Messthetics Greatest Hiss



Introduction to Messthetics Greatest Hiss: classics of UK cassette-culture 1979-1982


’...for really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he…’

– Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, 1647

It may be doubtful that that the colonel was thinking about cassettes when he made his plea for a democratic England, but the boom in homemade tapes of the early 1980s represented an unprecedented democratisation of the making, distribution and consumption of music, that was oddly in keeping with the tenets of Rainsborough’s (still unfulfilled) 17th-century vision.

At its heart, the scene was a widespread and almost spontaneous act of creation enabled by the very convenient, very cheap medium of the cassette, which made even the self-released vinyl single, prevalent at the time, seem a decadent indulgence. There was indeed no reason why the poorest he (or she) in England (or anywhere) could not put together an hour or so of their own music and offer it to the world in precisely the form they wanted. Tapes were made, shared, swapped, sold.

The word spread and the curious thing was that it spread not vertically, in line with the traditional music industry hierarchy of managers, agents, journalists, record labels, but horizontally among like-minded people who wanted to hear your offerings as much as they wanted you to hear theirs.

While the cassette scene was largely ignored by the mainstream music business, it was also the case that an influential music weekly, Sounds, had a surprisingly amenable editor who responded favourably to my suggestion that the paper review such cassettes and, given the likely reply would be that the staff were too busy, that I was just the person to do so. So it was that Cassette Pets was born, a review page of my favourites from the hundred or so that were received each month (though known as and remembered by most people as Cassette Pets, the column initially appeared uner a variety of DIY-themed titles).

Even reviewing cassettes required an overturning of music press orthodoxy, since they needed to be considered in the spirit in which they were made. There was no point in treating the contents as regular record company output, no point in making endless comparisons to similar sounding better known music, no point in dismissing something simply because the recording quality was abysmal.

It was a struggle to simply find time to play some 150 hours of music in a month, in forms that included 90-minute synthesiser epics, voyages to the frontiers of noise experimentation (often thrilling – but so tough to describe in words), and effervescent pop songs that, in a better world, would be whistled by millions.

The struggle was worthwhile though because while a few tapes were painful, most were good, a few were brilliant, and nearly all were imaginative and original in some way, which itself seemed enough to justify their existence. A side-effect of such intense exposure was that most mainstream music came to sound remarkably dull and conformist, and the realisation that that was because most it was dull and conformist.

In raising the profile of the cassette scene, however, Cassette Pets might well have contributed to its demise, or at least to a weakening of its original values. After a year or so, growing numbers of tapes sent for review were merely thinly disguised ’demo tapes’ recorded by ’bands’ in ’studios’ in the hope of acquiring a ’record deal’ – all very far removed from what I perceived as the justification for Cassette Pets.

The column was laid to quietly rest but the diversity and creativity of the cassette scene to which it paid respect was a remarkable and – until now – largely unremembered and unappreciated chapter in the story of the individual’s struggle against the machine. Rainsborough would surely have approved – and imagine what he might have done with internet access…


© mick sinclair

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