I have a deep affection for a format that diminished to the brink of extinction during the early years of the digital age, yet a format now happily making something of a comeback: the audio cassette. My first studio consisted of two Superscope cassette recorders and a cheap Sony microphone, rigged up to create lengthy odes to phonic decay, bouncing tracks between the two machines while simultaneously adding mike voices or noise until I reached a satisfying reduction of entropic mud.
Most of these early experiments have been lost to posterity, and possibly that is all for the best, but this rare surviving fragment should give the general idea. Since most radio stations were rather hostile to the notion of broadcasting such cryptoacoustic ephemera even during graveyard hours on a Tuesday night, the notion of “cassette radio” (prototypical podcast, but with more soul) became widely circulated, enabled by post office intermediation. Every day, strange packages would appear stuffed into my rather cramped loft mail box in NYC; packages that would often be adorned with bits of cloth, or hand cut stamps, or wrapped in ribbons, or even (once) chicken wire.
The packages themselves were often fabricated from recycled shoe boxes or other consumer flotsam. I became friends with my neighborhood postman, a friendship which undoubtedly saved some of the more aggressively undeliverable packages from the Dead Letter Office. Inside the packages, there would often be more layers of wrapping and concealment, and then finally, the cassette itself – hand colored, painted, smeared, scratched and sometimes unplayable.
By 1990, all of this networked activity and output was referred to by Robin James as Cassette Mythos, but it would be wrong to retroactively impart too much conscious coherence to the scene. The dispersed, casual and even random quality of the exchanges (mostly barter) was a large part of what made it so appealing, as did the raw sensual nature of the artifact.
Hand made cassettes may have lacked commercial mojo, but they possessed an abundance of character, and cassette culture was thereby populated by a lively assortment of appealing characters whose ideas and aspirations did not quite conform to other channels. Some of these characters produced labels that celebrated the cassette aesthetic, though they also often
released vinyl as well. Among the vast array of enchanting untergrund labels, one in particular caught my ear: Banned Production, under the direction of a prolific, generous and brilliant individual (male or female I did not know) who for many years I knew only by the initials AMK, though his cover has been blown for at least a decade: AMK, aka Anthony King.
In any event, it seems that for some people, downloading audio pancakes from itunes just does not cut it, with cassettes one again beginning to appear along the vibrant edges of the electroacoustic universe. Banned Production appears very much in the thick of the renaissance, assembling an enviable stable of contributors, a veritable Who’s Who of Legendary Audio Experimenters you might never have heard of.
I titled my most recent radio castaway Potato God Scarecrow, billed as a freely associative radiophonic disorder in the approximate shape of a beaver lodge, and now also available as a Banned Production cassette. Like beavers, cassettes are paradoxical critters. Both have experienced near extinction, yet survived against the odds precisely because of their oddness, and their remarkable ability to complicate monocultural flow, whether riverine or digital. May they both live long and prosper.