Crap Cassettes

Crap Tapes Stack


Sometimes nostalgia can be generated by the unlikeliest of objects. Take cheap audio cassettes for instance. What were once considered a poor man’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, these budget tapes have now had a bit of a revival thanks to the ‘Cassette Underground’, a growing body of people from around the World comprised of Low-Fi music experimentalists and Cassette Tape collectors. Like the veritable scary monster from your average horror movie, these bargain ‘beasts’ have refused to stay dead and are once again wreaking havoc on our tape machines. Retroscoop charts the rise, fall and rise of these unlikely survivors from yesteryear.


If you were an impoverished child of the late seventies / early eighties who liked to record music from the radio or make (illegal) copies of friend’s albums, it is likely that you had to turn to one of the many brands of budget tapes that once flooded the market.

Priced at around 30p – 50p per tape (as opposed to their expensive counterparts such as TDK, priced at around £1.50 each) and sporting names such as Kingsonic, Topaz, Kay, Melsonic – and other ‘brands’ too numerous to mention, they were an absolute life saver for a youth on a tight budget. The incredibly cheap price was purely down to their place of origin – China, where incredibly low manufacturing costs allowed factories to churn them out in their millions for next to nothing.

We were under no illusion that what we got for our 50p was a very ‘low end’ recording experience and, as a consequence of being created out of materials too flimsy for the job at hand, the tape would invariably snap or get sucked into your cassette players mechanism. Due to these (and other) experiences I devised my own ‘3 Universal Laws of Cassette Tapes’, the first rule of which states:

The probability of your cassette failing is directly proportional to how important or irreplaceable the recording on the tape is to you.

Because these cassettes were considered to be extremely harmful to tape machines, they were never stocked in your usual Hi-Fi outlets such as Dixons or Currys etc. Instead, you had to head for the forerunners of today’s pound shops; the discount stores such as Oobidoo, QS Discounts, Superdrug and budget hardware stores that sold everything from thumbtacks to Moth Balls.

As previously stated, these tapes came in a variety of brands, but it didn’t take much observational skill to realise that the majority of them were manufactured by the same company, who did little to disguise the fact. In some instances, different ‘brands’ even used the same artwork and fonts on the cassette inserts. In particular, check out the artwork for Kingsonic and Topaz – identical in every respect save for brand names and font.

kingsonic_tape topaz_tape

Initial research indicates that there was one main firm in Hong Kong that produced all the raw materials, such as the cassette shells, guide wheels and magnetic tape, which was then sold off to one of several cassette assembling firms who put the tapes together and ‘branded’ them for their wholesale customers, printing insert ‘J’Cards and cassette labels, often for several different wholesalers simultaneously. Chances are, that whatever ‘brand’ of cheap tape you chose, you were getting the exact same product, with the same shell mouldings and components – right down to the quality of the oxide layer on the tape itself; the ultimate ‘illusion of choice’ in the audio world.


In its heyday, it has been estimated that Hong Kong cassette manufacturers produced on average13.2 million C-60s and 7.6 million C-90 audio cassettes every month, with most of these destined for the cassette buying markets in Europe.

Cassette tape entered its golden phase in the mid-eighties with the introduction of the Sony Walkman; a highly portable battery-powered cassette player that allowed you to play cassettes anywhere you wanted. But it was the advent of the Compact Disc (CD) and the portable CD player that ushered in the decline of the cassette tape. By the mid-1990s, the demand for cassette tapes had reduced dramatically, leading to the creation of Hi-Fi units without tape players altogether. The final nail in the coffin was brought about in the late 1990s by the introduction of digital recording formats such as MP3, and their associated hardware players which, for the first time, allowed you to take your entire music collection around with you on devices small enough to fit in your pocket. Suddenly Cassettes seemed incredibly bulky and awkward to use by comparison.


However, a mix of nostalgia and a rekindled desire to revisit the ‘excitement’ and ‘rawness’ of audio tape has led to the Cassette revival we see today. Even the mass produced Hong Kong brands are now back in demand with ‘Low-FI’ musicians and experimentalists snapping them up from charity shops and collectors fairs. Vintage blank cassette tapes are now exchanging hands between collectors for ridiculous amounts of money, especially silly considering their original retail prices.

