Friday, October 29, 2010

The death of a disco walkman


My reaction to Sony’s announcement this week that they are ceasing production of the cassette Walkman was one of surprise. Surprised that they are still making the damn things! Moreover, who, other than ‘retro-geeks’ is buying them in this age of the ipod, mp3 player etc??

I have chequered memories of my own experience of the Walkman. I’m not sure I ever had a Sony Walkman. My first walkman was a cheaper imitation, a sort of ‘no name’ walkman. Or personal stereo, to be strictly accurate. It had large-ish, ‘over-ear’ headphones and took 4 x AA batteries. As you can see above, a designer’s dream. They were quite clunky, generally too big for a pocket. Many’s the jacket pocket I ripped trying to wedge it in.

The headphones were seldom good quality. After a time, usually one headphone would stop working. This sometimes gave a whole new sound to older music, memorably the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, where I lost the saxophone side, so just had Keith Richard’s dirty guitar riff. I always liked hearing it that way. For other albums, a strategically placed finger resting beside the headphone jack would allow stereo sound to resume for the most part.

The cheap nature of the headphones led to serious leakage, ie on a bus journey the whole bus would hear a tinny version of whatever you were listening to. My brother used to be quite disdainful of whatever nonsense he would inadvertently hear spewing put of my headphones when we got the bus to school. Still it wasn’t as bad as the guy with the crimped hair who used to get the same bus who used to listen to P0rn0gr@phy by The Cure every day, at the same point. Thus you’d hear him coming, announced by the dismal riff of One Hundred Years and Robert Smith groaning out “it doesn’t matter if we all die” (and I like The Cure!).

Batteries were a huge issue. As I said my first walkman took 4 of them. Not to put too fine a point on it, it ate batteries. Particularly fast-forwarding a tape (cassette) used up a lot of batteries. Early versions had no rewind button, so if you wanted to go back, you had to turn over the tape and fast-forward, guessing the point in the tape that you wanted to hit. On the other hand, this difficulty meant that you really listened to an album, with no option to skip tracks, and those lovingly assembled tapes became the soundtrack to growing up.

One of the ways of getting around the battery eating problem was to spend a dull class winding the reels of tape with a pen. Or another way was to carry around a ‘fast-forwarding set of batteries’, ie. batteries which were almost used up. This was because when your batteries started running down, the tape would play slooowwwer, with unintentionally hilarious results (everything sounded goth!). Later versions only needed 2 batteries, a major leap forward.

There was a certain art to avoiding having to fast forward on a walkman, you had to make sure that every minute of your C60, C90 or even C120 tape was full of music. The ideal was to have a 45 minute album on each side of a C90. Invariably I ended up carrying around 4-5 tapes with me at all times. Several variants were launched, I seem to remember a Walkman Sports, which was distinguished by having curved edges and being yellow. Very sporty.

It was revolutionary though at the time, being able to hear your music on the go. It brightened up a dull bus-ride and blazed a trail for the mp3 players of today. Other versions had a radio as well as tape player. Some tried to listen to music in class, courtesy of a single headphone up a sleeve! In later years, the CD walkman (of Discman) was launched. I never really took to it, as CDs are not the most portable things and one CD was seldom enough.

So long, walkman, you served me well. After all how many other devices were immortalised in song by Morrissey (“as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her walkman started to melt” – Bigmouth Strikes Again by The Smiths).