Why Cassettes Are the New 45s

Or: Using The Discogs Blog As A Bully Pulpit To Talk About The Cassettes I Desperately Need And Will Pay Unseemly Amounts Of Cash For

I can’t imagine that I’m the only one.

A few weeks back, I dug through the mounting detritus in my basement and pulled out a box filled with upwards of 200 cassettes. Commercially-released mementos, aspiringly amorous mixtapes, amateur teenage boombox condenser mic yawps, one-of-a-kind live soundboard recordings of unmemorable also-rans, unlabeled Maxells that are most likely PXL 2000 video recordings; it all truly runs the gamut.

At the ripe old age of 36, my cassettes have never been so unimportant as to be thrown away, yet it’s been a good 17 years since they’ve been legitimately necessary. Prominently displayed? Forget about it. These little plastic time capsules were treated as more worthless by the majority of my generation than perhaps any other format of any other generation. Of course they got trashed — they’re just cassettes!

I’ll go to the mat arguing that Baby Boomers didn’t disown their vinyl as virulently and that a majority of Gen X-ers are still clutching them CDs. I can’t speak to Gilded Agers and their Edison cylinders, but old Millenials are seemingly dumping tapes at an alarming rate. “Old” is a disclaimer I tack on so as to feel slightly less lame in identifying as one. Generations are made up anyway, but I digress.

So why the title of this essay? Because the delayed discovery of 45s has fueled the collectability and establishment of important, influential, hyper-specific genres for decades. The non-hit garage renaissance (via Pebbles, Boulders, Back From the Grave), the underground punk hierarchy (Killed By Death, Hyped to Death), basement funk and backyard soul (Numero Group’s Essential Soul series), drug-burned hard rock (Ultimate Bonehead, Brown Acid) and surprisingly, even dark country tunes (Hillbillies in Hell, Twisted Tales From Vinyl Wastelands) are all prime examples.

The difficulty is there are no more unheralded genres hiding on 45s. They’ve all been identified. These genres are not all necessarily completely mined, but flags have been planted and colonies established. This paves the way for cassettes to be ready for their close-up. As the mid-’50s through the mid-’80s found most entry-level, outside-the-mainstream music was explicitly on the 7-inch format. Cassettes would take that same status and hold it for a brief 10 to 15 year period.

Right now, as we sit here scratching our asses, enterprising labels are already tapping the cassette underground. Light in the Attic’s wonderful I Am the Center and The Microcosm compilations are both at the forefront of the “PINA” genre (private issue new age) that was often issued on obscure cassettes. The resourceful reissue outfit Dope Folks similarly mines “random” or “golden age” hip-hop that pulls largely from obscure cassettes from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Hell, the recent Alice Coltrane collection compiles recordings that were originally only released on cassettes via her ashram in the early ’80s. It’s already happening!

In my mid-’90s adolescence, the cassette was clearly the lowest bar of entry. No one I knew was making vinyl, and CDs were an even more-unobtainable strata of enshrinement. With the slightest bit of drive and a bare minimum of investment, the cassette was well within the grasp of the entirety of my immediate still-not-in-possession-of-a-driver’s-license musical orbit.

For a long time, I assumed “cassette culture” started exactly in 1982. Maybe because it’s my birth year or maybe because it’s the year Duran Duran released Rio, but I’d never given much thought to any possible prehistory. So imagine my delight in discovering Vinyl-On-Demand’s compilation American Cassette Culture: 1971-1983.

The research, context, and insight let loose in this 12-LP, double-7-inch boxset is downright staggering. Folks were working in (and releasing?) cassettes as far back as 1971? Shit, Ron Asheton was still playing guitar in the Stooges at that point! I wholly welcome the mind-challenge to reconfigure my brain into understanding the beauty and timeline of this subculture. Kudos to Vinyl-on-Demand, and don’t sleep on the British Cassette Culture box either!

While the material on these sets is largely experimental, things like the Galen tracks really broke through and impressed me. But they didn’t connect with me. For that, I need to have some closer tangential connection to the music. Like the two cassette releases from Dirtsquad.

While merely a blip on the radar of any sort of scene or larger historical importance, Dirtsquad were the kids I knew, kids who lived just down the street, who I went to school with, who played the church fairs and local coffee shops, who were just big enough to be able to record and self-release their own cassettes, but not much bigger to do anything beyond that.

