When I was a spotty adolescent we – my family – had a tape recorder. Reel-to-reel, not cassette (I don't think they had even been invented then: if they had, they were just for dictating machines). It wasn't hi-fi, wasn't even stereo, it was a Grundig "portable" – i.e. luggable (it weighed about 20 lbs (I don't think they'd invented kilos in those days either)), mains operated with 3 or 4 valves inside. It had some sort of automatic level control so you didn't have to adjust it when recording (quite a feature in those days), and sockets on the back for a microphone (it came with a plastickey stick mic), line-in + line-out (so you could connect it up to record from and play back to a 'proper' audio system) and a speaker output. It had one speed – 33/4 inches per second – and took 51/2" plastic tape spools. Grundig portable tape recorder

Those were the days before Radio 1, commercial radio stations and wall-to-wall Top Twenty pop music. There were pirate stations broadcasting from the Thames Estuary and North Sea on Medium Wave (AM) but we couldn't pick them up in Wales, and Radio Luxembourg was a nightmare: slowly fading away to nothingness punctuated only by the distorted sidebands of nearby stations, gradually fading back in again, swelling to a reasonable signal for a while then inexorably descending into the next trough of nothingness. That and the bloody adverts made it practically un-listenable – but we listened to it all the same, we were that starved of Pop music.

It's hard to imagine nowadays, sticking on a Beatles compilation CD, the effect each new single had when it first came out and we caught it on the radio, or Top Of The Pops on TV. Each – Ticket To Ride, Day Tripper, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields, Lady Madonna, Hey Jude, Hello Goodbye, All You Need Is Love – was so excellent, and so radically different from its predecessor yet so unmistakeably Beatles – and so long awaited: it seemed to be ages after one unimaginably brilliant Beatles song had made its customary way to No 1 and eventually faded back down the charts, until another one came out, with a new buzz of excitement and surprise. Not just the Beatles of course: despite as much dross as there is today there were other great artists and great songs, but it's hard to imagine, hearing any new song played umpteen times a day on just about any pop station one chooses nowadays, how few plays we got to listen to on the radio in those days. There would be some on Radio Luxembourg, tortured by fading and distortion; possibly a play on TOTP, and maybe a handful of plays a week on the BBC Light Programme (predecessor of Radios 1 and 2), but the Beeb's output was strangled by the "needle-time" allowance from the recording industry which permitted only a couple of hours or so a day of records to be played. A major chunk of these meagre rations came in Alan Freeman's Pick Of The Pops, for – what, two whole hours?! – on Sunday afternoons. In it we got not only the whole Top 10, but new releases, singles rising up the lower reaches of the charts and even some album tracks. For this was the Grundig reel-to-reel home tape recorder born! I'd sit beside it over Sunday tea, working the pause, rewind and record buttons, monitoring it on a pair of ex-army headphones plugged into the speaker socket on the back, trying to edit on-the-fly my week's perfect compilation tape (leaving out "Fluff" Freeman's inane patter and the duff records).

The proper way to edit reel-to-reel tape is to physically cut it up with a safety razor blade and join back the bits you want on a splicing block with splicing tape (not Sellotape, which either oozes tape-ruining goo or dries up and loses its grip). And indeed I had a splicing block, razor blade and splicing tape. Trouble is, recording tape wasn't cheap (nothing was in those days) and re-recording over a splice made noticeable drop-outs, so splicing a reel was for keeps. Also we used to record on both sides of a reel (that is to say "sides" like either side of the road, rather than front and back – but the effect is the same) and splice-editing one side would completely naff up the other.

However I did splice-edit one compilation tape, which I kept for years after I was parted from the tape recorder. On it I had – as I recall – "In the court of the Crimson King" (by King Crimson, natch), a number by Rainbow In Curved Air (a band, presumably named after Terry Riley's piece of that name), "Pretty Little Girl" by Labi Siffre, a number by Elton John ("I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss / well some of these verses, they've got me quite cross") and, recorded from John Peel's show (I recall Peel introducing them as "the amazingly named Truth and Beauty"), "Tough Little Surfer Boy":

[girl] Is he ... dead?
[boy] Uh-huh.
[girl] Oh Joey! Joey! How could you do this to me?!!!
[boy] Huh! Why do you think? Because of you, you little tramp!

Sort of Beach Boys meets "Leader Of The Pack", this song has trademark surfer-sound harmonies and instrumentation, a goose-pimplingly melodramatic storyline and the most blood-curdling scream. It would of course be a cliche to say It Should Have Been A Hit, and it would probably have got played to death if it had, but wtf: It Should Have Been A Hit – or at least not disappeared beneath the waves like its eponymous hero.

Fortunately sometime in the '80s I found myself with a reel-to-reel machine, a cassette recorder and my compilation tape and transferred this one song to cassette, and sometime more recently I got it from the cassette onto digital, and despite the years and transfers I still think it sounds great.


In February 2010, in a spot of vanity surfing, I stuck "Tough Little Surfer" into Google to see if it found this page. It did, but it also came up with some other hits (though I thought I'd tried this a few years ago and got nothing).

I found that it was "Tuff" not "Tough", that the female vocal and blood-curdling scream belonged to someone called Little Nell, that there's a clip (with rather Whistle-Test stills on the video track) on YouTube and that a gentleman by the name of Andy Leighton (then of "Fried Egg Records") seems to have been responsible for getting the record to John Peel, and therefore for my hearing it, and thence to this page here!