A brief history of cassette culture
There is no definitive history of this underground movement that I know. It is pieced together by various people and a few disparate sources, and from the personal experiences of those involved. In 1990, Robin James published the only book so far about underground tape culture called “Cassette Mythos”. In 2009, Andrew Szava-Kovats produced the first film about the underground music scene of the 80s called “Grindstone Redux”. There was also a film on loner artist, Jandek, a couple of years ago but that did not address the general scene. In 2005, Kevin Thorne and Mike Honeycutt began Cassette Culture.net, an important resource and landing spot for home tapers new and old. Internet radio host, Jerry Kranitz is now at work on a book project as well.
“The Flavor Of Acid On Ice” by Los Angeles soundscape artist, Minoy. Image is of the inside cover and decorated shell casing.
Some people claim that it really began in England in the late 1970s as a post punk movement related to bands like Throbbing Gristle and that ilk. Others say it grew out of the mail art movement which began as early as the 1950s and had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.
Here in the USA it is usually thought of as a result of the publication of magazines like OP ( Olympia Washington), Option ( Los Angeles CA), Sound Choice ( Ojai CA), Factsheet 5, Unsound and others. Later, essential zines like Electronic Cottage, Gajoob and Autoreverse kept the information flowing. More about that later.
Yximalloo, the crazy home recording project of Nao Ishimaru from Japan. This tape was recorded between 1981-3.
Of course many, many people were involved in this scene and any list would only be partial. However, some people made such tremendous efforts that they should be mentioned here ( and probably will be later too). Keep in mind, this is my perspective and not necessarily what others experienced.
R. Stevie Moore is generally considered the “godfather” of home taping in the USA. His enormous and creative output from the mid 1970s and his “Cassette Club” were forerunners of the massive exchange of tapes that were to come in the 1980’s. In Great Britain, Martin Newell is looked on by many people as the artist who really epitomized the truly independent, home recording artist.
Recorded in 1988-89 at Doug Walker’s Space Station Studio in Brooklyn, “Rap” by Alien Planetscapes. Doug passed away in 2008. R.I.P, to this space rock veteran and all around good guy.
Al Margolis is thought of as a central figure in cassette culture because of his Sound Of Pig label which distributed and released hundreds of home produced cassettes. Al’s label focused primarily on experimental music but not exclusively. His own music project is called If,Bwana which continues to this day. He now runs the Pogus label in New York.
Hal McGee had a project with Debbie Jaffe called Viscera (and solo as Dog As Master ) which put him squarely in the forefront of avant garde, home recording artists. His tireless efforts on his own art and his later publication, Electronic Cottage, made him an invaluable resource for many through the years. Hal is still very active at www.halmcgee.com
French experimentalist, Lieutenant Caramel’s tape on the audiofile label, “L’Odyssee du Liuetenant Caramel”, released in 1989.
John Foster and The Lost Music Network started it all rolling with OP Magazine from Olympia, Washington. Scott Becker, Richie Unterberger and the other people who ran Option Magazine contributed a hearty dose of criticism and support to a fledgling scene that needed a slap every so often. David Ciaffardini did the same with his Sound Choice Magazine as did Mike Gunderloy ( and others) at Factsheet 5. Of course there were a few other zines like Gajoob ( Bryan Baker), ND Magazine ( Daniel Plunkett), Autoreverse ( Ian C. Stewart), babysue (Steven Fievet) , Improvijazzation Nation ( Rotcod Zzaj) and I will try to cover them in more detail later. Reviewers like Jack Jordan, Brad Bradberry, Dave Mandl and the late Chris (squared) of Ann Arbor were instrumental in criticism and support.
Matthias Lang ran the IRRE label in Germany which released this live tape by Unpleasant Surprise, a trio from Berlin
Ken Clinger was (and is) one of the most unique and distinctive home recording artists of all time with his brand of story telling, dreamy keyboards and his endless collaborations with others. His oeuvre is remarkable and his self cataloging is an important aspect of his work.
Zan Hoffman is probably the most prolific artist in this scene ever with over one thousand releases. His own meticulous cataloging of his own material is a wake up call for how it can and should be done.
