Carry case of audio cassettes, c. 1985

Richard Worth

Published June 2024

Selection of 30 cassette tapes in an open black trunk


Saved from a fate as roadside seaweed, we have here thirty audio cassettes, generally just called ‘tapes’, and all still in playable condition. Although invented in 1969, tapes only became popular once the Sony Walkman Portable Cassette Player was invented in 1979. You can’t imagine now what a revelation it was to be able to walk around listening to headphones and watching your own real-world video; although if you ran or walked too fast the playback would get a bit wobbly!

Tapes came in two ways: blanks, that you could record onto (usually from your records or the radio) and manufactured pre-recorded tapes like these. By the mid-1980s manufactured cassettes began to seriously rival vinyl record sales, but many people viewed them with suspicion. They had inferior sound quality and there was that ever-present possibility of being ‘eaten’. Like records, tapes were two-sided so half way through you turned them over, and it was a real hassle to cue to a specific track; if you wanted song number three on side one you had to press the forward wind and guess roughly where it would be in terms of time.

This item is a specially purchased case for cassettes (I remember them for sale in record shops) and the handwritten label specifies “pre-recorded tapes”. Although we do not know whose case this is, my guess is that this collector owned vinyl and that these tapes were either bought for their portability or because manufactured tapes were quite a bit cheaper than records. Surprising, given that the mechanics of a cassette  - an enclosed box with two wheels spooling the tape  - were considerably more complex to manufacture than vinyl.



Tapes could be very cheap: note the top left-hand corner where there are four cassettes with bright red spines – the label names are Macchi Pucchi(!?) and Ember.


Pirate cassette tapes in black case.


I haven’t been able to find any reference to these and it’s clear that what we have here are pirate tapes -  illegal knock offs, made possible by the ease of tape recording. They were common, and you could buy them in street markets but also sometimes in independent record shops. Record companies saw pirating and home taping as a real threat to their sales, and record sleeves often had this logo:


Warning symbol reading "Home taping is killing music".


The remainder of the tapes here are all ‘legit’ with major labels like RCA, Atlantic, Capitol  and jazz imprints like Verve and Pablo.

I’m sure this collection is from the mid-80s, a time when jazz was having one of its resurgences and trendy young people were busy buying Miles Davis Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane albums from the 50s and 60s, often as much for the album artwork as for the music!


Now onto the content

I’m pretty sure this collector was older, not one of the trendy jazz fans. I say this because of the musical choices: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald account for ten of the tapes. These are big names from classic mainstream jazz covering the period from the 1920s when Ellington and Armstrong first recorded, through the 30s when Basie and Ella came on the scene, and on into the 60s.


Cassette tape spines with big bands compilations detailed.


Consistent with the musical choices here, there are also several big band compilations, including Big Band Favourites by Ted Heath in the bottom right – released in 1984 and only available on cassette. Heath was the most famous of the British big band leaders, learning to play jazz in the 1920s when he toured with a remarkable band, The Southern Syncopated Orchestra who, although American, spent much of their time in Europe since multi-racial bands were pretty much an impossibility in America then. None other than Count Basie paid tribute on record:  “now you’ve got a band in England, Ted Heath, man he scares me to death!”

I was reminded of a particular quirk of tapes from the inlay card here. It tells the user:  “ may be found that the recorded sides are of unequal length. Please spool to the end of the tape before playing the other side”. Yes, you sometimes had several minutes of silence because this side of the tape was shorter than the other side! So again, you had to hit that forward wind before turning it over.


To Be or not to Bebop

Bebop began in 1940s with musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and introduced increasing complexity into jazz, but those names are notably absent from this collection, as are the next generation musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. However, we do have five tapes by the incomparable pianist Oscar Peterson.


Mixture of cassette spines.


Born in 1925, Oscar Peterson was part of the modernist generation, but he was more of an intergenerational artist who bridged between older jazz and Bebop and his nickname "the King of inside swing" gives the clue - the ‘inside’ refers to playing inside the chords – that is a little more melodic or ‘easy’ than say the music of John Coltrane.

There are some other post-40s ‘modern’ jazz musicians here, but the choices are on the more mellow side of things. Gerry Mulligan and his Orchestra’s Walk on Water (1980) is almost an easy listening record compared to his recordings from the 50s.

There are some anomalies, such as the Charles Mingus cassette (one of the pirate tapes). Mingus was very much a modern jazz artist, but he sometimes tended to reference older forms of jazz. Also interesting is The Montreux Collection 1975 (top right). Montreux is the world’s most famous jazz festival, and by 1975 it featured several electric ‘fusion’ bands such as Billy Cobham (drums) and Larry Coryell (guitar) But this compilation is made up entirely of straight ahead jazz such as Count Basie. So even though it looks like an anomaly it falls safely within the aesthetic of this collection.

I can’t finish this piece of jazz nerdery without pointing out Today by the Dudley Moore Trio. Moore was of course the famous British comedian who falls into that exclusive category of comedians who are good pianists. Now we have Tim Minchin and US comedian Jamie Foxx (look up his hilarious version of The Brady Bunch!), but back in the 70s there was Les Dawson. Dudley Moore often used the piano in his routines but this a not comedy recording, it’s a legitimate jazz session with his regular trio and stands as quite an impressive recording of straight-ahead jazz.


Let’s finish with some more inferences about our collector.


Black case with handwritten label visible reading "Ella, Peterson, Armstrong".


There is a  hand-written label on the box saying: “Ella, Peterson, Armstrong”. Jazz fans often refer to Ella Fitzgerald by the familiar first name and this collector is clearly a serious jazz fan. Inside the Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin is a telling piece of evidence about our collector: carefully handwritten after each track is the exact date of its recording. Remember this is before the internet, and such detailed information would only be found in archival books or niche jazz magazines; not easy info to come by so they must have been keen.

 Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin cassette case with carefully handwritten dates of recording after each track title.


In the end, this case of tapes is a mini curated collection of music – curated just like this exhibit is. Beyond just listening, the pleasure of curating comes from a sense of completeness and of creating a coherent collection.


Do you curate music?

On Facebook (mainly now used by people in the thirty plus age group) people are often listing their top ten albums, and you can bet that they think carefully not just about their favourite music but also about how the collection looks and feels and what is says about them and their sense of ‘taste’. Bandcamp also records people’s purchases and displays them as a kind of catalogue. Streaming playlists can also be a way for people to show their choices.

Incredibly, to me, in the wake of vinyl’s resurgence tapes are having a mini revival, although I’m sure it will remain quite a niche scene; for one thing, the artwork is so small, not like a lovely record sleeve. And then, of course, your precious tape may get eaten by the machine…


Dr Richard Worth is a Lecturer in Music at the University of Liverpool, a flute player, composer, arranger and founding member of the Groove Collective. With Groove Collective he recorded six albums, toured the world and appeared on television.

He also appeared as a session musician on hip hop and dance records, including Masters at Work's Nuyorican Soul album. Richard frequently performs in various musical contexts, from salsa, funk, folk and jazz to contemporary classical music.


Copyright Information

Please refer to the copyright information given on the Greatest Hits Exhibition main page. The audio cassettes contained in this carry case are reproduced here for purposes of illustration in support of exhibition for non-commercial public benefit and education. Use of images seeks to remain proportional, insubstantial and fair. Limited quotation is provided for the purposes of criticism and review, as permitted by Section 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988). If you are a rights holder and feel copyright has been infringed, please refer to our Takedown Statement and Procedure.