LIVING

Hooked on portable music

Wendy Dennis August 24 1981
LIVING

Hooked on portable music

Wendy Dennis August 24 1981

Hooked on portable music

LIVING

Wendy Dennis

A hulking teen-ager bursts into a downtown stereo shop and demands, “Gimme the biggest radio ya got.” Minutes later, “monster box” strapped to his boogieing body, he’s ready to share his audio fix—Bob Marley at 20 watts per channel—with the world. At the next counter is a stereophonically stoned customer wired with the featherweight headset of a cigarette-package size cassette recorder. Catatonically glazed eyes and tapping feet signal a Sony Walkman habit. Whatever the portable-music junkie’s craving (and each views the other’s with contempt) there appears to be no known cure. Across the country, it seems, everybody’s hooked.

No one is happier about the addiction than Sony, whose stereo Walkman, introduced in Tokyo’s Harajuku youth district in 1979, triggered a headphone audio craze that reached worldwide proportions this year. Sony ads boast of the “Walkman revolution.” For once, this may not be sopywriter’s braggadocio. According to Doug Willox, vicepresident of corporate communications for Sony of Canada, the company sold more than half a million Walkmans globally in 1980; this year Sony tripled production and still cannot meet demand. Says David Levin, salesman at Toronto’s Bay Bloor Radio, which moves about 70 of the $300 units weekly: “As soon as a customer walks in here and puts those earphones on, he’s absolutely blown away. He’s in the far reaches of a black hole somewhere.”

Since the Walkman’s overnight sensation, 40-odd imitators priced from $100 to $400 have flooded the market. Purchasers, as one salesman puts it, include “anybody who wants to tune out the world.” Vancouver steelworker Ken Wiley, 38, bought his $100 made-in-Taiwan set for 15-km daily

runs. “With the headset on I just kept on going,” Wiley recalls. “Burton Cummings takes me up one hill; Willie Nelson takes me up another.”

Though sports enthusiasts are keen buyers, the tiny cassette is just as likely to peek from the pocket of a three-piece suit as from a jogging suit. One retailer remembers a policeman who wished to drown out forever his wife’s pleas that he do the dishes. And Vicki Stein, who is expecting a second child in Toronto this month, plans to labor to the strains of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. “Usually I like funky jazz,” says Stein, “but I don’t think that’s what I’ll want when things get hot and heavy.”

If sound and size sell the Walkman, likewise for those monstrous blaring chromed suitcases teen-agers have been dragging from beach to shopping mall for the past two summers, but especially this one. Averaging about seven

kilograms, the “ghetto blaster”—so named because of its original devotees in New York’s Harlem and the Bronx— costs anywhere from under $200 to upwards of $1,200 for a model sporting 25-cm woofers. John Kaukonen, assistant manager of consumer products for JVC Canada Inc., manufacturer of the popular RC-M7Ó, admits, “the bigger the unit the better it sells.” To avoid losing customers who tend to trade up from smaller models, JVC is marketing a 13-kg box this month. Says Mark Johnson, buyer for Winnipeg’s Advance TV and Car Stereo Centre Ltd.: “More and more people are getting the bug.”

The machine can be strapped to the carrier’s front, back or side, clutched in a hug-hold or dipped on its end in a onefinger dangle. Insiders reveal that carrying styles signal to other blaster users the owner’s musical preference, as if 500 decibels of punk rock were not identification enough. Grumbles one disgruntled salesman, when asked to describe the box-buying set: “100,000 idiots who want to draw attention to themselves.” John Bates, a Toronto editor, agrees. “Those things are a modern form of assault,” he insists. Bates should know. Earlier this summer he narrowly missed being punched when he asked a box-bearer on the subway to turn the music down. “He immediately turned the machine even louder and used a string of obscenities,” says Bates.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on. And, says Arnold Rockman, chairman of the sociology department at Atkinson College, York University, the world will be a happier place because of it. According to Rockman, both the headphone unit, which lets its owners retreat into an “imaginary soundscape,” and the blaster, which “drains off violent impulses” and claims for its carriers a “sonic turf,” grant users control over the sensory environment. But 20-year-old Donnie Thompson, playing Bob Seger at modest volume on his Panasonic blaster outside Toronto’s Eaton Centre, has a simpler explanation: “If I had a car, I’d have a stereo. But if you’re just Joe Schmo walking along the street, you gotta have some music.”

With files from John Masters.