Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’S Of Rock’n’Roll – H is for Home Taping

I am a child of the portable age of music.

In the early sixties the transistor radio was my constant companion. On the streets, on the beach and even in bed that radio (with its crappy, singular,  white plastic ear bud) went everywhere with 1050 Chum dialled in.

Closer to the end of the sixties I got my first portable turntable. Instead of using the monster piece of furniture (which doubled as a liquor cabinet in most homes) in the living room, you could take your 45’s and listen to them in the basement or your bedroom.

With the turntable you now needed a portable holder for your singles so they could be easily transported to a friend’s house. Singles were purchased for about 69 cents and every week we would wait for the new Chum Chart to arrive and then purchase accordingly. Singles were bought at a store in the Beach affectionately known as Laurie’s. It was located at the corner of Queen East and Waverly (about 200 yards from my current location). It wasn’t just a record shop, it was a little bit of everything. It contained a Laundromat, sold sporting goods, car and airplane models, and, according to local legend he, Laurie ran some book in the backroom. He knew nothing about music and wasn’t too fond of kids but every week he stocked the Top Thirty in a wooden shelf and we would dutifully scratch our purchases off the Chum Chart and race home.

The seventies brought us cassettes. The first tape deck I owned was one of those little five pound Panasonic beauties that were the size of a large book and you needed to press play and record at the same time to record. It came with a crappy microphone that you would place beside a speaker and record your fave songs. You could also tape from the radio but you never knew what song was going to come up next. It was a crap shoot but you soon learned the art of erase. This monster deck became my first mobile unit as I used to tuck in under my ski jacket and hit the slopes to The New York Dolls and Mott The Hoople.

By the mid seventies the cassette deck became a major part of your stereo system. Singles were out and albums were in. Instead of heading over to Laurie’s we were now able to hit Yonge Street and browse the racks of Sam The Record Man, A&A’s and Records On Wheels. While down on the strip we would hit the electronic stores to find the best deals on a box of ten Maxell 90 minute cassettes. There were few better feelings in the world than having ten new cassettes to fill and dozens of new albums to spend hours listening to (and reading the liner notes and credits). I became a regular Rob Fleming (“High Fidelity” – read the Nick Hornby book and see the John Cusack/Jack Black film) and the mix tape was my art. Instead of lugging a milk crate full of records to a party I could now arm myself with a couple of cassettes. At one point the local dairies changed the size of milk crates to make them too small to handle vinyl albums. Smart move on their part but they still could hold 10” imports and were handy little extra seats at a basement party.

Maxell 90’s were my weapon of choice. Obviously each side held 45 minutes of music, but each tape would be slightly different and you might gain or lose a few seconds each side. You would pick your tape theme (“CBGB NYC Punk Mix”) and then hunt for the appropriate records. You would find one and then in your mind you already had the next song ready.  Depending on the theme of the tape you could generally count on 12 -16 songs a side. Always start with a killer on each side and build out. Checking the times of each song before the record button was pushed and off you would go. A skip on the fourth song of a record would kill you and you would need to go back to the end of the third song and hit pause. New songs now needed to be picked and running times were critical. You were recording at real time and each side would take at least an hour to get down on tape. You really needed to keep an eye out at the end of a side and you could usually tell how many seconds you had left of tape and how much time was left in the song. As you watch the tape roll down (and the brown tape changed to white) and the song was in the last chorus you could sometimes cheat and slowly fade the song out using the record level controls. You needed a delicate touch to make it sound as close to the record as possible. Sometimes when you weren’t paying attention you would hear the music playing and then the dreaded click of the cassette stopping. Once again a rewind to the last fully recorded song and then hit pause and look for a shorter song. If you couldn’t squeeze one in you needed to admit defeat and let the tape run out. A perfectly recorded tape would have the music end and then click a couple of seconds later thus eliminating the need to fast forward to get to the end and flip it over.

I had my own rules for the artwork. There really wasn’t much room on the cassette card but I still liked to use the ones that came with the tape. Fine point markers were usually used as it was much easier to write smaller with them. Two colours of pen were always used: the first colour designated the title of the song (always in quotations) and the second named the artist (always in brackets). Each cassette was also individually named and I could look over a rack of cassettes and immediately know the genre of the mix by the obscure title.

The next great portable invention was the, pardon the political incorrectness but this is what we called them, ghetto blaster. These suckers rocked. Armed with about eight D sized batteries you could get a couple of hours out of them on a beach, or, if you were near and extension cord you had music in the backyard. These things were built for mix tapes. Depending on your budget you could have a monster sized unit that could rattle the windows or a smaller more portable unit. I stumbled upon a very expensive Telefunken machine that was small in size but mighty in power. The sound was so good I used the machine at work to “radio test” mixes. If it sounded good on the Telefunken I knew that the mix was ready for radio. Around this time cassette decks started to appear in cars and road trips never sounded better.

We were getting more and more portable and then the next revolution, the Sony Walkman. I could now shut out the world. The first units were pretty bulky and the tapes jammed a lot but my God they were great. Although many used the rubber end of a pencil to get their cassettes back in order I always found that a cigarette worked better. They were more pliable and a little bigger and the filter tip would grab the little spines a little tighter. With the frustration of a runaway tape they also provided the added bonus of a tasty Sweet Caporal after a saved cassette. Streetcar and subway rides were now way more satisfying bopping along to the soundtrack of my life and skiing was a joy without the bulky Panasonic and the ever constant threat of cracked ribs after a fall.

I thought this was the peak but then along came the compact disc.

Next week, the next revolution begins.

In the meantime, and as I will be talking all things CD, iPod and iTunes next week,  have a look at this from my buddy Gavin Slate:

Cam’s column appears every Thursday.

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New menu debuting very soon at The Shanghai Cowgirl (538 Queen Street West). As long as the chicken fried steak and Reuben remain I will be a very happy camper. Also, what is going on above the Bovine Sex Club? Time will tell but colour me excited.

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Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, NXNE, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

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