05 March 2024

Rubik's Cube

An original early 1980s Rubik's Cube. The British Association of Toy Retailers noted the intense interest in the Cube upon its arrival in late 1980 and named it Toy Of The Year as a huge Cube shortage began. There simply were not enough to go round! In the spring of 1981, the nation was finally fully stocked and the Cube won Toy Of The Year for the second year running.

I can't. 

The Cube was invented by Erno Rubik of Hungary in 1974, and he called it "Buvos Kocka" - the "Magic Cube".

"A Simple Approach To The Magic Cube" by Bridget Last, published in 1980 by a small publishing company, Tarquin Publications of Diss, Norfolk - the first Cube book published in England. The print run was so limited (for what was then a tiny niche puzzle following) that finding a copy today is like finding gold dust. Middle pictures - old Hungarian Magic Cubes occasionally turn up on eBay. There are fascinating differences in the look, weight and feel of the Magic Cube when compared to the Rubik's Cube. Far right - a magazine ad for the Hungarian Magic Cube from March 1981, dating to the time of the worldwide shortage of the new Rubik's Cubes. The book and the Pentangle (a small UK-based company) sold Hungarian Magic Cube are mine. I daren't handle the Cube in case it falls apart! Pentangle, a small company who distributed small numbers of Magic Cubes in the UK, 
seeing major potential in the puzzle and themselves as continuing distributors, were hoping that the Cube would be mass manufactured (difficult to achieve at that time in Communist Hungary), but the rights were given to Ideal Toys and it was renamed and remanufactured before that happened - and it had any widescale impact on the UK and the rest of the Western World.

The first test batches of the Magic Cube were finally released in Budapest, Hungary, then very much "behind the Iron Curtain", just before Christmas 1977. In 1978, the Cube started to become popular in Hungary. 

Small numbers of Magic Cubes passed beyond Hungarian borders, individually, via enthusiasts like David Singmaster, and in tiny batches via a small niche puzzle company called Pentangle in England, and there was interest amongst some academics and some puzzle fans who encountered it in the Western World. But the vast majority of us remained ignorant of the puzzle's existence. 

There was no World Wide Web (invented 1989, implemented early 1990s), so no social media.

Another problem was that the Magic Cube existed in no great numbers - not even enough to impact on the mainstream popular culture of a small nation like the UK. It must be noted that the tiny numbers of Magic Cubes distributed by Pentangle in the UK in no way constituted anywhere near enough to bring about any Magic Cube craze in that nation. Check any UK newspaper archive - newspapers faithfully reflect pop culture over the years, and use them to fill their columns. There was no Magic Cube craze. The vast majority of us had never even heard of it.

It's also important to note that speed cubing, one of the major crazes of 1981 in the UK, was very difficult with a Magic Cube - they were not designed for it. However, the 1980 Rubik's Cube was lighter and easier to manipulate.

David Singmaster and Pentangle's early involvement with the Magic Cube is sometimes rather over-stressed  - turning them into major purveyors of the Magic Cube in the UK and architects of the later Rubik's Cube craze, and has been since the early 1980s, resulting in confusion and misinformation. 

One major BBC TV series, I Love The 1970s, was led by misinformation on these scores to blot its copybook well and truly and confuse Rubik's Cube - the 1980 remanufacturing, renaming and international launch - with the earlier tiny seepage of the Magic Cube. The series went overboard with a host of clips from the early 1980s, including Top of the Pops, Not The Nine O'Clock News and Cube master Patrick Bossert, and claimed something yet to be renamed and remanufactured, with a UK patent date of 7 May 1980, was all the rage in 1979. 

The BBC's I Love The 1970s series was supposed to show us the UK pop culture of each year, the TV, the music, the fashion, the fads. But as several of the fads featured in certain years either didn't exist at that time or were old news, the show became a strange, reworked '70s that many viewers had trouble recognising.

A quick look through a newspaper archive would have shown the Beeb researchers what was 'hot' in each year.

The show had to correct the Rubik's Cube information on its website when viewers complained in great numbers. As the BBC's I Love The 1970s had contained several other inaccuracies, this did nothing to enhance its reputation among serious pop culture researchers. The series had rather 'sucked in' pop culture from the 1960s and 1980s, and this was not due to confusion, but rather poor research and a desire to 'hype' the 1970s, it was claimed. UK newspaper archives, for example, are full of ads and articles about space hoppers and space hopper races from the spring of 1968 onwards (the release date). The BBC popped the hopper into I Love 1971 - prompting a load of echoing misinformation around the web. 

It was as though the BBC was trying to rewrite, redesign and repackage the 1970s as a hot product.

