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Filed under: Art
Tags: cassette culture, ultra, audio art, staalplaat amsterdam, mail art

The Early Years

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The image on the virtual front page of the very first digital issue of staalzine, shows the very first staalplaat shop in a not so very first squat in Amsterdam in the year 1982.

At that time the squat movement in the Dutch capital was probably at its creative and political peak.

In the following years the movement got destroyed and the occupied houses cleared. The people who lived within the system had to return to live within ‘The System.’ To many of them it resulted in a socio-cultural Diaspora, because they lost their galleries, their tools, their studio’s and their social network. During the nineties Amsterdam was thoroughly rebuilt and redesigned: poverty disappeared and the rich and new rich moved in. Nowadays the Dutch capital is a very uncomplicated town, beautiful as ever, with a great range of restaurants and clubs and bars and beautiful young people who smile all the time and have a good time living there. It seems ‘The System’ was right to kick those stubborn punks out of the city centre.

The squatters and other assorted peripheral youth continued their lives and disappeared in the demographic statistics; some disappeared in the gutters of dope defined streets. What remained were the stories, of bombs during the Queens coronation or burning trams during the riots. What remained also were the typical bars with their wooden floors where the stories of those days were told. The memories reached younger ears, and they reached the ears of Mr. van Gelderen, director of Lebowski Publishers.

Apparently the time was right to look back on a period that resulted in the definite break-through of DIY in Dutch subculture. When old days are the only thing that old friends have in common, skeletons will fall out of cupboards and ghosts will visit dreams; what you get is a mixture of emotional turmoil, laughter, beer and tears, but the next day it is ‘back to normal.’ The old friends that the publisher got together were in a position that allowed them to convert those nostalgic thoughts. Books got written. And when the books appeared in the shops, the next step was to organize media attention. The old DIY-ethics got used as a strategic weapon. Some of the young ones who had been very active back then, now, being old ones, occupied important positions. What happened next, could be compared to a revolution in a country full of anarchists and men in uniform. You storm the governmental palace and you occupy the radio and television stations. Then you tell everyone, and hopla, a new order is installed.

rightThe flag that got designed carried the words ULTRA. They were very lucky that the hard core football supporters in the Netherlands didn’t call themselves ULTRAS as in neighbouring countries. So, that domain was still available. It proved to be a brand, not only easy to pick up by the press, but it got backed up as well by a very lively period in the history of Dutch sub-culture, a musical genre defined by that name, and – very important – contemporary bands who were directly inspired by the ULTRA movement.

The governmental palaces that got stormed were the venues in various cities, and the radio and television stations that got occupied didn’t need to be occupied because some Ultra’s and their associates already worked for newspaper, radio or television. Once the word was spread, enthusiasm got generated and the evenings sold out. Time will tell if the little storm that took the Netherlands in the first months of the year 2012, will have carried seeds to fertile soil.

The book –ULTRA- appeared with a one-issue-only remake of the magazine VINYL, that was another product of the squatters laboratory of thoughts. Ex- staalplaater Frans de Waard, who through his Vital Weekly has established himself as an authority within the world of non-academic contemporary music, was asked to write about ‘the re-birth of the cassette.’ Some interesting points are made by Frans. He wonders why cassette releases nowadays have less extravagant appearances as thirty years ago, when sponges, pyramids, bathroom tiles or soup cans were used. I will try to find an explanation later on in this article.

The book ULTRA is written by Harold Schellinx. Some of you might know him as the devoted chronicler of everything happening off-screen in our wonderful world of sounds, of which he reports in his SoundBlog. He describes how Geert Jan Hobijn got his “PLATO! STAALPLAAT! EUREKA!” moment on a beach in Greece, and decided to start a shop that would sell second hand records. The space for the shop got found by opening a door by force. A table got carried inside, a cardboard box with records, a pipe tobacco case for the money, and there it was: Staalplaat. On the door the hand painted sign: ‘open/dicht.’ An article in Vinyl, written by Harold, brought Geert Jan a second illumination, that turned out to be decisive for Staalplaat’s future. In true DIY-no copyright style he read the article not in the magazine but on a photocopy of it.