For some unremembered reason, I never made an effort to possess these recordings when they came out back in 1996 and 1997. Maybe they’d sold out of ’em quickly. Maybe I was too deep down my Nirvana bootleg rabbit hole. Maybe I thought the band wasn’t that cool (they were just in high school, they were just fucking around, I knew better than they did). But for whatever reason, I did not grab these. The closest I got was that my little sister Angela (cooler than she’d ever know, cooler than I’d care to admit) owned one of these cassettes.

A house fire and three moves later, it’s lost to the wind and either (both?) of these cassettes are at the absolute pinnacle of my wantlist. Consider this here my standing offer of $150 for original copies of either of the Dirtsquad cassettes. I’m looking at you suburban Detroit. If memory serves, I think one tape was done in an edition of 60. I can’t imagine the other title existing in any significantly higher quantity.

The tunes are varied, with thank-yous that list Ass Ponys, Violent Femmes, and Sonic Youth — and that only gives a tiny snapshot of what you might hear. My favorite track was Cookie Jar, which showcased a three-chord riff signature reminiscent of Dave Grohl’s Pokey the Little Puppy from his Late! release on Simple Machines, itself a badass limited cassette if there ever was one.

Songs like Milk River and Harper Ave are both references to the east side suburbs we all haunted. Without even having the audio to these at hand, the mere mention of the titles brings me back to corduroys, ironic thrift-store t-shirts, bumming rides, secondhand smoke, and the unprovable teenage feeling that something amazing could happen at any moment.

In hindsight, this band was made for me, and I was too busy affecting cool to truly realize it. The players were regular guys from my neighborhood, singing specifically about my surroundings. I was too deep into impenetrable Melvins lyrics to take notice. Fifteen’s a bitch.

In the same realm as Dirtsquad was Mad Cow. I think some of the guys in Mad Cow were a little bit older. One of ’em had a Marshall half-stack, and that was just not in the realm of any high school student I knew of in ’97. Plain and simple, these guys were St. Clair Shores’ greasy-haired answer to Nirvana. With song titles like Release Me and Die For Living, it may have aged closer to the realm of Silverchair, but the first time I saw them (dropped off by my dad at a coffee house across the street from the Macomb County Community College campus), it blew my mind wide open.

The band was inarguably good. They’d rehearsed. They had effects pedals. The exuded an attitude. Everything emanating from them pushed me to work that much harder on my own musical endeavors. I bought a hand-dubbed cassette off them that night, hand-labeled with the only thing remotely resembling artwork being the “O” in “cow” barely illustrated to depict a cow face. Or a cat. Everything else on the J-card is literally just Bic pen scribbled text. An anti-release if there ever was one.

I’ve long searched for more material from these guys, but it’s one of the more difficult queries I’ve typed in to Google. Even knowing band member names and high schools has proven fruitless. I know they had a later song called Consta-poppin and would not be surprised if they recorded a cover of Nirvana’s Moist Vagina, as they absolutely slayed that one live. I’ve long been tempted to bootleg release this thing, as I think mid-to-late-’90s grunge parodies of sincerity is possibly the last “movement” that could even possibly have a Back From the Grave-worthy re-discovery.

That same night I first saw Mad Cow, a ska-punk band called Hole in One was also on the bill. Supposedly named after a porno flick, these guys were tight and polished in an entirely different way. Pretty sure they played clubs downtown. They probably even owned a van. Their release Copyright Infringement certainly gave off that impression.

Shit looks downright professional, from the dual unauthorized use of the Elias Brothers Big Boy figure on the cover art and an Empire Strikes Back book/record audio sample to start the tape, prominently showcased through the slick audio quality. Even if the label name is the insanely sophomoric Elks Doin’ It Rekkids, songs like the accusatory Mike’s Not Straight Edge (complete with recorder solo) and the hardcore studio-filler of Bob Sagat are beautiful nigh-pro products of their time, horn sections and all, inspired by quasi-local heroes Suicide Machines and Mustard Plug, but still irreverent and attitudinal enough to impress.

I bought this cassette for $5 from the locker of Cliff Kost, the lead singer of the band. For how much I may disown ska-punk in my mid-30s, I cannot shake the truth that buying a tape out of a high school locker may be one of the cooler things I’ve done in my life.

