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April 29, 2011

It hasn't been all that long since cassettes lined car dashboards everywhere, but a wealth of new digital formats quickly relegated the cassette to a forgotten corner of history. Can they make a retro comeback?

A graphic design featuring cassettes by Denise Franke
The book is illustrated with stunning graphic design by Denise FrankeImage: Eichborn Verlag/Denise Franke

When it was first unveiled at the Internationale Funkausstellung (Berlin consumer electronics trade fair) in 1963, the cassette caused a sensation; it was small, lightweight and modern. A far cry from the cumbersome vinyl record, the tape would revolutionize pre-recorded music like nothing before it.

1964 saw mass production of music cassettes begin in Hamburg, and the format caught the attention of the public at large. The cassette was relatively cheap, it could be played in the car and you could make home recordings. Record labels were suddenly bombarded with demo tapes, a personalised mixtape became the Valentine's Day gift of choice and, with the introduction of the Walkman by Sony in the early 80s, it became the first truly portable pre-recorded music format.

But by the late 90s, many record labels stopped releasing music on tape, and now the format remains a dusty - though fondly-remembered - thing of the past.

Authors Christian Vorbau and Jan Drees took on the subject in their new book "Kassettendeck - Soundtrack einer Generation" ("Tape Deck - Soundtrack of a Generation"). The book is a compilation of interviews, essays and reminiscences all devoted to the humble cassette and its impact on both the music business and daily life.

The authors recently spoke to Deutsche Welle at the book launch event in Berlin.

author Christian Vorbau
The most-booked DJ in Germany, author Christian VorbauImage: Sascha Kreklau

Deutsche Welle: How would you sum up the concept of Kassettendeck?

Christian Vorbau: Kassettendeck is a hybrid book; it's part non-fiction, part novel. Interviews are broken up with passages of prose. We did this to really reproduce people's personal stories about tapes.

Jan Drees: We spoke to certain artists about specific topics. For example, the author Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre spoke about the short film Kassettenmädchen (Cassette Girls) while the editor of the Süddeutsche newspaper, Andreas Bernard, explained what the relationship was between mixtapes and the 1990s. We've also put together suggestions for mixtapes in different genres - for example, tracklists for hip-hop fans or indie nerds.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Christian: We're both cassette fans! We both got into music during the cassette generation, and so we decided to write a book about it. It's not necessarily a definitive text book but rather something very personal.

Who did you speak to when compiling the book and what stories did they share?

Jan: Smudo from Die fantastischen Vier told us how he dismantled and cannibalized his father's hi-fi equipment to make his first mini-recording studio so he could record his raps onto tape. WestBam explained how he DJed the first Love Parade in Berlin not with records but with tapes. And Ronald Galenza, who wrote about punk in East Germany, told us about the link between cassettes and political subversion in the German Democratic Republic.

Christian: Eric Pfeil who works for the FAZ newspaper told us that he has a criminal record for one crime only; stealing tapes. That was back when he had a lo-fi project but no money and had to steal cassettes to record onto. To this day he is still barred from Aldi in Bergisch-Gladbach!

A scene from the Love Parade in Berlin
Long before tragedy struck the Love Parade in 2010, DJs like WestBam played cassettes at the festivalImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Do you have a favorite story in the book?

Christian: The publisher Eric Pfeil told us about hearing the song "Creep" by Radiohead played on cassette at one of those provincial discos out in the middle of nowhere, and all the kids who were die-hard Radiohead fans swaying on the dancefloor with their eyes closed, totally dramatic, really into the music, and singing "I'm a tree" instead of "I'm a creep"!

Jan: The writer Rafael Horzon was great. We asked him if he had ever made a love mixtape for anyone he replied, "Yes, for myself!"“ He then went on to tell us that when he was a student and living in a flatshare, he had this theory that good taste didn't exist; it was simply a case of becoming acclimatized to something. So, he wanted to test his theory, and every time some completely awful song came on the radio, he'd record it. Once the tape was full he played it over and over, and, of course, the other guys in the apartment had no choice but to listen to this. Eventually, the songs became beloved tracks.

What do you hope people who buy the book will learn?

Christian: That the cassette, in contrast to other audio formats, has a soul.

Jan: We went through and listened again to all our old tapes from back then. It's amazing to hear how much happiness and how much sadness is contained in those little squares of plastic. I think this contrast between the party of yesterday and the party of now is something we want people to appreciate.

author Jan Drees
Jan Drees is one of the country's most prolific music journalistsImage: Sascha Kreklau

What are your earliest memories of cassettes?

Jan: With my kind of toy cassette player, I used to record the bedtime stories my father told me and keep an archive of them. I made my first proper mixtape when I was 9, I recall.

What do you like so much about cassettes? After all, cassettes always used to snap or get mangled up in the machine, and mp3s don't do that!

Jan: Yes, but mp3s sound rubbish. A really good cassette from the 1980s will even sound better than an mp3 from today. And mp3s sometimes have a habit of just deleting themselves. CDs also can be unpredictable like that. WestBam told us that he DJd at a Christmas party in Munster not so long ago, and he and a friend ended up listening to all his old mixtapes again and re-living the old days. He said, "After 30 years you can't necessarily listen to a CD again quite so easily. But the cassette stays." It's somehow reassuring, isn't it? I love it.

Christian: I like the fact you can't skip tracks and therefore with something like a mixtape which you have to listen to, you can tell a story.

It's not really all that long ago that cassettes disappeared; why do you think they are retro-cool already?

Jan: On the Kassettendeck blog you can find many examples about the retro-cool aspect of the cassette. If you look around, cassettes are everywhere: in fashion, on flyers and stickers, in magazines, on posters. We see the image of the tape everyday, and it’s one which triggers certain memories and emotions, all of which are totally positive. It's just cool. Still.

Book cover of Kassettendeck
The authors' book on cassettes came out in German in March, 2011Image: Eichborn

Do you think the cassettes will ever really go away or are they going to be part of music for ever?

Christian: I don't think tapes will play a role as a recording format ever again, but as a cultural icon, they're immortal.

Jan: Just look at modern music today. "Record Collection" by Mark Ronson, "Mixtape" from Run DMC or even "My Cassette Player" by Lena Meyer-Landrut. These names prove that even 30 years after the beginning of the CD age, the tape still plays a role in music, and I think it always will.

We've mentioned mixtapes quite a lot here. If you were to put together the ideal mixtape for a loved one, what would be on it?

Christian: To name a few, I'd say "Brand New Carpet" by Bodi Bill, "The Look" by Metronomy, "Radar Detector" by Darwin Deez, "Trouble" by Ja! Panik and the Black Van remix of "Without Lies" from Aeroplane.

Jan : On the last mixtape I made were "Stop! In the Name of Love" by The Supremes, "Mindestens in 1000 Jahren" by Frittenbude, "I Follow Rivers" from Lykke Li and the Keljet Remix of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Among others!

Text: Gavin Blackburn

For more information from Jan and Christian and to hear music selections from "Kassettendeck", listen to this week's edition of DW's Soundscape 100 on the link below!