Why cassette tapes are special to me

They bring back memories of a world that was analog, simpler and perhaps happier

The cassette tape is back.  For reels.

Reading about the upcoming new album releases next month from two of my favourite bands, Erasure and Texas, I was surprised and amused to find that in addition to streaming, CD and vinyl formats, they will also come as limited-edition cassettes.

It feels like we are back in 1987, when I bought Erasure's second album The Circus, on cassette.  Weirdly, you can still buy The Circus on cassette today, because I saw a copy for sale recently in Peninsula Shopping Centre.

Last year, sales of the humble cassette grew a whopping 74 per cent in the United States to 129,000.

Okay, it's still a tiny figure compared to sales of vinyl records, which have overtaken CDs now to become the best-selling physical format for music in the world.

But the retro fever is slowly but surely coming back. 

The cassette tape (and the ubiquitous Sony Walkman that played it) has a central starring role in Netflix's new drama series 13 Reasons Why.

For most people, though, cassettes were not about buying pre-recorded album releases from their favourite bands.

The charm of the cassette was in the ability to record the songs you liked on it, and then be able to wipe it clean and record over it again and again.

A cassette which had a selection of all your favourite hits on it was known, of course, as a "mixtape".

The first mixtape I ever had was bought from a small music shop on the corner of Lorong Liput in Holland Village, right about where the Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao restaurant is now.  It was a narrow space with rows and rows of cassette tapes displayed on the long wall.

Deep inside the store there were expensive originals on sale, but most of the customers clustered around the front, where the $2 pirated versions were.

The year was 1983 and I had gone there after school with only one mission - to buy a cassette, any cassette, with Culture Club's Karma Chameleon on it.  Oh, and if it also contained Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and Lionel Richie's All Night Long, all the better.

Of course, there was such a tape on sale.  In fact, there were so many I couldn't make a decision and they were all seemed to be called "Super Best Golden Hits".

But back then, even the music pirates had pride. 

Some mixtapes were branded with the company's logos and these would have nicely typewritten song listings with no spelling mistakes.

In the end, I bought a tape bearing the blue (or sometimes gold) "SR" logo.

The hits I wanted were all there, but when I brought it home to play on my dad's hi-fi system, I discovered many more fascinating songs that I hadn't heard before.

As David Bowie's Let's Dance, New Order's Blue Monday and Freeez's IOU pumped out of the speakers, a shiny new door opened that I knew I would never close.

That was the defining thing about a mixtape.  Most of the time you had to listen to it all the way through - because unlike vinyl records and CDs, cassettes were very much a linear kind of technology.

You could try to spool the tape forward and backwards to try and find a track, but that was often frustrating and ruined the listening experience.

So mixtapes ended up being little voyages of discovery, with favourite stops interspersed with less familiar ports of call that were initially strange but you could grow to like over time.

Later, as I seriously got into British pop music, I discovered that you could even customise the itinerary if you did not like the mass-market offerings.

In smaller record stores, one could look through all their vinyl records and make a list of what you would like to put on a mixtape. 

They would charge by the song and add this to the price of the blank cassette, which could be quite a lot in the end - especially if one were to choose more luxurious chrome or metal cassettes with far superior sound quality.

In the end, I never commissioned a bespoke mixtape, but the challenge of curating a personal collection of songs intrigued me.

The selection spoke of who you are, and what moves you creatively and emotionally. 

Are you bright and sunny or dark and depressed? 

Do you like it loud or soft and contemplative? 

Do you prefer warm traditional arrangements or the colder electronic sounds of the future? 

Is a song great because of its melody or its well-written lyrics?

But there was also considerable skill involved in curating a selection based on a theme. 

An exotic travel-themed mixtape could contain Duran Duran's Rio, Kate Bush's Egypt and The Cure's Kyoto Song.  Whereas Alison Moyet's Ordinary Girl or Tanita Tikaram's World Outside Your Window could have been right for a mixtape on the liberating nature of travel.

As both I and my music collection grew, I used mixtapes to send messages to people, and the blossoming of first love was made ever sweeter by giving and receiving them.

I would spend hours recording them in my bedroom, thinking carefully about how one song would flow into the next.

The tapes also had to be perfectly engineered, which meant weeks getting the synchronisation of the moment you pushed "play" on one tape deck and "record" on the other exactly right, and leaving just the perfect amount of silence between the songs.

After each mixtape was finally done, I would look through magazines for the perfect visual that I could cut out and fold into a homemade cassette cover. 

I never titled my mixtapes, but I would painstakingly annotate them with the names of the songs, the artistes, the year they were released and their track times.  Sometimes I wrote little liner notes on why I chose the songs and what they meant to me.

Now, what used to be several days' work can be done in a matter of minutes on music streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal.  You simply drag any song you can think of from a seemingly limitless universe of song titles into a folder.

But the art of putting together a mixtape is very much alive and can persist if you will let it. 

I have friends young and old who still regularly compile these lists and listen to them song by song in the prescribed order, stoutly resisting the ADD-induced urge to click and skip that is so prevalent today.

In fact, the mixtape is the image I immediately thought of when I was asked by Straits Times Press to compile a list of my favourite columns over the last 12 years for a new book to be released next week.

The metaphor is also apt not just because music has been so much a part of my writing, but also because the songs that I love have given me the soundtrack to my life.

Today, so many things I loved about music and mixtapes have changed beyond recognition. Can anyone even tell me what having a Top 20 hit means anymore, when an artist such as Ed Sheeran can occupy 16 out of the UK top 20 chart places with every single song from his new album?

Which is why cassettes have a special place in my heart, for they are the ultimate signal of a world that was all analog - a simpler, and perhaps happier, world. 

• Follow Ignatius Low on Twitter @STIgnatiusLow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'Why cassette tapes are special to me'. Print Edition | Subscribe