Tape Deck Heart, Lou Ottens— Matt Leonard -
How did you fall in love with music?
Was it a copy of your Mum and/or Dads Motown Chartbusters 3 on thick black vinyl?
Could you have been swept off your feet by a CD single of N Trances ‘Set You Free’?
Or could your first musical fumbling have been about a 4” bit of rattly plastic, as you click PLAY, the leader tape pause and then
‘Would I lie To You’ by Charles and Eddie
Records were too big, Reel to Reels to fiddly and 8 track cartridges were, to be fair, shite - it was the cassette tape the liberated music from a stationary pursuit to something more mobile.
The Sony Walkman - a invention so tied to the 80s - brings mind orange foam headphones, people rollerblading backwards on panty-liner adverts and Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.
This mode of imbibing music on the move was how I fell in love. Not just with cheap cassette singles but also, and eventually exclusively, mix-tapes.
These cute hoops of magnetic tape encased in multicoloured plastic were capable of acting as the modern day pallet, canvas and easel for the late 20 century teen.
Songs to proclaim love, songs to develop kinship, songs to show who you are.
So, why the big outpouring? What am I babbling on about?
Well you know the guy who invented cassettes? The man who brought us, you, me tapes?
Lodewijk Frederik Ottens, Lou to you and me has shuffled off at the age of 94.
Lou was a Dutch engineer who worked for engineering giants Philips and whilst in the position of Head of New Product Development in 1960 he led the development of the first portable tape recorder (the EL3585 for you code nerds). During the project Lou was confronted by his superiors over the need for such a product but on release his portable tape recorder sold over 1 million units.
The EL3585 was an all-transistor, battery-powered recorder with a 4″ reel to reel spool capacity yawn. The thing gave up to 2 hour’s playing time on long-play tape. Its design is such an archetype of the early 60s – the grille front, shape mimicking handle, almost symmetrical. A transparent lid showed the reels in action. All very future modern.
Thing is, Lou wasn’t satisfied. The EL3585 was portable but his aim was to develop a “pocket recorder” that was “no bigger than a packet of cigarettes”. So he, at the helm of ten workers, started to deconstruct their already popular product.
First thing that needed a redesign? RCA’s clunky reel to reel cassette system.
At the 1963 Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin (or International Radio Exhibition to us islanders) Lou and his team unveiled their cassette system - the EL3300
Now I suppose here you’d expect them to be flying off the shelves and a cultural worldwide revolution happens almost overnight right? Well, no.
This is the 60s. We’re in a technological age. The white hot heat of ideas and every engineer and developer worth their salt had one. So lets skip on a decade or so.
The first Sony Walkman appeared on shelves in the summer of 1979. Low cost, durable and pocket size. Sony thought it’d sell approx 5000 units a month.
It sold six times that every month in the first year of sales.
Within a decade of launch, Sony held a 50% market share in the United States and 46% in Japan and a genuine cultural movement was happening.
This liberation of music from, say, your dining room or bedroom not only served to raise the importance of music in everyday life – listen on the way to work, in the back of class, while you’re having your tea, in bed before you go to sleep – but it weaponised the medium.
Unsigned bands now had an affordable way of distributing their music, music geeks had a novel way of pressing onto people what they thought was cool via the mix-tape, hip-hop artists recorded live show and made ‘blend’ tapes to promote others. It was a step towards the democratisation of music and away from the top down, record label tastemaker pathway which had pervaded prior.
At one point I had over 350 mix-tapes billowing noise from my room, every one gave me something, pointed me in new direction to explore – (watch the video to find out how a tape from a sadly missed mate of mine send me on a 14 year search for a bit of Japanese ambient music)
Compact cassettes actively acted as catalysts for social change. They were small, sturdy and easy to copy. Cassettes helped bring underground rock and punk music behind the Iron Curtain, creating a foothold for Western culture among the disenfranchised youth of the eastern bloc. For these reasons, cassettes became popular in developing nations. Famously tapes of sermons by the Ayatollah Khomeini were distributed throughout Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and during the years Chile was under control of the military junta a “cassette culture” developed where blacklisted music was shared.
Between 1985 and 1992, the cassette tape was the most popular format in the UK.
“It still hurts that (Philips) didn’t have (a Walkman),” Lou Ottens said in the 1990s. It would be one of his lasting regrets.
It would appear Philips had taken their eye off the ball during the mid 70s as they and Lou powered on developing a new lossless medium called the CD.
Now I wonder what happened to that?
Rest easy Lou.