Letters from Somnolescent June 24, 2021

The Absurd Netherworld of Internet Archive Tape Transfers

by mariteaux

For a period of time after Sound of Dentage‘s release, I was pretty keen on digging through archive.org’s Cassette Audio section to see what strange, forgotten things I can find. It’s ostensibly only non-copyrighted audio, but that’s a crock of shit. The flood of content makes policing it with anything other than automated bots a non-starter. And even then, I think the Internet Archive is too busy with me wgetting Somnolescent’s old sites to run them.

In any event, I found something rather fascinating, and the kind of collection that no one but me would be interested in: over 1,300 amateur-recorded cassette tapes, transferred and stored in lossless. We’re not simply talking releases (though there’s tons in there). We’re not just talking demos (though they’re in there too–everyone from Dave Grohl to Coheed and Cambria to Juicy J). In a lot of cases, we’re talking mixtapes. Often recorded off the radio mixtapes! (And nature sounds. That’s what 90s kids did for their ASMR.)

A sampling of the Internet Archive's batch of cassette transfers
What a nice little cross section of insanity.

Now, invariably, a lot of this is probably just noise and ambient stuff, same sorta thing that has always flooded the avant-garde experimental underground scene, same stuff the netlabels put out now, and the same stuff I’m not really interested in. However, the hand-dubbed tapes? Are where, well, strangeness lies. I’ve picked out three amateur ones for us to go through, recorded from various sources by regular people on cheap equipment. Download links are provided for each.

Tape #1: Unlabeled Cassette Tape

Unlabeled Cassette Tape

You’ll always pique Cammy’s interest when you mention that something is unknown and unlabeled, and this is indeed both. The uploader to the Internet Archive knew nothing more than that this was recorded off the radio in the early 90s. I have my suspicions about that; for one thing, there are no station identifications, and second, there’s what seems to be a record player popping away at points, especially in the beginning. A 15KHz low-pass would also be a sign of an FM radio aircheck, but alas, this tape tops out around 10KHz. Inconclusive.

This is a very short transfer, whatever it is, featuring only 20 minutes of two chunks of rather foreign-sounding audio. (Apparently the rest of it is Kinderen voor Kinderen, a Dutch children’s choir!) Now, to be clear, all of the tape transfers on the Archive are uploaded by users, so random people from all over the world. The person who uploaded this one is indeed from the Netherlands, and uploads a ton of Dutch media, cassettes, and game demos to boot.

But here’s where that gets weird: we’re not listening to Dutch music. We’re listening to…Middle Eastern music. Despite Holland being nowhere close to the Middle East.

Let’s start with the first chunk. The first chunk is instrumental, several clarinet-led instrumental pieces in a very folk-y style. That doesn’t much bode well for identifying the source–though I have. Have a listen to probably my favorite of the bunch:

Giora Feidman’s rendition of “Freileches”

So–Giora Feidman is an Israeli clarinet player. Probably the thing English-speaking westerners are most likely to recognize of his is that he played clarinet on the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Really, I only know any of that thanks to this kind person who commented on the original upload:

Reviewer: unclesporkums – – March 12, 2021
Subject: Identfied Music

I managed to found out what four of the tunes were. The first three were by an artist named Giora Fiedman.

Jewish Filk Song – 0:08
Freileches – 3:27
Havu Az Laraish – 6:05
Gelbi – The Oud Band – 11:19

Meanwhile, the first vocal cut comes in about 12 minutes in, and that man is definitely not singing in English. He’s also not singing in Dutch either:

“Gelbi”, presumably. I tried finding this one elsewhere using the name and artist given, but was rather unsuccessful. For what it’s worth, an oud is a lute-like traditional instrument originating in the Middle East.

Assuming this tape originates with him (which I doubt it does), and assuming we really are listening to airchecks here (again, doubtful), this would presumably be a Dutch radio station broadcasting…Jewish folk and Middle Eastern music? How diverse and multicultural. It’s a short listen, and kind of an eerie one in parts. This is someone’s vibe, but alas, I am only a yeehaw man. And kinda creeped out.

Reviewer: wildeflowers – – May 6, 2021

this seems to be klezmer mixed with arabic traditional music. really weird, indeed!

