Libraries On Air

by Natasha Witts, Cataloguer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is a time-travelling treasure trove: hundreds of recordings from 1968–1983 on subjects ranging from local history, politics, the arts, and social issues, to light-hearted anecdotes and the latest stunt from the local escapologist. These recordings not only tell us about Brighton in this period, but about society, local radio broadcasting, and archiving (among other things). But as a cataloguer at the South-East hub of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, my ears can’t help but prick up when the recordings mention libraries and librarians. What can the BBC Radio Brighton recordings tell us about libraries in the 1970s, how they were run, how they were used, and how they were viewed in their communities? And has much changed since then? 

Map showing Brighton branch libraries
Brighton branch library map [Image credit: The Keep BHBox20a/12]

One of my favourite recordings in the collection is an interview with John Allen, chief librarian of Brighton Library, in which he describes, in enthusiastic detail, the computerised system for book issue and return being introduced into Brighton public library (the computer itself residing in the Borough Treasurer’s office), involving the alteration of 100,000 books and the reregistering of 35,000 readers. As well as making borrowing books easier, the computer would also produce the first automatic overdue notices (and print them on postcards). This recording (thought to date from around 1970) provides a fascinating snapshot of a time when librarians were still imagining how computers could revolutionise their work, and when the processes library staff now take for granted, such as being able to see easily who has borrowed a book, were the stuff of a bold new future. 

UTK006/234 (excerpt)

Although library systems may have changed considerably since the 1970s, the ethos of libraries appears reassuringly constant. Here is West Sussex Chief Librarian Roy Hughes, recorded in 1975, offering his vision for libraries over the next 50 years: 

UTK006/570 (excerpt 1)

Preservation and accessibility lie at the heart of the UOSH project, aims shared by a Brighton reference library project in 1973 in which rare books and prints were photographed and issued as slides to enable them to be viewed without damage. In an interview about their project Elaine Baird and Dorothy Farmer describe the methods they use to photograph the slides – very different from reprographic facilities in today’s archives. They also talk about the creative use of libraries, as local theatres are also using the slides as backdrops for performances. This also has echoes in our current project – the rapper and producer AWATE is UOSH Artist-in-Residence, and creative responses across the UOSH project range from music composition and animation to embroidery. 

Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library.
Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library [Image credit: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove]
UTK006/236 (excerpt)

The knowledge and enthusiasm of library staff comes through in the recordings, and that their voices were heard on local radio gives us an insight into how libraries were perceived in the 1970s. Although we now have the resources of the internet at our fingertips, these recordings are a reminder of the continued need for libraries and librarians. Here is Miss Greenhill of Brighton reference library, interviewed on her retirement (how many librarians get a radio interview on their retirement?), talking about the qualities needed to work in the reference service:  

UTK006/103 (excerpt)

The importance of libraries to their communities also comes through in the recordings. A whole half-hour interview is dedicated to the Whitehawk toy library, the first full-time toy library in the country, which opened in 1973 and is still in use today (see  for BBC Archive footage of the opening). The 50th anniversary of the West Sussex library service in 1975 also merits a whole programme on the history of public libraries in West Sussex, including this anecdote from former village librarian Hazel Grinstead about the perils of being a reader in a small Sussex village: 

UTK006/570 (excerpt 2)

Described by a newsreader as an ‘ugly duckling story’, the commendation of the new Worthing library by RIBA in 1977, gives borough architect Frank Morris the opportunity to talk about two of its important features – accessibility for disabled users, and an innovative system of heating the building by recirculating heat from the lighting system. This recording shows that accessibility and sustainability are not only contemporary concerns (although innovation in the 1970s was being driven by fuel economy rather than environmental concern). 

UTK006/710 (excerpt)

Finally, praise for Brighton library pops up in an unlikely place – during a 1975 interview with American lyricist Eddie Heyman (who wrote the lyrics to songs including ‘When I Fall in Love’ and ‘The Wonder of You’) who was staying in Brighton. A perfect example of encountering the unexpected in such a wonderfully varied archive. Who knew in the 1970s that these recordings about much-loved local libraries would eventually find their way to being preserved by the British Library?

UTK006/588 (excerpt)

Transcripts of audio excerpts available at:

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is held at The Keep by the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (ref. R6111) and digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (ref. UTK006), funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

27th October: Your Window to the World

by Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

27th October is the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Here at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage we like to think that it’s ‘our’ day.  

As a project dealing entirely with audio heritage, we’ll be marking the day all week, with a series of new blogs from the team reflecting on different elements of the project, an opportunity to #AskUsAnything via the new media of Twitter and a short film about what actually happens in the UOSH studio: The journey of a tape.

But what is a World Day for Audiovisual Heritage? Why did UNESCO feel there was a need for it?  

It was established in 2005 as a way to ‘raise general awareness of the need to preserve and safeguard important audiovisual material for future generations’1.  Film and sound recordings are rich historical records of lives in the 20th and 21st centuries, of technological development, of changes in communication and of cultural expression. As a medium, recordings have captured sounds and moving images of things that no longer exist, and obviously of people from long ago. The safeguarding of these recordings cuts right to the heart of what we are doing at UOSH: digitising them for preservation and to enable people to listen to them and understand them. We predominantly understand the past, prior to the 20th century, through the written word, creative expression, the historic environment and the objects of the time. But with the advent of sound and moving image recording, we can step back in time and hear the voices of the past, see the people and places come alive. Our engagement with the people, the events and the landscapes of the past is transformed. It’s hard to describe my excitement when I first heard Florence Nightingale’s crackly and distorted voice talking about the Light Brigade Fund in 1890. To my mind she was entirely consigned to the past, to book and stories. Yet here is a recording of her and 130 years later I can hear her talking: quite possibly the closest I’ll get to time travel. 