The Rubik's Cube should, of course, have featured in the BBC's follow-up I Love 1980s series, either in the 1980 episode - when it arrived just before Christmas but was in short supply - or, more appropriately, as the series focused on pop culture, in 1981, when the UK became fully stocked and the craze raged. There were no Rubik's Cubes before 1980, and the Magic Cube was never the talk of shops, offices, and school playgrounds. I Love 1981 was a travesty without the Cube. 

The Pentangle angle keeps coming back to an inaccurate, disproportionate degree, every ten years or so, as successive generations of Cube fans encounter the same misinformation, think they have discovered wondrous new information, then have to discover the truth. We don't know why. Who could it possibly benefit? Pentangle's involvement with the Cube apparently stretched on into the Rubik's Cube era, but ended unhappily for the company in 1981.

One site flags up Pentangle with a slogan about the 'first Magic Cube sold outside Hungary' - attributing that to the company. We can't possibly know that. The Magic Cube fascinated many mathematicians and some, like David Singmaster, as we know, were selling them, in small numbers, to friends and colleagues after visits to Hungary. 

We have no proof of who made that first sale.

Come to that, we have no proof of who made the first sale of the 1980 Cube.

David Singmaster and Pentangle are interesting facets of the Cube's history, like squares on a Cube, but there are many of those, and neither caused the Cube to suddenly burst onto the mainstream stage in the UK.

Best to remember that the Rubik's Cube was released in 1980 and the mainstream Cube craze then began in the UK when stocks allowed, as elsewhere in the Western World. There were no Rubik's Cubes before 1980, no large numbers of Magic Cubes, and no major advertising campaigns for the Magic Cube. 

All that being said, pre-Rubik's Cube memorabilia is highly collectable. If you have a Magic Cube (easily distinguishable from the first 1980 Rubik's Cubes) you might like to check out its value. Another thing is Bridget Last's book, A Simple Approach To The Magic Cube. This was published by small publishing company Tarquin Publications, of Diss, Norfolk, England, in a limited print run in 1980. 

Despite the small seepage beyond its borders, the Cube remained one of Hungary's best kept secrets, mostly tucked away securely behind the Iron Curtain as far as the general public in the UK and the rest of the Western World were concerned.

But things were about to change. In fact, the Cube itself was about to change, both in name and manufacturing process.

A deal was signed with major US Company Ideal Toys in late 1979 for mass distribution of the Cube in the West. 

The Magic Cube debuted at the international toy fairs of London, Paris, Nuremberg and New York in January and February 1980 - with Erno Rubik demonstrating his own creation. Reaction was good, but the Cube did not conform to Western manufacturing and packing norms. 

This had to be addressed. A new version was produced - lighter, stronger (I still have a 1980 Rubik's Cube in perfect working order - but my older Magic Cube is a brittle, delicate creature) - and easier to manipulate. This opened the way to Rubik's Cube contests - with amazing speeds being achieved.

Just prior to its Western World release, Ideal Toys decided to rename the 1980 version of the Cube. "Inca Gold" and "The Gordian Knot" were two of the names suggested, but "Rubik's Cube" was chosen.

Ideal also designated it 'The Ultimate Puzzle'. With a major company behind it, a new name, advertising and media attention, the Cube was about to enter its legendary era.

Mathematician David Singmaster wrote:

... the Magic Cube is now being sold as Rubik's Cube... [the Ideal Toy Corp.] has renamed the cube as 'Rubik's Cube' on the grounds that 'magic' tends to be associated with magic.

The Rubik's Cube trademark was registered in England on 7 May 1980, but due to a shortage, supplies did not start arriving here until just before Christmas. By then, it had appeared on television, Jonathan King had taken one on to Top of the Pops, hailing it as the latest craze in America, and many of us were aware that it was very much one of the 'Next Big Things' in UK popular culture. Many people who were not habitual puzzle fans were entranced by it - it was an attractive and intriguing object with a highly intriguing name, but the shortage stretched on into 1981 and it was spring before the country was fully stocked. 

A few cheap imitations appeared to cash in on the shortage.

Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor presided over the launch of the Rubik's Cube in America in 1980, but, as with the UK, the shortage of Cubes meant the USA also had to wait to experience the full force of the craze until 1981.

The puzzle celebrated 25 years as Rubik's Cube in 2005.

Detail from the 25th anniversary Rubik's Cube, 2005.

Erno Rubik's wonderful puzzle made it on to the cover of Scientific American in March 1981, with a "computer graphical display" image of the Cube and, inside, an article by Douglas R Hafstadter.

Interestingly enough, although the Scientific American article refers to the puzzle being marketed as "Rubik's Cube" (as it was from 1980 onwards), most of Mr Hofstadter's references are to the "Magic Cube".
Like most of us, 13-year-old Patrick Bossert had trouble obtaining a Rubik's Cube when they were first released in England in late 1980. There was an acute shortage. He finally secured one in March 1981 and had soon gained a bit of a reputation as a Cube Master at his school. You Can Do The Cube followed - it was published in June 1981 and became the year's bestseller. By the end of the year, it had been reprinted (at least) fourteen times, and Patrick went on to make a cube-solving video. 

