Taking the Hiss Out of Ben Elton: Preparing for my first proper cassette deck

It’s no secret that I love listening to music on vinyl, and for my birthday last week, I had no less than 9 LPs to listen to (a tenth is winging its way here from sunny Florida). After watching the various retro audio tech videos on Techmoan’s YouTube channel, I wanted to have the ability to listen to cassettes properly. I’ve had several Walkmans of varying quality in the past, and we’ve got a portable radio/cassette/CD player in the kitchen, but it’s hardly high fidelity.

Pre-recorded cassettes are very inexpensive, and there are rich pickings for a couple of quid including postage. I quite like listening to spoken word and comedy albums, and there are many of which that haven’t been released digitally. Such albums are better suited to cassette than vinyl.

On eBay last week, I found a Technics RS-BX 501 cassette deck on sale for just £30 – not fully working but only needed a replacement capstan belt. It’s a 20-25 year-old deck so it’s fair to say the rubber belt has hardened and perished over time, but you can still get compatible replacements for just a few quid. I had a look at the service manual and, while it does appear to be a bit fiddly, the process does seem fairly straight-forward. I’ve never repaired or restored any electrical or mechanical items before, so that’ll be another tick in the box for me.

It appears to be quite a decent deck, compatible with Ferro, Chrome and Metal cassettes, and supports Dolby B, C and HX-Pro. Looks in good condition too – a few scuffs and marks at the back, but the front looks pristine.

My cassette collection at present numbers just 8 – most of them I bought despite my inability to play them – so have been on eBay to add a few more titles to my collection. One of those I’m looking forward to hearing is Motormouth by Ben Elton, his first stand-up album collating some of his best routines from the early 80’s. I’ve already got his second album, Motorvation, on cassette so I had to made sure the collection was complete – and a couple of quid for an hour’s worth of comedy wasn’t to be sniffed at.

I know he gets a lot of criticism today due to his politics and principles, but I hardly think that’s fair at all: how he manages his life and his career is his own business. When you listen to his routines, there’s as much observational humour as there is political – if not more – and it’s not all stuck in the Thatcher-era. If you hunt around on YouTube, you might be able to find some old episodes of The Man from Auntie – his early-90’s stand-up show broadcast on the BBC – and you’d be surprised at how much of it is still relevant. You still can’t get a cup of coffee on a train that’s worth drinking, we’re still haunted by our own personal “Captain Paranoia”, nobody takes the blindest bit of notice of The Clothes Show, and the government is still made up of anachronistic toffs who think Downton Abbey is utopian drama.

Ooh err, bit of politics. Right on.

UPDATE: Disappointingly, the cassette deck I received was a dud. The capstan belt was perfectly fine and was driving the capstans as expected, but the poor playback was due to the pinch rollers being so old and covered in oxide that they wouldn’t rotate smoothly and freely, not even after cleaning and lubricating. In fact, the whole area around the tape heads looked rather dirty/rusty, and I couldn’t find any spares online. It’s being returned to the seller so should get a refund soon. It’s a bit of a hassle, but we live and learn. I’ve since ordered another deck – not the same one, but this one is at least fully tested and working – so I’ll just have to wait a bit longer to listen to Ben Elton!

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