In case you are wondering, the remaining two of the ‘3 Universal Laws of Cassette Tapes’ are as follows:

The amount of recording time you have left near the end of your cassette is always thirty seconds too short for the full length of the song you really wanted to record off the radio.


Although most cassettes come with tape boxes to store them in, when it comes to putting them all away, there is always one extra cassette left over when all the tape boxes are full. Always.


When Disco Was King

Whilst out on one of my regular ambles around Liverpool’s busy city centre, I decided to call into my local branch of Oxfam for a bit of vinyl therapy.  As I leafed through the display racks of old 45s, something interesting in the corner of the shop caught my eye… a large cabinet of some description decorated in a highly reflective glittery covering hidden behind a few racks of coats.  After pulling aside the racks, I discovered that the mystery cabinet was a 1970s era hi-fi unit, a throwback from the heady days of Disco.

Morse Electrophonic Disco Unit in Oxfam, Bold St, Liverpool

Morse Electrophonic Disco Unit in Oxfam, Bold St, Liverpool. Photo: Mrs Rosney Pictures 2014

In the 1960s and ‘70s two companies vied for dominance of the lucrative home disco market: ‘Morse Electrophonics’ and ‘Soundesign’. Each company produced various models with different attributes, ranging from built-in light shows, spinning mirror balls, various combinations of hi-fi apparatus and different cabinet styles.  They appealed to the affluent 30 something social climbing set that were out to impress, who purchased these units to compliment their home bars and hostess trolleys. In those days, hi-fi was considered furniture – and as such, units were bulky, robust and styled to make them the central feature of the room they inhabited. These groove boxes went beyond conventional hi-fi by literally transforming your living room into a discotheque, where sound and light combined into a hypnotic show against which you could dance the night away, safe in the knowledge that you could be the king of cool in your own living room, no matter how badly your dancing sucked.

Close up of the Morse Electrophonic cabinet. Photo: Mrs Rosney Pictures 2014

This particular unit appears to be a lower end Morse Electrophonic cabinet comprising of a Turntable, 8 track and cassette tape decks and a radio tuner. Because of the size and weight of the cabinet, and the fact that it was wedged into a corner surrounded by clothes racks etc, I was unable to check out its model number or whether the lower portion of the unit had lights mounted behind the mirror panel. Sadly, this unit was not for sale, much to the relief of my wife who momentarily had nightmare visions of yet another hi-fi system competing for space in our overcrowded flat.

Soundesign Discotec, complete with Mirrorball

Soundesign Discotec, complete with Mirrorball

Morse Electrophonic Jukebox

Morse Electrophonic Jukebox

Soundesign Trendsetter 1000. Looking like it came straight out of a '70s Sci-Fi movie!

Soundesign Trendsetter 1000, looking like it came straight out of a 1970s Sci-Fi movie!

The sound to light units on these models were known as ‘Colour Organs’, named after early 18th Century keyboard instruments that controlled various lighting devices which displayed different coloured lights depending on which notes were being played.

The Long and Winding Road to Disco

The concept of associating different colours of light with specific frequencies goes back a very long way.  Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) appears to be the first to have speculated that there was a close relationship between colour and sound, an idea that was explored in more detail by Sir Isaac Newton around 1704 CE. Newton paired the dominant 7 colours of the rainbow with the 7 whole tones found in a musical octave, starting with Red at C, Orange at D etc. His ideas were later taken up in a practical manner by Louis Bertrand Castel who constructed an instrument called the ‘Ocular Harpsichord’ around 1730. The instrument consisted of a six foot square frame mounted above a standard harpsichord. The frame contained 60 small boxes, all containing a lit candle. Each box had a little window made out of different coloured glass panes, directly behind which was a small curtain. The harpsichords keys were rigged so that when played, a system of pullies would lift a particular curtain to reveal a flash of corresponding colour. Later improvements added more candles and mirrors to reflect back more light. The instrument was by all accounts smelly, awkward to play and prone to malfunction and fire. However, interest in the instrument was so great that Castel proposed setting up a factory to make them en masse, dreaming of a day when ‘every home in Paris would own one’. Alas, this was not to be, and despite Castel’s big ideas, no physical relic of his Ocular Organ survives today.

