When I was still in early grade school back in 1973, I was thrilled when my older (and now deceased) cousin, then in his late teens or early 20s, showed me his brand new portable cassette recorder. Although it was the type with the separate plastic microphone used by journalists for interviews during that era, that cassette recorder sounded good enough, too, for music playback. The device, which had the length of a size 7 men’s shoe and only slightly less thicker than a typical shoebox, came with several blank cassette tapes marked as “C-30” and “C-60” which I would later learn referred to their maximum minutes of playback.
My first taste of music on that amazing little device was the James Paul McCartney television special on the ex-Beatle that aired over RPN-9. My uncle recorded the whole show with his device pointed directly at our 17-inch cabinet type, black and white TV.
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As Dolby noise reduction was still mostly unheard of then, the sound would be far from impressive by today’s standards — as in addition to the usual tape hiss, background noise like footsteps and household chatter can also be heard during playback.
Those things didn’t bother my untrained young ears, though. The playback of live performances of songs like “My Love” and “Live and Let Die” (Macca’s big hits that year) was amazing enough for me to sneak out my cousin’s cassette recorder and play that tape when he wasn’t around. When he decided to fill those other blank tapes with songs by The Beatles and Elton John — taped from vinyl at Quiapo at the then going rate of P1 per song —I had more reason to play that device when he’s not looking.
Even though the cassette recorder weighed like a brick since it ran on those blocky size D batteries, the fact that music can be portable enough to be taken anywhere or in my case, to the next room anyway, was a fascinating experience I looked forward to time and time again. So when Sony took that portable idea further and created the Walkman cassette player in 1979, I was not at all surprised when it eventually became a game-changing device that revolutionized the way people listened to music or enjoyed entertainment in general that matter (more on that later).
By then, we still did not own any music player at the house but I was already enamored with a neighbor’s boom box—a portable cassette recorder with double speakers that also included a built-in AM/FM radio—that I went on ahead and bought my first pre-recorded cassette tape. It was Get The Knack by the new wave powerpop band The Knack. It included their monster hit, “My Sharona,” and I would constantly request my neighbor to play it on their device.
I did have a friend who owned one of those first generation blue and gray Walkman models so I also had an opportunity to play my cassette tapes (I had already bought quite a few, by then, silly me) on the device on occasion.
Even though it was the most portable entertainment gadget at that time, the Walkman was still pretty heavy. The blocky object was made of metal and ran on size two AA batteries. There was a learning curve since instead of labels, icons represented the play, rewind, fast forward, pause and stop. Some models that came with recorder function included an extra “red” button for that purpose.
Since the Walkman was marketed then to be a “walking stereo,” I wondered how a cabinet stereo — as I visualized it — would fit in such a small box. The answer came when I first put on the Walkman’s foamy headphone. It did not look sturdy by any means and it did not fully covered my ears so yes, I could still hear some background noises. But boy did it provide quite an immersive musical experience.
I did not need to be an audiophile to appreciate the Walkman’s appeal. This small, mechanical device captured my imagination at the press of the play button. I could vividly imagine “the barber showing photographs” and “the fireman with an hourglass” as The Beatles specifically described them in “Penny Lane.” I thought I was walking in the creepy hallway of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” when I first heard The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” And the propulsive bass line of Chic’s “Everybody Dance” and other dance hits of the day certainly made me feel like I was dancing in a real disco.
Of course, the fun — or the equivalent of what passes for a head trip for a gangling teenager like myself in those days — would come to an abrupt halt when I or somebody near me accidentally or intentionally pressed the orange “hotline” button that would stop what’s playing and I could hear what is happening in the “outside world.”
Walkman batteries also don’t last forever. Batteries cannot be recharged so you have to buy new ones (at least I always did) when juice runs out. I can’t recall now if any Walkman model (including the ones that I subsequently owned) ever included an AC adaptor but I never considered the thought of playing a Walkman while “plugged in” because that would defeat the purpose of its portability.
For me, the transformative power of the Walkman lies in its ability to take me to places while I am physically (and literally) on the move.
Over the years, as the Walkman became more popular, technology also improved and added more features that further enhanced the player’s appeal. Models would come with AM/FM radios that “kept” the music playing outside of the cassette tapes I used to bring with me. There was the “auto-reverse” feature that allowed both sides of a cassette to play continuously without the need to eject the tape and flip it to play the other side. There’s the Megabass (for Sony models) or extra bass along with other “equalizer” options that started to become popular during the mid-80s and came in both analog and later, digital form.
Later models also came in plastic instead of metal casing thereby making the Walkman more lightweight. And as a precursor to noise-cancelling technology, in-ear earphones with better sound were also later developed.
Although cassette tapes never approached the superior sound of their vinyl and later, compact disc (CD) counterparts, technology has also improved with the emergence of noise reduction and varieties like chromium oxide and metal tapes.
As CDs became more popular during the 80s, many titles started being sold on bargain prices as cassettes began to become more expendable. When Sony introduced the first Discman, the immersive experience provided by the Walkman became even more defined.
Listening to a song like “What A Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers was like watching a film in IMAX (at least when comparing the cassette and CD versions of the same song). It felt very three-dimensional. Unlike Walkmans, however, the one thing I hated about early Discman models was that it did not have an anti-skip protection feature. So I had to carry it in a certain way in case I bump into something while listening to say, The Clash’s London Calling album. I’d get lost in the shuffle and get “Clampdown” instead of “Lost in the Supermarket” which was the track I really wanted to play.
Due to the CD’s larger size, the Discman or CD Walkman as it was later called never really approached the portability of its cassette counterparts, which probably explains why Walkman cassette players continued to hang around until something even more portable finally supplanted it: the Apple iPod. But that’s a story in itself that deserves a separate article.
Check out the evolution of the Sony Walkman leading to its 40th Anniversary edition here:
For now, Sony has brought back the Walkman with an Android-based 40th anniversary edition that is technically leaps and bounds over its original incarnation. But despite such killer features like 26 hours of battery life, 16gb of storage for downloadable and streaming content, noise cancelling headphones and a very cool retro appearance, the fact that it cannot play cassette tapes does not much distinguish it from other digital music players outside of the Walkman branding.
But then again, some kid out there who will listen to this 40th Anniversary Walkman just might experience the same kind of awe that captivated me the first time I listened to my friend’s now vintage Walkman. Be it Led Zeppelin back then or Kendrick Lamar now, the immersion should be pretty much the same. As the early Walkman gave me quite a rush back then; listening to its latest incarnation should give that kid quite the same rush.