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  • Writer's pictureStephen Dunwoody

The humble cassette

Musician and journalist Stephen Dunwoody shares some of his insights on the music business and music production.

I have an old shoe box filled with cassettes. The content of some of the tapes eludes me. I haven’t owned a cassette player for over 25 years, ever since I started to use CDs, a format I never liked to be honest; consequently my silver and chrome Philips boom box went to the dump along with a stack of space-hugging LPs – oh how I regret that!

It’s amazing the memories we can unearth by opening a box of cassette tapes. Remember mix tapes? The re-spooling knackered tapes with a pencil?

I’m about to re-acquaint myself with all that.

It occurred to me that I might like to hear exactly what is on one of my old TDK C60 cassettes, some were pirate recordings of that year’s hits and some were more personal recordings of my first band.

So I had a look on the web and discovered that you can buy a retro portable cassette player/recorder for less than 25 quid. And, what’s more, you can get a tape to MP3 converter for even less.

Now, having already said that I don’t like the CD format, you’re probably wondering why I want MP3s? Actually I love the Mp3 format or its bigger brother, the WAV file. It’s scratch free and I can have hundreds of songs on my phone, a massive digital jukebox that fits in your pocket.

CDs on the other hand always annoyingly find their way to the floor well of the car; the cases always break in two and it’s impossible to read the contents of the cover without a magnifying glass.

Delving a little deeper into my box of tapes, I discover a cassette called ‘Big Jim and Friends’. It’s a recording of my first band, a band we could never agree the name of and a band that embraced the technology of ‘recording to cassette’.

Of course, at this stage, the Tascam four-track recorder was some years away and, even when I did cough up a couple of hundred quid to buy one, the results were never great.

So, every Saturday Big Jim and Friends would club together the fiver or so to hire Tullycarnet Community Centre. As luck would have it - thanks to the troubles in Ulster - we were able to buy a few amps and instruments courtesy of yet another bomb damaged sale. My Fender Telecaster always reeked of smoke when I opened the case.

Now our bass player knew big Eric the Viking who played Hammond organ for Van and, latterly, Rob Strong and the Rockets. John struck a deal whereby we would borrow the Rockets’ van (not to be confused with the aforementioned Van) and PA system to use in the afternoon on the agreement we would set up their equipment for their Saturday night residency at the Errigle bar on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.

After weeks of practice we set about our first recording, which basically consisted of Big Jim and Friends playing on the other side of the hall while I shouted into the student portable recorder loaded with a TDK C60 cassette.

The 60 minute tapes were purchased from Douggie Knight’s record shop below the old Arts Theatre on Botanic Avenue. The maths involved with a 60 minute tape was much easier – 30 minutes each side – as opposed to the C90.

As it was the early 80s, our repertoire consisted of Tom Petty’s Fooled Again, American Girl, a few blues tunes and a smattering of punk/new wave classics.

I eagerly look forward to you listening to the results when I get around to buying the cassette to MP3 converter.

Our drummer Steve was studying graphic design at Queens University and he drew the picture of Big Jim on the cover of the cassette. Jim, who was about six foot four with an equally as big personality, had this strange habit of raising his finger to announce he was about to play a solo.

After a year or so, like many bands of that era, we disbanded through a mixture of apathy, lack of gigs and lack of money.

Sadly Jim Miller barely made it into his twenties before he contracted Multiple Sclerosis and passed away. He was a lovely guy and a great guitarist who would have almost certainly made a name for himself in the music business.

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