Amoeblog

37 Years! Celebrating (or at least thinking about) VHS

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 25, 2013 06:37pm | Post a Comment
The inaugural Cassette Store Day took place this past 7 September. On that day, over 50 audio cassettes were released by major musical acts like The Pastels, The Flaming Lips, and Suicidal Tendencies. Unfortunately for video cassette fans, Cassette Day was a strictly audio observance. For whatever reason, Cassette Culture (or the cassette underground), which lovingly embraces audio cassettes for whatever reason treats the word “cassette” as if it only applies to the audio variety. As if that weren’t offensive enough, just two days after Cassette Store Day was the 37th birthday of the VHS VCR. Now that a couple of weeks have passed and the sting has subsided a little, perhaps we can do a bit of reflecting on the video format that dominated the 1980s and '90s (but was born in the '70s). 



The year 1976 was marked by several serious technological milestones. The year of the US' bicentennial saw America land Viking 2 on Mars and introduce the first space shuttle -- the Enterprise OV-101. In the computer world, IBM introduced the first laser printer -- the IBM 3800 -- and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launched Apple.



On 9 September, Chairman Mao passed away in China and across the East China Sea in Japan, the first VHS video cassette recorder (or VCR), the JVC HR 3300, was introduced. It wasn’t the first example of magnetic videotape technology -- that had first been demonstrated in 1951. AVCO had introduced the pre-recorded tapes of their Cartrivision system for sale and rental in 1972. In 1975 Sony had launched the Betamax recording system but it would be VHS that would conquer the home video market.



Although I'm not sure how it was chosen for the honor, the first theatrical film to be commercially released on VHS was a South Korean drama, 청춘교사 (aka The Young Teacher), which had been released to theaters in 1972. It was directed by Kim Ki-duk -- the one who made the daikaiju classic, Yonggary, Monster from the Deep as well a less-well-known-outside-Korea adolescent films like Barefooted Youth (1964) and not the Kim Ki-duk who helmed such internationally acclaimed films as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003), 3-Iron (2004), Address Unknown (2001), and Time (2006).



The VCR wouldn't come to the US until 4 June, 1977, when it was introduced at a press conference before the Consumer Electronics Show starts in Chicago. Despite Betamax having better picture quality than JVC's VHS, Betamax tapes could only hold an hour's worth of recorded material whereas the capacity of JVC's standard T-120 doubled that. Furthermore, whilst Sony maintained tight control of the Betamax format, JVC immediately licensed out its technology to companies like Sharp and RCA. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, JVC embraced porn, which Sony shunned. By the end its first year, VHS had eroded 40% of Betamax's market share.




When my father bought our family's VCR in 1978, he chose RCA's SelectaVision. Its heft and fake wood grain paneling matched the aesthetics of our living room TV. It didn’t quite have a remote control -- there was a portable control panel connected by maybe a ten foot long cable. The machine also had a dew indicator because supposedly humidity could make it stop working although I don't remember that ever happening even in the swampiest Missouri summers of my childhood.




VHS surpassed Betamax in sales in 1981 -- the same year the doomed, phonograph-like CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) was released after fifteen years of delay. Other rival technologies would follow. VCD (Video Compact Disc) debuted in 1993 and quickly became the format of film producers and consumers in the developing world. In 1997, a popular weather drama, Twister, was the first Hollywood film made available on DVD. The awful and evil DIVX (Digital Video Express) was introduced in 1998 (and had its plug pulled none-too-soon the following year). All of these formats boasted potentially superior image and sound quality to that of magnetic tapes (although VCDs often looked worse and LDs (LaserDisc) often trumped all other contemporaneous formats).




VHS still had at least one major leg up on the competition – the ease with which it allowed users to record (and re-record) content from their video cameras and televisions. Who among those alive back then didn’t amass a collection of home movies, soap operas, episodes of Manimal, and collections of music videos? My music promo compilations – laboriously culled from programs like MuchMusic’s City Limits and RapCity, BET’s Rap City, and MTV’s 120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps (and interspersed with selected TV ads) remained among my prize collections for many years. Digital Video Recorders like TiVo were introduced to the market in 1999 but were slow to catch on. By 2006 were still only present in 1.2% of households.




And, as with audio cassettes vs CDs, there are still thousands (maybe millions if you consider porn) of films that have never been released on digital formats – classics like Captain Eo (1986) and Walk Proud (1979) (which, of course, can both easily be watched online as can most others). Finally, if it weren’t for VHS, there would probably be no TV Carnage, no Future Schlock, and no Everything is Terrible!, and no Tim and Eric Awesome Show ...no Nam June Paik!



HD DVDs and Blu-Ray hit the markets in 2006, pleasing people who felt that the problem with movies was that their resolution wasn't high enough -- but far more ground-breaking and detrimental to the popularity all physical was the Internet and the launch of YouTube and Dailymotion in 2005. Although in their early days, shared video content was regularly taken down as quickly as it was put up, over time they and other video-sharing websites were part of the rise of online streaming. In 2006, advertising-supported free porn hosting service websites based on the YouTube appeared.




In 2006 the Canadian film History of Violence was the last “Hollywood” film to be released on VHS. In 2008, JVC produced its last standalone VHS VCR. Then, signaling that there was at least nostalgia for the format, promo copies of the independent House of the Dead (2009) were released on VHS to giddy response. So how about it Cassette Store Day people? Maybe next year exclusive video cassette releases!