Bainbridge Bishop's Colour Organ - Reproduced from the booklet 'Harmony of Light - Bainbridge Bishop 1893

Bainbridge Bishop’s Colour Organ – Reproduced from the booklet ‘Harmony of Light’ – Bainbridge Bishop 1893

Next came Bainbridge Bishop, an artist who had more than a passing interest in the relationship between colour and sound. In the early 1890s, Bishop constructed a number of Colour Organs, similar in design to Louis Bertrand Castel’s Ocular Harpsichord, but using electric light instead of candles. In addition, he used a ground glass screen to project on, which produced softer colours that merged into one another producing a more ‘harmonious’ display for the viewer.  Bishops Colour Organ was an outstanding success. The use of electric light over candle paved the way for bigger and better Colour Organs to be created for use in large public performances. One notable performance using a Colour Organ (developed by British Painter A. Wallace Rimington), took place in Carnegie Hall, New York in 1915 for a performance of Composer Alexander Scriabin’s symphony ‘Prometheus: A Poem of Fire’.  Scriabin wanted to create a work where light and sound could fuse together to produce ‘a transformative effect that would allow the audience to transcend up into a level of spiritual consciousness’. To that end, Scriabin’s music score called for specific colours to be projected for each note played. For this performance Scriabin requested that the audience wear white clothing so that the colours would reflect off their bodies, thereby making them an active part of the performance. Unfortunately, his ideas were too far ahead of their time and the technology of the day failed to capture the effect he desired. That said, the path leading to the union of light and sound in dance form had well and truly been opened.

We now fast forward to France in 1939/40. As the might of the German War machine tore across Europe, occupied nations such as France were forced to fall in line with the whims and philosophies of the New German Master Race. To This end, Adolph Hitler decreed that the performance of American-style Jazz was now prohibited, forcing Jazz clubs to literally go underground. The downsizing of the venues from large halls to small hidden cellars, coupled with the need for secrecy, meant that the clubs could no longer chance having live musicians performing in them. Instead, Jazz records from the US were played, as they were easier to conceal than a four piece combo plus instruments. This was the birth of the ‘Discotheque’ (which translates into ‘Record Library’), a place where people danced solely to recorded music.

After the war, discotheques sprang up all over Europe and the US, and by the early 1960s were considered to be THE place to go to have a good time. With the addition of soul, infectious Latin rhythms and technical advances in amplification and sound production, Disco, as we know it, finally arrived.

Colour Organ Ad - Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P75

Colour Organ Ad – Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P75

On the back of advances in solid state electronics came ‘Sound to Light’ devices which automatically converted audio signals into electrical signals, which were then used to control series’ of lights, making them flash in sequence depending on the input sound’s pitch and rhythm.  These ‘sound to light’ units retained the name ‘Colour Organs’ despite no longer having to be bolted to a musical instrument to operate them. Throughout the 1970s, Disco clubs filled their venues with all manner of units, with Colour Organ design becoming more complex and sophisticated, offering more creative and exciting light displays than ever before. In some of the trendiest Disco clubs, even the dance floors got the Colour Organ treatment by having light displays installed underneath toughened translucent polypropylene tiled flooring.  Discos became cathedrals of light and sound with no shortage of ‘devotees’ flocking to ‘worship’ on a regular basis. Scriabin’s dream of sound and light transcendence was eventually achieved, although in a way that I am sure Scriabin would not really have approved of.

Dance Floor Ad - Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P76

Dance Floor Ad – Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P76

By the mid ‘70s Disco had become big business and suddenly everybody wanted a slice of the action. Therefore it was only a matter of time before hi-fi manufacturers offered consumers the chance to own their own, albeit scaled down, home disco experience. Que the ‘Soundesign Trendsetters’ and ‘Morse Electrophonic’ hi-fis that became as ubiquitous in 1970s homes as Shag Pile Carpets, Lava Lamps and carafes of cheap Spanish wine.

Soundesign Trendsetter 7

Soundesign Trendsetter 7

Eventually the Disco bubble burst in the early 1980s and units like the above became so un-cool that they were unceremoniously dumped and trashed en masse. Today they are incredibly rare, rarer still if in full working order, and can cost anything from £500 – £2000 depending upon the condition.  With the passage of time, however, comes forgiveness for crimes of the past, committed against the upstanding pillars of social structure: style and aesthetics, and as such these units are now viewed by some with a rose-tinted nostalgic glow. Maybe they will have their day again eventually, who can say?