(Update: dcb ran Shazam on this one and found the second song! It’s been anglicized as both “Gelbi”, “Galbi”, and “Galabi”, according to various sources. and it’s by a band called Lehakat Tzliley Ha’oud, who were also Israeli. Here’s a YouTube link, with a surprising amount of views on it too. The album this is from dates to 1993, so no earlier than that. Honestly, the song’s kinda grown on me over the course of this post? Maybe it’s the fact that every single classic rock band wanted to play with sitars that makes it sound weirdly natural.)

Tape #2: Weekend Conversations and Breakfast

Weekend Conversations and Breakfast

Back in the 50s into probably the 70s, before the advent of home movies, people would actually record events for posterity on audio tape! As low tech as it gets, an open mic into a room with people, and despite there being a distinct lack of visuals, you can still pick up on…some things, at least, depending how well the tape was recorded.

Here, we’ve got a family of three on a weekend morning (the mother mentions something later at 11 o’clock, which she helpfully notes is two hours before 1 o’clock), with all the incidental chatter, plates and silverware, and kids fucking around that comes with that sorta thing. The tape apparently originates from Austin, Texas, and you can absolutely hear it in their voices.

Now, this one’s labeled as “60s/70s” on the Archive, but I’m gonna guess we’re listening to something from the mid-70s. For one thing, this tape was not recorded in mono! Either it’s some weirdness during the transfer phase or this was actually recorded on a handheld stereo tape recorder, but there’s a ton of difference between the channels. Indeed, the blank also mentions that the tape can be used in a stereo recorder, and given that it’s a Realistic brand tape (Realistic being RadioShack’s in-house audio equipment brand), and Realistic wasn’t founded until 1969, it being from the 60s is a bit unlikely.

Here’s my final bit of deduction as to when this tape was recorded. Listen close to who you can hear most clearly: it’s the boy, not his parents! (Well, in terms of volume; the only thing I heard him say clearly was about getting stabbed in the stomach.) It’s pretty likely this was some little kid fooling around with his dad’s tape recorder, or maybe it’s his own! Either way, past the point where cassettes were a high-end, expensive thing parents would presumably keep away from their stupid kids, so I much doubt it’s from earlier than 1975 or so.

This cassette is not of brilliant quality, it must be said. Most “incidental” tapes weren’t. Even though you’d presumably want to hear back what was being said, I can only make out bits and pieces if I listen really close and crank the volume, meaning the polyester tape noise sprinkles over me like warm sand instead. How pleasantly frustrating.

The dad is who you hear faintly through the first part of the tape. He’s on multiple phone calls throughout, and the longer I listen, the more he seems to be trying to hand off a key code of some kind, possibly for a product registration. He actually gets a little uppity on the first call, around 3:30–“it doesn’t matter what you think, it has to be taken care of, and I’m going to…that’s right.” Around 6:50, he gives someone else a call, and up and front is that key code.

I’ve actually processed the hell out of this clip with compression and limiting to get it even vaguely audible.

The kid’s mom seems to pop in more and more approaching the 10 minute mark. I can’t quite tell who she’s talking to, possibly the boy, possibly no one in specific. All I know is that she made enough bacon for everyone to have two pieces, and there’s an extra one. Riveting stuff.

Yeah, once again, we have a tape where the intent behind recording it proves elusive. Honestly, I didn’t make it through the whole thing because it’s mostly just a “what English sounds like to people who don’t speak it” simulator, and I’m fairly certain it’d be rather dry even if I could make it out. But that’s what makes it appearing on the Internet Archive of all places so utterly bizarre. What is the appeal of this tape? What made Mr. Pavelshum break from transferring cassettes involving healing your chakras and building confidence through hypnosis to transfer this specific tape?

If you’re up for more rather bizarre voyeurism, here’s a message to Grandma. And if you want just plain bizarre, how about the one where this young lady repeats “Hello, how are you?” and “pretty bird!” over and over, once in your left ear, then once in your right ear, then once in your left ear, then once in your right ear…

And no, we don’t know where this one’s from either.

