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Sony Walkman: Reflecting 30 years later on how it set the world on its ear

So there was this dad, a fed-up dad, a dad with a headache that could slay Godzilla. Night after night, this poor guy slogged home from work, a high-powered gig no less, and was slammed by REALLY LOUD MUSIC cranking from his kids' bedroom.

Turn it down, he cried.

Whaaat???

Turn it down.

But Akio Morita was no ordinary dad, and this was no ordinary head-splitter. Instead of sledgehammering the stereo or banning Black Sabbath, Morita, the co-founder of Sony Corp. along with Masaru Ibuka, consulted with his development team. Instead of shushing his kids, he wound up shushing the world.

In the summer of '79, the first Sony Walkman was sold.

Morita and Ibuka's cool invention would change not just the way we enjoyed —and eventually bought — music, movies and video games, but the way we would interact.

Still, you have to wonder: Did that infamous dad ever, just for a moment, miss the noise?

• • •

The SoundAbout, the Stowaway, the Freestyle. No, no, no. Sony tried all those names at first, but they weren't right.

The Walkman?

Click! Less talk, more walk!

Forget about such clunky predecessors as transistor radios that played static and leviathan boom boxes that crippled shoulders faster than you could say Kool Moe Dee. You could snap this paperback-sized gizmo on your Levis, pop in a cassette, pull on those foamy orange headphones and disappear into a world only you could hear.

How dramatic!

"It wasn't just a technology breakthrough," Paul Colley, a Sony technology communications manager, recently told the Daily Telegraph. "It was a change in people's behavior."

No longer did we have to go to the music, the music came to us. To the beach, the backseat, the bus, wherever, whenever we went. Road trips with the 'rents were no longer spent just playing Punch Buggie Blue or talking away the miles; now there didn't have to be any talking at all.

"The Walkman had a tremendous influence on people's idea of carrying your music with you," says Doug Allen, owner of St. Petersburg's Bananas Music, one of the largest vinyl record emporiums in the country. "The whole idea was portability."

Somehow there was more noise and less noise all at once, simultaneous alienation and joy. This was music for you picked by you that only you could hear: Motley Crue as you scoped beauties in the gulf, the Police as you curled brokenhearted on your bed. It wasn't only Indiana Jones who had a killer soundtrack; now you did, too. Suddenly, we were all so much more interesting.

How vainglorious!

Over the course of its 30 years, the venerable Walkman turned us into a Head Down society, one world in a world of our own.

• • •

So there was this boy, an only child, a 10-year-old with warring parents. With money made mowing Old Mr. Monahan's lawn — "Make it a checkboard pattern this week!" Monahan would bark, waving his cane — this Massachusetts preteen and future pop music critic would buy his first Walkman.

And his next.

And his next.

He called himself "a Walkman baby," born to wear the 'phones. He'd eventually go through one Walkman a year for the next decade; not just Sonys, but cheap-o knockoffs, good-enoughers scrounged at flea markets and Kmart. When the door was hanging off, and the silver paint was scratched, and sand had gummed up the motor, and Springsteen sounded wobbly even with new AAs, it was time to buy a new one. Immediately. After all, Monahan's massive lawn was handled while listening to Red Sox games and mix tapes on a Walkman; it was the only way to get through.

Well, that and other things.

As the kid's mother and father fought downstairs — on their way to divorce after 21 years of marriage — his Walkman would be salvation. Sure, he could have cranked his stereo: to make it stop, to make a point. But the Walkman was more effective, strangely comforting, like an astronaut pulling on his helmet and hearing only his own breath.

• • •

More than one million Walkmans (Walkmen? Walkmi?) were sold in its first year of release. The first model was the TPS-L2; it retailed for $200. Needless to say, they got cheaper. Two million were moved in 1981. And more than two hundred million units — including the Discman, which launched in '84 and played CDs — have been sold since.

Do you still have yours?

Didn't think so.

Besides selling records, Doug Allen has a museum's-worth of audio equipment for sale at his sprawling Bananas store: turntables, 8-tracks, reel-to-reels, plus curious whatzits that barely touched store shelves before they were extinct.

But what Allen, 61, doesn't have is a Walkman. Not a single one, anywhere in his two warehouses.

"The Walkman was a disposable item," Allen says, something to be bought again and again, new models, new gadgets, new buttons to push.

Sound familiar?

In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. The digital music player was in essence a faster, easier, slicker Walkman, another disposable treasure we can't live without. Just press play.

• • •

So there's this dad, a music-loving dad, a dad who spins vinyl records for his two young daughters every night after dinner.

They sing and have dance contests and look at the pretty album art of Duran Duran and AC/DC.

This dad — a music critic, no less, a fate he credits to his early days as a "Walkman baby" — is an iPod devotee, and as he goes through one iPod after the other, he gives his old ones to his girls.

And when this dad takes his daughters out to dinner, and they get restless and whiny, he pulls out their iPods to calm them, to turn them down. Like a drug. And his daughters, once so noisy, pull on the headphones and get very quiet. Does the dad miss the noise? Not yet. But it's early.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at http://blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic/

Sony Walkman: Reflecting 30 years later on how it set the world on its ear 07/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 13, 2009 12:38pm]

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