MATTSPLAINED  MSP85  MSP Ikons: The Story of The Walkman.
MATTSPLAINED  MSP85  MSP Ikons: The Story of The Walkman.
In July 1979, mobile technology was born in Tokyo. It wasn’t the Internet or the mobile phone. It was the Sony Walkmen that transformed the way we experience the world.
Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9
Mobile technology. When you talk about its origins, most people will tell you about the birth of the Internet and the adoption of the mobile phone. Often they’ll overlook the most crucial component of all.
We’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of a technology that half of our listeners have never heard of, let alone used.
We’re celebrating a milestone.
A pivotal moment in the development of mobile technology.
A direct descendant of the smartphones we have in our pockets today.
A machine that changed the way people behaved.
And made the sight of headphones in public a common occurrence.
This is also a bit of a personal one for me.
A technology that shaped my teenage years and put me on the path to sitting here with you on this show.
Your first mobile phone?
No. Tbh, my first mobile wasn’t even a big moment.
My first phone was an Ericsson that was rebadged in the UK as an Orbitel.
I think it was 1994 or 1995.
Phones were starting to appear on the high street by then.
It wasn’t just yuppie swines that carried them.
Big hearty men of the people like myself also had them in our pockets.
You mean Geeks?
Don’t be rude.
I had a gym membership as well.
It was kinda cool to have one. Part of the reason I had one was to stay in touch with my younger brother, who’d just started a university course after being ill for a couple of years.
I’d recently graduated I was doing a lot of not doing very much in different parts of the country.
And, because calls were so expensive, I hardly ever used it.
Weirdly, I think the coverage back on those old analogue networks in the part of the UK where my parent live was better then than it is today.
At my mum’s house you need to be on different networks in different rooms in the house.
I think they’ve been barely touched by 3G yet, let alone LTE.
Where do they live, in a cave?
It’s flat and below sea level.
I could go into technical reasons as to why there are cellphone dead spots all over the area but I won’t because we’re hear to talk about the walkman.
I only mention the phone stuff because there’s an intersection.
Most of my phones up until the smartphone era were Ericsson models.
Latterly Sony Ericsson models.
And Sony is where today’s story starts.
With the Walkman.
I know this is the part you hate, but can we have some facts, please?
Ok. The Sony Walkman debuted in 1979 and it was actually called different things in different countries.
It played a format called cassettes.
Cassettes were and are completely unlike CDs or vinyl, which have a very similar concept in that a disc spins and a machine reads the sound.
Obviously, with vinyl records that process is analogue, a needle reads tiny bumps in the record that are then translated into sound.
CD is a digital version, only the sound is captured as ones and zeroes on the surface of a disc.
Which are then read by a laser and turned into the sound you hear.
Audio cassettes were first marketed by Phillips in 1962.
Originally they were used mostly for dictation.
Business people would dictate their letters and have them sent to a secretary to be transcribed on a manual typewriter.
I remember my dad still using dictation machines into the 1990s.
They weren’t originally thought of as a great music format because the quality was so much poorer than vinyl, reel to reel tape and the 8 track.
I’m not even going to get into what 8 tracks were.
It’ll take us down a ten minute wormhole.
Google it if you want to know.
But they caught up?
Yeah, by the late 1960s a couple of million cassette players had been sold worldwide.
And I’m sure a lot of our older listeners had one of those mono cassette players which looked like a large brick.
Controls at one end in the form of large buttons and a speaker at the other end.
Probably a tape counter - an analogue dial that you could use to tell you where on a cassette songs or snippets of voice were.
By the mid-1970s the quality had caught up with 8 track and the smaller size and flexibility of tapes meant they were starting to catch on as a medium for pre-recorded music.
You could buy blank cassettes of varying length. C60s were probably the most common, with 30 mins per side.
I think most kids of that era preferred C90s: 45 mins meant you could get most or all of most albums at the time on one side.
