Thursday, 7 November 2013

Tolkien to tapes - just a normal day in Vole Towers

Despite having a massive headache, today has been an excellent one.

I've seen two of my dissertation students who are sorted, thoughtful, interesting and organised. One is doing a Tolkien thesis, which would normally send me running to the loos for a spot of retching (I write as a teenage Tolkien fan and – the shame – member of the Tolkien Society) but her plan is to examine the nature and cultural origins of the various models of heroism in Lord of the Rings. We talked about narrative strategies and commentary, sex, race, theories of degeneration and a host of other things. I've sent her away to read The Decline of the West (with asbestos gloves) to give her a sense of the conservative intellectual climate of the time. I just hope she doesn't turn up for our next consultation planning to liquidate me as an untermensch!

The other dissertation consultation was about a project based on the nostalgic revival of music formats, particularly the recent cult of the cassette tape. Like me, he collects vinyl, and plans to talk to record label owners about the motivation of producers and consumers of obsolete formats.

Neither of us think vinyl is obsolete, but cassettes definitely are: they were poor-quality back in the day and have no redeeming characteristics other than wilful obscurantism. We're thinking that he can start with a Frankfurt School take, then look at theories of subcultures and material objects in popular culture.

If the pair of them write as well as they talk, it's going to be a fascinating few months.

I remember tapes - they were how I first encountered recorded music. They were rubbish. My parents owned a Best of Vaughan Williams together, and Dad had a Best of U2 and Best of The Dubliners. As you can see, 'Best Of…' was a theme, and one which to me meant 'these people don't really like music', which was only partially fair. Completists they were not. They also possessed hundreds of C120 tapes, previously used to dictate letters and medical notes for transcription. If you think C60s were rubbish, C120s are a revelation. The sound quality is utterly appalling and the tape is really, really thin, so any music sounds like it was recorded in a gale, you could often hear the tracks on the other side as well, and they'd snap or foul frequently. Oh, and each play wore out the tape: permanent, they were not. Much time was spent gently coaxing fragile magnetic ribbon out of my £12.99 white Woolworths dual-tape player with a pencil, soon replaced by a £15 Sanyo one.

And yet for a kid without pocket money, this was a lifeline: recording John Peel and Evening Session programmes onto one tape, then editing it down to just the interesting bits on the other deck. After that, one was free to listen in bed using my dad's 1970's Aiwa pre-Walkman, and to make compilation tapes, which demanded considerable dexterity to hold multiple buttons down, and maths skills (to fit the right number of songs per side without cutting them off or leaving long gaps), let alone the artistic and creative requirements for producing a coherent sequence of tracks communicating exactly the sentiment required. Though I say so myself, I think I was quite good at that: every song a pleasurable gem, while making the recipient understand exactly how highbrow and musically adventurous I was. Ahem. I was very upset when whoever nicked my friend Vicky's car stole all her tapes except for the one I'd done her. Philistines.

I've just finished writing my union branch report on the REF process (wailing and gnashing of teeth) and now I'm off to a colleague's house to watch loads of old Dr Who. For the purposes of research, I'll have you know: we've a couple of papers cooking but I can't tell you what they're about because you'll all just nick our ideas. Or laugh at them anyway.

Soundtrack to the day has been Oliver Knussen. Have a cantata:

1 comment:

Benjamin Judge said...

Cassettes are obsolete, but it was computers and not cds that made them so. Every terrible song that I, and a million other teenagers, created before every house had a laptop, tablet or smartphone was recorded on cassette. That, I think, is where a lot of the affection for them derives. Vinyl sounds (and looks, and feels) nicer than cassettes, but cassettes were a sort of proto-myspace, giving everyone the chance to record their, for want of a more accurate word, music.

They are shit though, don't get me wrong. You only have to try and save one with a philips screwdriver, scissors, and selotape to realise their design was flawed.