The man himself - Erno Rubik. 
The Sunday Times Magazine "photo-review" of 1981.
The Cube certainly made a monkey out of me!

From the Cambridge Evening News, England, 15 July 1981. The Rubik's Cube craze had swept through Cambridge schools earlier in the year, and now it was time for a competition.

From the Daily Mirror, 12/8/1981. The article reminds me that "Rubik's Cube" was just as commonly known as "the Rubik Cube" back then. The official name, chosen by Ideal Toys back in 1980, was the former.

A how to solve the Rubik's Cube video from 1981...

... featuring a leggy, lip-glossed female Cubist...

... an in-depth explanation of what makes a Rubik Cube twist...

... and two little boys - the dark haired one looks rather as though he's wearing hairspray to me.

The helpful narrator reminded us that we were watching a video tape (fat chance of that for most of us back in 1981) and so could rewind it if we missed any points, and a cheap disco soundtrack kept the whole thing groovin'.

By the way, I followed the tape's instructions and my Cube still ended up a mess.

As well as a plethora of "how to solve the Cube" books, there was also this...

Joan Smith's Great Cube Race was a 1982 children's story about a school's Rubik's Cube contest... 

"I'm over half way there," said Ollie pleased, going through the moves again between mouthfuls of fish pie. Brr-ik, Brr-ik went the Cube confidently.

"Not while we're eating please," said Dad. "I can't stand the sight or sound of that toy."

"They say it helps with maths," said Mum.

Ollie thought this meant that it was safe to go on and he ran through the pattern once more putting the blue and yellow edge in place. Brr-ik. Brr-ik.

"PUT THAT DOWN," shouted Dad, "or I'll scramble you up so thoroughly that even the winner of the race couldn't put you straight again."

Ollie put the Cube down beside the salt, but Dad could not bear to have it so close to him, and hid it behind the curtain.

People were doing the Cube absolutely everywhere - as this newspaper article from the "Sun", May 13, 1982, shows! 

If you were not particularly clever, not at all mathematically minded, but managed to solve the Rubik's Cube, and were sitting there, all smug and complacent, 1982 had a surprise in store for you - the release of the even harder Rubik's Revenge! Happy days!


Depeche Mode Arrive...

It was March 1980, and Vince Clarke and Andy Fletcher formed a band called Composition of Sound. The lads had been in various bands for a couple of years, with no success - but they were very young at the time and international stardom was probably not their aim.

In fact, even in 1980, none of the lads could have dreamt of what was about to happen.

Martin Gore then met up with his ex-classmate Andy Fletcher at the Van Gogh Club and asked him to join.

Official Depeche Mode history: The new band was called 'Composition of Sound' at the time of their first gig at the end of May 1980. The original Depeche Mode line-up was all present and correct by that time as Dave Gahan had just joined. More here.

After the formation of the three-piece Composition of Sound, Clarke and Fletcher switched to synthesisers, working odd jobs so they could buy them - or borrowing them from friends. The group was soon joined by the essential lead singer Dave Gahan and DEPECHE MODE was born. The location was Basildon, Essex, England.

In December 1980 their local paper, The Basildon Echo, commented: 


Some of these perfumed, ponced up futuristic pop bands don't hold a candle to these four Basildon lads. They are Depeche Mode who would go a long way if someone pointed them in the direction of a decent tailor.

The photograph above was taken around 1981, the year the group first charted, and I think they look great! I love Depeche Mode.

Their first "hit" - Dreaming of Me, released in February 1981, reached No 57 in the charts, but the follow-up, New Life, released in June, went all the way to No 11. By the end of the year, the group had broken into the Top Ten with Just Can't Get Enough and released their first album, Speak and Spell.

Vince Clarke departed the band in late 1981 (we hadn't heard the last of him!) and Alan Wilder joined in early 1982.

Depeche Mode had arrived. Back in the early 1980s, I remember my mates and I pronouncing it "Depeché Mode" - in fact it seemed to be quite a widespread thing.


'Cos we woz fik.

01 October 2023

Neighbours - The End of the Road...UPDATED: All Roads Lead Back To Ramsay Street...

The ancient cathedral in Ely, England. How is this related to the thoroughly Australian 'Neighbours'? Read on!

UPDATE: Delighted that Neighbours has been saved and will continue to delight its fans hopefully for decades to come! Especially delighted that Guy Pearce has agreed to make further appearances as Mike Young so that his romance with Jane Harris (Annie Jones) can continue. 

