Updated: Feb 25, 2019
I envisioned this article last December, and it's stagnated long enough. A draft was scrapped months ago, but this cassette tape fan letter/history lesson has been festering at me. Everything I wrote down in the early days of the blog still held true at revision, and with a little (okay, a ton of) tweaking, I was able to develop what would have been the site's fifth entry into the fifty-first. Let's look at why cassettes, both audio and video, rock the proverbial house. We'll also scratch the surface of the LaserDisc. That was a pun!
Many people prefer a tangible product for its inherently collectible nature, and cassettes really appeal to the completest mentality. (There's a fine line between that and hoarding.) Physical media is a thing of beauty, and is often neglected in today's digital culture. I've never understood the appeal of downloading music or movies. I've tried it, and came away with no joy: If I'm going to pay for a file, it had better be good enough to put someone in prison. I contend that putting an object into a player, pressing a button and having the two work in tandem to give birth to a sensation, is a thing of wonder. Of all physical media, cassette tapes are some of the most satisfying to this blogger's old-school sensibilities.
Let's focus first on the once-standard video tape. VHS was introduced in 1977, and believe it or not, is still going (more on that in a bit). Standing for "Video Home System," it became the market leader primarily because it was the cheapest format, and secondly due to its longer recording time versus Betamax, which had the superior picture. Created by JVC and containing an average of 812 feet of tape per two-hour movie, VHS was the kingpin format which ultimately toppled to DVD, which debuted in March of 1997.
But VHS didn't go down without a fight: Not only did the familiar cassettes continue to sell alongside DVD for years, JVC came back with a vengeance in 1998 with a high-definition VHS tape, known as D-VHS. Pre-recorded films were released for the format in 2002 under the label of "D-Theater." Their picture quality was actually superior to DVD, and almost indiscernible from today's Blu-ray offerings. At its core however, D-VHS was a tape, and DVD was a more appealing consumer format due to the inclusion of options which a cassette couldn't offer. D-VHS failed to make much of a dent in the industry, ultimately accepting its loss to DVD and Blu-Ray in 2004. (D-VHS recorders were available directly from JVC for another three years, but that's really getting technical. Far crazier is the fact that in Japan, Betamax recorders were still being sold new from Sony until 2016! I should have picked one up while I was there on our honeymoon.)
Here's an example of the incredible quality of D-VHS.
VHS tapes look great lined up on the shelf, with their one-inch thick spines proclaiming their contents. I love the heft of VHS tapes; they're built like tanks. Scratch your Blu-Ray? Good luck. Run over that Flashdance tape with your '87 Cougar? Brush it off and call it good. Here are a few choice selections of my VHS library. And by "choice," I mean "stuff most people would throw away." Some of my collection was amassed during the closing of local video stores.
These next tapes from my collection are pretty special: Robotech is signed by Tony Olivier, the voice actor in the English dub of main character Rick Hunter. I got Slugs autographed by Larry Ann Evans, the film's production manager, during our road trip to the filming location of the low-budget horror classic.
I will concede that VHS is far from the greatest video format. Even in its heyday, its quality fell behind LaserDisc and Betamax. It doesn't help that tapes from the '80s and '90s have experienced a ten to fifteen percent loss of data, due to magnetic decay. But of all retro formats, VHS is by far the most accessible, still popping up in rummage sales and thrift stores. I pick up VHS tapes every now and then, because I'm a sucker for clutter.
The last film to see an official VHS release by a major studio was New Line Cinema's 2006 drama A History of Violence, although small issues of independent films on tape are fairly common. (This is especially true for the horror genre, where new VHS prints in limited runs often fetch premium dollars.) Today, the format produces a downright awful playback experience, prone to static and instability, but objectivity never stood in the way of nostalgia, and there's a special charm in viewing a movie on tape. Case in point: VHS has such as devoted fan base in the horror community that a documentary titled VHS Lives was released in May 2018.
I would be remiss if I didn't include the following gem: a video game console which uses VHS tapes! The Action Max is the only game system in history not capable of generating its own graphics, but I wouldn't exactly call that a claim to fame. It was released in 1987 by Worlds of Wonder (WoW), the company most notable for producing Teddy Ruxpin, a toy bear that talked via audio cassette. (The teddy bear housed a form of animatronics, similar to what was used at Chuck E. Cheese.) WoW was sitting pretty with Teddy, which had been the best-selling toy in the United States for the previous two years, but it dropped the ball with the Action Max.
I found my Action Max, still in foam packaging, in a dumpster dive behind a Domino's! (Don't ask.) It's the same store that's seen in my payphone road trip. The replay for these "games" is non-existent: The tape advances, and if you hit a target with your light gun, you register a point. (You also have to suction-cup a goofy red light to your TV screen, giving you that much less viewable space.) There's no way you can lose against a videotape, making the Action Max perfect for today's outcome-based society!
Here's the Action Max commercial. Only five titles were ever released for this joke of a console, and I don't feel a burning desire to complete my collection.
The following is the TV spot for Teddy Ruxpin, which was an all-around more impressive product. Teddy also serves as a great transition for our shift to audio tapes! (My friend Dennis had one of these bears, and I was crazy jealous.)
