Celebrating 40 years of solo listening

The summer of 1979 was notable for a few things in Ireland. There were marches at the Viking settlement of Wood Quay – in vain, as it turned out. Aer Lingus gave its first female pilot her wings. And nothing could dislodge Brendan Shine’s hokey, cheery and as-ghastly-as-its-title ‘Do You Want Your Aul Lobby Washed Down’ from the top of the charts.

Oh, and in July, large swatches of the population seemed to combust with excitement following the announcement that Pope John Paul II would be visiting these shores in September.

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It is likely that almost nobody in this country was aware of a new product that had gone on sale in Japan – on July 1 – that would forever change the way we listen to music.

This snazzy device was capable of playing cassette tapes – big deal – but what made it different is you could carry it around with you wherever you went, creating a soundtrack for your commute, runs or daily perambulations thanks to its nifty, spongy headphones.

Other companies had made prototypes of such a wonder-machine, but it was Sony with its Walkman that was the first to be commercially available. And it would go on to sell hundreds of millions of units.

The story has it that Sony bigwig Masaru Ibuka got the wheels turning when he asked his engineers to devise a way to listen to opera that was more portable than Sony’s existing TC-D5 cassette players. The charge fell to Sony designer Nobutoshi Kihara, who built a prototype out of the company’s journalist-friendly Pressman cassette recorder in time for Ibuka’s next flight.

The product – as yet unnamed – could play magnetic cassette tapes that had become more and more common in record shops as the 1970s wore on, but many at Sony apparently worried that the product would fail to take off because it didn’t have any recording capabilities.

And, initially, their fears seemed justified as sales were sluggish in the first few months. It cost in the region of £150 (old Irish pounds) to those first customers in Japan – a hefty figure considering a pint of Guinness cost about 50p back in 1979, so price was definitely an issue. So too, surely, was the idea of wandering around with funny little things clamped to your ears.

But it’s often the case that game-changing new products have a weak beginning before steamrolling all in front of them once they achieve critical mass, and when any of the technical glitches of the first iteration are ironed out and when the price becomes a bit cheaper.

And – much like those first iPods a little over two decades later – once you saw more and more people with them, and got to sample the superb sound for yourself, resistance was futile.

There’s a lovely anecdote in A Fabulous Creation, the recently published book on the golden age of albums from English rock scribe David Hepworth. He recalls first encountering the Sony Walkman in 1980 when he went to interview Stewart Copeland. The Police drummer had just returned from Japan with a Walkman and insisted that Hepworth take a listen. The journalist recalls being astounded that such a small and fully portable device was capable of delivering music so well.

Hepworth pointed out that Sony’s all-conquering device is one of the chief reasons why vinyl sales started to give way to cassettes from the early 1980s on. And although compact discs would be formerly launched in 1982, they wouldn’t outsell cassettes for a further 10 years.

What some will have forgotten is that when the product finally went on sale in Ireland in 1981, it didn’t bear the Walkman branding.

It was sold under the far less memorable moniker of Stowaway (it was called the Sony Soundabout early on in the US). But soon the Walkman branding appeared all over the world, including Ireland, and it was already a very common sight on Irish streets in 1986 when the word ‘Walkman’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

I had coveted one since starting secondary school and finally was gifted a Sanyo version in Christmas 1990. Although several other tech giants had made their versions, all of them were referred to as Walkman by their owners, me included.

For someone whose idea of personal music was taking a crappy transistor radio to my bedroom to listen to Dave Fanning’s impeccable nightly song selection, the sound that emanated from those garish orange headphones was from another world: clean, crisp and bearing none of the static I’d get when trying to tune into 2fm in the midlands back then.

But the greatest delight was taking them wherever I wanted. This was music removed from the bedroom and perfect for making the tedium of the school bus journey a bit more bearable and I found myself walking until my legs tired of a summer evening so keen was I to listen over and over to my then obsessions – REM, the Stone Roses and Nirvana.

Many, including the aforementioned Hepworth have bemoaned the Walkman’s impact on the way we consume music. We’re less likely to listen to recorded albums communally – which is why events like vinyl listening parties have taken off.

But it’s the very personal nature of listening to music – as ushered in by Sony 40 years ago – that we should celebrate. We don’t have to delegate to anyone else, or suffer another’s dominion of the turntable – we can play whatever we like and it’s purely for our own pleasure.

It’s apt, then, that the Walkman emerged at the tail-end of what Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the ‘Me’ Decade. But while the future The Bonfire of the Vanities writer meant it pejoratively, I see the Walkman – and all the personal music devices that came in its wake – as completely liberating. How many of us stop to think about how incredible it is to summon up any song – of the tens of millions available on streaming services via our phones – and hear them piped into our ears in a matter of seconds?

While it would be grim to experience a live concert alone – and anyone who has sat in an empty venue during a soundcheck will know exactly what I mean – recorded music really benefits from close attention provided by headphones and the absence of another’s chatter and that’s as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1979 when Nobutoshi Kihara first sketched out designs for the Walkman by hand.

When one looks back over the past 40 years of portable music, it’s remarkable how many music delivery systems have been part of our life in that time. The 1980s and the early part of the 1990s were about portable cassette players. Then the technology moved on to compact disc although I can’t be the only one to have considered Sony’s Discman to be inferior to the Walkman – CDs constantly seemed to skip in my one.

The end of the 1990s saw early adapters taking on mini-disc players – where the sound quality would be the best yet heard for those on the move – but that technology was short-lived. Many of us who haven’t thought about mini-discs in eons have had our memories jogged thanks to Radiohead releasing 18 hours of music recorded on mini-disc for OK Computer (they felt forced to do so instead of paying a £150,000 ransom to a hacker who had got their hands on the music). Incidentally, anyone who loves Radiohead’s most celebrated album really needs to hear this music because it captures how songs we know and love so much evolved over a period of months and how others barely got off the ground.

But back to the mini-disc. Just as I was about to take the plunge and trade my Discman for a mini-disc player, Apple came out with their iPod – and iTunes (which has just been euthanised) – and while it ruled the roost for the 2000s, its days were numbered thanks to Spotify and smartphone technology that both started to make their mark at the beginning of this decade.

It’s intriguing to wonder what might be in store for those who love their music on the move but it’s unlikely to match the leap experienced in 1979 when the turntable in the corner suddenly seemed like old hat.

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