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The evolution of portable music

It’s 30 years since the release of the Sony Walkman. Matt Suddain tracks the evolution of portable music—and the complaints of those who wish it would go away.

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Illustration by Adrian Clapperton

It’s 30 years since the release of the Sony Walkman. tracks the evolution of portable music—and the complaints of those who wish it would go away

Where were you when you noticed things were shrinking? I was standing beside my mum when I realised that my eyes had suddenly risen, like a pair of curious suns, above the horizon of the bench-top. I lived within her loving mediasphere: her voice, her busy and admonishing hands, and her music with its mysterious and enchanting themes—the jiltings, the adulteries, the hotels you could check into but, for some reason, you could never leave. I orbited her like a moon. I waited patiently for her to hand me a silver propeller coated in icing which I would diligently clean with my tongue. It was a small service I provided. Meanwhile, in the next room, at a disturbing volume, the members of Fleetwood Mac were deconstructing their romantic entanglements through the medium of song. “Thunder only happens when it’s raining” was a paradox whose significance I couldn’t yet fathom.

Our tiny, rural community represented the high-tide mark of modern consumer technology. In 1979, my first year of school, the Walkman arrived. I say “arrived”; what I mean is that somewhere in a magical kingdom called Japan a man called Nobutoshi Kihara unveiled his device for listening to music while in motion. We were a step ahead of Kihara. My mum already listened to her music while in motion, while vacuuming. The walls of my bedroom would pulse. Our micro-society had portable music in the form of ghetto-blasters. Guys would carry the thumping beasts on their shoulders, or sit in town squares looking staunch while the box sat at their feet like a loyal and rhythmical robo-dog. My cousin Anthony had one. He liked to sit near it and nod, as if the music was telling him something, something about life.

Sony was about to rock his world. The Walkman prototype was blue and silver, with a vinyl press-buttoned case. “No kid is an island,” said Sony. The first Walkman had two headphone ports, each with its own volume control. “The plural of Walkman is not Walkmen or Walkmans, children, it’s Walkman personal stereos.” They wanted you to say, “How about those Walkman personal stereos—pretty neat!” Sony wanted you to be shunned.

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Matt Suddain with his mother and personal mediascape; with tape deck and friends

The first Walkman is still covetable. The buttons say FF/Cue, Rew/Review. You have options. And the Play button is not tagged Play; it says Listen.

It’s bizarre to think that one of the challenges the Walkman publicity team faced was a global resistance to headphones. People didn’t like them. Sony only sold 3,000 units in the first month, but it didn’t panic and eventually we came around to the genius of the Walkman. At last we had the freedom to wander the streets (or in our case, paddocks), lost in wistful scenes from our own imaginary movies. We could re-enact the training montage from Rocky while jogging, or romanticise feelings of heartache by listening to the band Chicago while shopping for single-serve meals at our local supermarket. The beauty of the Walkman was that it knew we needed it in our lives long before we did. While other gadgets of the age—the microwave, the VCR—remained peripheral, the Walkman and its descendants would become central to our lives.

But it was some years before the Walkman made it down our Information Super Byway. In the summer of 1985 I saw my cousin moping in the corner at a family event and noticed that his ears had turned furry, like a Muppet’s. There was a faint hiss coming from his ears, as if his brain was gently cooking. He was in a private world. No one could bug him. No one could say, “That’s not real music. You may as well be listening to roadworks!” They may as well have been talking to roadworks. All they were to him were mouthing heads. And if someone did have the nerve to speak to him, he could lift one headphone, turn on a look of utter disdain and say, “Yes?”

In the summer of 1985 I saw my cousin moping in the corner and noticed that his ears had turned furry, like a Muppet’s. There was a faint hiss coming from his ears, as if his brain was gently cooking. He was in a private world

Not long after that the first Walkman arrived at my school. The owner arrived with it, beaming, gliding on a cloud, holding the device above his head to catch a ray of silver light from heaven, or so is my recollection. Before then we’d brought our albums to school and the ancient stereogram had played them with all the disdain with which an elderly lady might recite a list of dirty words. Now we gathered in reverent huddles, heads bobbing. We passed the phones from person to person. Thus the Walkman quickly became not a way to remove ourselves from the world, but a way to practice selective socialisation. First generation technology always carries textural pleasures lost in subsequent versions; take the printed book as opposed to the e-book, or the vinyl record as opposed to the CD. We treasured the simple sensory pleasures of compiling a mix tape: the heavy click of the record buttons, the joy of recovering the unruly tape with a pencil, playing our recording for the first time, preserving the beloved mix until its dying days, when the clean vocals were replaced by a terrifying gurgle, as if the songs we loved were now being sung by Daleks.

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Suddain’s younger brother Sam with the family cans

I wanted a Walkman very badly. Words cannot convey. What is the point of compiling a mix tape if you have to play it back on the same gargantuan piece of equipment? The only way our giant family stereogram could become a mobile device was if there was a major earthquake, and that wouldn’t happen until the following year: 1986, Edgecumbe. Google it.

