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Turnpike Tinsel

Song Sung Brown

© 2001 Duncan Fry


When you can buy a blank cassette for $5.95, and a blank CD with infinitely better audio reproduction than a cassette for under $1, I think it's safe to say that the cassette era is over as far as in-car entertainment goes.

Of course if you must have that elusive cassette sound, you can always record on a cassette then dub it onto a CD. Then you can re-record over the cassette and repeat the process as necessary. Sadly the 'cassette sound' doesn't seem to be as sought after an effect as the valve/tube sound or an early Neve EQ channel.

But as the cassette era ends, then so does my long-term research project reach its final phase.

During the late 70's and most of the 80's, I drove beaten up trucks around the backblocks of Victoria and NSW , ferrying a large PA system for a succession of unknown bands going to pubs and clubs where no-one in particular wanted to listen to them.

There had to be some way to pass the time on these trips, so I started to collect some souvenirs from the side of the road.

I'm referring to Road Ribbon, Turnpike Tinsel, Freeway Flotsam, whatever you like to call it, you'll know it when you see it. Kilometre after kilometre of brown recording tape fluttering in the breeze alongside our highways, usually heaved out of the window in a fit of 'tape rage'.

I'm sure it must have happened to all of us - first the Ballroom Blitz starts running slower and slower, then gets more muffled and distorted.

"Jeez what's going on with this bloody tape?" someone says.

You hit the eject button and the ejected cassette falls on to the floor into the hamburger wrappings and soft drink cans, spewing loop after loop of its ribbon thin entrails out over everything.

"Useless fuckin' thing," says the stage guy, and whizz - out the window it goes!

Anyway, every time I saw some tape a-blowin' in the wind, I'd wonder what people had been listening to that made them spit the dummy and eject the tape from their lives permanently. I'd stop the truck (time and traffic permitting), cut a chunk of it off the barbed wire and stick it in my logbook so I'd know what piece of road it came from.

At home I set up a gutted cassette tape shell that I could quickly splice the tape remnant into, along with a cassette deck chassis where every aspect of tape handling and playback could be quickly modified as necessary. That way, if I had spliced the tape into the shell upside down, all I had to do was move the playback head up or down to catch the music going the other way. Side 1 would be Side 2 and vice versa.

Sounds complicated when you write it down, but it was actually very simple, and more importantly - it worked.

You only really needed to hear a few words or notes of most pieces of tape to work out what music was on it. Some pieces were too far gone to hear much of anything; a combination of sun, wind, rain and sheep piss had conspired to reduce most of the oxide to just a memory, but in most cases there was something recognisable.

It was also interesting to see that in some locations there was more than one type of tape caught up in the bushes. Quite often these were immediately after a particularly bumpy stretch of road; a spot between Narrandera and Leeton on the way to Griffith yielded four separate samples within a kilometre of each other!

Not all of them required much detective work as the cassette shells were still attached, and the trend to direct printing onto the shell rather than onto stick-on paper labels which soon washed away was a great help. But most of them were just tape pieces, their attachment to any shell long since lost.

So what was on these tapes, I hear you ask.

Well, as you might expect, there was a lot of country. But out of the 67 samples I collected, nine of them were the one person; indeed, the one album.

Yes, number one cassette tape for being hurled out of the window in a fit of tape rage was that mainstay of 70's parties - Neil Diamond's Hot August Night!

This was more to do with the shit quality of the old Astor label cassette tapes than any reflection on Neil's songwriting. The problem being although it was a double album, it had been squeezed onto a single cassette to save costs. These things would stuff up the second time anyone played them at home, let alone in a car filled with dust and vibration (although multiple renditions of She Got The Way To Move Me Cherry can move things faster than a double dose of Laxettes).

You'd think that based on Neil Diamond's position that number two on the list would be Frampton Comes Alive, but that only rated one instance, found between Ouyen and Mildura.

Next on the list was country - various artist compilations especially, with Charlie Pride, Loretta Lyn and Tammy Wynette featuring heavily. Real crying in your beer stuff that reinforces the popular image of truckies barrelling down the highway with tears in their eyes and speed in their veins! No Dolly Parton from her country years, but one instance of Islands In The Stream, a disposable (obviously!) pop duet with her and Kenny Rogers.

Various rock artists figured occasionally. The usual suspects, AC DC (twice), Black Sabbath, Sherbet (twice), Billy Joel, Deep Purple, but in the main the K-Tel type compilations like Summer Hits (Summer Not?), Rippa, that type of thing were very popular. I classed an instance as a compilation if the tape had a different artist going one way than the other.

The third highest genre turned out to be not music at all, but what I would call 'self-help tapes'. Six instances of sales training/ motivational stuff (Make that sale today...You can make it happen...Every rejection is a plea for more information...and other waffle), one instance of Anger Management - How to Control Your Rage (not very successfully as it had been thrown a good thirty feet!) and one instance of Finding Inner Peace by an unknown guru.

Only two instances of comedy, though (if you don't count the preceding category!) - an early Rodney Rude, and a Richard Pryor, still with cassette shell attached (and very funny).


So, my work is done. I gave up country touring around 1986, so my research ended there, except for one memorable instance.

Whilst depositing a gutful of toxic waste into the bushes alonside the 605 freeway in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, (see Food To Go story) I noticed some tape fluttering nearby. I souvenired a chunk and ran it up when I got back home, but it was sadly just some black rap. So if that's the future, include me out.

The trouble with rap is that someone left the C off the front of it.


Email me if you have any suggestions for a name for this tape phenomenon

This story first appeared in Connections magazine

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