We have very special memories of the show in the 1980s, and it's wonderful that Guy, a successful film actor, has such good feelings for the show. Guy was English-born and, in fact, came into the world just up the road from us in Ely, a small city which houses a gorgeous ancient cathedral, sometimes known as 'The Ship of the Fens.' 

Good luck to Neighbours. We leave our original farewell article here as a tribute to the show - and a marker of a time when it seemed the show was about to end forever. But all roads lead back to Ramsay Street...

Original farewell article below, with lots of '80s memories...

My first favourite 'Neighbours' character ever, although I loved all the original Ramsay Streeters, was Julie Robinson. We already had lots of older sticky beaks in soaps, but Julie, played by Vikki Blanche, was around my age at the time, early twenties, and quite a novelty. Young sticky beaks did not abound in soap land and she was great fun. Of course, she believed that all her interfering was for the best. She, of course, KNEW exactly what was the best for everybody!

I was very sorry to read about the axing of the long-running Australian soap Neighbours. I haven't watched in many years, but the show was such an incredible hit when it was first shown here in England in October 1986 that I, as a young twenty-something, was swept along and thoroughly enjoyed the tales from Ramsay Street for the first three or four years.

The Robinsons meet Paul's fiancée, Terry Inglis (Maxine Klibingaitis). Oh dear.

The show is stamped on my memories of the 1980s. 

Here's a 'little' run through of my personal Neighbours legends...

(Takes deep breath):

I will never forget Elaine Smith as dependable, straight talking and lively Daphne Lawrence/Clarke - with her highly distinctive spiky hairdo; Vikki Blanche as the glorious young sticky beak Julie Robinson; Darius Perkins as troubled teen Scott Robinson; Paul Keane as hugely likeable, but never terribly lucky, bank manager Des Clarke; Francis Bell as the explosively tempered but also very lovable Max Ramsay; Dasha Blahova as Maria Ramsay - a kind and loving soul, but one indiscretion in 1969 caused huge complications; Myra de Groot as fabulously potty Eileen Clarke - I'll never forget the 'food poisoning' outbreak; Ian Smith as prissy but so-well-meaning Harold Bishop; the excellent child actress Kylie Flinker as Lucy Robinson; David Clencie as troubled Ramsay family member, but also outsider, Danny; Peter O'Brien - Danny's half-brother, Shane - cheerful, romantically unlucky and destined to become a gardener when his diving career was cut short; Vivean Gray as the legendary curtain twitcher Mrs Mangel, railing against 'that Ramsay woman!'; Anne Haddy as artist, grandmother and businesswoman Helen Daniels - kind, gracious, the perfect friend and confidante; Alan Dale as fatherly Jim Robinson - who was always there for his kids; Stefan Dennis as (at first) affable young Paul Robinson - to whom life was about to deliver a bitter blow; Anne Charleston as loud but loving Madge Ramsay/Bishop; Fiona Corke as Gail Lewis/Robinson - glamorous, business orientated and also highly sympathetic; Tom Oliver, who first appeared as rascally Lou Carpenter in 1988 - and immediately drove Harold to violence; Ally Fowler as madcap Zoe Davis - livewire pal of Daphne - who almost became Paul's step-mother; Regina Gaigalas as Andrea Townsend - a scheming minx who wasn't totally bad; Bradley Kilpatrick as Bradley Townsend - his ears were similar to Des Clarke's but Des was not his father - another excellent child actor; Annie Jones as gentle and kindly Jane Harris; Geoff Paine as Clive Gibbons - doctor and purveyor of chicken grams; Craig MacLachlan as the loopy and hilarious Henry Ramsay; Anne Scott Pendlebury as Julie's fellow Robinson sticky beak - the awesome Hilary; Lucinda Cowden as Melanie Pearson - madcap, dizzy and possessed of a highly distinctive laugh; and Guy Pearce as Mike Young - from a troubled family background, he found security in Ramsay Street.

The original cast. Elaine Smith's short, spiky haircut impressed the show's production team, who wanted a different look for the character.

And then, OF COURSE, there was Scott Robinson and Charlene Mitchell. Jason Donovan (the second actor to play Scott) and Kylie Minogue starred as the aspiring student journalist and the garage mechanic, who aided the show's popularity immeasurably with their stormy teenage romance and eventual fairy tale wedding.

We were glued to their dramas.

Mike, Scott and Charlene - Ramsay Street youth of the 1980s.

And, to end our Neighbours legends list, we could never leave out Bouncer, the lovable Labrador, who befriended Mrs Mangel. A brave and noble pooch indeed.

And, finally (phew!), not forgetting dear little Basil - Lucy's dog, and the original Neighbours canine.

When Lou Carpenter (Tom Oliver) first arrived at Lassiters in 1988, he wasted no time in calling Harold Bishop 'Jelly Belly'. Harold sprang up, ready to karate chop the swine into oblivion.

