Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cassette Tapes and Hyper-Dimensional Objects

Industry generates product in unexpected ways. At the dawn of the personal computing era in the early 1980s, commercial computer software was distributed on...

CASSETTE TAPES.

It's so true. This one time I was on vacation with my family, and we stopped to visit a friend of my dad's from like, the army or college or something. I was sent off to interact with two male children who I guess were about my age, and their thing was computer games. I had Atari so I knew about computer games, but these kids had an actual computer, and to play games on it, they had to put a

CASSETTE TAPE

into a cassette player and like rewind it and fast forward it and stuff. To load the program.

Information technology. Tiny metal shavings aligned in the shape of information.

While this was going on in Massachusetts, some entrepreneurs in England were creating what Caroline Bren calls, in the liner notes of this album, "some obscure kind of hyper-dimensional object". Twenty years before VC, angel investors, and "the tech bubble", before there was even a need for the word "start-up", Automata UK was making games for a 16K (K, that's for "kilobyte") system called the ZX Spectrum computer, distributing them on

CASSETTE TAPES,

and crafting a minor pop-culture phenomenon with their breakthrough character, the Piman (that's Pi, like the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). There was a widely publicized contest where clues were given in the games, television appearances, and comic strips, and it took two years for someone to finally figure it out and win the prize. Amazing. And because the games were on

CASSETTE TAPES,

they could put, yes that's right, music on the B-side. Music which, thirty years on, a record label in western Massachusetts mostly dedicated to the woodsy, hairy noise and free improv scene of that region compiled into this mind-blowing document.

It's so nice: the gatefold cover parodies Axis: Bold As Love with all the characters from the games and the creators. Every centimeter of available space on the inside cover, inner sleeve, and two-sided insert are jam-packed with photos, reminiscences, reprints of comic strips, ads, catalogs, the works. The real-life story is so fun, and the hero is Mel Croucher, composer and idea-man. He's as unlikely a rock star as you'll ever hope to see: he's got a Bun E. Carlos stache, a perma-squint, and a dad-hairline. (And he's the charismatic one!) The music, aside from the magnificent opening track "The Piland National Anthem", is almost unlistenably corny, in a way that's absolutely delightful and endearing for the first, say, five spins, at which point you get really bummed out and put the record away and hope your daughter doesn't pick it out and make you play it again.

Also I can't not mention the just wrong Jamaican and Chinese charac-atures that show up. Mel. You said that the first principle of your video game making was that they had to be non-violent. Making fun of people's accents is violent. Mistake. Hopefully, you realized it later and said sorry? If not, no time like the present!

But anyhow, there it is. This is what an LP is capable of: a whole hyper-dimensional object, wrapped up into a neat little package that you can store on a shelf and unpack when the fancy strikes.

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