My big problem was that Roger Douglas had begun his reign as Finance Minister and his mandate, it seemed, was to ruin Christmas for every farm kid. My mum sympathised, but there was little she could do. She dragged her old portable tape deck out and matched it with the big white headphones from the family stereo. I looked less like a man on the verge of a cultural revolution and more like someone recording bird sounds for National Radio. When I did finally get a personal cassette player it wasn’t even a Walkman. I don’t even remember what it was. It was probably called a Strollguy or a Joglad. By now competitors had produced their own versions, like Toshiba’s Walky. Walky? Seriously? Are we small dogs? Aiwa came out with the Cassetteboy. But I soon learned that a brand name means nothing when you’re lying on your bed, listening to the opening bars of ‘Blue Monday’, and knowing that things will never be the same.

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Yet all these memories, as treasured as they are, are but a shadow of the singular mindgasm I experienced when I saw my very first iPod.

It would be an understatement to say that not everyone is as giddy over the Walkman’s birthday as I am. This year, Britain’s Daily Mail called the player “The gadget that helped break Britain”. A bold statement. “It is 30 years since we first got on a bus or a train and heard that infuriating tsst, tsst, tsst, tsst noise emanating from a wired-up earhole just behind us, 30 years since one section of the population became literally deaf to the existence of the other half,” cried A N Wilson. “For those of us who liked getting on a bus or a train and overhearing, or even taking part in, conversations, there is something a bit bleak about the dozens of private solitudes which nowadays clamber aboard.”

One of the challenges the Walkman faced was a global resistance to headphones. Sony only sold 3,000 in the first month, but it didn’t panic and eventually we came around. The beauty of the Walkman was that it knew we needed it in our lives long before we did

I can see his point. In Andrew Norman Wilson’s world, the Walkman and the iPod herald an abandonment of community values and a descent into a private, insular hell. “I remember thinking that in England, pop music is a shared social bond,” he says. “The jukebox in the cafe, the transistor radio blaring from the builder’s scaffolding, the music from Radio 2 provided a sort of social glue which crossed the class divide and even bound together generations.” This is what Walkpeople are missing: the genteel interplay between the soulful music of a city, a street-corner bagpiper merging with a builder’s boom-box mixed with strains of chain-store muzak peppered with stray profanities from the brown-toothed maw of a passing meth addict. Why would you want to listen to your own music, podcast or spoken word performance when you could hear announcements about the delay of the Great Southern Rail service to Lewisham layered with the first verse of the Quo’s ‘Rocking All Over the World’ as broadcast from the iron bones of a new library?

To me, the portable media player is a tiny miracle. And I’m not even talking about the raw technology, as amazing as it is. I’m talking about the ideas. When I think of the treasures that slither onto my hard drive every day—TED Talks, NPR’s Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, The Moth podcasts, WNYC’s Radiolab—I quiver. The personal mediasphere that I’ve built for myself means that every day I get to listen to the world’s great thinkers talking passionately about the things they know and love. These ideas are not just informing me, or entertaining me, they’re fundamentally reshaping my brain. If my early life was built on great literature, then my later life is being shaped by great media. The personal media player is not just a filter for noise, it’s a conduit for excellence.

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Intolerance is selective. The same way that people are prepared to ignore the blooming clouds of poison smog that hang around them, but not the small cloud produced by the man smoking at the next table, so Wilson is able to ignore the fevered clamour—the roar of the train, the relentless blather of the tannoy—but not the steady, rhythmic hiss that dribbles from my ears. The reason it bugs him is not because of how loud it is, but because of the volume at which he’s being excluded. The defining qualities of the next generation will not be, as his story suggests, clinical deafness and stupidity, but that they’ll be better educated, better informed, and utterly deaf to his pathetic bleating. And to be clear, it isn’t age or background that’s making Wilson obsolete, it’s his mode of thought. The idea that portable music players are somehow tools for a disaffected youth is a sad misconception. The Walkman itself was commissioned because Sony founder Akio Morita was an opera lover, and he wanted a way to listen to his music on long flights.

Personal media is a deeply subjective act. The point is not to shut off from the world but to immerse yourself in a new and better one. That’s what I learned from my mother as I left her side, left her dancing around the house to Dire Strait’s Making Movies, and went off to find my own music. Now I’m on a train to Manchester. I’m travelling with my partner, Sarah, and her sister Gemma. We’re off to spend Christmas with their mum. We had one or two beers before the trip, and our festive mood is spreading through the carriage. People are smiling, engaging each other. I’ve just been listening to Bon Iver’s heart-rendering debut albumFor Emma, Forever Ago. It was inspired by a horrible breakup, recorded in a remote cabin in Wisconsin, then sent out to our iPods, our Walkmen (I’m not saying ‘Walkman personal stereos’—I’m just not). Now I’m listening to a podcast from Radiolab called Musical Language. The first five minutes are so miraculous that I pull the buds from my ears and force Sarah to listen. Then I watch with delight as her jaw drops. The way that human language “Sometimes behaves so strangely …” explains why we love music, and why we long to surround ourselves with it. These are the moments that make me feel like I’m 11 again, back when we used to listen as an end unto itself, not just to fill the lonely minutes of a commute. You should go to iTunes and download the episode. Then find a quiet spot and listen. It’s one of the reasons why this is the greatest time to be alive, and why the best music of this generation will be the music of ideas.