*****

Happy Cassette Store Day

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 7, 2013 12:52pm | Post a Comment

Cassette Store Day merchandise available here

First there was Record Store Day which began in 2008. Now, 2013 brings the first Cassette Store Day (7 September). Stores across Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America are on board with the latest celebration of a format that most consider obsolete. There are events taking place and totes and Ts (natch) commemorating the day are for sale. Although it’s not called Audio Cassette Store Day, that seems to be what it more properly is (sorry valorizers of Betamax and VHS). It's also Cassette Store Day, not merely Cassette Day -- is there such thing as a store that exclusively sells tapes? Even Tape World carried CDs and records.


Image source: Pimp Your Kitchen

A part of me winces at what seems at first like a twee joke. Does anyone genuinely prefer the sound of music on cassette or is this just nostalgia or worse -- obsoletism? Back in 1994, after I heard that Pearl Jam had released a song titled “Spin the Black Circle” my immediate reaction was to pen a song -- “Turn the Wax Cylinder" -- and vinyl is genuinely and justly still loved. It just struck me as this sort of luddite snobbery -- which Mr. Show hilariously skewered with one of their best skits -- “The Last Donut”  -- in which an insufferable prick scoffs at CDs and states that he only listens to music on a “Mini Victrola.” In other words, it all seems a bit Portlandish. What’s next, festivities memorializing piano rolls, 78s, reel-to-reel, or 8-tracks?
Quiet Doing Cassette Wallet Cassette iPod case
A couple of Quiet Doing's (canvas and vinyl) cassette motif products 

Then again, there was a time in the CD era when cassettes seemed like a DIY/punk alternative to the corporate CD world. The 1980s saw the rise of Cassette Culture and even in the 1990s several primarily (and in some cases exclusively) tape-friendly labels arose (especially in the Pacific Northwest) like Apraxia Music Research, Brown Interior Music, Burger Records, E.F. Tapes & CD-Rs, From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit, Gnar Tapes, Happiest Tapes on Earth, K Records, and Ladd-Frith.

What's more there were also countless bands who since the audio cassette's introduction recorded tape-only albums -- and not just hopelessly obscure ones; the celebrated Triffids never bothered to release their first seven albums on any other format. Finally, long after tape decks disappeared from most homes, a lot of people I know held on to their tapes because their cars had (or have) cassette decks.


Cassette Stall - source: Warren Hill

Though I shun pretentiousness, I am highly susceptible to nostalgia and I do have some fond tape-centric memories. As a kid I used to tape the radio (usually KCOU) and then dub the songs I liked onto a second tape (using my brother’s boom box). I also used to hold a tape recorder up to the TV to record great themes like those for Miami Vice and Perry Mason. I remember the first tape that I bought (Peter Gabriel’s So) and even my first dub (The Queen is Dead, Happy? and most of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me onto one tape). Tapes were fragile and when my brother was angry at me he tore my copy of Beelzebubba. However, for those motivated to, cassettes could and can easily be repaired with a bit of tape, some scissors and maybe a small screwdriver.  Try doing that with a destroyed CD or vinyl record! I even remember being sassed by a classmate who, after I asked her to repeat herself barked, "I didn't mutter, utter, or stutter! I'm not a tape! I don't rewind!" 





When CDs came along and cassette values plummeted, they allowed me (and presumably others) to take a chance on bands or records that I hadn't heard for a cheap price. I remember picking up two Severed Heads albums, a Steve Kilbey solo record, and two Wire cassettes – all for a quarter each – at a Camelot Music. In the pre-Shazam era, finding unlabeled dubs could introduce the listener to a mysterious collection of songs and figuring out who the artist(s) were amounted to a life-changing quest. When tapes became even less valuable they were frequently discarded by stores and I’d tape over the two square-shaped holes on top and make mix-tapes (usually based around a genre or mood) on them -- goodbye Bobby Brown hello mix of cowboy music. Personally, I think a laboriously-constructed mix-tape (hopefully with nice packaging) was one of the greatest gifts that one could give or receive. 

Cassette stall in Badung, Indonesia - image source: Jacqueline Chang's Life as a Hairdresser

Tapes were never my favorite format and though their technical merits were relatively few, there is a bit more to their appreciation than just nostalgia and obsoletism. In the developing world they never really went away (which is perhaps why Cassette Store Day seems to be either going unnoticed or happening everyday in Africa and Asia). If it weren't for cassettes, a lot of great music would be lost and to me that's what makes tapes most valuable -- by some estimates, 50% of recorded music has never been released on CD. Roughly 1% of all recorded music is available on iTunes. Far less than 1% is available on Pandora or Spotify. When a teenage neighbor of mine bought a wallet with a cassette design, I asked her if she know what it was or if she simply thought it looked cool and she surprised my (given this BBC piece) by knowing what it was an elaborating that many luk thung (ลูกทุ่ง) recordings circulate between her parents and their friends.


Still from John Smith and Graeme Miller's Lost Sound

Finally, there is perhaps no more poetic evocation of the charms of cassettes than experimental filmmaker John Smith's Lost Sound (collaboration with Graeme Miller – 1998-2001, 28 mins. Color. Sound. Video).  It consists of shots of discarded bits of tapes found around East London and played accompanied by their recovered audio.

So dust off those tapes, try to find a tape player, and have a Happy Cassette Store Day.

*****