Why did I like Neighbours? Well, I'd always been partial to a bit of soap, and this one was incredibly well done. Reg Watson was a master of his craft. It also had likeable characters and lashings of bright, zany '80s fashion and hair - and at the age I was, fashion was important. 

But, also, the English soaps were getting a little depressing in the 1980s, as TV production luvvies set out to show us just how grim our lives were under Thatcher (I couldn't stick her, but the lefty luvvies' dog was far too darned shaggy!). It was good to see a show where people bickered and laughed and popped in for a natter and so on without the writers having some huge political axe to grind.

Happy days indeed! English actress Vivean Gray as the legendary Mrs Nell Mangel - on the prowl in Ramsay Street.

Reg Watson, Neighbours creator, stated that he got the idea for Neighbours watching Coronation Street in England, where he lived (and produced English Midlands soap Crossroads) for many years. But Neighbours was not Coronation Street. The fact that we viewed life in Ramsay Street from a child's eye level (with Lucy and Bradley) and the high teenage content, ensured that the show had its own style.

Mr Watson viewed communication between the generations as a very important ingredient.

He took his idea for an Australian street soap to Channel 7 in 1984, and then, once it was accepted, slaved over the details - until he felt he'd found just the formula.

Jane Harris - Annie Jones - wore whacking great shoulder pads at times, following the OTT 'power dressing' trend of the 1980s. Personally, I love '80s fashion!

Of course, Neighbours was further refined and honed when it went to Channel 10 in 1986.

And then it was perfection.

I still can't watch Daphne's death episode without blubbing. It was shown in 1988 in Aus and 1989 here in England. Full marks over and over again to Paul Keane as Des Clarke for his reaction.

Here in England, after its October 1986 debut, it swept up the TV ratings charts, and we loved it - and it has continued for thirty seven years.

Sincere sympathy to current followers of the show - losing a soap can be like losing a group of real life friends - and it still seems tremendously likeable from what we've seen (we at '80s Actual Towers haven't had an 'as broadcast' TV service for years because we don't want to pour money into the BBC's coffers).

Great acting from child performers like Kylie Flinker ensured that Ramsay Street would truly be a multi-generational soap.

Glad to hear Scott and Charlene will be making a return for the ending.

Mike, Shane, Harold and Des, too. 

And, hey - who knows - perhaps the show itself will return one day? This hasn't been ruled out. It is naff of Channel 5 though. After the bizarre and intensely miserable events of the last two and a bit years, to pull the plug on something that helps some people through the day is not great behaviour.

Did it have to be now, Channel 5?

Back to the beginning, and it took Reg Watson some time to decide on the name for the serial. Should it be One Way Street? No Through Road? Or Living Together? Or...

When he first began work on scripts after Seven commissioned the show in 1984, it was Living Together, although this was provisional. Jan Russ, casting director, who was then working on the final years of Prisoner Cell Block H (which ran from 1979 to 1986), recalled: 'I received this phone call from Reg Watson, who said to me, "We're thinking about doing a new show. I'll send you a couple of scripts down." The scripts were originally called Living Together.  I read the scripts and started putting a cast together.'  

Ian Smith is bringing Harold Bishop back for the ending. Dear old fusspot Harold is apparently involved in a central storyline about grieving. Harold has had a very sad life in some ways - including lodging with Mrs Mangel for a time in the 1980s.

Neighbours history is fascinating to recount. But how will it end? Will Scott and Charlene decide to buy a house in Ramsay Street and force Paul to mend his ways? Will Mike Young rekindle his romance with Jane Harris? Will Clive take up Chicken Grams again in protest? Will Melanie win a million on the lottery and buy Lassiters?

Or perhaps it could end in 1985 with a young man, suddenly sitting bolt upright in bed, his face covered with sweat. He looks wildly around him, but all is quiet.

'Thank heavens, it was only a dream,' says Danny Ramsay, and goes back to sleep...

No, sorry, I forgot - they already did the dream thing in Dallas...

There are rumours circulating that Reg Watson originally 'pitched' (a pitch is a rudimentary outline of a series scenario and characters) the Street soap idea to Australian Channel 9 in 1982. If this is true, and had it come to pass, then we wouldn't have ended up with Neighbours as we know it. Time, experience and the perfect blend of events (things like the BBC looking round for a new soap for its new afternoon schedule in 1986), writers and cast needed to fall into place for that. Reg Watson himself never spoke of any Street soap pitch to Channel 9, but he did say:

'In pitching the show to Seven and Ten, I blithely said, "This concept can run for twenty years." I knew from the looks on their faces that they thought they'd heard it all before.'

It did much better than he thought, didn't it?

'Suddenly every part of me needs to know every part of you...'

Mrs Mangel: 'Really - such vulgar lyrics!'

Madge: 'Oh shut up, you old biddy!'