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The ‘Cassettes in the Netherlands’ special listed all the Dutch cassette labels and some of their releases. Harold notes in his book that cassette labels existed everywhere in the Netherlands, in places as big as Achthuizen, Heiloo, Laren, Losser, Asten, Hengelo, Terneuzen or Zevenkerken, but of course also in Rotterdam, ‘s Gravenhage or Amsterdam. Geert Jan decided to contact every single one of them. He noticed that the (home made) cassette as a medium was snubbed by the regular ‘alternative’ record stores. Nobody would sell them; the cassette was a real outcast, a squatter of the music industry. Staalplaat became a shop with a lot of cassette releases on sale. In the process Staalplaat also decided to release music on tape. To distinguish the label from the shop the name Staaltape was used.

In Berlin, almost thirty years later, Geert Jan and I have had quite a few talks during our ‘drink runs’. That’s how the three-mile-ride from the Flughafenstrasse in Neukölln to the liquor shop in the Graefestrasse in Kreuzberg and back was called. During one of our ‘runs’ he mentioned Vittore Baroni’s Trax label. Baroni’s art work and packaging were a very important point of inspiration to him in those early years of Staaltape.

Since I had always been fascinated how such a big exchange system of cassettes, now known as the Cassette Culture, had come into being, and with their network had anticipated the internet, I decided to contact Vittore. The first question I asked him was based on Frans de Waard’s observation that today’s packaging is less eccentric. Because Vittore can write very well in English I publish his answer here. In case you are reading this article with some sounds running in the background, I strongly suggest to change tape or track list before you proceed.

center“I have a limited knowledge of the cassette “renaissance” of the last decade, I do receive the odd (promo) cassette but I am not actively involved in a network of exchanges like I was in the Eighties, so probably a lot has passed over my head. Anyway, generally speaking, the covers of musical products always reflect the visual culture of their age, so it’s no wonder that today’s cassettes are rather different from the old ones. I have seen recent cassette packages influenced (for example) by the Fort Thunder aesthetics (colourful pseudo-naive mutant comics), which is cool, or by cold ultra-minimalist computer art. The main difference between yesterday and today is that we used to create our graphics with Xerox, scissors and glue, while now most designs are computer-generated, with quite a different range of technical possibilities.”

left“Not all the cassettes of the Eighties anyway were extremely creative (if I open the cassette-drawers in my archive, there were the dull ones too!), many producers used standard size covers and cassette boxes, but there were also a few small enterprises here and there that stood out because of their weird and inventive packages, influencing others to pursue similar alternatives to the simple and “boring” cassette. The cassette producers of the early Eighties, maybe for the first time in the history of popular music, realized that they could try to change not just the musical trends and styles of their era but also the ways in which the sound pieces were conceived (introducing collaborations at distance many years before Internet), recorded and distributed (in total independence). It was a big step forward in all possible ways, like a smart younger brother of the early self-produced punk records (smart because cassettes, unlike vinyl, could be recycled if you didn’t like the content!).”

“This small revolution in music had its own visual appeal, and it helped for it the fact that many cassette producers were also into comics, mail art or other forms of alternative art: Illusion Production in France, for example, was run by active (comics) artists and produced wonderful zines, serigraphies, postcards, etc. to go along with the cassettes. One of the three founders of TRAX, Massimo Giacon, was a budding comics artist and today is a well respected artist and designer. Rock and comics are closely connected and this fact is reflected in many cassette releases of the time, but there were also different “schools”: the packages of Industrial/experimental tapes (even Touch started out this way) were more influenced by political Dada, Situationism, B-movies, radical performance art, etc.”

center“My impression is that, purely for their young age, many cassette-makers of today have a limited first-hand knowledge of the old tape labels (it’s a different thing to see/hear those cassettes on a collector’s website), so there is a tendency to unwittingly replicate old ideas. And if the packages are not so wild and elaborate as they used to be, this is probably due also to the fact that postal rates today are much more expensive that thirty years ago, “physical” sales are generally dwindling and it would be rather costly to produce and mail out cassettes attached to large size magazines or in heavy wooden boxes (like those wonderful items in the German No Edition catalogue).”

I also asked Rod Summers. With his VEC AUDIO EXCHANGE he has been at the core of the Cassette Culture since the mid Seventies. He states: “Ever developing technology offers huge creative advantages to the audio artist but perhaps these advances are to the detriment (= damage, harm, disadvantage – translative note by Rinus) of the necessary creative invention that was required by more simple technical facility of tape editing/cassette production.”

rightThe obvious is often left out when something gets explained. Vittore Baroni hints at it when he says “there were also a few small enterprises here and there that stood out because of their weird and inventive packages, influencing others to pursue similar alternatives to the simple and “boring” cassette.”