One cassette that I’ve been itching to release is a previously undocumented, self-recorded and self-released tape by the Come-Ons. Before their pop-soul tunes had sprouted out of the burgeoning Detroit garage scene of the early ’00s, the duo of Pat Pantano and Deanne Iovann were slumming it in Pittsburgh. In what could possibly be chalked up to a fit of homesickness, they laid down stellar covers of the MC5’s Tonight and the Stooges’ Dirt.

Man, the solo on Dirt is bonkers. As the two of them are just drum and bass in tandem, they get the extra punch with the solo — what could only be described as a hard lean on all the keys of a 1960s Farfisa organ. Just attitude for days. Beautiful. Dirty. In the red.

I’ll be damned that it took working on this essay for 15 hours before I finally realized I had overlooked the most noteworthy cassette in my pile.

In late 1997, an aptly-named teen trio called 400 Pounds of Punk (also from St. Clair Shores) recorded a handful of tracks in a makeshift home studio at 1203 Ferdinand Street in Southwest Detroit. The track list is a sparse four songs, with the snotty From the Garbage Bin being my personal favorite. An unlisted hidden fifth track is a rude cover of Blondie’s One Way Or Another with vocal duties shared by the band’s lead singer Jamie Cherry and one of the session engineers, a then-unknown Jack White.

The cassette, titled He Once Ate A Small Child is, as far as I can tell, the rarest physical release of a Jack White performance. And prior to the mention here, the release was completely undocumented. I doubt more than a half-dozen people even knew about it.

This is why cassettes are the new 45s. Because there’s still so much to discover there. If I can personally rattle off these handful of releases that are otherwise non-existent both informationally and audibly in any reasonable modern Internet manner…how many other tapes are languishing in despair in moldy basements across the country? Across the globe?

If my inchoate ramblings here can serve any legitimate purpose, dig out your own box and start uploading and cataloging. I thank you in advance, and the rest of the world will thank you later.

My Top 10 Cassette Wants

3△7△* ‎– The Hypostasis Of R’lyeh | HOLY SHIT!?!?!?! What does this even sound like? I am unaware of any mention of this ANYWHERE outside of Discogs. I NEED THIS AND WILL SPEND A MORTGAGE PAYMENT ON IT. User readytodie, get a hold of me, please!

Dirtsquad – Congratluations Pico

Dirtsquad – Untitled

Godzuki ‎– Minus Ammonia Set | I swear I saw this for sale at Car City Records once. I am not kidding that I have dreams about it.

Epileptix ‎– Kill Yourself

Magik Markers ‎– Beep Beep | There’s one available now, I may just buy it before they publish this article. This band is WAAAY underrated. Expect their stuff to go crazy at…some point.

The Stooges ‎– Fun House | Bootleg Russian copy of the Stooges Fun House? Sign me up.

Various ‎– Magnets At The Bottom Of The Sea | I’m a sucker for local Michigan compilations.

Godzuki ‎– First One

Fecal Matter ‎– Before Nirvana… The 1985 Kurt Cobain Hometape | I mean, sure, why not.

Cassette Week at Discogs

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Ben Blackwell
Ben Blackwell has spent the last 22 years of his life doing all he can to weasel his nose into as much music-related trouble he can rustle up. In 1998, he was interning for Detroit-based independent label Italy Records and selling merchandise for the White Stripes. By 1999, he would join the ranks of garage rock mediocrity as the drummer in the Dirtbombs. In 2003, Blackwell would start his own vinyl-focused imprint Cass Records, run from his high school bedroom. Right after he dropped out of journalism school, Rolling Stone magazine bestowed upon Blackwell their 2004 College Journalism award. By 2009, Blackwell had moved to Nashville to help start Third Man Records, a label, venue, storefront, and stadium soccer chant royalty laundering operation. Since then, he's overseen the release of nearly 700 titles at Third Man, from Billboard chart-toppers to sellers of 20 copies. In 2017, Blackwell was instrumental in the opening of Third Man Pressing, a brand new vinyl pressing plant in the city of his birth, Detroit. He's lucky to be married to his, wife, Malissa and they live in a (metaphorical) yurt amidst the chaos of their three (literal) daughters, Violet, Mabel, and Navy.