The audiovisual heritage that we are preserving as part of UOSH – historic sound recordings from across the south east – are at risk from the twin problems of: deterioration of the medium itself (disc rot, tape shedding, etc) or the loss of the equipment and expertise required to play the sound recordings. The most common format we’re currently digitising are open reel tapes: generally stable and in good condition, but the open reel tape players and the engineers to maintain them are a scarce resource. Without intervention now, these historical records will become increasingly difficult to find or listen to 

The theme for 2020 is Your window to the world

‘audiovisual materials as documentary heritage allow us to observe events that we cannot attend, to hear voices from the past who can no longer speak, and to craft stories that inform and entertain. Audiovisual content plays an increasingly vital role in our lives as we seek to understand the world and engage with our fellow beings2’.

The audio recordings give us and future generations a ‘window on to the world’ of the past, of past sounds, of past voices and past lives. Through our work, we are able to hear Mollie Taylor talk about a job that no longer exists: that of the crossing keeper for the railway at Barcombe, East Sussex [UTK002/68]; we can hear the ‘militant mothers’ of Boundstone Comprehensive school in West Sussex, campaigning against speeding motorists in 1972 (see how little changes) [UTK006/61], and we can notice that in the 1970s, an unknown sound recordist filled gaps in their recording with the speaking clock [UTK007/387].  

Mollie Taylor talks about her work as a railway crossing keeper in Barcombe, East Sussex. [UTK002/68]

BBC Radio Brighton reports on self-styled ‘militant mothers’ protesting against speeding motorists outside Boundstone School, West Sussex, 1972. [UTK006/62]

A clip of the speaking clock! [UTK007/377]

For World Day for Audiovisual Heritage I encourage you to listen to the world around you, hear the daily sounds and think about how sound impacts upon your life. I hope you enjoy our blogs and if you have questions about what we are doing or why we’re doing it, do follow us on Twitter @KeepSounds or email us at with your questions for #AskUsAnything.

Happy listening.  

  2. News report, 29.09.20

20 years on: the Lewes floods of 2000

By Nancy Jones, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

12th October marks the twentieth anniversary of the Lewes floods. For many who were unaffected that day is probably a distant memory – twenty years is a whole generation after all.

Recently it seems there is a major flooding event every winter, television images from Boscastle, Wokington, the Somerset Levels, Laxey (Isle of Man) all blur together. Repetition has numbed me to the reality that flooded communities face. Just this year’s storms, this year’s floods.

That changed for me in February; the buckling barriers and swamped homes in Ironbridge were hard to get out of my mind. For anyone not directly affected, that flood was quickly eclipsed by world events which have had an impact on us all. But throughout the lockdown, I’ve been thinking about the people flooded out of their homes just as the rest of the country was asked to stay indoors.

What changed my perspective? By coincidence I happened to be helping to catalogue stories of the flooding of Lewes in 2000 by the River Ouse, just as the River Severn was bursting its banks in Ironbridge. The Keep holds a collection of oral history recordings, made by the Lewes U3A History Group in the immediate aftermath of the October 2000 flooding. These recordings, made on cassette tape and recently digitised for preservation and access, contain the personal stories of losses, close escapes, rescues and the long, long process of cleaning up which was just beginning in Lewes.

The interviews are full of vivid images of a town caught unaware. An elderly couple living opposite The Pells watched the water rising across the road as it had done many times before. When suddenly their carpet began to float – water having risen unseen below the floorboards – they knew, this time, the situation was going to be much more serious. They describe escaping upstairs where they were reassured to find a next door neighbor, similarly flooded, sitting on her first floor windowsill holding a mobile telephone. A Fireman returned from moving his car to higher ground to find water rising rapidly in North Street, about to swamp the fire station. He was involved in the immediate rescue response whilst worrying what was happening for his family just along the road at The Pells.

Cars submerged in the Safeways’ car park, Lewes. (R/L/37/1)

On the other side of the river, in the house closest to the water at Malling Deanery, Peter Atkins describes trying to rescue his belongings whilst the water was rising inside his home.

‘It was quite remarkable…once it got to table height it was rising so rapidly, and continued to rise, and our efforts were more or less ineffectual really. So in no time, it seemed, we were up to our shoulders in water. And I realized that we were both shivering, not surprisingly as the water was very cold, and I think we were just beginning to get hypothermic because we were getting kind of irrational… and doing hopeless things’.

He goes on to explain, ‘It didn’t feel frightening, it just felt kind of overwhelming really…it was weird’. (AMS 6416/1/7/222 | UTK002/222)

The driver of an ambulance washed into the flood describes the grim situation as he and his colleague tried to escape, clinging to the outside, awaiting rescueas the floodwater rushed around them. Mabel Pratt describes the moment her ground floor was overwhelmed by rising water:

‘You didn’t know where it was coming from. It just rose up all the time, so quickly. I was up to my knees in no time, and up to my waist before long. It was very hard to keep my feet because the water was coming underneath the carpet’. (AMS 6416/1/7/207 | UTK002/207)

She retreated upstairs before remembering the door key in her coat, now lost somewhere under the murky water. By that evening she was one of about a hundred people who had been rescued and evacuated to the Town Hall, others were taken to the Malling Centre.

Then there are stories of the clear-up. One woman talks of diaries and family photos out in the skip on the street, personal items contaminated and no longer private. The owners of the flooded Cliffe bookshop describe the daunting process of having to stocktake the pulped contents of their shop, especially devastating as it was also their home.

For me, the pictures on the telly in February 2020, the helicopter birds-eye-views and the brief soundbite interviews blended with the voices of Lewes residents from twenty years before. I was not in Lewes in October 2000, I have never been caught in the sort of devastating weather event that we see happening so often around the world these days. But this capsule of not-so-distant local history opened a dialogue for me. I was re-sensitized to things that, I am ashamed to say, I had started to shrug my shoulders at.