Tape #3: Blank Tape 14

Blank Tape 14

Let’s finish off in more familiar, comfier territory. This one was marked as “19XX Cassette” on the site, and I think that’s because whoever transferred this was as perplexed by the first song as I was. It cuts into this lovely, demonic big band recording, complete with saxophone and group vocals singing about, where else, Hell! Seriously, the sound quality on it is not brilliant, which only furthered my suspicions that this one track came out of the 1940s.

Catching some of the words and Googling it, though, lead me back to 1996. Yeah, that’s actually a Squirrel Nut Zippers song. A very very good one, and one of the more idiosyncratic bands of the 90s for sure–but it definitely only made sense here when I did some digging, because it sounds very out of place.

This tape definitely dates to no earlier than 1998, given that it is entirely either CD dubs or airchecks of then-hit 90s alternative songs like “Semi-Charmed Life” (eugh). It was at least partially recorded in or around Greenville, South Carolina, given this station identification that happens as the tape cuts into Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” (which is uncensored, for the record–naughty naughty):

The name is Gonzo. Music on the way from Blur, Smashing Pumpkins by request, we got some requested Bush…and if you’ve got your own request, 448-0933 is the number. Use it. Here’s Pearl Jam, on Planet Radio 93.3!

93.3 FM is now “The Planet”, and yes, they’re still on the air and you can listen to them live online. (I heard “Far Behind” by Candlebox when I clicked on that link. Some things never change. Tell me what you heard! Also, the timeline sadly does not line up, as he was already in Apricot Bay by 1998, or I’d joke this was one of our Gonzo’s previous jobs.)

To save you a lot of skimming, here’s the full contents of the tape and my very short opinions on the rest of the tracks:

  1. Squirrel Nut Zippers – “Hell”
  2. Pearl Jam – “Jeremy”
  3. Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”
  4. Smashing Pumpkins – “Eye” (wowie, what a hidden gem!)
  5. Reel Big Fish – “Sell Out” (I don’t like ska, and I’m vaguely convinced people who say they do are lying, but this is alright for a ska song)
  6. Beck – “Where It’s At” (I’ll happily take this as an apology for “Semi-Charmed”)
  7. R.E.M. – “Stand” (no really, why listen to ska? This song exists)
  8. Meredith Brooks – “Bitch” (downright hilarious Jagged Little Pill knockoff, but it succeeds in spite of itself)

And past the tape flip:

  1. The Verve Pipe – “The Freshmen” (he kinda sounds like the guy from Fuel–have we ever seen them in the same room together?)
  2. Matchbox Twenty – “Push” (still makes my 10-year-old self ache, it does)
  3. Veruca Salt – “Volcano Girls” (I’m probably way too old for this kinda music, mostly, but it’s big and pounding and vaguely catchy)
  4. Radiohead – “Creep” (this one’s censored, also featuring the station’s compressor breathing away in the outro, classy)
  5. Sublime – “Santeria” (fuck offffff)
  6. 311 – “All Mixed Up” (no thanks)
  7. Republica – “Wrapp”
  8. Quindon Tarver – “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good)” [partial]
  9. Ben Folds Five – “Battle of Who Could Care Less” (also uncensored! The kinda overly-intelligent smarmy pop for people who say they don’t like pop music–pretty good)
  10. Matthew Sweet – “Where You Get Love” (encouraging–I love “Girlfriend” but not “Superdeformed”, which is the only other song of his I know, but this rocks)

As for “Wrapp”, it’s the weirdest song here–really, because it’s here. Republica was one of those groups in the 90s that tried to merge rock and electronica (think Curve or Garbage), and I’d never heard of them before this, and I’m a sucker for 90s one hit wonders. How this girl found them is beyond me. Whereas most of the rest of the songs were, at least at the time, radio favorites, this one wasn’t even released as a single. It’s just a random deep cut from an album that didn’t really do numbers here.

And really, the entire second side is bizarre. At least in the case of “Eye”, Smashing Pumpkins were huge at this point in time, so any random single they had out was gonna get play on radio. Yet, early Ben Folds, Matthew Sweet, the aforementioned Republica–doesn’t quite sit next to the mountainous chart success of “The Freshmen” or “Sell Out”, does it? In fact, if it wasn’t for the last two minutes of the tape, I would’ve guessed someone other than this random teenage girl put it together.

