It may not have the rich sound quality of vinyl, nor the dynamic range of CDs, but the cassette tape has an undeniable charm. First displayed at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963, cassette tapes came to dominate music in the 80s, with car stereos and the Walkman letting you take your favourite tunes anywhere.
Today, cassette tapes are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. We’re taking a look at the rarest and most valuable cassette tapes of the 1980s, from obscure bands with dedicated fans to limited releases from global pop icons.
24 Hours – Throbbing Gristle
Also known as TG24, Throbbing Gristle’s 24 Hours cassette box set came out in 1980 and contained live recordings of Throbbing Gristle’s 24 live shows. Only 200 copies were made, each personalised with eerie handmade collages and signed photos of the group.
Pioneers of industrial music, Throbbing Gristle broke up a year after TG24 came out. The group’s demise had a dramatic flourish: they sent out black-rimmed postcards with ornate handwriting to their fans, penned with the simple message, “Throbbing Gristle: The Mission Is Terminated.”
The Madonna Collection – Madonna
All of Madonna’s hits were released on cassette, CD, LP and picture disc. But given the reach of her fans, it’s unsurprising that a few limited releases cropped up in unexpected parts of the world. For instance, the Philippines – which at the time was reeling from the People Power Revolution that unseated President Ferdinand Marcos – was not immune from Madonna-mania.
The Philippines release of The Madonna Collection came out in 1987. A limited collectors’ item, this four-part set remains one of the most valuable cassette boxes in the world. It includes Like A Virgin, True Blue, Who’s That Girl and You Can Dance, and it comes with a unique set of picture labels plus an English lyrics booklet.
The White Tape – Phish
1986’s The White Tape, containing a demo album from budding rock band Phish, truly transformed its band’s fortunes. Originally made as a sample tape for venues to test out before the band arrived, The White Tape contained an early version of Phish anthem You Enjoy Myself, with a cappella vocals. Unusual electronic noises and experimental pieces also made it into the treasured recording.
As Phish grew in popularity, fans began to make copies of and circulate The White Tape, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the album was officially released. The cassette version, however, relied heavily on external musicians and only featured four tunes involving all four Phish members jamming together.
Awake! – Ramleh
One for the superfans, Ramleh’s 1985 six-cassette box contained every single artefact from the band’s original ‘power electronics’ phase. The British experimental music group was created by Gary Mundy in 1982, and it favoured cassette tape releases, producing four collections in its first year: Onslaught, Live to Theresienstadt, Live New Force, and Live Phenol.
Awake! and other early cassettes by Ramleh were released under the Broken Flag label, which brought a certain mystique to the group. Writes Sputnik Music: “Broken Flag Records put out a good deal of interesting material, but it is perhaps their dark, grimy, dingy DIY aesthetic and cult status more than the music associated with them that draws in the weirdos like flies.”
The Smashing Pumpkins – The Smashing Pumpkins
This sought-after cassette tape has a lot of homemade charm. Chicago alt-rock band The Smashing Pumpkins won fame with their 1993 album Siamese Dream, and ultimately became one of the most commercially successful bands of the 90s, selling over 20 million records worldwide.
When the band was only getting started back in 1989, however, they sold just 500 copies of a self-titled cassette. These were sold at early shows, and included A and B-side labels handwritten by band members. The J-card artwork was also made by the musicians themselves.
We Spit On their Graves – Sutcliffe Jügend
The group Sutcliffe Jügend observed the shocking style of Throbbing Gristle, and wanted to take it further. The group’s members later formed the better-known band Whitehouse, which created ‘extreme electronic music’, with imagery and lyrics portraying violent crimes and sadism.
Sutcliffe Jügend created a set of ten cassettes named We Spit On their Graves (1982), which was enthusiastically bootlegged by fans in the form of a ten-vinyl set. The vinyl records now sell for hundreds of pounds, while a cassette box set sold for $1,500 in 2013. Each tape-side is dedicated to the victims of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’.
Depeche Mode – Dépèche Mode
Beginning in the early 80s, Depeche Mode, an electronic music band from Basildon, Essex, were a huge success, selling over 100 million records worldwide and putting 17 albums into the UK Top Ten charts. Made before they experienced success, their first demo cassette tape has a semi-mythical status among collectors.
The tape contained just three tracks: Ice Machine, Radio News and Photographic. Some claim that there are only two authentic versions, while many fakes are in circulation. Others say that lead singer Dave Gahan carried the demo tape everywhere in his pocket for the first year of Depeche Mode’s existence.
Aux Petits Enfants De France – Les Joyaux De La Princesse
Among the weirder entries on this list is Aux Petits Enfants De France, which translates as ‘To the Grandchildren of France’, the cherished 1989 cassette tape of Les Joyaux De La Princesse (‘The Jewels of the Princess’). Also known as La Voix Des Nôtres (‘Our Voice’), the one-man band consists of the musician Erik Konofal, who blends industrial music with melancholy organ tunes and famous speeches from French history.