The Lewes residents reminded me of the individual struggles. And they reminded me that only twenty years ago I thought of this as a shocking and unexpected event.

The Lewes U3A oral history collection has been digitised and catalogued by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, developed by the British Library and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This project is preserving archive sounds to ensure they will continue to be accessible for future generations.

Audio recordings from the Lewes U3A oral history interviews are available for listening at The Keep (collection reference AMS 6416/1) and will be available on a new British Library website, to be launched in 2021. The interviews are catalogued on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue and can be found under the reference UTK002.

Repairing a Damaged Cassette Reel

By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Recently I have been working on digitising a collection of oral history interviews which detail memories of Brighton in the early 20th century. The recordings, mostly made during the late 1970s, are held on 83 cassettes and typically contain just 20 or so minutes of audio on a single side of the tape. On paper this is a very simple collection to digitise – short in length and held on a format which is generally quite easy to work with.

Working my way through these cassettes I was instantly fascinated by the detailed accounts describing life in Brighton 100 years ago. About halfway through the collection was a small group of 6 cassettes I was particularly looking forward to digitising entitled ‘Brighton Working Class History 1890-1914’.

When I reached the first of this group I noticed that the physical condition of the item was showing more notable signs of wear and age than the other cassettes I had digitised so far.  I spot checked the audio quality at a few different points on the tape but thankfully didn’t notice any issues. After rewinding the tape to begin digitisation however, I encountered a problem – the tape was no longer playing and could not be wound any further than its starting position either within the cassette player or by hand.

I carefully unscrewed the cassette shell to investigate and straight away saw that the small piece of removable plastic which locks the tape leader into the supply reel had come loose and lost grip of the strand.

I attempted to simply fit the pieces back together but the components had become brittle and bent out of shape over many years, snapping easily as I tried to reattach the leader.

The best solution to this issue was to replace the reel, but in an age where cassette tapes are considered an obsolete media, obtaining a replacement is not as simple as placing a quick order online. Instead I delved into my own cassette collection at home and selected a number of items I didn’t mind being sacrificed for parts. The following day a replacement reel was taken from a TDK c90 cassette which, as you can see from the image below, remains fully intact and relatively unmarked by age.

Reattaching the tape leader to the new reel can be quite a fiddly job! The components are small and the tape wound onto the opposite take up reel will often begin to unspool if you aren’t careful. If you find yourself undergoing a similar job try gently weighing down the spooled tape with a small (and non-magnetic!) object to keep it in place while you thread the leader along the guide rollers and attach the it to the supply reel. With a bit of practice and patience it’ll soon become easy. I also took the opportunity to replace the magnetic shield and pressure pad in this cassette as the old ones had become quite badly rusted and decayed.

Finally I screwed the cassette shell back in place and the item was ready for digitisation!

To some extent all digital preservation is a balancing act between identifying the jobs that need to be done and judging what skills, time and resources can be realistically directed toward doing them. Only four cassettes in this collection needed to have one or both reels replaced in order to be digitised but we do not know if the task would be as straightforward in another year, or in five, or in twenty. Cases such as these may seem small on their own but in their simplicity they demonstrate why Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is such an important project as we seek to digitally preserve as many sound collections as possible before the skill, time and resources required to do so become unavailable. 

Were it not for a project like UOSH and the work it allows our hubs to do, it might be that the memories contained within these cassettes and thousands of others like them would simply never be heard again.

An interviewee recalls the grisly details of his job as salvage man at ‘the Mystery Towers’ around 1919.
This tape is from the Brighton Polytechnic History Workshop collection (ref: RPM R5938; UTK031) held by the Royal Pavillion & Museum Trust (RPMT) at The Keep.

Living on the Forest

Listening to the Ashdown Forest Oral History Collection

By Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I was born in Shoreham and soon after that we come up to Nutley, so I have been a Nutley lad for nearly all my life.’ (Colin Wickham ACC9997/1/11)

Recorded in 2005-06 and deposited at The Keep, the Ashdown Forest Oral History Collection (ACC9997) comprises 13 oral history interviews with long-standing residents of the Ashdown Forest. A talk at The Keep in 2019 by Professor Brian Short on Conflict & Conservation on Ashdown Forest, and the work of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project to preserve the recordings, have provided an opportunity to revisit this collection and to reflect on its significance and what the interviews tell us.

The interviews formed part of the Weald Heathland Initiative run by the High Weald AONB that aimed to conserve and raise awareness of the rich diversity and heritage of the heathland. They were recorded by local oral historian, Pat Selby, with people who grew up on and around the Forest.

As a collection, the 13 interviews give us a glimpse into life in a part of East Sussex that has been subject to huge change since the 1950s with changing patterns of work as fewer people live off the land, and increases in tourism, leisure activities and the accompanying traffic. Participants reflect on their memories of childhood and their lives on the Forest, along with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Listening to their stories, you can hear a love and understanding of the Forest, the natural environment, the places that meant something to them.

They are rich in detail of everyday lives, such as the description of the local houses provided by Roy Pipe (ACC9997/1/8). Aged 11, he found himself living on the Forest after he and his family were bombed out of their house in Lewisham; coming to the Forest was quite a change:

Portrait of Roy Pipe taken as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project

I got to know the people on the Forest through their houses, when you walked about the Forest there would be a small house. Two up, two down mostly. Pig sty outside. Rabbit hutches. There’d be an outside wash room with a copper in it – when I say copper I mean that’s where they did the washing and the need to collect wood off the Forest to heat the water up in the copper.

There would be a garden outside, a vegetable garden. Nothing else, very few flowers. Vegetable garden with a well or spring because there was no mains water at that time about the Forest.