And yes, about those two minutes! I’ve saved the best for last–a partial identification of who happened to give us this mixtape, and why I think this tape in particular might’ve been transferred by the Vista Group (who do on-demand transfer work, and have a kickass basic HTML site to boot).

You see, in the tape flip, aside from a whole lot of grounding issues, we get a message from our song selector at large. She’s definitely a teenager, and it’s very brief, literally just “turn the tape over now please, THANKS” in that goofy, squeaky voice that only teenage girls can do. Later on though, at the end of the second side, we get a longer message from her and a part of an acoustic number, which I’ve transcribed and cut out for you to listen to:

Well, thanks for listening to this magnificent tape. And now that you’ve heard all these great songs, one thing I know for sure is that you won’t be feeling depressed. Thanks, and have a good day!

The song at the end is recorded much worse than the others, but it’s “My Friends” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, again from the mid-90s. Aside from how questionable the “depressed” comment is (I don’t know if I’d call “Creep” or “The Freshmen” or even “My Friends” for that matter particularly upbeat songs), it’s pretty clear this girl made this tape for someone, but the lack of any specifics (like she’s addressing an audience and not one of her friends or family) is what makes it so odd to me. Is it to her friends? A bunch of them? Were all of her friends going through a period of intense interpersonal issues? (Can relate.)

It’s definitely not your usual mixtape, being made both for a specific purpose and also seemingly having no purpose at all. In fact, some of the song choices, while of the era, are incredibly out of place–“Hell” and “Wrapp” as previously mentioned, but also the partial “Everybody’s Free”, which is cut in a way that makes me think this girl only liked that intro bit and not the rest of the song. Thing is, it also wasn’t a radio hit or even alternative rock–it’s a damn acapella choir piece from Romeo and Juliet. I guess if she was trying to put together a bunch of happy 90s songs, it’d make sense–but again, “Creep”. Or “Push”! Literally a song about emotional abuse.

My ultimate guess as for why this appeared on the Internet Archive is that this was a tape with sentimental value to someone–a close friend, a fallen friend, take a guess–and they wanted it transferred. I mostly can’t imagine that this kinda thing would gain much of anyone’s attention in a Goodwill or other places tape traders tend to haunt (even if I am fond of it).

For us, this tape stands best how I’ve always taken it–a time capsule. One bone I have to pick with a lot of “I fucking love the 70s/80s/90s” nostalgia pieces is how revisionist they are. Yeah, we all loved “Jeremy” when it came out, but what’s the first Smashing Pumpkins song that comes to mind from the mid-90s? Bet it was “Eye”, wasn’t it? The existence of Squirrel Nut Zippers here at all is proof positive this was actually dubbed by some girl in the 90s and isn’t some revisionist period piece that skips right from “Teen Spirit” to “Today” to “Mmmbop”.

It’s a little letter to the future from someone who we know not the name nor the age of, only that she once called South Carolina home. And really, isn’t that the beauty of the voyeuristic side of audiocassettes?

Tags: 70s, music, technology,

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

3 comments on "The Absurd Netherworld of Internet Archive Tape Transfers"

  • dotcomboom says:

    On that message to Grandma tape: man, audio letters. And heck, video letters. I like those a lot, because they’re a personal glimpse into someone’s life right at that time. Hindsight makes it easy to forget how the past really was. Time’s funny like that, it seems so abstract when it’s not the present.
    It all leaves for some pondering, though. Can only imagine what the grandmother’s response to the letter or the tape of hers being responding to, were like. Or how long they exchanged these tapes for, and where said tapes might be now. You get to ponder context a lot for all of these transfers, really.
    What a personal means of communication, nonetheless. I think we need more of that now.

    And tuning in to The Planet, they were playing Nirvana’s About A Girl. Some things never do change.

    • mariteaux says:

      I get the same feeling when people show off old emails they printed out. Temporal, ephemeral correspondence made physical. The kinda history that even the Wayback Machine can’t match.

      Also chad Nirvana song. (Literally, a guy named Chad played on it.)

  • borb says:

    i love these little pieces of the past. especially love seeing the playlists they’d put together. its just how people did it back then! but its so cool and fascinating(and nostalgic)!

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