Saturday, November 12, 2016


Recording tape has always been a part of my life, right from when I was still in the cradle and my dad's reel-to-reel deck was capturing my baby voice. But when cassettes entered my world, I knew right away I'd found a friend for life. It began sometime around '73 or so, when my parents gifted me with my very first cassette player. It was one of those old Panasonic portables with the handle on the bottom and just one speaker on top. My first recordings were pretty much just me acting goofy, as I had yet to develop any real talent, but I quickly caught the tape bug just the same. Even before I could sing or play an instrument, though, I was trying to be musical. All of these initial attempts are now lost forever, but honestly, you wouldn't want to have heard them anyway.

It was through the big brother of an elementary school friend that I got my very first taste of the cassette culture we know and still embrace today. His name was Laszlo Papp and he was the very first punk rocker I ever met; name virtually any early punk band and chances are he saw them at CBGB or Max's Kansas City. Laszlo didn't have a record player, but he did have a tape deck, and would let me hang out with him on occasion, playing tapes for me the whole time. His collection of tapes was filled with original store-bought cassette releases by the likes of Sparks, Suzi Quatro, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band -- a collection I would just die to have now -- plus homemade punk comps his friends had made him from which I would hear the Sex Pistols and the Clash for the first time.

But what really aroused my curiosity was the one part of his collection devoted to a series of homemade tape albums by his own band, Chickenshit, who sang dirty songs with names like "Shovel That Shit," "Fags Are Fun," and "Fuckin' Jesus." They were really just a private joke band, true, but they were literally the very first lo-fi home tape project I ever heard of, and their aesthetic alone set off notions in my head that I could do one too. And so I formed my own little private joke band I dubbed the Occupants (a name inspired by that of the Residents) and started making my own little tape albums. The fact that I could neither play guitar yet nor knew any real musicians didn't stop me -- I just got my school pal Zoltan or sometimes even my two-year-old cousin Jamey (!!!) to bang on the family piano while I banged on a cheap guitar I'd picked up at a garage sale for two bits. Needless to say, we made Chickenshit sound like the Beatles. Still, it was through the Occupants that I ultimately picked up the home-recording habit for good.

All this time I was fully immersed in all things punk, and had started reading British-imported music zines like New Musical Express and Sounds to keep up with the latest sensations in my favorite genre. I vividly remember one particular issue of NME around 1980 or so which introduced a new classified column where musicians who recorded at home could advertise their homemade tape albums. Most of them could be obtained for little more than a blank tape and postage, and the majority of them seemed experimental in nature. I never went through the trouble of sending away to England for any of them, but I kinda wish I had now. It was clear to me, though, that something new was happening. People weren't just using tapes to tape albums they'd borrowed from their friends anymore -- they were now using them to make their own albums. Tapes in the '80s were a true precursor to both file sharing AND music streaming -- and I even stored a few computer programs on 'em!

All this was unfolding just as Sony introduced the Walkman and the ROIR cassette-only label emerged, the very first one of its kind. In 1982, at the height of hardcore punk, ROIR released the legendary Bad Brains tape, the one that would etch the very concept of the tape album in stone. I bought it the very week it came out and it blew my socks off. I absolutely wore out that sucker playing it to death right through my senior year of high school. From that point on, I began taking the musical end of the homemade tape albums I was creating for myself a bit more seriously. By then I'd learned enough chords to get started on that premise.

Hardcore also led to the emergence of college radio shows like Tim Sommer's "Noise The Show" on WNYU, and soon it became standard practice for underground radio to air lo-fi tape demos of all stripes. And when word started spreading that you didn't have to have your music professionally recorded to get it on the air anymore, the whole damn thing exploded. The format was available and affordable to anyone, and with the emergence of the dual dubbing deck around this time, tapes were easily duplicated and distributed -- a godsend to those who couldn't afford to put out vinyl. So I did just that. And so did thousands of others.

