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Happy 40th Sony Walkman

David Hepworth celebrates the 40th birthday of the Walkman, which he describes as “one of a handful of devices that have come along in my lifetime that could be regarded as transformational.”

By David Hepworth

Happy 40th Sony Walkman
…turning daily life into a form a make-believe… Photograph: Binarysequence [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It’s forty years since the launch of the Sony Walkman. This wasn’t Sony’s idea at first. The prototype of a light, easily portable music player had originally been developed seven years earlier by a man called Andreas Pavel. He was in the mountains near St Moritz when he first tried listening to soft jazz in the open air, at the time an unimaginably novel idea. Pavel immediately realised something that the world would take a long time to discover. Suddenly, he said, “I had the means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation.”

Sony probably didn’t realise that when they launched their version in Japan in 1979. It was originally introduced as a mass market product in Europe as the Sony Stowaway or the Sony Soundaround because there were people within the organisation who thought that we would never go for something with such a clumsy-sounding name as the Walkman.

I can remember when I was first shown one by Stewart Copeland of the Police. His band had just returned from Japan where they had been given this new, unimaginable luxurious toy. When he first handed me those flimsy earphones with the yellow sponge pads over the ears, I didn’t have high hopes. But as soon as I tried it, it was clear that this was going to be one of the handful of devices that have come along in my lifetime that could be fairly regarded as transformational.

I wasn’t the only one. As soon as others heard it, they had to have their own. Prices, which had initially been pegged for the more affluent consumer, came down steeply and very soon everybody did have one. I was editing Smash Hits at the time and overnight, one of our biggest advertising categories became blank tape. All those adverts seemed to feature variations on the soon standard image of a carefree Olivia Newton-John lookalike wearing a leotard top and a sweat band, skating away into the distance with those little magic orange pads clamped over each ear.

Overnight, one of our biggest advertising categories became blank tape.

Revolutionary

It was the beginning of the revolution that would change the relationship between music producer and music consumer and change listening to music from an essentially stationary activity that took place in your room to a form of lifestyle enhancement that could follow you anywhere and would turn your daily life into a form a make-believe.

Amazingly, Sony didn’t fully benefit from the revolution that their engineers set in motion. The real beneficiaries were Apple, a firm that didn’t exist at the time of the Walkman revolution. It was their iPod and iPhone which sealed the deal, changed the habits of everyone in the world and tilting the balance of power in the media away from content creators to software engineers.

That legacy is evident everywhere we look and everywhere we go. If you sit in your carriage on the tube, it’s immediately apparent that at least half of the passengers are in an important sense not in the same space as the rest of us. Their headphones are used not purely to provide them with entertainment and information. They’re also there to exclude the sounds of their immediate environment. They’re used to keep things out as much as to put things in. That’s the main way you achieve Pavel’s aim of “multiplying the aesthetic potential of any situation” by shutting out the environment. As a result, a significant proportion of the people around you in the street are, in that important sense, not really there at all. They’ve been offered an alternative world which they can disappear into, even in the middle of a city street. That’s all the legacy of the revolution that began forty years ago.

This detachment from our environment is something we don’t yet fully understand. However, it’s something that small children today learn before they can walk. My own grandchildren were born into a world where, thanks to Facetime or Skype, friends and family can appear on a screen in their living room despite clearly not being there at all. This has to fundamentally alter their attitude to reality. It’s not so much that they accept the fact that the people who are not there can be summoned at the press of a button that’s surprising. What’s really surprising is how unsurprised they are.

They’ve been offered an alternative world which they can disappear into, even in the middle of a city street.

Andy Gill

That fine magazine journalist Andy Gill died recently, far too young. Andy was probably best known to the reading public for his music writing. He started on the NME and reviewed albums for the Independent for many a year. Andy was that rare individual who never seem to tire of reviewing an album and this applied equally whether he liked the album or whether he didn't. Indeed, there were times when his antipathy towards a certain release seemed to give him an additional burst of energy. He was also an important contributor to music magazines like Q and Mojo, which is where I came across him.

Less well-known is the part Andy played in the very early days of Empire magazine, which is still there 30 years later and recently picked up a special award from the PPA for its continuing hold on that important constituency of film fans who actually turn out on the opening weekend which is still the key commercial element of the movie industry. When we were originally thinking about launching a film magazine in the late 80s, editor Barry McIlheney and I were green as grass as far as the movie business is concerned.

In those days, we got most of our information from the American magazine Premiere. In those days, before we knew better, we thought the Americans had some magic formula as far as high end magazines were concerned. It was only later, when the success of Empire emboldened us to publish Premiere in the UK, that we discovered the truth. The truth was these massive American magazines, which could get a decent table in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and could generally throw their weight around in Hollywood, depended for their commercial stability on the lifeline provide by a few hundred sales in a handful of chic newsagents in Soho. They depended on them because these copies were sold for actual money as opposed to being effectively given away in order to sustain the rate base which underpinned the advertising. All the rest was smoke and mirrors. We didn't know very much back then.

Therefore, we lent heavily on Andy Gill for the expertise he had gained as the NME’s ambassador to the film business. He did some really valuable work for us in those early days, when the magazine was still called Odeon.

Andy had a wonderfully downbeat sense of humour. Of all the fun reminiscences that was shared about him on social media after his sad death was announced, my favourite came from Will Hodgkinson of The Times, who will I hope forgive me if I repeat it here. Andy and Will were amongst a gaggle of music journalists who had been gathered to listen to a new album made by the combined talents of Lou Reed and Metallica, if you can imagine that. What ensued, which you probably can imagine, could never be confused with pleasure. The hacks sat around, keeping a straight face and dutifully making notes until one particularly stressful selection came to an end. As the cacophony died away, Andy turned to his fellow writers and announced, “that'll be the single”.

We shall not see his like again.

There were times when his antipathy towards a certain release seemed to give him an additional burst of energy.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.