Heisenberg: My ’80s Contraband Life

I read an article a while back talking about the fact that cassette tapes were making a comeback. In fact, cassette tape sales were up over 130% in 2017. I used to love cassette tapes. They were my musical modus operandi all through junior high, high school and into college. While the renewed interest in this antiquated technology may be nothing but a passing fancy, reading the article brought back some fond, fond memories for me.

I was a late bloomer, musically. I didn’t really get into music till around the age of thirteen. Up to that point (and even after), my parents had tried to head the rock and roll devil off at the pass by pushing me towards Christian music. Early in 1984, though, I heard two songs that cemented my rock and roll fixation forever: “(You Can Still) Rock In America” and “The Reflex”. One day, while at a mall with my family, I spent some of my hard-earned lawn mowing money at Hastings Records and Tapes on two cassettes. I bought Midnight Madness by Night Ranger and Seven and The Ragged Tiger by Duran Duran. My parents promptly made me return them, opting instead to take me to the Christian book store where I plunked down my hard-earned cash on a couple of tapes from a little known Irish band called U2, October and War  (the jokes were on them with that purchase…but I digress).

Night Ranger

I didn’t matter though. I was hooked. I found a friend at school who had the album versions of both the tapes I tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase and paid him a dollar a tape to record them for me. I started recording everything. I had cassettes full of songs recorded off of the radio as well as television. I also soon discovered that a local radio station, KMOD in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would play albums from beginning to end in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. I started recording those as well. I would set a watch alarm under my pillow so I could wake up and change the tapes out when I needed to. On several occasions, I scored the mother lode. One night, they played four Van Halen records back to back (I, II, Diver Down and 1984). Recorded them all. Another night, they played four Ozzy Osbourne records (Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of A Madman, Speak of The Devil and Bark at The Moon). Got them too. On and on and on.

It was around that time that I started high school and I had made a couple of new friends that were getting into music as much as I was. One of those friends had something called “dual cassette decks”. The music world was suddenly WIDE open. As fast as we could borrow tapes from people we were dubbing and distributing. It didn’t matter what it was or if we were a fan of it or not. If someone went to a concert and had a way to record it, we’d dub that off too. Horrible quality but we didn’t care. When I finally got my own dual cassette deck set up, my music collection started really growing. Exponentially. My little twenty-four capacity tape case (remember those?) quickly became two fifty capacity, double-sided tape SUITCASES plus a wall mount case. Some of it was purchased. Most of it was bootlegged. I remember driving to the mall one day with a buddy, on our lunch break, to buy the new release from Tesla, Mechanical Resonance. By that evening, I had already made five copies of it, ready for distribution. I was like that with all my music. I made copies for everybody. If I liked you, I would just give you a copy. I’d even write all the song and album information on the insert for you. If I didn’t like you, I’d charge you a buck or two. I was a stupid kid, though. If I had possessed ANY foresight at all I would have been charging for EVERY dub and charging more than a buck or two! Most of us had no idea it was illegal. I don’t think we would have even cared if we did know. It was all contraband, though, and if I could develop a formula to calculate the value it would probably be staggering.

Duran Duran

We can’t forget mixtapes in this conversation. Oh, the mixtapes. So many mixtapes. One for every occasion, it seemed. Out of all the gloriousness that was cassette tape technology, this is the one true gem that has been lost forever. Some of them were truly awesome, some were truly stupid. We still had the ability to combine ten or eleven songs that expressed our emotions or feelings when compact discs came into play but it wasn’t the same. They’ve both have since been replaced with “the playlist” but, really, can the mixtape ever really be replaced? I saw part of a movie recently where a guy made a music mix USB drive. That’s just dumb. The beauty of the mixtape (and even CD I guess) was you could make it for someone and leave it on their car or in their locker or anywhere they were sure to find it. They could pop it in immediately and listen. I actually still have a way to record to tape. Sadly I have no blank tapes. Remember buying the big bricks of blank tapes from Walmart? Yep. Can those be purchased anywhere other than the Internet now?  In all actuality, mixtapes were contraband as well. Making them required the illegal duplication and distribution of copyrighted material. We were all felons and didn’t even know (or care).

Technology rolls on and on and every year will be the anniversary of some piece of it that was thrown by the wayside in favor of something cooler and more advanced. If you grew up in the ’80s, though, stop with me for a few minutes, raise your boom box over your head and remember the cassette tape. Also, remember this: had the RIAA be as active back then as they are now in their quest to squash music piracy we’d all be in so much trouble.

Say. My. Name.


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About Eric Vardeman 114 Articles
80's lover. Screenwriter. Cohost of The Greatest Lists podcast. Christmas enthusiast. Tulsa Curling Club founder. Cherokee. Guitar player. Boomer Sooner. Curator of 80's playlists (https://open.spotify.com/user/127168733)

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