Which meant they were great value and they were like proto-MP3 players.
You could keep 2 albums on one machine at the same time.
There were longer variants, like C120 and even a C180 but getting more tape in the housing meant the tape had to be thinner and was more prone to stretching or snapping.
How does tape work?
A plastic film with a magnetic coating was pulled over the head inside the cassette player and hey presto, music.
You don’t really know, do you?
No. But for a reason.
You know, I could just google it. I mean, I did, to check stuff like dates.
But some things you don’t want to know.
Of all the music formats, there’s something a little bit magical about cassettes.
From the ability to actually capture sound on to them, to their warm and slightly fuzzy sound.
Last week you mentioned a book called A Fabulous Creation - a history of the vinyl album on Geeks. Is there a link to today’s show?
I didn’t think so at the time, but I guess there is.
The author, David Hepworth talks about his love affair with vinyl and its societal impact.
I guess I feel much the same about cassettes, which I’ll get to in a minute.
And it was cassettes rather than vinyl that made me fall in love with albums - which was my king of kultur Geeks recommendation last week, to listen to your favourite artists tracks in the way they recorded it once in a while and not just as selections on a playlist.
Back to the Walkman…
So it was launched in 1979.
It was one of those products that didn’t have an obvious market.
It only exists because Masaru Ibuka, one of Sony’s co-founders, wanted a portable machine to listen to music on when he travelled for business.
He was already using one of the company’s Pressman models, which was a high end tape recorder for journalists.
But it was bulky and heavy. So he asked the tape division to come up with a prototype that was smaller and wouldn’t sacrifice sound quality.
And the rest is history?
Well, no. Legend has it that Ibuka only gave his employees two months to complete their task.
And anyone who is familiar with big corporations and industrial design will probably be shocked to know that they managed it.
Or to know that a culturally defining product like The Walkman wasn’t something that was planned and honed over months and years.
Compare that to the genesis of any product out of the Apple stable.
It did okay on its launch but it was such an alien concept that Sony reportedly sent its employees out onto the streets of Tokyo and ask passersby to try this strange machine with headphones.
What do you mean by alien?
It’s hard to comprehend now but music simply wasn’t portable in the 1970s.
You might see someone with a portable radio - again, mostly mono with an earpiece that looked more like a steampunk hearing aid.
But it was practically impossible to listen to music of your own choosing on the move.
Even at home, music was a mostly social experience. if you wanted to listen to it privately, say, when you were doing homework, you’d need headphones with a cable long enough to snake from the music player to the table.
Stereos in cars and boomboxes were also starting to catch on - again propelled by the popularity and convenience of the cassette.
But on public transport, on foot, or while walking, you couldn’t just shut yourself off into your own private musical world.
How would you describe that impact?
It’s hard to say because seeing someone wearing earbuds is the norm today.
It’s so commonplace it’s hard to get across how revolutionary it once was.
we’ll talk about that more after the break but I guess the best example I can give is one of Coca Cola’s most influential and archetypal TV commercials.
It featured a very young Tyrese, the soul singer who is probably better known today for his character Roman Pearce in the Fast & Furious franchise.
The ad features him getting on a bus, singing along to the music on his headphones and ending it with Coke’s signature Always Coca Cola tag line as the rest of the passengers look on.
That commercial was made in 1994. 15 years after The Walkman launched.
The sight of someone singing along to their own music was still a crowd-stopping moment in the mid 1990s.
You could probably walk through the BFM office right now and see at least half a dozen people absent-mindedly singing along or mouthing the words to what they’re listening to.
When we come back Matt lists every album he ever listened to on cassette.
Today we’re talking about the origins of mobile technology and the pivotal part that was played by the Sony Walkman, which celebrated its 40th Anniversary this month.
It’s hard to think of a term - other than the iPhone - that is quite as ubiquitous as The Walkman.
In a sense that’s another of the ironies about the way the product was launched.
In fact we should be grateful it didn’t take off immediately.