Audio cassettes are much better at their respective job, and with a quality player, even a vintage tape can sound as good or better than a CD. There are a few aspects of audio tapes which I find particularly endearing. I love the fact that you sometimes have to wait for an audio tape to cue, because it builds anticipation. And when you're playing an audio cassette, one side may be longer, "to preserve album continuity," as it would sometimes state on the tape. Basically, you appreciate the music more when you have to wait a little. Don't have the patience? Hit the fast-forward button on that Walkman. Listen, and indeed feel the gears spin: The tape hits the end, and you know it. Open the door, take out the cassette, flip it over, put it back in and close the door. Hit play again and the auditory party kicks back into high gear. There's a lot going on with a tape, and it all translates into visceral enjoyment, almost a guilty pleasure. Call me jaded, but you don't get the same degree of fun from your iTunes playlist. I keep a rack of tapes by the door, which get circulated with ones from our cars:
It's a little-known fact that it's possible to record video on an audio tape! This task can be carried out by the PXL-2000, a toy camcorder released in 1987 by Fisher-Price. This obscure camera has become a valuable asset to the independent film circuit, due to its gloriously low-res imagery that oozes "artsy." Only 400,000 were produced, due to poor sales resulting from the PXL 2000's high price point: This thing retailed for $179, which according to Wikepedia translates to $383 in today's economy. Basically, if you had a PXL 2000 when it was new, you were a spoiled brat. No offense.
Here's the camera and an example of its abilities. It even recorded audio! That metal box next to the monitor is the signal switcher for video playback; it could also be used on the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision game systems.
This wasn't Fisher-Price's only entry into the exciting world of magnetic media: Consider the 1988 release of Pocket Rockers. The following commercial for the toy tape deck has a snippet of an '80s Twix candy ad preceding it, to put things into more of a cultural context. (Or maybe I just enjoy junk food.) Of course, a good chunk of YouTube wouldn't be around if it wasn't for the trusty VCR.
A wise move from a corporate standpoint, the only place Pocket Rockers players bore the Fisher-Price branding was inside the tape door. The toy company no doubt knew that a thirteen-year-old wouldn't be caught dead wearing anything with their logo on it.
While some Pocket Rockers tapes were singles, the majority included two songs. Most importantly, you could clip the tapes on your ripped jean jacket as a fashion accessory! The Pocket Rocker was axed in 1991, but not before millions of kids prowled malls for dates while adorned with little plastic boxes:
The rich analog sound produced by a cassette beats the too-clean audio of digital formats, in my opinion. It sounds more true-to-life. It has "body." More than that, it has soul. Unlike some vintage audio formats such as turntables, you don't need to shell out big money for a cassette deck: They're readily available online, and even some retail stores still sell them. Not long ago, I spotted a no-name brand at a local CVS. I should head back there and pick one up, as my Walkman died since I started writing this article almost seven months back. This particular model, the WM-2011, was released in the early '90s, so it lead a full life. Still, I am hesitant to part with it, as it once helped me through some tough times when I was living in a different city:
It's easy to get wrapped up in the "now." Tapes are reminiscent of a time when instant gratification wasn't waiting behind a touchscreen. If your car was made prior to 2011, there's a good chance it has a tape deck; you may be running your phone through it with an adapter. Think about picking up some cassettes the next time you hit the Salvation Army or Goodwill. It'll set you back only a few cents, and you may find you've got a very cheap addiction on your hands.
Bonus content no one demanded: LaserDisc!
Although it's my personal favorite format, the sad fact is that LaserDisc was an "also-ran" in the home video market, due mainly to it offering no recording option to the average consumer. It was possible to record on the LaserDisc, but was cost-prohibitive on an already expensive media. Recordable LaserDiscs saw some use in corporate settings, but failed to gain any significant foothold. While the LaserDisc offered many of DVD's features, such as chapter stops and multiple audio tracks, it was woefully neglected in the States due to its aforementioned issues. But LaserDisc had more success in Europe, and was extremely popular in Japan and Asia, becoming the dominant rental format in '90s Hong Kong. The More You Know.
Here's my LD player, purchased from my friend, the late indie horror legend John Polonia. I'll never get rid of it. John and his twin brother Mark founded Polonia Bros. Entertainment, which churned out legions of cult classics, including Splatter Farm and Feeders. Mark Polonia is active in film production to this day, and you can read our interview with him here.
Evil Dead 2 also came from John, and it's one of my favorite films. I love that blood red disc! I threw in the House DVD for size comparison. (House is an underrated horror flick, which you should totally watch.)
I remember experiencing LaserDisc for the first time, circa 1992. It was in science class, and we watched a short film on one of the hulking units. The only thing I recall about the movie was a car speeding away from the camera, and the teacher asking us what the license plate read. Nobody knew, and we were told that we needed to pay more attention. This incident may have been instrumental in triggering my OCD.
Even as a kid, I was blown away by the picture quality of LaserDisc. The teacher held up the disc and told the class, "Get used to seeing these, because they're the wave of the future." Not so much, public education. Of course, we were also told that the United States would, any day now, convert to the metric system, so we'd better learn it. The only thing you need to know about the metric system is that they aren't making yardsticks any longer! Now that I've bookended this article with puns, I can die happy.