For more info and more groovy pics of these amazing hi-fis, check out History Dumpsters excellent blog.

Belmont Disco Biscuits

Belmont Disco Biscuits

KP Discos Crisps

KP Discos Crisps

Finally, as a form of tribute, here is my own disco revival in the shape of snack food: the wonderfully tasty and chewy Belmont Disco Biscuit (which is currently being re-branded, so catch them while you can) and the totally un-square KP Discos Crisps, both groovy in their own unique way. However, eat too many packets of either and you’ll soon lose your John Travolta/Karen Lynn Gorney physiques. You have been warned.


Many thanks to the manager of the Oxfam shop in Bold Street, Liverpool, for allowing us to ‘wreck’ the back of his shop to take photos.

Ghetto Blast from the Past

Mini Boom Box

Whilst browsing through my local Cash Converter store last year, I came across this vintage Mini Boom Box. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to discover that, since I am a collector of all things musical, it was love at first sight for me. Since it was selling for less than a fiver, I snapped it up on the spot and took it home to give it a bit of tender loving care.

Cassette Heaven

It has been a long while since I last owned a portable device for playing cassettes, so after a quick clean of the mechanism, I dusted off some of my prized tapes and gave it a whirl. To my amazement it worked perfectly – no wow, no flutter…and no tape chewing! In no time at all, I was instantly transported back to the largely carefree days of my teens where cassettes were the weapons of choice in the war against tedium.

Back Panel

Although there is no brand marking or a make /model identifier on the casing, this particular machine probably dates back to the early 90’s and was manufactured in China for sale in Europe. However, since the CE marking on the label at the rear is a ‘counterfeit’, the manufacturers were never officially licensed to sell this product in the Economic Union (EU). 

Actually, the word ‘counterfeit’ is not quite correct. From 1985 onwards it became a mandatory requirement in the EU to label certain products i.e. electrical goods etc, to identify anything that was either made in the EU, or made by other countries specially licensed by the EU, for sale within the European Economic Area (EEA). They developed a special CE identifying mark, where CE stands for ‘Conformité Européenne’.  Manufacturers in China got round the licensing issues by inventing and registering their own CE logo which, at first glance, looks almost identical to the European version. The difference between the two is in the subtle spacing between the C and the E. In the European version, the C and E are widely spaced, whereas in the Chinese logo, the C and E are practically touching. The Chinese CE stands for ‘China Export’. Cheeky, but legal!


As well as the cassette player, the Mini Boom Box also has a built in AM/FM radio. On the back it has an output mini jack socket for headphones and an input mini jack for connecting up a CD player to the internal amplifier. On the top panel there is a mini jack input for a mains adapter.

Top View

It is highly portable, measuring 22.5 cm by 12 cm by 10.5 cm and fashioned in the shape of a handyman toolbox. All in all, it is a nifty piece of cassette/radio nostalgia.

If anyone can shed some light on the name of manufacturer or can pin down an accurate date for its release, please let me know!


DSCN0993In recent years, compact cassettes have become iconic images, especially to members of the ‘MP3 generation’ – people who are far too young to remember such retro technology. Sadly, I am old enough to remember the good old days (?) of using cassettes, and also the universal ‘Law of Sod’ that governed all tape use:  The probability of your cassette player chewing up your tape is directly proportional to how precious that particular tape is to you’.

Other joys (?) of cassette usage were:

Playing a particular track on your cassette so much that you eventually cause drop outs on the best bits;

finding a pencil thick enough to poke into the cassettes spools to allow you to rewind your cassettes in order to save battery power on your tape player; and

listening to your favourite artist sound like Pinky & Perky by only half depressing the play button.

As previously stated, cassette icons can now be found everywhere, from cassette shaped iPhone covers to designs on tee shirts, pencils, note books, earrings, mugs and a few dozen other examples too numerous to list here.

Joining their ranks is a fairly new item – the Mustard (TM) Drinkman – a cassette player shaped hip flask. Now you can quite literally get drunk on nostalgia. This bad boy allows you to carry around up to 150 ml of your favourite tipple, so now you will never be without liquid sustenance wherever you travel.

However, please drink responsibly, and avoid C120 length drink-a-thons.