To Lou Ottens, Inventor of the Cassette Tape — and To All the Tapes Unheard
Rock writer and historian Dave Marsh used to joke that before his wedding, his fiancé Barbara told him he had exactly two responsibilities.
He had to dress respectably and he had to make a tape of wedding songs.
I was struck by this because my fiancé’s directive was essentially the same. The dressing part would keep me from embarrassing her and the wedding song tape would distract me enough to keep me from interfering with any of the real preparations.
Her plan worked. Making a wedding song tape, like any kind of theme tape, quickly became total immersion. Anyone who doesn’t qet that should read Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.
You make songs earn their way in, and you decide which songs to leave outside the door. With a wedding tape, for instance, do you include “The Big Bopper’s Wedding,” which is pretty funny but also has TBB shuddering over his “awful wedded wife”?
I left it out. I did include the Statler Brothers’s “Years Ago,” about a fellow attending the wedding of his ex. “There’s no reason I should stay,” he sings. “The groom won’t shake hands anyway / And I kissed the bride years ago.”
If we hadn’t gotten married before Beyonce recorded “Single Ladies,” that would have made the cut. As it stood, there were more than enough candidates for pairings like the Five Satins’s “To the Aisle” and Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride When She Used To Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Anyway, I mention all this not because most people care about someone else’s wedding song tape, but because the man who made that tape possible died on March 6.
Lou Ottens, who lived to be 94, was the head of product development for the Phillips electronic factory in Belgium in the early 1960s. He started wondering if there was a way that “recording tape,” which at the time meant big heavy reel-to-reel machines, could become smaller, lighter and portable.
Unfathomable as it sounds today, when we can hear almost any music in the world by tapping our phone screen, almost all music 60 years ago was tethered to some stationary plug-in device.
Why not shrink the whole tape mechanism, Lou Ottens asked his technicians and engineers, and they did. Like its soulmate the transistor radio, which was born in 1954, a battery-powered cassette player brought your music with you.
Nor did the benefits end there. Cassettes also made it way easier for people to record music themselves.
On the lowest level, that was an amateur like me stringing together a bunch of records. At higher levels, musicians could create their own songs, sounds and blends with no need for a studio, an engineer or the technical gyrations required to do all that on reel-to-reel.
If you could afford a cassette player, you could create and record music. It’s no secret or surprise that hip-hop artists created the foundation beats for today’s mainstream popular music on inexpensive cassette players, or that mixtapes became works of art.
Cassettes weren’t perfect. The sound on the cheap tape wasn’t always the best and unlike with a record player, it was a nuisance to find a specific song.
Still, Lou Ottens opened up worlds he likely didn’t imagine. He deserves every salute his passing has inspired.
In the spirit of full context, however, one other thing about cassettes should be mentioned, and it harks back to the wedding songs tape.
As much fun as I had compiling it, I suspect that in the end I may be the only one who heard it.
We held the wedding on what turned out to be a beautiful May afternoon in my sister-in-law’s backyard. A cassette player was produced and the tape rolled, playing in the background as people attended to the much more interesting business of talking with each other.
It was Muzak, really, which is not a complaint. If the wedding reception had devolved into everyone crowding around a cassette player, it would have been a considerably less successful party.
My point: I suspect my wedding songs tape was not the only cassette with that fate — fascinating and fun mostly to the person who made it.
I’m sure there are people whose love was cemented by the gift of a heartfelt, insightful, spot-on mixtape.
I’m equally sure a lot of people who gasped with apparent pleasure at the gift of a mixtape never listened to the whole thing.
I blame Lou Ottens. He made cassette compilations so convenient and tempting that it was easy for creators to overdo it.
And that’s not a bad thing. Cassettes created an irresistible excuse to spend an indulgent amount of time with music we loved. That’s one of the best uses of time that I can think of.
Farewell, Mr. Ottens. Well played.