing about cassettes is community. “One thing Blak Hand promote is networking within the DIY scene. Without the help of our friends and fans spreading the word about what we do, it really wouldn’t be possible.” This epitomises the importance of the ‘scene’. It’s no hipster wet dream in search of something more obscure than vinyl; it is, in fact, a network for those without big ‘insider’ connections. A means for both fans and musicians to connect, to find a voice and, most importantly, to make and enjoy music.
Blak Hand release the compilation cassette Hide And Psych for Cassette Store Day this year, and you can find a playlist of their various releases streaming now on bidolito.co.uk.