In the, inside the house you would have a kitchen stove, a paraffin lamp for lighting as there was no electricity then, around the Forest. May be a primus, a paraffin primus or mostly a wood fire….in the morning when they got up they didn’t normally light the primus they would throw a few handfuls of twigs on the fire and boil the water up from that, boil the kettle up from that…this was quite interesting, quite new to me.

Change is a theme running through the interviews, but not necessarily in the way that one would expect. A common reflection is on the increase in tree coverage, especially birch, with the decrease in people exercising their Commoners’ rights:

In those days [1950s] the forest was much clearer of woodland that it is today, it was much more open. In fact, the whole of the valley along from Chuck Hatch to Coleman’s Hatch, that whole valley was virtually devoid of trees and then gradually the silver birch began to encroach and it is now quite a wood area.’ Fred Marshall (ACC9997/1/7)

But the Forest in those days [1940s] was open….there wasn’t all these big clumps of birch trees which are there now because the Commoners had forest rights which was they could cut two cord of wood a year and which they did because it was part of their life. But not only that, the animals which they grazed on the Forest kept the Forest right down so you could stand down at Nutley on the village green and you could look right across that valley and there was no trees in between, just grass and a bit of heather a few gorse bushes but no birch trees as there is now. You try and look across there now and you can’t see anything, you can’t see any of the houses. But you could look down and see all the houses, all the houses with their gardens with their hedges all around them, the chickens running round.‘ (Roy Pipe ACC9997/1/8)

Percy Scott – photographed as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project. Percy Scott on his shed step.

Listening to these interviews as recordings (rather than reading them on the page), also enables us to listen to how people talk and not just what they say. We hear the accents, words and phrases that link back to past era, to the Forest’s roots as a medieval deer park. They talk about living ‘on the Forest’, about gathering litter, measuring cut wood in cords, about the ‘dawlin’ of the litter (a runt), working as a warrener. We also get to hear the incidental sounds of life happening around the interviews. Life-long Nutley resident Percy Scott was recorded in his shed with his hens busy around him. Here he talks about his memories of a particular pig.

Percy Scott talks to Pat Selby as part of the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project (ACC9997/1/10)

The Ashdown Forest collection is a rich example of the power of oral history to engage us with the past through lived experience, memory and shared anecdotes.  The collection supplements other historical resources, expanding our understanding of life on the Forest, the experience of change and how people choose to remember and recount their stories.

The 13 interviews have been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. Transcripts, summaries and listening-copies are available at The Keep (currently subject to revised access due to Covid19). We are also pleased to announce that from early 2021, they will be available to listen to at home via the new British Library Sounds website, created as part of the UOSH project.  

Creative Uses of Tape: Cassette Culture

By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

In this instalment of Creative Uses of Tape looks at the phenomenon and practices of ‘cassette culture’ and discovers why your long since boxed up and stashed away cassettes may still contain magic.

What do you think of when you consider the cassette tape? What are your memories of using this format? Whenever a group visits our digitisation studio during a tour of the Keep there is always some expression of surprise and remembrance sparked off at the sight of our open reel and cassette tape collections but for most people these memories will be rooted in a bygone time. The majority of our visitors may not have so much as thought of a cassette tape since their own collection was stashed in the attic or donated to a charity shop years ago, but dig into these memories a bit and you are just as likely to hear an interesting story of how that person used and enjoyed them, as you are the phrase ‘I haven’t seen one of them in a while’. For lots of us the experience of using cassette tapes will have been based on recording songs from the radio or making copies of albums to be enjoyed portably, but for others the format is an irreplaceable icon of their own experiences in creativity and cultural exchange. Cheap, readily available and hugely customisable, the cassette became format of choice among a worldwide network of artists, musicians and enthusiasts carving their own paths outside of the commercial music industry in what came to be known broadly as ‘Cassette Culture’.

History of cassette

The first audio cassette was introduced by Philips in 1963 and though commercial music was being released on the format as early as 1966, the poor audio quality of these first iterations – as well as their playback devices – made it a largely unviable medium for music listening. The initial idea behind audio cassettes was that they could be used for dictation, making them fixtures in offices and places of study or journalism before home music collections. However, as the technology was improved over time cassette tapes gradually became adopted as a popular musical format, with home and car playback systems becoming common throughout the early to mid-1970s. For musicians and artists another important development came when in 1979 Tascam released the first of the Portastudio series of four track cassette tape recorders. Within just a few years numerous manufacturers started producing similar machines and a boom of home studio recording had begun.

From the outset cassette tapes were a creative, versatile medium. Manufacturers did not insist on one specific use for them and instead marketed the format based precisely on its convenience and multifaceted possibilities as a cheap, portable audio carrier. Whether you were capturing songs from the radio, recording your favourite albums for listening to on the move, recording minutes from a meeting for later transcription or crafting your own hits on a four track; cassette tape was the medium which allowed you to do it.

Courtesy of ClickAmericana

Context – How did we feel about cassettes?

In a century during which the arts were responding to rapid emergence of new technologies it should be no surprise that the cassette’s many utilities would be harnessed beyond simple home use and into the world of bona fide cultural expression, but in order to understand how and why this happened it is perhaps best to explain what the format couldn’t do, at least in the eyes of most consumers. Though cassette tapes were a popular and common musical format for a number of years they never became the top standard of the commercial music industry. Even at the height of its development cassette tape suffered from issues of hiss and noise, speed discrepancies between playback devices and physical fragility – surely anyone to have ever used a cassette can tell you a story of the magnetic tape within snapping or becoming entangled in their playback device’s internal mechanisms. For these reasons their quality was generally considered inferior to vinyl records and the format was considered by most to be a convenient but flawed second best throughout its entire initial wave of popularity.

