Sonic Artifacts from the Underground
Words by Thurston Moore
The cassette always had the hottest, most excited sound for my ears.
I love physicality in music production – the vibrating speaker in an amp-powered cabinet, bass throbbing and guitar shredding. Record player tonearms licking through the vinyl grooves of tiny, hilly mounds and valleys. The electromagnetic impulse feed flashing through the stylus and cartridge and coming manifest through the cosmos of soul static stereo speakers.
But cassettes are the best, ruling with moving parts, the fat ferrous oxide tape sliced into thin strips holding sonic information zapped off of magnetic heads, whipping, rolling like an automobile in sweet cruise gear.
In the ’70s we had the 8-track cartridge. Big, clunky and with zero regard for the fact that a song may have to fade out before the track actually finished. The cassette, at first a little cousin to the 8-track, soon became the more sophisticated and applicable medium, and by the mid-’80s was as popular as the LP.
When hip-hop hit big, it was the cassette that carried the news, from the Jeep to the playground. Of course, CDs and digital media came along and reformatted the listener paradigm, but for those of us who wanted to share ideas with some sense of economy, the cassette became our medium, away from the interest of the mainstream.
“…the cassette became our medium, away from the interest of the mainstream.”
My love for cassettes starts with the mixtape, those love letters we’d gift each other of the songs that defined our personalities – or at least the personality we’d want our giftee to think of us by. This practice did indeed fade with the CD, which enticed us to “burn” songs – a lovely thing to do for awhile, until that faded away as well.
At some point in the ’90s I noticed more and more young artists from the estranged musical underground of the globe issuing their sounds on home recorded cassettes with bedroom art/love designed card covers.
The proliferation of this activity, documenting all the shared and growing aspects of noise, free improvisation, avant-folk and uncategorizable music-making became a scene unto itself, particularly in tandem with the network of communication the internet offered.
From the late-’90s into the ’00s, we had a golden age of underground music made in a wholly alternative environment, away from the standards of commercialized music production. I spent most of this golden age not only active in this scene but fully engaged in archiving as much as I could within my own parameters of absurd reason.
What we have here is but a taste, a morsel, a flash into the dynamic that is the true underpinnings of contemporary music, both experimental and popular. Cassette culture, as underground reportage is still extant today, with films documenting its continued life and sub-sub genres like the most marginalized recesses of black metal avowing elite “kult” status to the holy, lowly tape.
“What we have here is but a taste, a morsel, a flash into the dynamic that is the true underpinnings of contemporary music…”
I suggest locating a decent, inexpensive cassette recorder with built-in microphone, some blank tapes and a head full of steam, mixed with the pleasure of touch. Allow your fingers to push down the play/record buttons, let your inspirations rip, then pass this masterpiece of heart and soul on to the one(s) you love. It’s that easy.
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