09 June 2023

Neighbours: Mrs Mangel's Portrait: The Growing Hair Mystery...

Of course, the painting which Mrs Helen Daniels of Ramsay Street, Erinsborough, did of her neighbour, Mrs Nell Mangel, caused quite a lot of trouble in 1987. But, finally, peace was restored and Mrs Mangel was given the portrait, which she displayed in her hallway, near the phone.

Helen had given her a bit of flannel about the portrait, which Mrs M initially was outraged at, by saying it portrayed the strong character of Australian women. Or something like that. Mrs Mangel departed Ramsay Street in the late 1980s, but the portrait remained.

In the 21st Century, the portrait returned to the Neighbours limelight, being displayed at Lassiters Hotel. I hadn't seen the show in years, but squawked with delight when me and my wife happened upon an episode a few years ago and saw it.

But something wasn't quite right. 'Mrs Mangel's hair's grown,' I said to my wife.

'Don't be daft!' said she.

But it has. It's grown over her ears a bit and is now feathered down her neck. 

Are there such things as portrait hairdressers, I wonder? Because I suspect dear Nell will be needing a trim soon if this keeps up...

05 June 2023

1980: The Sony Walkman Arrives In The UK As The Sony Stowaway: Wired For Sound...

Magazine advertisement for the Sony Stowaway personal stereo, launched in the UK in 1980. In 1981, it would be patented as the Sony Walkman. 

To say their new Stowaway gives you totally incredible sound for such an an amazingly small stereo is not Sony's style.

They say they are quite pleased with it.

This is Sony's new Stowaway, a stereo cassette player about the size of your hand.

You can be forgiven for wondering how pure stereo sound can emerge from a system so small. Sony says it's quite easy; but then they would. Apparently they took the circuitry, transistors, diodes and what-have-you from a larger cassette deck, and squeezed it into a few silicon chips.

Technically, it's rather impressive. Your Sony dealer or the chaps at Sony's Regent Street show-rooms in London, can blind you with Stowaway's sience if you're interested.

But the sound! Now there's something you can understand as soon as you slip on the hi-fi headphones (inevitably they are the smallest and lightest in the world.) Clip in a standard music cassette and you'll hear all the treble and bass your ears could desire. Should you want to share the magic with a friend you can always plug in a second set of 'phones.

The little masterpiece runs off batteries, so you can tuck it in your pocket and relax to the music of your choice when you're on a train, a plane, or the next time you're in a hotel room with a radio fixed to Voice of America. Or you can buy an adaptor to run it off the mains.

Listen to Stowaway for yourself, and you'll understand why Sony are so excited.

Sony Sowaway. 

The world's smallest stereo cassette player.
Note that the device has two earphone plug-in points. This fact was put to use by EastEnders story-liners in 1985, when Sharon Watts, in competition with her "friend" Michelle Fowler for the attentions of Kelvin Carpenter, shared her Walkman "magic" with him - and infuriated Michelle.

Invented by Sony in 1979 and first marketed in Japan in July 1979, the personal stereo was launched in the UK in 1980 - and was marketed as the Sony Stowaway. 1980 was also the American release year and I believe it had a different name there, too - The Soundabout!

A very early mention of the newly released Sony Stowaway (Walkman) in the UK Press - a competition in the Sunday People in July 1980.

In 1981, the personal stereo was patented here under Sony's original name - the Walkman, and we saw Cliff Richard making full use of one down at the roller disco in his video (or should that be "promo" in 1981 terminology?) for Wired For Sound.

The Ingersoll Soundaround pocket hi-fi also made a brief impact on the UK in 1981, and other copy-cat personal stereos were also arriving on the market.

Soon, the personal stereo would be everywhere....

From the Daily Mirror, 30/7/1981:

The Walkmen never walk alone... or skate alone... or even cycle alone...

They are the people who have hopped on an international craze and now roam the streets wired up to the earphones of Walkman stereo sets.

The Walkman - and its many similar, often cheaper copies - has become the skateboard of electronics. A craze that has astounded the experts - and made them rich.

But, unlike the skateboard, this one should run and run...

The demand shows no sign of slowing. Lasky's, one of Britain's biggest hi-fi dealers, say: "The demand is fantastic. Our shops just can't get enough."

To Akio Morita, Sony's co-founder and chairman, it was a machine to get the world dancing. He said: "My dream is to have Walkman parties in the jungles."

Could people there afford them? I couldn't, for some time.

Back to the article...

In Britain trade sources estimate that 100,000 personal hi-fi's were sold last year and that another 250,000 will sell this year at prices of around £50 to £125.

Most sets are fairly simple in today's technological terms - but already Japanese engineers are working on more sophisticated models.

Sony are already selling a tiny version in Japan and America which includes stereo FM radio - though there are no plans to market it here.