A common experience for many cassette users

From the perspective of an artist the format was also imperfect. Home recordings on cassette would commonly have been seen as a sketch or demonstration of songs which would ideally be reworked in a professional studio before being published and distributed on one of the superior formats. This, of course, was expensive and required in most cases the involvement of a professional record label to fund and organise the project; something which came with additional commercial concerns, responsibilities and supervision. Though the thinking still exists to a degree that an artist’s legitimacy can be measured to the extent they have achieved commercial investment and widespread exposure, it is now quite difficult in the comparatively democratized world of online streaming to imagine a context in which musical expression was quite so defined by the limits of access to a single, dominant physical format. Nonetheless, this was the reality under which musicians generally worked during the times of cassette and if they didn’t have the money and/or the backing to press a ‘real’ record then their chances of becoming recognized and successful beyond that demo tape were low.

Necessity births invention: cassette culture

Though the landscape of commercial music was heavily restricted by the above context, we must be aware that it took place in the midst of some important movements within music and art which signalled a gradual rethinking of many traditional models. From the western musical perspective this was especially true in the case of Punk Rock which had introduced an anti-authoritarian attitude and rough-round-the-edges musicality into the popular consciousness. Similarly, Avant Garde and experimental musical forms which aimed to push the boundaries of what music was and could be had begun to branch out into distinctly homemade, underground and non-institutional sub genres taking place within tiny pockets of activity dotted around the world. Few if any instances of these musical cultures stood to make an impression in the financially driven commercial musical landscape but they didn’t seek to do so anyway. Engendering staunchly DIY ethics and operating within smaller communities of like-minded fans and practitioners, these were artists who favoured creative autonomy, seeking to determine the parameters of their own success and values.

A series of separate yet often overlapping underground movements developed from this kind of artistic thinking and, lacking in the means to produce high numbers of expensive vinyl record pressings, had to find a way to propagate themselves on a low budget. Cheap, easily available and simple to use – cassettes became the necessary and obvious choice and what came to be known as ‘cassette culture’ began to develop.

What was it like?

Beginning points and early examples of this culture take place at different times across the globe but are hard to pin down as definitive. The ‘post-punk’ era of the late 1970s in Great Britain is often attributed as key to the birth of cassette culture while the work of small handfuls of experimental home recording artists are said to have helped kick off the movement at a similar time in the USA. Huge crossovers also existed in the networks and audiences of other media such music fanzines which advertised and reviewed cassette releases, or the earlier actions of the Fluxus and mail art movements which came to incorporate cassettes throughout the 70s and 80s. Rather than belonging to any one distinct style, practice or audience cassette culture is perhaps better considered as a form of underground music circulation which developed within a complex, organic interplay between pre-existing and developing networks through multiple disciplines.

Bands and even dedicated cassette labels began to issue most or all their music on the format, handmaking covers and distributing them at affordable prices. In many cases, particularly in the punk rock end of the culture, a band would offer their music for no more than a stamped addressed envelope and blank cassette, effectively giving the music away at cost and willingly bypassing any notion of accumulating profit from their work as a matter of virtue in favour of the relationships and community that was built in its place. The inherent audio issues of the medium remained but were in many cases embraced as a better fit for the type of abstract, noisy and often home recorded music being recorded onto them. The double sided and easy to record on nature of the format also lent itself to collaboration. Artists could overdub and edit their own music onto a cassette sent back and forth via mail resulting in new works, and experimental ‘chain letter’ style recordings also occurred between artists who would record a few minutes of material onto the cassette before forwarding it to another who would do the same and so on until the tape was full.

Innumerable variations on the few themes detailed above exist within the history of cassette culture as the potential of the format extended as far its user’s imagination and invention. Whatever form these cassettes came in and no matter what was on them, the key factor was that these objects were not to be considered reduced or compromised versions of a ‘real thing’ existing elsewhere; they were the finished, fully realized item – made legitimate through their circulation within a culture of their own rather than that of a commercially interested third party.

Polish hardcore punk cassette tape. This ‘split release’ contains music from a different band on either side of the tape. Note the hand drawn information containing contact addresses. Courtesy of

Cassette art

Given the eminently customizable nature of the format the reframing of the cassette as art object also took on more literal forms. This is an approach particularly emphasized within the Industrial and Noise music genres which developed in tandem with and beyond the immediate Post Punk and experimental movements of cassette culture. Many cassette tapes would come packaged within or alongside particular objects or images which in some way bolstered (or further confused) the thematic aesthetics of the release. Some artists and labels became notorious for increasingly elaborate and conceptual packaging which saw the cassettes begin to resemble sculptural creations or works of abstract art more so than musical audio carriers.

Each of these cassettes came individually packaged in a sculpture of tar paper, duct tape and aquarium stones. Courtesy of Banned Productions.

Taking the cassette’s potential for reframing in a more understated direction, the ‘RRRecycled’ series produced by American experimental music label RRRecords saw existing commercial cassettes re-recorded with new music whilst the case and shell were crudely redecorated with duct tape and marker pen.  For label owner Ron Lessard the act of replacing the material on a common pop or rock music cassette with extreme abstract noise is certainly an aesthetic statement, however, priced as they are at $4 and made to order, the series equally serves as platform to keep work by contributing artists frequently available and affordable. While admittedly legally dubious, the RRRecycled series has become something of an icon when considering creative approaches to the cassette within underground music culture. To date the series alone has produced close to 300 entries across nearly 30 years of activity.

A typical RRRecycled cassette release.