In the US it was originally known as the Soundabout in the US - which is an absolutely horrible name - and the Stowaway in the UK, which at least has a nice illicit ring to it.
The Walkman was only settled on - and was based on the Pressman’s name, hence Walkman as it was more portable - because it was too expensive to trademark a different name in every country.
So, it’s an accidental icon?
I mean any icon in pop culture is an accident to some idea.
But when you compare it to the iPhone for example, it looks like it was engineered to be an icon.
This was kind of a last hurrah for Sony’s cassette division as sales of their other products were flagging.
And let’s forget, that original Walkman, when it came out in the US, was USD150.
That was serious cash. When you say it’s equivalent to about USD500 today, think what that buys you in terms of smartphone.
And people paid this - not to mention the not inconsiderable cost of buying new AA batteries what seemed like every 5 minutes.
And even Sony wasn’t prepared for the cultural impact of its own product.
The Walkman effect?
This is one of the reasons that I said at the top that the Walkman was more the birth of our mobile culture than the mobile phone.
For years we had phones that spent most of their time in bags and jacket pockets.
It was only when text messaging and Snake made it onto our phones that they became things we kept on the table.
And even Sony, when they launched it were worried that it might be antisocial.
Which is why those early players had two headphone jacks…
Some models even had a pass through mic to channel the outside world in and allow listeners to speak to each other as they listened.
Because Sony’s bosses couldn’t conceive that people wouldn’t want to share the experience of listening to music.
As it turned out, isolation was exactly what the Walkman’s users wanted.
And it turned out that isolation meant control.
In what sense? In terms of opting out?
Any technology like this is going to have positive and negative effects.
Or rather, those same effects will be seen by some as positive and others as negative.
So the term was coined in the mid 80s by a Japanese researcher called Prof Hosokawa.
Who viewed the device as a kind of response to urban life.
Subsequent studies by a British researcher, Prof Bull, apparently also known as Prof iPod, showed that the wearing of headphones in public altered people’s behaviour.
Because the headphones signify that you were fundamentally occupied you could basically float through your environment.
You could break social norms of eye contact and conversation.
And Bull found that it actually changes the way the wearer processes the world around them, giving them much more of a concept of control over the space and time they occupy.
And the negative side?
All the other stuff we hear but that a lot of studies don’t bear out.
Social isolation and insularity.
Narcissism, because the isolation places you at the centre of the world.
And I’m sure there’s some truth to some of those claims.
as we always parrot on the show, technology is never totally one thing or another.
What is a positive effect for some people is going to be negative for others.
But you can draw that line straight through to the way we immerse ourselves in digital culture and cut ourselves off today.
What was your first Walkman?
Like a lot of people, my first Walkman wasn’t a Walkman.
Because they were so damn expensive.
It was an Aiwa auto-reverse model. It was grey and ugly and it had an AM/FM radio and I loved it.
I got it for Xmas in 1985. Bear in mind I was only 13 at this point.
And I think the first album I listened to on it was Psychocandy, by the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Which was perfect for a walkman because it was lo-fi, full of feedback.
But I think the album I played most on that machine was Killing Joke’s Night Time, which came out the following year if I’m not mistaken.
You were a goth!
I listened to a lot of typical paint your bedroom black music like Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Mission.
But I was also listening to hip hop and electro.
And pop. Bronski Beat. OMD. Gary numan. As my geek tune choices show, I’m still into synthpop and distortion today.
And though I bought vinyl, it was the cassette I loved.
Even through the CD era.
Cassettes were cheap. You could buy 2 albums on tape for the price of one vinyl record or 3 for the price of a CD.
For a teenager that was a no-brainer.
And why did that teach you to love the album format?
For a really simple reason.
With a record or a CD and certainly with MP3s and streamed music, it’s easy to skip tracks.
On a cassette player it was an absolute pain.
You had to physically wind the tape backwards and forwards and find the end of one track and the beginning of another.
