Okay, kids, gather round. Come up close where you can see. Can any of you tell me what this is?
No, it’s not an iPhone. Are you kidding? I know it’s about the same size and shape, but look how thick it is. It has music on it though. Can you guess how many songs it holds?
No, not 7200. Way lower than that. 300? Guess again. 100? Not even that many.
Twelve. Twelve songs on this bad boy.
And guess what? No speaker. No place to plug in headphones. It’s just the data. This is a cassette tape. If you want to hear this you have to put it inside one of these other things.
No, this isn’t a computer. It’s a cassette player. See, inside the cassette are two spools of tape, and when you put it in the player, it winds the tape past this little thing that reads it and turns it into sound. And when you’ve heard six songs, you have to turn it over. You have to listen to them all in order, too. You can fast forward, but you can’t just skip a song.
Yeah, I said twelve songs. If you want to hear more you have to have another tape.
How many tapes did I have? Let me just open this closet here — hopefully the stacks haven’t shifted so much that they’ll fall on AHHHHHHHHHHHHH
In 1986 I bought my very first cassette. I think I’d had a tape recorder (not a Walkman, not yet) for a couple of years, and I’m not sure why it took me this long to buy anything other than a blank tape (ready for me to fill with invented radio shows, stupid little skits, and my sister telling me how weird I was), but maybe it had something to do with getting an allowance? I don’t know. I’m old. I’m not good with details. The point is, this was the cassette.
It must have been late in 1986, because I’m pretty sure I knew “Manic Monday” already and I know I knew “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a thoughtful and nuanced ode to cultural understanding which Wikipedia tells me was released in September. So maybe I bought it with my birthday money.
It wasn’t free, like the first hit’s supposed to be. I was hooked right away. From one purchase at one record store I turned to mail order, somehow convincing my parents that those services like Columbia House were a good deal. What? Yeah, okay, kids, see, back in my day we couldn’t just download music from the internet. There were these ads in the Sunday newspaper — yeah, one of those things you see in Starbucks — where you could tear out an order form, write in the numbers for the tapes you wanted, and send it in the actual mail to get six of them for a penny. All you had to do was pay about 20 bucks each for about three more, so it was a pretty good deal, really. And you had to make sure you sent in the form every month or they’d automatically send you something and charge you full price for it. I joined Columbia House maybe three or four times over the course of the next four or five years. It might or might not have ended up saving me any money, but since I couldn’t drive, I needed some way to feed my addiction. I can’t remember what was in the first RCA Record Club shipment, but one of them was the Police’s greatest hits, and another was Then and Now…the Best of the Monkees. That gives you some idea of what I was spending my pennies on.
I don’t listen to the Monkees anymore, but I’ve always loved the Bangles. Even if I didn’t always know what they were singing about.
Slight beat-up Streep and you’re back
You shift your arm then you pull it back
Let Sergeant know (oh way oh)
So strike a pose on a Cadillac
If you wanna find all the cocks
They’re hangin’ out in the donut shop
They sing and dance (oh way oh)
They spin their cocoons down the block
— The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” as I heard it in 1986
For a pleasant little power-pop album, Different Light is rolling pretty deep. Prince wrote “Manic Monday” (as “Christopher”), Jules Shear wrote “If She Knew What She Wants,” and Alex Chilton wrote the mighty “September Gurls.” I had to be careful with that last song — I was sure my parents would catch me listening to a song with the lyric “ooh, when he makes love to me,” which to my 12-year-old imagination was somehow dirty enough to be embarrassing at best and get me into serious trouble at worst. So I’d always turn it down or put on headphones until that one was over.
The originals are pretty great, too, particularly the title track and “Let It Go.” I was also fascinated by “Following,” not just because it’s such a brooding little song, the only place the record really slows down, but because it was sung in such a low voice by a tomboyish-sounding woman named “Michael.” I wasn’t really sure what to make of it at the time, and these days I doubt there’s anything to make of it, but it did add some dimension to the record. Just the fact that there were four women in the band who all wrote songs and sang lead vocals and came from such different creative places interested me. I didn’t know enough about the Beatles for this to seem like a normal way for a band to work, and I didn’t know enough about how women were often treated in the music industry for this to seem as remarkable as it was. I just thought it was cool.
Cassettes weren’t cool. Cassettes were unreliable, cumbersome, and inefficient. Back then I would love to have been able to keep my entire music collection in my pocket along with a pair of headphones. But those were primitive times. “You try telling the young people of today that…and they won’t believe you. They won’t!”
Madonna, True Blue
I can’t remember what single got me into this album. The title track, maybe? “La Isla Bonita”? “Open Your Heart”? All I know is that I fell in love with this album / Warm wind carried on the sea, it called to me: “you’re hooked on Madonna.” Prior to this all I can remember is hearing a snippet of “Material Girl” on the radio and somehow thinking it was a man singing. Look, Boy George was on MTV a lot in the early 80s. It was a confusing time; all bets were off.
Cyndi Lauper, True Colors
My little sister and I agreed on a lot more music than you might expect. We both loved the Bangles (Different Light was “my” album, and the arguably superior All Over the Place was “hers”), and we both loved Cyndi Lauper. This album sounds more like the 80s than the 80s did. Like everything she put out, it’s eclectic almost to a fault, and “Change of Heart” still sends a thrill up my spine every time I hear it.
a-ha, Scoundrel Days
My favorite a-ha album. I used to listen to these guys a lot, usually while playing games on our Mac, or while reading Stephen King novels. To this day, Hunting High and Low and this album both remind me of Firestarter and Pet Sematary.
- Janet Jackson, Control
- Depeche Mode, Black Celebration
- Pet Shop Boys, Please
- Prince, Parade
- Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tinderbox
- Peter Gabriel, So
- The Smiths, The Queen is Dead
- Wham!, Music from the Edge of Heaven
- Eurythmics, Revenge
- REM, Lifes Rich Pageant
- Paul Simon, Graceland
- XTC, Skylarking
- They Might Be Giants, They Might Be Giants
- Kate Bush, The Whole Story
- Duran Duran, Notorious
- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Element of Light