Konofal’s limited-release cassette tapes are particularly popular thanks to their bizarre packaging. Aux Petits Enfants De France only has 49 copies, and it was released in a coffin-shaped box with gold embossing, along with a single ear of corn.
Achieve the Mutilation – Amputation
1989 demo tape Achieve the Mutilation, which sold for $800 in 2017, consists of just four tracks and was the creation of short-lived Norwegian death metal band Amputation. The band members were Harald Nævdal, Jan Atle Åseød, Jørn Inge Tunsberg and Truls Kvernhusvik, three of whom went on to form the far better-known Immortal.
As they rose to fame in the 90s, Immortal were unusual among black metal bands for not relying on satanic references. Instead, the band’s lyrics explored evil within a fantasy land named Blashyrkh. The band’s style, first developed with Amputation, has been described as “a fusion of gothic, Nordic, and heroic themes.”
Anthems for Doomed Youth – Coup de Grâce
Much like the Achieve the Mutilation cassette, Anthems For Doomed Youth is valued by collectors because it showcases the early work of a band that evolved into a different, widely famous act. The Anthems for Doomed Youth cassette was released in 1985, with only 69 copies produced. Each side contained a different live recording from Coup de Grâce.
Coup de Grâce was a multi-media project created by Michael J Moynihan, who went on to be the founder of black metal group Blood Axis in 1989. Also an author, journalist and editor, Moynihan has carried out famous interviews with many of the artists listed here, including musicians from Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle.
Untieddiaries – Various
Untieddiaries is an anagram of this box set’s label, United Dairies, which is run by Steven Stapleton, the English experimental musician best known for performing under the name Nurse with Wound. Stapleton performs in at least 14 of the tracks on Untieddiaries, which is considered an electronic rock album.
Only 50 Untieddiaries box sets were released in 1987, and they could only be bought through the United Dairies mail order catalogue. Each set contained 32 chrome tapes, arranged neatly in a black suitcase with a brass engraving. Other artists who feature on Untieddiaries include Diana Rogerson and Bombay Ducks.
The Limited Edition Vanity Records Box – Various
As with Untieddiaries, The Limited Edition Vanity Records Box showcases various bands under one label. Released in Japan in 1981, this box set contains works from different electronic and minimal bands, including Salaryman Club, Kiiro Radical and Den Sei Kwan. (A ‘salaryman’ is a Japanese term for a loyal white-collar worker).
70 copies of The Limited Edition Vanity Records Box were produced, each containing six cassettes with original artwork. One copy had a pencilled note from the record label’s founder: “working on a plan. 1981. Agi Yuzuru”. Each set also contains a card with a quote from the French poet Jean Cocteau: “Mon oreille est un coquillage qui aime le bruit de la mer” (‘My ear is a seashell that likes the sound of the sea’).
Metallica released Live Metal Up Your A** themselves with no label in 1982. This thrash and heavy metal album is a live demo, recorded at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. A popular night club that hosted the likes of AC/DC and Iggy Pop in its time, the Old Waldorf closed down a year later.
But as this beloved venue was on its way out, Metallica were only just beginning. Founded in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, the San Francisco band became one of the best-selling bands of all time, with 125 million album sales worldwide. The Live Metal Up Your A** demo, naturally, is much sought-after, with one copy selling for $516 in 2014.
The Purple Tape – Pixies
The famed Purple Tape by Pixies was a 17-track demo tape recorded over three days in 1987. The US alt-rock band, formed by Black Francis and Joey Santiago as students at UMass Amherst, rehearsed in flats and garages before recording the Purple Tape demo at Fort Apache Studios with a $1,000 loan from Francis’ father.
The cassette’s J-card was decorated with homemade art: producer Gary Smith took a photo of drummer David Lovering running while naked at the studio, and he combined it with a picture of local project houses. “The Purple Tape is arguably the purest version of the Pixies’ sound, buzzing with the vitality of the band laying down their crazed songs as quickly as possible,” critic Heather Phares has noted.
Onlyou – CAN
This cassette was released after its creators had already peaked. CAN, an experimental rock band from Cologne, Germany, was founded in 1968. Inspired by psychedelic rock and funk, CAN were considered pioneers of the German Krautrock scene, producing such 70s hits as Spoon and I Want More.
The group split up in 1979, with occasional reunions in the late 80s and 90s. It is perhaps surprising, then, that CAN’s rare and valuable cassette Onlyou came out in 1982. It was a limited edition of 100 copies, intended for superfans and collectors, and it consisted of a relaxed studio session recording from 1976. In a visual pun, the tape reels were packaged in a CAN-branded tin can.