(This Could Be) The Last Time

I made an important decision in 1996.

The cassette was here to stay.

Yes, that thin, breakable ribbon, wound so precariously round invisible capstans, and sealed inside a small piece of moulded plastic, was ready to run, and, with the benefit of auto-reverse, to run back and round again.

This was not an easy decision to make for the proud owner of his second Akai 4000D reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the 120 four-hour tapes which had grown up alongside it - the equivalent of about 600 LPs, whose highly original and individual hiss and crackle had been preserved for posterity, had been frozen in time, in fact, while the original vinyl accumulated new dints and chips and unwanted bells and whistles.

But there it was. You couldn't deny that the C90s had proved themselves. There were no cars capable of taking reel-to-reel. Or indeed vinyl - there had been some early attempts to supply cars with vinyl players, but they were the kinds of car which also came with mini-bars and chauffeurs, and little trays in which to rest crystal tumblers full of high-class whisky.

Which I couldn't afford. The tumblers, I mean.

So there was nothing else for it. I had to go out, collect some packs of TDK, Scotch or own-brand cassettes, and start filling them up.

Not, of course, that I was going to get rid of the originals. I'd been stung like this once before.

I'd kept some reel-to-reel videotape of some performances I'd seen in the 1970s, when the college I worked for made The Big Switch from Super-8 cine-film to video, and a Sony video camera/pack/recorder that broke your shoulder but delivered the visuals had been ferried round the classrooms.

And then I'd cracked, and had the reel tape transferred to video-cassette, which (so the Scotch adverts insisted) would outlast a skeleton. I then threw the reel derisively away. The convenience of the video-cassette - yes, VHS, I wasn't that mad - was considerable. Light, portable, quick to find, easy to play, and so easy to steal that it vanished within a month.

No, the reel-to-reel tapes, even if they contained more hours of Gong and its unfunny puns about gnomes, pixies and teapots than any sensible listener would ever dream of playing, had to stay. I would copy from reel to cassette. The collection was safe.

Of course, there were these funny new shiny things called CDs. They'd been around for about ten years, but honestly, were they likely to catch on. You couldn't record on them. The people who bought them were Dire Straits fans. Their pitch was that they were indestructible, but word was already round that, if you really did smear them with Marmite, butter and jam, and then score them with a Stanley knife, they were no use, no use at all.

They were the 78s and the 16s of the future. Ha! how had anyone put up with those ready-to-snap, helplessly brittle old recordings of Dickie Valentine and Tubby The Tuba? Any self-respecting child listened to their distant wheeze, to the faint echo of music beneath the sound of frogs scoffing Rice Krispies, and threw them at the wall with all the gusto of a guest at a Greek restaurant.

It would be the same with CDs.

Besides which, venerable musicians like Neil Young (and he was at least 46) were - well, on record - as saying that the sound was just not the same on a CD. It was too clean. You could hear the engineers clearing their throats. They sounded as if they had been recorded in fresh air.

No: the audio-cassette was the stayer. It had pushed in front of the eight-track, and left it for dead. And finally, it had out-stripped the reels of my Akai 4000D.

The machine took up less space, too.

It is true that replacing the equivalent of 600 LPs was a time-consuming business, especially if you listened to them as they wound their way forwards. It is true that the process engendered doubts about some of the less frequently played tapes. Steamhammer. Humble Pie. Spanky And Our Gang. Hmmm. Not as necessary as they'd originally seemed.

But the convenience! No more threading the long leader tape through, under, under, under and round, and then slotting it sideways. You could just take the cassette, put it in, and press the Play button. Not the Record button, obviously, and more easily pressed by accident, but there - the originals were still safe. And of course the vinyl originals were still safe, too, with their exotic covers, covers which would have been worth a mint if they hadn't been used as coffee mats in their day. Still nice to look at! Even sideways!

I know what you're thinking. Yes, you can record CDs these days. Yes, you can buy Spanky And Our Gang on CD, cheap, with bonus tracks, and sometimes the re-releases contain the originals in stereo and mono, as well as the out-takes and demos recorded in the broom cupboard with a washboard and a harmonica, and replica sleeves, and there have been portable players for ages, and all new cars have the players as standard, sometimes in the boot (the boot! why the boot?!), and they're re-mastered, enhanced, and come with notes on the original notes, and they don't snap or bend, and are you telling me that there isn't a storage problem with vinyl, reel-to-reel, cassette and CDs as well?

But that's not what's bothering me.

I was given a mini-disc recorder for Christmas.

But personally, I don't think it'll last.

From unpublished