Not only was it irritatingly hard, it killed your batteries.
So it taught me to chill and try to find the positives in the tracks that really should have been burned long before they reached the band in the studio.
But yeah, eventually I was pretty much a Sony only walkman buyer.
And I went through so many. I wore out those motors.
After the cassette versions I had Mini Discs - yes I was the person who bought that long forgotten but very usable format, network walkmen that were uselessly limited to Sony’s proprietary ATRAC3 file format, even the early Sony-Ericsson Walkman phones.
Yeah, but I never warmed to it.
CDs were slightly too big.
The players were a little too bulky and they skipped.
That was the beauty of the cassette walkman. It just did what you wanted.
Played music without fuss.
That’s something we take for granted with digital music. There is nothing to skip.
A lot of your memories seem to be wrapped up in The Walkman…
There’s something about the solidity and the warmth of the sound. It is really personal.
I can close my eyes and picture myself sitting in the back of my parents car on Boxing Day, listening to Psychocandy for the first time.
Or a summer I spent in Paris in 1991 soundtracked by a Best of The Doors cassette.
A shout out to my cousin Lilla by the way, who housed me and found me a job and was a generous friend at a time when I really needed one.
Or the countless hours spent haunting dodgy music shops and stalls in London’s Soho in mid-1990s where journalists would sell off their unwanted pre-release white label tapes weeks ahead of official release dates.
Where I discovered bands like In the Nursery, The Aloof and scores more.
Do you still listen to cassettes today?
Well, there’s a question for you.
And one for my mum if she’s listening to this show.
Probably about 10 years ago she threw out my tapes. Hundreds of them.
My own fault, I should have had them shipped over here years ago.
So, no, not really. Because they’re all gone.
Have you forgiven her? Your mum, I mean?
Oh yeah. I got over that one pretty quickly.
Because I can listen to the actual music anywhere on my phone or my computer.
And I haven’t lost the memories because I can replay the experience of listening to Oasis for the first time.
Is this the time for a cassette revival?
The thing is cassettes have never really gone away.
Especially in countries like Malaysia where the punk and DIY underground music culture has kept the format alive.
There’s a great episode of 99 PI from 2016 about cassettes and the US prison service.
Tapes are still the only way that many US prisons allow recorded music in.
Digital music requires access to the Internet and all sorts of other files can be hidden on those drives.
Vinyl and CDs can potentially be fashioned into weapons or other tools of the illicit prison economy.
So tapes are still made for that market. And a lot of prisoners hear today’s music on ancient tape players.
It’s a bit like Cuba and its 1950s cars. Walkmen and players are kept going by any means necessary.
And Walkmen are going for silly money on ebay.
What about newbies, how can they get into the format?
Just quickly, Sony has an exhibition of 230 of its Walkmen players in Tokyo, called Walkman in the Park at Ginza Sony park which will be running until September and features Japanese celebrities and the music that filled their players.
So, if you’re in Tokyo and you want to know a little more about the format or you’re like me and want to wallow in nostalgia, head over for that.
And you don’t have to mine the Internet’s underbelly for players.
I think I saw this one on Kickstarter…
It was the launch of a bluetooth equipped walkman clone on Kickstarter which will work with all those expensive wireless headphones you’ve invested in.
The It’s OK player is available for HKD588, a little over RM300 although you won’t get it until December.
Earlier this year, Musika, a bunch of Malaysian physical music format fans released albums on cassette by local artists Ferns, Impatient Sisters and Beyond Horizons on tape.
I think there are still a few copies around. You can head over to the Musikaonline Facebook page and ask the admins if you’re interested in those.
And I spotted a post a few days ago from Malaysian music specialist store Teenage Head Records which is taking pre-orders for the reissue of all the Bjork albums on coloured cassette tapes.
So the future of the Walking Man and the Walking Lady and their tape players is very much one of the future and not just the past.
Happy 40th guys.