Vale the audio cassette and its inventor

Did you know the Dutch engineer and inventor of the audio cassette died last week?

Image courtesy: The Express Tribune

95 year old Lou Ottens revolutionised music as the Baby Boomer generation knew it. Suddenly, the music of our choice was portable. Freed of clumsy big records and phonograms, we could now play music in our cars and in our Walkmans.

And you could compile your own cassette of the music you liked simply by recording off your records onto the cassette. Remember the tape would get loose and you’d have to spool the tape with a pencil?

We owe a great debt of thanks to Lou Ottens. Backed by the Philips Company, he took the reel-to-reel idea but enclosed the tape. Better than that, he waived the rights so everyone would accept the technology.

The cassette has long been supplanted by compact discs and online audio streaming but countless little clear plastic boxes remain in attics, basements and old cupboards around the world.

ABC broadcaster Mark Bannerman came across such a ‘treasure trove’ when moving house - a draw full of Cream, REM, Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones.

As he wrote on ABC Online, “What to do with them?" Or to (nearly) quote The Clash, "Should they stay or should they go?"

Over to Mark to tell us what he did next

Picture this. I am first year out of school. We're heading down the coast and as we made the turn into Bendalong, my mate Geoff Parsons pulls out his cassette player with an entire album of The Grateful Dead. It didn't end there either. After a surf he played us a Jefferson Airplane album. Did it get any better than this?

Up until that point the relationship between music and the audience was simple. You could listen to it when it was played live. You listened at home if you were lucky enough to have a record player and the means to buy records. Or, you took what you were given, on what were mainly transistor radios back then.

Not any more though. Ottens' invention meant you could buy blank cassettes and record your own music.

The thing is that sometimes you got more than you bargained for by putting very different artists together. Sometimes it worked. Suddenly Simon and Garfunkel got to meet the Byrds, or Love on the West Coast of America teamed up with The Velvet Underground.

Sometimes it didn't work

I can remember going up the coast and listening to a mixed tape back in 1977. For some reason I had interspersed rock music with Charlie Parker. The impact on everyone in the car was like they'd been hit by a hammer, every time Parker's horn set to work, there was a palpable sense of sadness that invaded the car. It's impact was so profound Charlie was banned for the rest of the trip.

Keith Richards was given a brand spanking new cassette machine. Placing it carefully by his bed he fell asleep, only to wake up (well sort of, it was the '60s, after all) in the middle of the night, play the riff that runs through (I Can't Get No), Satisfaction, then fall back to sleep without turning the machine off.

Next day, wondering why the cassette was at the wrong end, he re-wound it and played it back. There was the riff and another 40 minutes of snoring. It wasn't the only time he employed the technique, but it certainly was right up there with the moon landing (in my book, anyway) when it came to ingenuity.

Walkman highlight

Perhaps the high point of the cassette came with the Sony Walkman. Remember the '80s — complete with leg warmers, Jane Fonda exercises and earbuds attached to a cassette player.

So, what did I do with that drawer of old cassettes?

By the way that drawer of cassettes that I found just before moving? Well, I have to admit they got turfed. Sad really, but such was our premium on space in the place we were moving to they just had to go.

I still think about them. And I have to admit I did keep one: Disraeli Gears by Cream.

The last track is called Mother's Lament. In the song a mother is washing her baby, which is so "skinny and thin", it should have been washed in a jug. When she lets the bathwater out the baby goes down the plughole.

In true music hall fashion the last lines of the song delivered by the entire band says, "Your baby is perfectly happy, he don't need a bath anymore, he's a mucking about with the angels above, not lost but just gone before."

Vale Mr Ottens, and long live the cassette.

Source: ABC News