And as the boom gathers momentum even the sophisticated models will fall in price. Marketing experts are predicting Korean and Taiwanese versions at £15, while the uses of the Walkman continue to become even more wide-spread.

They've been seen being worn by bicycling barristers and by art gallery and museum browsers. Some teenagers even take them to discos - preferring their own music to that of the DJ.

And in America, Linda Moriarty of Illinois, regularly plays classical music, via her headphones, to her unborn child.

 "The baby definitely responds," she says.

A 1983 Tandy newspaper advertisement for personal stereos. If that's what they do to you, I'll give them a miss!
A magazine advertisement from November 1984 - the Walkman is now on sale at £29.95.

Post updated  05/06/23

15 October 2022

The 1980s and Shoulder Pads

My, what big shoulders you have, Mr Robinson. Sorry, I mean Donovan. 

Shoulder pads were part of the "Power Dressing" image. The phrase was first recorded in 1980, according to the Twentieth Century Book of Words by John Ayto (Oxford, 1999). Back then, it meant a smart, efficient look for executive women. 

What brought about the 1980s shoulder pad fixation? Well, it all began with a 1940s revival towards the end of the 1970s. The current Wikipedia article on shoulder pads and the 1980s reads like a page of a very poor amateur essay - the pads fashion revered of the power dressing crowd was not 70s/80s - it was '80s - and was inspired by a number of things. 

The first was the 1970s love of retro. Very few fashions are original. If you read this, you will perhaps be surprised to learn that huge flared trousers and huge platform shoes were not original fashions of the 60s/70s.

Ah... galumphing around in huge flared trousers is so... 1930s!

In the 1970s, we had had the continuation of big trousers from the 1960s (not original - do check out some 1930s/mail order catalogues for some absolutely flared whoppers), the platform shoe revival (30s/40s again), the down to the feet, puffed sleeve Jane Austin style dress revival, the country chic smock top revival, the 1950s Teddy Boy revival (which began in the '50s with a revival of Edwardian style suits!), the 1960s mods and rockers and Ska revival, then fashion designers at the end of the decade began to play with shoulder pads again. They'd already been back in fashion once earlier in the decade, but not big ones.

A tailored look had already returned, but in 1979 at least one British women's magazine was trumpeting the return of the 1940s.

Some catwalk fashion designers favoured huge pads - or other structures to give big shoulders, others little ones, but not many out in the real world were in any sort of mood for them. We were in a deep recession, and so watching early 1980s television is a disappointment for pad searchers.

The events of the 1980s propelled the pads beyond a 1940s retro fixation. Dynasty happened, and the Reagan yuppie thing happened and spread beyond America, and then shoulder pads flew. There were big, very big, very, very  big and absolutely jumbo colossal. In 1985/86 they were at screaming point. Shoulder pads were even appearing in T-shirts! When they began to pall, there was the strange 'drop off' shoulder pad, at the end of the shoulder, sagging down.

Some link the shoulder pad/power dressing thing of the 1980s to Feminism. At the time, it just seemed like a fashion pantomime. We wanted to get dressed up to the nines, and we had poor taste. 

Some men (like me) got in on the act. The pads had to be large. We wanted BIG, BIG shoulders. Many of us guys had them already, of course, because the majority of heavy, dangerous 'glass cellar jobs' were being done by men. As they are today.

But us slouchy, weakling men who got the padded look thought we looked great - and our gigantic shoulders made our beer bellies (not that Jason Donovan had one!) look much smaller.

Bliss. OTT power dressing was a fashion trend prompted by the excesses of the decade. It was a fashion that, like so many other eras, sometimes has a false importance attached to it and historians who are keen on the 1970s try to backdate it (the internet '70s years are the blackhole of eras, sucking in trends from the 1960s and 1980s). 

Simply looking at the media of the early 1980s reveals what was in fashion. In 1980, the mainstream fashions were rather boring, even in Dallas. By 1985, the massive shoulders were in, power shoulders, and the media of the time reflects that. Just look.

Ugly, but very much part of the mid-decade polarised society, and very much part of the time, which included the moussed and gel-propelled hair fashions.

Mind you, I loved those wicked pads at the time - especially in a neon pink or blue jacket, with the sleeves pushed up, and with gel or mousse and blond highlights in my hair, and a cerise mesh vest, and a pair of docksiders with no socks and...

Men's fashion as featured in a 1987 advertisement... I loved it all... why are you laughing?!
- More absolutely gorgeous 1987 clobber - and unpadded. For a change.

And as we leave the subject of shoulder pads for a while, Phil writes to say:

I've been reading on line that Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister from May 1979 to November 1990, influenced the trend for huge shoulder pads. Did she? Was she the original power dresser?

No, Phil. Piffle and bunk on-line we're afraid.