By 1984 my tapes were being played by Pat Duncan and Irwin Chusid on WFMU, and my music was finding an actual audience for the very first time. Me and my friends formed various punk projects and recorded improvised tape albums straight to cassette at a rehearsal studio in my hometown. Meanwhile, punk and metal had merged into thrash, and a worldwide, underground thrash tape trading community emerged in its wake, the absolute biggest one yet, fueled by the hundreds of thrash bands popping up in Slayer's wake. WMSC in Montclair, NJ, devoted entire shows to these demo tapes and I recorded and absorbed them just as I had followed anything to do with home taping since '77.

But the very best was still yet to come for me. For at the same time, yet another tape cult inspired by everything from psych to punk to modern indie rock was simmering. And yet another technological step forward had been taken -- namely, the 4-track portastudio, which took the quality of home recorded tapes up a notch. All of it was in place as 1986 arrived and William Berger launched Lo-Fi on WFMU. This weekly half-hour program was devoted entirely to tape culture and I was regularly featured on it throughout its existence. Mr. Berger's on-air invitations to listeners to send him tapes led to our discovery of several different artists whom we ultimately brought together and united into a live music scene in New York in the late '80s that literally took lo-fi out of the bedroom and into the street. (In my next post I will describe this particular scene in much greater detail.)

I was now making tape albums with names like "Trace the Psychosis" and "It's the Brann Man... and Don't You Forget It!" using a dual deck boombox with a mixing mic input, overdubbing and bouncing tracks back and forth between tapes. I was also working in the offices of an apparel company at this time, and by sneaking my hand-drawn j-card designs onto the copy machine when no one was looking, I was able to print them for free! Later on I acquired a Tascam 4-track portastudio and that's when I did my very best work, now available on my Bandcamp page for all to hear.

By the early '90s bands of all styles were selling and giving away tapes. They were still the format of choice for low-budget musicians until around 1998. And then... the recordable CD arrived. And suddenly millions instantly traded cassettes for convenience. In a way I could understand it. I admit even I was guilty of it when I chose to release The Racing Brain of Ray Brazen on CD instead of tape. But I still used cassettes to record radio shows, conversations I was lucky to have with music legends like Los Dug Dugs, the Godz, and TV Toy, and ideas for new songs I was writing. I bought a portable player just like the first few I'd owned in my youth at a thrift store and took it on the road with me, capturing the vibes on tape in every state I passed through. For me, tapes were still the best and most convenient way to record. I hate doing multitrack recording on computers with a passion, but ultimately the complete breakdown of my 4-track portastudio made it necessary for awhile. (I really should try to get a new one on Ebay soon. I've got enough new material for a whole new tape album.)

There may have been a drop in tape releases for awhile when CD-Rs took over, but in the late part of the '00s I started to see tapes slowly start to make a comeback. Only a few artists released tapes at first, but over time and into the present decade, the numbers shot up again and with the establishment of Burger Tapes and its global influence, we are now more or less back to where we were thirty years ago. Whoda thunk?

When I was invited by my very dear friend Joshua Rogers of Illuminated Paths to compile some of my home recordings from the 1980s for my first cassette release in 20 years on his label, I just couldn't say no. The response it got, along with Josh's boundless enthusiasm for my music and for tape culture in general, now has me fully immersed in it all over again for the first time in just as long. I'm proud to report that today's tape generation is producing music that stands proudly with the tape music I heard 30 years ago. Here in central Florida, in addition to Illuminated Paths, there's also Godless America and Popnihil, three distinct tape labels releasing everything from garage punk to electronic to vaporwave and beyond. They're still as cheap to make as ever, and bands still charge an average of six bucks for 'em.

The tape revival has also got me bootlegging vintage tape albums I've had since the late '80s and early '90s to share with today's younger tapeheads, and paying more attention to tape stockpiles in thrift stores. I've found quite a few old sealed blank tapes in thrift shops and these should always be bought on sight (especially since you don't wanna know how much Walgreen's charges for 'em now). Some of the used ones I've found have revealed everything from old radio airchecks to wedding ceremonies to family holiday greetings. And now tapes are officially fun again, for me and for so many others, veterans and novices alike. As one who has pretty much bled recording tape for over 4 decades now and is positively and justifiably thrilled about the whole resurgence, all I can say is... tape on!

No comments:

Post a Comment