Chris Phinney runs the Harsh Reality label in Memphis and has produced and collaborated on countless tapes of electronic music. His own work has been monumental in scope as well as his constant communication and exchange with others.
Some of the racks I keep my tapes stored on in my garage studio. They came from my job in the grocery store and originally held Duracell batteries. 75 tapes fit into each one of the kiwifruit boxes you see pictured and they all revolve for easy access.
Mike Honeycutt has had his own radio show since the 1980s and has produced his own brand of electronic music during that time. He has been a champion of avant garde and experimental artists since the beginning. His own electronic project is called Mystery Hearsay.
dAS is a SF Bay Area fixture with his unusual group, Big City Orchestra. He also has had various radio programs over the years and has a huge output of material. Probably the most important and unique individual of the west coast scene.
Andy Xport in England introduced me to dozens of European and British artists with his ISC compilations. His band, Man’s Hate, was also an integral part of the U.K. scene.
Oddball artists like Daniel Johnston, Jandek, Little Fyodor, Yximalloo, Minoy,Dan Fioretti, Buzzsaw, and Costes played crucial roles in establishing the outsider nature of this movement. Many of these will be brought up later as I go deeper into the specific aspects.
Over the years, Lord Litter has been a champion of independent music from his perch in Berlin by using the radio and internet. His own music has also been fun and loaded with a joie de vivre that remains exciting. He introduced me to many European artists.
European supporters, writers and artists such as Jan Bruun, Stephen Parsons, Alain Neffe, Harald “Sack” Ziegler, Gerard Greenway, Mick Magic, Matthias Lang, Rafael Flores, Markus Detmer, Erick Van Havere, M. Nomized, Hessel Veldman,Guido Erfen, Trespassers W and others must be mentioned and will be featured later in more in depth coverage.
Ron Lessard of RRRecords in Massachusetts should get a lot of credit for his constant support of this music by not only stocking it in his retail store but by offering it on his label.
There should also be nods to artists like The Rudy Schwartz Project, Crawling With Tarts, The Hinds Bros, Ray Carmen, Mike Crooker, Mark Hanley, The Evolution Control Committee, Hermanos Guzanos, Russ Stedman, John Bartles, The Silly Pillows, Bob Zark, Charles Laurel, Dan Susnara and Tadashi “Usui” Aioi. Each had a penchant for outstanding and creative work.
Carl Howard was an early critic with his a/A publication and was not afraid to take sides and have an opinion. Occasionally his stances would end in battles with others but his viewpoints gave life and much needed focus to what often times became a back patting society. Carl also ran the very important audiofile label which distributed dozens and dozens of high quality tapes in many styles. He also created his own music under the moniker, NoMuzic.
Debbie Jaffe, Heather Perkins, Amy Denio, Sue Ann Harkey, Lauri Paisley, Roberta Eklund, Lisa “Suckdog” Carver, Linda Smith, Micky Saunders, and some others represented only a few of the women who created important work. However, the nature of women in this scene still is not well understood and will be discussed later.
The late Doug Walker was an electronic space rock pioneer with his band ,Alien Planetscapes. Dave Prescott is also another respected figure as were , Randy Grief, John Wiggins, Gen Ken Montgomery, Richard Franecki, Jorg Thomasius, Dieter Zobel, Brian Noring, Phillip B. Klingler, Arnold Mathes, and too many to mention here.
Special thanks to Jack Jordan, Option music critic and strong supporter of underground music, especially from women and also the artist, Minoy.
Dino DiMuro, Kevyn Dymond, Eric Muhs, Achim Treu, Andreas Bick, Charles Rice Goff III, Al Perry, Michael J. Bowman and James Hill were especially important to me personally because not only was their music incredible but I became very close personal friends with them early on. And finally, Robin O’Brien, whose music was powerful and alluring and even more than that , a life together fulfilling, fun and meaningful.
As time allows I will be covering many more names and essential underground figures. The list is large but I have to start somewhere. Much more to come.
Many thanks to Geoff Alexander, Gloria Campau for the web design help.