Power dressing was a trend Margaret Thatcher followed in the 1980s, but did not help to create. The jacket she wore after her first general election win in May 1979 illustrates this. It is simply a neatly tailored blue jacket, with totally non-excessive shoulders. It was a boring garment in 1979 - and would even have been boring in 1969. As the 1980s wore on, Thatcher simply adopted the fashion of that time. Compare her neatly tailored and somewhat timeless look of 1979 (top) and her whopper shoulders of 1987 (bottom) for details.

Cynthia Crawford, Thatcher's personal assistant who was responsible for seeing she was smartly dressed and groomed, stated in 2013:

'In 1987 she was going to Russia for the first time and I had seen a wonderful coat in Aquascutum's window and I went to get it. A lot of her clothes up until that time had been homemade by a lady. She made all those dresses and blouses with bows and things. Mrs Thatcher went to Russia and she looked absolutely fabulous. I said to her: "If you are going to fight an election in June, why don't we ask Aquascutum to make you up some working suits." She agreed, so we ordered these suits. It was when the power shoulders were in and it just revolutionised her. She looked fantastic. She enjoyed all the new outfits and got away from the dresses. She never wears trousers, not even today. She always likes formal clothes, even at home. She hasn't got a lot of casual clothes.'

Thatcher was a follower, not an innovator, as far as fashion was concerned. I don't recall anybody wanting to look like her. The handbag, for a start, was so naff!

Some Feminists say Thatcher was an inspiration in the fashion line for 'oppressed woman out to break the glass ceiling'. But Thatcher didn't even like Feminism.

To quote her: 'The Feminists hate me, don't they? And I don't blame them. For I hate Feminism. It is poison.'

Mind you, Mags could be a bit of a female chauvinist. She also once said: 'In politics, if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.'

And in the glass cellar jobs, where the men don't need shoulder pads? Where are all the modern Maggies smashing through that supposed barrier?

01 June 2021

The Final Pick Of The Pops From 1986 And 1987 - Love Can't Turn Around, Jack Your Body, Animal, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Boy In The Bubble, Get Fresh At The Weekend, Human, Wonderful Life, The Way It Is...

Love Can't Turn Around - Farley Jackmaster Funk with Darryl Pandy on vocals. House music: Year Zero 1983 - the very beginning. 1986 - house music beginning to burst out. This is legendary - the very first house music hit in England.

More House - Jack Your Body - Steve 'Silk' Hurley from 1987 - simply fabulous. Gives me a happy glow even now as I teeter past my mid-fifties... not so bad getting older when you have music like this to bring the memories of youth flooding back.

 1986 and Bruce Hornsby and The Range railing against social injustice - beautifully. The Way It Is.

I'm not really a 'rock' man, but this sublime 1987 hit from Def Leppard pushed my buttons. Somehow rockin' but also dancey... Happy nights.

The wonderful Whitney Houston - with the ultimate feel good pop/dance hit. This was 1987 - and it's as good today as it always was.

Wonderful life - a gorgeous summer hit from 1987. A walk in the sunshine, weighed down by melancholy... Once again, I was having a crisis - the (then) love of my life had just walked out. This song suited me down to the ground.

Boy in the Bubble - Paul Simon, 1986 - from his Graceland album. This song tapped into a feeling I had at the time. There was a sudden onrush of new technology - either things just becoming affordable and widespread - like the VCR and microwave oven - or brand new launches like the mobile phone and the Apple Mac. The world was buzzing - and there were millionaires and billionaires and sophisticated weaponry and lasers in the jungle... Probably.

 It was a vibrant time, but it felt somehow frantic and topsy turvy. A very transient era - rather like my youth. Bright and shiny and fresh with loads of new things happening. But was the sudden onrush of technology going to turn out a good thing? I mean, can you imagine making a phone call while you are walking down the street?

Who was the boy in the bubble? David Vetter, born in 1971, died in 1984, who had to live his life in a highly sterile 'bubble' environment due to severe combined immune deficiency. And the baby with the baboon's heart? Baby Fae born in October 1984. She lived until November.

Get Fresh At The Weekend. Lovely Mel and Kim. I saw these two being interviewed by Andrea Arnold, who played Dawn, on Saturday morning kids' show Number 73 and could have sat down and joined in the chat. Down to earth English girls - cockneys in fact - with a great sense of fun (not like the characters in EastEnders at all!). I really liked them. And the more 1980s music banged and clattered, the more I loved it.

The Human League, Human. When Phil Oakey spotted those two girls dancing at the Crazy Daisy Nightclub in October 1980, a legendary alliance was formed. This song is beautiful - with a great twist at the end.

Coming soon, we trip back to 1985 (the first year of the second half of the 1980s) and 1984 (the last year of the first half of the 1980s) to discover The Man With The Power That Promised You The World...