The answer to Frans de Waard’s question is hidden in this quote. One needs to visualize it, and look into moments in life. A living room with paper, cardboard, paint, silk, cans, nylon pants, wigs, rubber ducks, noses and gloves, bird cages, answering machines, hagelslag, spilled coffee, sugar and milk, parts of a destroyed piano, old teabags, or a radio that has undergone vivisection, books, diary’s, seeds, well just have a look around in the part of your apartment that is stuffed with things you have always wanted to throw away, but were afraid to do so: that is the material you need for packing up that cassette. With the result of such work in hand, feelings of curiosity, pride, vulnerability and revolt meet in the heart and soul of the maker. The cassette and its weird package arrive on the table of someone who should listen to it. The first reaction is in the way the person with the cassette in his hands looks at its creator. There is also an other way through which the result gets judged. The cassette will be send to someone. That someone will send a cassette in return, equally different and weird in packaging. From that point on the ‘pursuing of similar alternatives to the simple and “boring” cassette’ will result in great art work. But it comes from one-to-one contact, either via mail or in person that this carousel of inventiveness will spin the makers round and round, right round.

Now that I was on it, I also asked Vittore and Rod if they knew when the postal cassette-exchange of weird and not so weird home made music started. Both pointed to William Furlong’s 'AUDIO ARTS.’ A short glance at wiki’s, (I only wish I had the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica to consult) (But then again I doubt that Furlong has made it to the Pantheon of British culture) told me that William Furlong interviewed artists such as Joseph Beuys, Buckminster Fuller and Gerhard Richter and recorded it directly onto a cassette. The tape got copied, packed and distributed: a portable radio programme… an Audiozine! AUDIO ARTS started in 1973 and lasted until 2006(!) After this discovery I fell silent for weeks and walked the streets lost in thoughts.

One day I watched a movie from the seventies, maybe late sixties, something with spies. A cassette had a prominent part in the plot. The tape was used for secret messages. Then I had my “EUREKA” moment.

leftAll those young people who exchanged cassettes with their weird home grown music on it grew up in the sixties. That was the time when television made its first appearance in households. The images were still in black and white. Programmes were not shown around the clock. The television was very much a thing owned by parents. It was also very much a thing that connected to another world. To a kid it held some mysteries, and something forbidden. I must have seen loads of cassettes and (reel-to-reel) recorders being used for recording or playing secret messages in various movies and detective series, the most famous one ‘Mission Impossible’ that started with the insertion of a cassette in a tape player. The message got played and ended with “This tape will autodestruct five seconds after the end of the message.” Then white smoke curled up from the recorder. Without realizing it, we grew up with the cassette as an icon for a taboo.

I remembered something else, a friend who lived a few houses away, a son of Polish immigrants, was a member of the Bazooka Club. I knew that this heavy-weight bubble gum that allowed you to blow enormous bubbles, and chew like a real ‘yank’, promoted their Bazooka Club at the back of the three-screen comic strip that was part of the wrapper. Bazooka would send Bazooka Things, what, I cannot remember anymore, but it came also with a small magazine that held addresses of other members of the Bazooka club to whom you could become a pen pal.

I dived a bit deeper in my memory. I saw strange periodicals, exclusively made for children, all of them had a little section ‘pen pal wanted/offered.’ It is a phenomena that slipped my mind completely, because I never felt attracted to it. But it must have been and maybe still is a wide spread habit.

Putting these two facts together, the cassette as an icon that held a taboo, and the habit of corresponding to unknown people, made me understand that – ten years later- it was a logical step for the home taper, to look for equal minded guests and start an exchange.

Vittore Baroni again: “Mail art - an underground network of free and open exchanges involving thousands of artists that bloomed in the Seventies - was very important for the rise of the tape network, as it provided a well tested working model. Many mail artists were involved not just in graphics but also in performance and audio works, so it was quite normal that they would exchange not just postcards and envelopes but also packages with audio cassettes or videotapes.”

And Rod Summers: “The cassette revolution came about because for the very first time a globally compatible 'portable' 'post able' audio medium was available to the masses. Another aspect, and probably an important one, over and above the global compatibility of cassettes, was the relative cheapness of a cassette recorder and cheap purchase price of cassettes and the postage costs thereof.”

In short, it happened because it was possible. But I also have the impression that it happened because a minority recognized the intrinsic fascination and the sense of mystery in cassette publications.
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