that birthday in the summer of 1982, getting this new
device that was all the rage at the
time, and how excited my parents
were to give it to me. It was a portable stereo cassette player—the
infamous Sony Walkman. My Dad was very excited and impressed
it was stereo
sound, and that no one else could hear it thanks to the headphones. I
remember too that my parents almost didn’t buy me the J. Geils Band
Freeze-Frame album to go with my new Walkman because of the song
‘Piss on the Wall.’ Happily I won out; I think I played that tape so
many times I wore it out.
First introduced in the US in 1980, the Sony Walkman really did change the
way we listen to music. It wasn’t just about it being portable and
offering big stereo quality sound; it was so much more. I didn’t realize
it at the time, but parents were happy to no longer have to hear bands
like Quiet Riot and Duran Duran booming out of their kids’ bedrooms.
And, while that was great news for parents, kids were excited to be able
to rock out to the music they loved without wearing headphones that
looked like they should be out sweeping for land mines or at the benign
volume levels acceptable to adults.
Before we had the Walkman, which was first called the ‘Sound-About’ in the
US, portable music came in the form of either a small radio, with or
without a cassette player, or a big chunky eight-track player, which was
more common in the dash of a car. Neither option was very personal as
anyone within in earshot could hear the music you were playing. Plus,
anything with a cassette player really wasn’t that small or portable.
The Walkman was only 14 ounces, and despite having no radio or a
recording feature, which was highly criticized at the time, it had the
sound of being in a big room, yet in the palm of your hand. Well, if you
had a rather large palm. It also had other features that you would never
see on today’s iPods and MP3 players. It had an additional earphone
jack, which was great if you had siblings like I did, and it had the
infamous hotline button. Now, if you don’t remember what the hotline
button was, just think back to that scene in the movie 48 Hours
when Eddie Murphy’s character was signing Roxanne in the prison cell and
the detective (played by Nick Nolte) had to get his attention because he
couldn’t hear him while wearing headphones. He had to yell his name into
the mic using the hotline button. That button was one of the first
things I remember on the original Walkman that I loved, and sadly it
disappeared when the TPS-L2, the original Walkman, was replaced with the
WM-2, also known as the Walkman II.
You might say that the Walkman unleashed music like letting an animal out
of its cage. That trip our family took cross-country would have not been
the same for me without my music at the ready. Exercising would never be
the same, or travel, or train commutes, or airplane rides, well, you get
the picture. And once you let something like that
it changes everything. Making mix tapes was something I did nearly every
weekend, because each trip or bike ride would be a different experience
with different music. We bought blank tapes by the case, and once you
got a dual-cassette deck at home, forget it; the possibilities were
endless. Remember Personics? It was like iTunes in the 80s, and I had
quite a few of those personally made cassette tapes.
Over the years the Walkman would get smaller and evolve to get new
features like FM tuners, tougher (the thick yellow sports models), mega
bass, graphic equalizers and even the ability to record. My favorite was
the WM-20, widely regarded as the world’s smallest cassette player at
the time; it was no bigger than a cassette case. After a 30 year run,
Sony stopped making the Walkman in 2009.