Beyond ‘Cassette Culture’

Without wishing to underplay any specific efforts or the beauty and quality of the wide body of work contained within cassette culture, it could be argued that the real success of these practices lay very much in the fact that nobody did anything particularly extraordinary while enacting them. Cassette culture as a physical activity lay simply in the creative use of a cheap, commonly available object where there were few other choices to hand. Given that the cassette’s secondary status among musical formats the ultimate value of cassette culture lay in its ideological reframing of these attitudes toward and the challenges it presented as to what constituted a legitimate vehicle for an artform. The presence of this culture and ability to participate in it without the need of a great many resources forced questions of why a musical release need be presented in a certain format, in a certain way and through certain channels in order to be considered a fully realized expression of somebody’s art.

Cassette Culture and the related artistic movements I’ve discussed here are pertinent examples of a musical underground’s response to the commercial context of its time but the story is far from unique. Thinking less in terms of one specific ‘cassette culture’ and more ‘a culture of cassettes’, we will encounter innumerable instances of musical forms from across the globe also adopting the format for similar reasons. This article has said nothing of the cassette’s role in hip hop street culture during the 1980s, global rave culture during the 1990s nor the significant part it has played for decades in capturing the popular local and traditional music of many non western countries. The essence these stories all share is their beginnings within the drive to create art from limited resources and the humble cassette tape’s role in this cannot be overstated. In fact, it may not be an overestimation to say that wherever a cash-strapped musical phenomenon took place anywhere in the world between the mid 1970s to the late 1990s, a cassette tape will have documented some part of its existence.

Our cassettes today

By 1992 sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes and commercial manufacturing of the format had ceased by 2002 as digital technologies had become the norm. It is likely that most of us still recall an awkward format which we were glad to trade in for digital media when considering our own music collections so, while cassette culture is a truly fascinating phenomenon of its time, what does this all mean for those cassettes we have stashed in the loft or gave away years ago?

While writing this post I spoke to Sussex based musician Robin Dickinson about his involvement with punk and noise music cassette culture in the 1980s and 90s. Keen to absorb all the music he could from within these scenes, he happily collected both vinyl records and cassettes during this time. The cassettes he described to me were low fidelity and extremely cheap, often recorded from 2nd or 3rd generation copies before finding their way to him and frequently becoming chewed up and broken in his cassette player. Even so, when speaking about the loss of his entire music collection to a burglary he told me that it was in fact these cassettes that he was most sad about losing. Though vinyl records were more expensive, new copies of those releases could be purchased again. The cassettes however – hand crafted, custom recorded and evocative not just of the culture and people from which they came – could never be replaced in a world that has moved on from the format in favour of digital media.   

While we cannot expect every cassette collection to contain rare artefacts of underground musical cultures they all have backgrounds, mystery and histories that extend far beyond the audio they store. Commercially produced cassettes today are reminders of entire industries and modes of listening that no longer exist, and we never know quite what a home recording cassette may contain until we play it. It could be a carefully crafted selection of songs or albums made for a friend or in other circumstances the format could have been used for work, perhaps to document a meeting where we would now use Zoom or Skype. Some would have used the cassette to record the sounds and voices of family and friends, while others – as we have seen – saw a way to create art and connect it with others across the globe. The uses were only ever as limited as the users imagination.

Precisely because we came to replace and forget them, cassettes today feel like little vessels of audio and cultural history more so than the everyday items they used to be. When we play these cassettes back today, divorced from their original contexts and purpose, we gain snapshots into the lives, times and people that used them and hear a part of the way the world used to sound. What might you find, remember, hear and imagine if you were to listen through your own collection again?

Creative Uses of Tape

By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

In the first of a series of posts around creative uses of tape throughout audio past and present, we will look at the development of magnetic tape as a compositional tool in the 20th century.

Early beginnings and musique concrète

Music throughout the 20th century can largely be defined by an ongoing preoccupation with experimentation and attempts to redefine the boundaries of how music could be composed and appreciated.  Having been chiefly understood for centuries beforehand as the interpretation of notated scores by acoustic instruments, music underwent immense transformation in the course of just a few decades.  It is no coincidence that some of the most radical of these changes took place alongside the development of sound recording technology, and of all these innovations one of the most important is magnetic tape.

Various means of recording and reproducing sound existed prior to the invention of magnetic tape, with radio and phonograph record players – already commonplace household items – being explored within musical performance settings.  In other cases, newly emerging early electronic instruments such as the Theremin and Ondes Martenot introduced previously unheard sonic characteristics into the orchestral context.  Such developments were underpinned by an increasing sense that a great departure from centuries worth of musical practice and theory was beginning to come to the fore, with technology holding the key to its exploration.  For many composers, the common tools of pitch and harmony began to be replaced with an interest in texture, timbre and the qualities of non-musical sound, leading to the development in the 1940s of dedicated practices in collecting, manipulating and rearranging recorded sounds into new compositions.  Halim El-Dabh’s ‘Expression of Zaar’ is likely the first public presentation of such a work, having premiered in 1944 during an art gallery event in Cairo.  The piece was created when El-Dabh replayed a wire recording of a public exorcism ceremony through reverberation and echo effects, resulting in an ethereal and atmospheric series of intertwining tones barely recognizable from their original context.

Halim El-Dabh’s ‘Expression of Zaar’ (1944)

By the late 1940s these practices were solidified under the umbrella of musique concrète a term adopted by the composer Pierre Schaeffer who is widely attributed with having crystalized many of the techniques and theories of the form into the true beginning of a dedicated creative discipline.  The term intended to describe an approach to music making distinct from the traditional method of musical notation as interpreted by instruments.  Musique concrète proposed that recorded sound itself would be the chief material of the composer and the studio would become their instrument. 

Early musique concrète works by Pierre Schaeffer.

