cassette singles

cassette singles

I had some and I’m afraid to say most are now in landfill.

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It started as a gimmick in 1980, when Malcolm McLaren released Bow Wow Wow’s C-30 C-60 C-90 Go! as a cassette single. EMI were very iffy about this ode to the joys of home taping, and declined to promote it.

Off the radio, I get a constant flow
Hit it, pause it, record it and play
Turn it, rewind and rub it away

This EMI release exhorted kids to rip music off from the radio. Given the special sleeves with printed lyrics on the cassette and later vinyl versions, EMI executives could hardly claim not to have noticed this hymn to the cassette, boasting of piracy on the B-side,  while attacking record shops and those rich enough to have a record collection. 

It’s amazing that EMI released it, let alone gave it a one off sleeve with the full lyric printed on the front. The cassette version had a blank B-side which you could use to tape something else, i.e. rip it off from the radio, an idea that Virgin flirted with too. The BPI  (British Phonographic Institute) copyright agency had EMI withdraw the cassette. The accompanying Bow Wow Wow album was a cassette only release. The group followed it up with the single My Cassette Pet.

C30 C60 C90 Go A side copy

C•30, C•60, C•90 Go: Bow Wow Wow  EMI, 7″ vinyl copy 1980

The vinyl copy has a blank centre label, and reprints the lyric on the sleeve.

The cassette was at its height of popularity in the early 80s as the Walkman hit the market right after the Bow Wow Wow single. C30 was thirty minutes, C60 an hour, C90 was ninety minutes and C120s usually broke soon after purchase which didn’t matter because the tape was so thin that they sounded terrible. Cassettes were hip because it’s the medium young hopeful musicians used to send demos to record labels.

Cars only had cassette players, and teens loved the boombox. The mix tape thrived to give to friends. Cassette singles always seemed a waste of space, as they were the same size as albums. However, you didn’t have to fast forward or rewind to find the place. By the mid-90s the CD single had replaced them.

In 1984, cassette singles were important for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Art of Noise and other acts on the ZTT label.

Tragically Hip cassingle

Little Bones: The Tragically Hip. MCA / HMV freebie 1991

By then the usual procedure was to fill both sides with identical material.  The favourite way was to present the track(s) on both sides of the tape to avoid rewinding. Sometimes (as with Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner), the cassette single contained both the 7” and 12” vinyl versions. Length was never an issue, and in fact very short blank cassettes with no leader tape, used on radio for advertising, cost more than standard C30s, C60s or C90s.  We used them for stage sound effects. A good cassette single was cut to length with no spare tape to run through at the end.

Only four or five years ago, I was in a secondhand record store and a guy came in with a large box of cassette singles.

How much? he asked optimistically.
Landfill, said the owner.
Will you give me a pound for the lot?
No. They take up space.

However, as the generation that loved cassette in their teens adopt the collector’s nostalgia, there is a developing market for them. I still think it will favour cassette albums over cassette singles.

The trouble is, cassettes on their thin magnetic tape at a slow speed suffer almost always from print-through … you can hear the background image of the sound on the piece of tape that was wound next to the one you’re listening to.