March 3, 2021

Metal Memories: The Best Cassette Tape Ever

Are cassette tapes really coming back? I doubt it, but some seem to think they might. Besides, I'll be the first to admit I would not have anticipated vinyl coming back the way it has. Reading that post made me think back to the days of the cassette tape, so I figured I'd write about the one that stands out as my all-time favorite.

Back in the day, my preferred format for buying music was the cassette tape. I'm old enough to remember 8-tracks, but they were on the way out so that vinyl and cassettes were our choices. As much as I appreciated vinyl for the cover art, the record player was the weak link in my cheap audio system. Store-bought cassette tapes sounded better, were far more portable, could be played in my car (which is one of the few places I could count on listening in peace), and were much easier to conceal from my parents. That last one is a sad commentary on the state of even liberal Christianity in the 1980s, but it has to be mentioned. When they got their hands on a record and discovered the lyrics printed on the liner, I was going to catch hell.

The way most cassettes were produced in those days was by copying the design of the vinyl album. That is, the first side of the tape would contain the first side of the vinyl album, and the second side would be found on the other side of the tape. Cassette players quickly evolved to include an auto-reverse feature that would begin playing side 2 of the tape when side 1 ended without needing to be ejected, flipped, and reinserted. This was a nice idea but suffered from at least one problem. The length of the sides was rarely the same, and it was common for side 1 to contain a long tail (i.e., silence after the music had ended). One could either sit through it and wait for the auto-reverse to do its thing or fast forward to the end.

Of all the cassette tapes I owned, I fondly remember the first one I encountered that took a different approach: Slayer's Reign in Blood, which remains one of my favorite metal albums even today. Given the relatively short length of the album and advances in cassette tape technology allowing for longer recordings, they recorded the entire album on both sides of the tape. That is, side 2 was an identical copy of side 1. Far from feeling cheated that there wasn't anything different on side 2, they gave us exactly what we wanted. I listed to that cassette so many times I eventually wore it out. And every time I got to the end of side 1, all I wanted to do was hear it again. Thanks to the short tail and auto-reverse, that was just what I did.

I can still remember buying that tape and putting it in my car's cassette deck to listen to it for the first time. I had heard Hell Awaits recently, but I still wasn't prepared for this. To say the album blew me away would be a gross understatement. I remember driving around aimlessly because I couldn't go home until I'd heard it all. I remember hitting the end of side 1 and feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. And I remember the moment the auto-reverse kicked in and I was treated to an encore of "Angel of Death." I had no idea the tape had been designed this way, but I was damn glad it was. I made it home eventually and decided it was safer to keep the cassette in my car where it would be less likely to be discovered. Besides, it was hard to imagine going anywhere without it.