The introduction of magnetic tape as a music making tool

Magnetic tape recording had already existed at this time having been developed in Germany during the first half of the 1930s and further explored by many different nations for military purposes just prior to and throughout WWII.  Commercial machines would emerge in the late 1940s but were hampered by poor functionality, meaning that use of magnetic tape by composers of musique concrète did not begin in earnest until the early 1950s when the technology had been improved upon and optimized for modern uses.  Once these advancements took place, a great expansion of the role recording devices could play in composition began to occur.  The malleability of tape made it an ideal material for a musical practice concerned with the manipulation of audio; it could be run past the playback heads at different speeds or directions, radically altering the character of whatever sound was originally captured on the spool.  Tape could also be cut and reattached (a technique known as splicing) allowing the technician to arrange sounds – often from multiple sources – into new configurations or constantly repeating loops.  Multiple tape recorders could be employed to capture and layer these results into whole compositions or to create echo like effects as a single piece of sound on the tape would pass through multiple playback heads in sequence.  Additionally, where previous machines such as the wire recorder were cumbersome to operate or, in the case of shellac discs, could only be recorded onto once, magnetic tape provided a format which was simpler to operate and could be erased, allowing mistakes to be edited or reattempted and reels to be reused for different projects. 

This clip from the 1979 BBC documentary ‘The New Sound of Music’ demonstrates a number of ways in which magnetic tape was harnessed to create musique concrète.

Mainstream exposure: the 1960s and beyond

The 1950s saw the construction of many studio facilities dedicated to exploring musique concrète and concurrently developing electronic music technologies.  Mostly owned and operated within prestigious universities, this marked the gradual recognition of such forms as a serious institutional concern at the cutting edge of new music.  Rather than remaining confined to the world of academia however, the ideas developed in this field would gradually find utility in popular music throughout the 1960s and 1970s, exposing the sonic possibilities of magnetic tape to a wider and more diverse audience.

Tape recording had already made a huge impact on the popular music of this era as the development of multitrack recording and the ability to layer and overdub audio enabled musicians to hone the studio process into a more creative, polished artform.  The phenomenal success of the Beatles gave them unprecedented access to the most up to date recording technologies as well as the expertise to explore its potentials.  The group’s well documented introduction of contemporary art and musical influences into their songwriting resulted in a number of musique concrète techniques being used in some of their most iconic and well known material.  Infamous tales of studio experimentation in cutting, looping and rearranging tape are peppered throughout the Beatles’ discography and contribute toward a sound that remains instantly recognizable even now. 

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is just one of many Beatles songs to contain tape editing and musique concrète techniques. Try listening through headphones to hear the looping drums and layers of reversed instruments playing at different speeds.

Similar techniques were also explored by artists such as Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa who further introduced these influences into rock music, broadening the sonic possibilities of the genre.

Radio and television also had a huge part to play in spreading the influence of tape experimentation to a wider audience, perhaps most notably of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Founded in 1951 following demand from a number of in house staff with an interest in contemporary events in electronic and experimental music, the workshop was given a budget and facilities to undergo the creation of experimental audio works for BBC programming.  The group produced sounds for radio dramas and plays as well as music and sound effects for a number of television programs, including perhaps most famously the iconic Dr. Who theme as realized under the direction of Delia Derbyshire in 1963

Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills describe the making of the Dr. Who theme in the Radiophonic Workshop.

The Radiophonic Workshop continued in various formations until it’s official closure in 1998, though Daphne Oram, one of the key originators of the workshop, left the project before the end of its first year in order to pursue her own work.  Developing her ‘Oramics’ system throughout the late 1950’s and early 1960s, she produced a machine which generated and manipulated sounds from patterns and shapes physically painted onto glass panels and 35mm film strips, predating sequencer and synthesizer technology now common place in electronic music by many years. 

Daphne Oram’s ‘Oramics’ system.

The sound of the future today

The art of recorded music developed rapidly throughout the rest of the 20th century and by the 1970s the notion of treating the process as a way to use sound in a sculptural fashion as opposed to simply capturing representations of notated scores via acoustic sources became common place.  Whether it was due to the odd, alien sounds that it could be used to produce or simply its growing capacity for more sophisticated, advanced usage in standard recording, the tape recorder represented the sounds of the future.  Though the emergence of digital technologies saw the gradual move away from tape into a more familiar world of computer based recording and digital sampling, many aspects of the modern studio process still bear close resemblance to the earliest discoveries in magnetic tape recording.

Jim Morrison eerily predicts the future of music in 1969.

It’s a good time to save your memories

by Katie Tavini, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

A CD-R, full of memories?

When guests visit the audio digitisation studio at The Keep and we talk about which formats are endangered, a lot of people are surprised when we mention CDs, or more specifically, the CD-R. 

In my job role as Audio Preservation Engineer, here at The Keep (which is the South East Hub for the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project), I come across lots of CD-Rs that have audio, images and text files on, from all types of sound collections. Unfortunately, there are some CD-Rs that are beyond saving, which means that unless there is either another copy of the material, the sounds it stored are lost forever. 

Remember in the early-mid 2000s when digital cameras really took off. Family occasions, nights out, birthdays, day to day life. Everything was documented because there was finally no real limit on how many photos you could take – other than the storage size of your SD card. And when that storage ran out, you’d probably just dump all your photos onto a CD-R that you’d bought in a multipack at the local supermarket. 

You see, at the time, external hard drives were fairly expensive, and not super accessible. However, you could go to pretty much any big shop and buy a 20 pack of CD-Rs that you could use to store whatever digital files you had. I know that I used to make compilation CDs and photo albums to back up my files, and to give to family and friends as gifts. 

The shiny plastic discs seemed as though they were made to last forever. However, now might be a really good time to move all your photos and files from CD-R to a different storage medium.

CD-Rs are made up of a few different layers. But the part that actually stores all your stuff, is a layer of dye. When you burn a CD-R, the laser in your computer cuts a path in this dye. But over time, and especially with exposure to light, this dye can fade. When that happens, it makes it harder and harder for your computer to read the CD-R. This means there’s more chance of it failing, and you not being able to retrieve your stuff.

The diagram below shows the different layers of a CD, and a CD-R:

(Thanks to Tom Ruane at the British Library for the image)

Also some bad news if, like me, you tried to keep your files super organised on CD-Rs – if you glued labels to the top, or used a marker pen to detail the contents (or doodle some fancy artwork), the chemicals in the glue or marker pen could also speed up the rate at which a CD-R degrades. 

CDs, the type you typically buy pre-filled with music, are a little more sturdy, and will last longer thanks to the aluminium layer that contains a single spiral of data. The aluminium layer is read in a CD drive pretty much the same way the layer of dye in a CD-R is read, however, the aluminium won’t fade over time, giving it a longer shelf life. Fun fact – the spiral of data on a CD can be as long as 5km in length!

So no need to worry about your commercial music collection on CD, but do make sure you back up your home made CD-R photo albums – don’t lose precious memories to degrading formats!

Audio preservation in lockdown

By Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

A helpful cat: one of the challenges of working from home.

We are living in unprecedented times, a cliche but true. Our project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, stopped work on site at The Keep archives on March 19th 2020 and since then we’ve been working from home.

Like many people, we are facing a range of work-related challenges, above all the fact that we can’t get into the digitisation studio or use the equipment in it. In addition, we can’t listen to most of our recordings or bring home the archive documentation that provides context to what we are listening to. And all the while the team is juggling work with family responsibilities, the challenges of life in lockdown, caring for loved ones and, most importantly, staying at home.

So, what does it mean for an audio preservation project to be working in a time of lockdown? Well, we’ve had to be flexible about what we do, while maintaining the focus on our project ambition of preserving and improving access to sound recordings across the South East and the wider UK. For us at The Keep is has meant:

Implementing our ‘ideas list

Those ideas that we’ve talked about but not quite got around to finishing are now coming to the fore. Our Engineers have been focussing on a range of tasks including sorting out our image bank – a long-overdue job; creating a sample pack of ‘sounds from the studio’, which can be downloaded and used here; and developing new skills in areas such as cataloguing.

Working around the challenges

The Cataloguers continue to create the catalogue records for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue. This is part of the core work of the project: enabling researchers to find content they want, and ultimately to explore the wealth of sound recordings. Our Rights Officer continues to clear the rights to recordings, essential if they are to be made available online. But not having our usual equipment and documentation means that we have to accept the pace is slow – frustrating at times.

Embracing new technology

Software tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp are transforming our ability to keep in touch and work collaboratively as a team now spread across Brighton, Hove and Lewes. We are embracing this new technology, getting up to speed with what’s possible and sharing a wealth of morale-boosting content, including: cute pets, interesting mugs, ‘what I had for lunch’, along with work queries and software solutions.

However, in embracing this technology, we are also realising its limits: they are very useful, functional tools, but sometimes you just want to share the same space with somebody, to scribble your ideas on a shared piece of paper, and to not have to juggle with the distorted sound of an ‘unstable network connection’.

Looking to the future

We are all living acutely in the moment, with daily updates of news and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. However, for our work, this is also a time to think about what we will learn from this experience to take forward. There has been an out-pouring of digital content from the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector, along with many other cultural organisations, that has contributed to our shared experiences of lockdown. Clearing rights to put sound recordings online and creating resources using archive sound recordings are already part of this process, but what else could we be doing?

We look forward to getting back to The Keep, but we know that we are some of the lucky ones. We are able to work from home with the knowledge that our project and jobs will still be there for the next 18 months, thanks to National Lottery Heritage Fund and Lottery Players.

For now, the process of audio preservation will continue from a network of living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across East Sussex. Stay safe, and we’ll speak to you soon.

picture of the team at unlocking our sound heritage
The Unlocking our Sound Heritage Team

What is a vinyl record player?

By Eli Miller, University of Brighton Student Volunteer

What is a vinyl record player? Well, it’s an electromagnetic devices which we listen to music on. Let’s face it: technology has turned music and listening to sound into more of a utility than an art. This has a lot to do with the amount and ease of access through sites like YouTube and Spotify. Recently, however, vinyl has made a major comeback. But, how do record players work?

The Building Blocks of Vinyl

Every record player has three main parts:

  1. Needle
  2. Cartridge
  3. Tonearm
close of of a vinyl record player. focus on cartridge
Close up image of a vinyl cartridge. (Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)

Modern records are made of polyvinyl chloride (Vinyl), a type of plastic. They have very small grooves stamped into them which then creates sound waves. The right and left channel of these grooves cause the needle to vibrate. These vibrations then move their way up to the cantilever (which sits inside the cartridge). The cantilever is attached to the needle and a magnet which sends a small electrical signal to the channels. The magnet moves constantly between two coils that generates a signal that moves into the tonearm and then through amplifiers.

Why Have They Become So Popular Again?

Vinyl made its debut comeback in 2008 and is even more popular today. Reasons for this could be the improvement in sound quality; modern vinyl record players sound much better compared to the 1960s. There is also an aesthetical element to vinyl, which digital music lacks. Record sleeves are part of the artistic process in making music. All artwork is carefully selected, which digital music doesn’t appreciate as much. Compare downloading a song on a computer to being in a store and having an incredible image catch your eye! On top of that, who doesn’t want a funky coloured record? Just look at the image below:

Orange coloured vinyl (Photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash)

Nostalgia is another key reason for vinyl’s popularity. Those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s miss this way of listening to music; so it brings back memories! People have been listening to MP3s for more than a decade but the sound a vinyl produces is much different to digital music, especially through on old record player.

Digital music will never die but it seems to be the same with vinyl records. They are an incredible mark in the history of sound that keeps coming back to play.