In Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the main character, Kafka listens to Little Red Corvette by Prince on a Walkman in a cabin in the mountains . “The batteries run out in the middle of Little Red Corvette,” writes Murakami. “The music disappearing like it’s been swallowed up by quicksand. I yank off my headphones and listen. Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
Along with the fictional Kafka, two entire generations grew up listening to their favourite music on the Sony Walkman, the once-coveted electronic device that completely transformed the way people listened to music.
For one thing, the portable device made it possible to listen anywhere at all, instead of being bound by the location of the music player. For another, the unique headphones took the listener into the heart of the music, which now played all around their heads instead of emanating from speakers set at a distance.
Also called the Soundabout, Stowaway or Freestyle in various part of the world, the Walkman was launched on July 1, 1979. The first month’s sales were disappointing. A pocket-sized player that played cassettes – pre-recorded music or personal mixtapes – the early model had five buttons: rewind, forward, play, pause and stop.
“The second model, the WM-2, which came in red, black and silver, chalked up unit sales of 2.58 million,” says an article in The Japan Times commemorating 40 years of the device.
In October 2010, well after sales had almost trickled to a halt, and the Walkman had transitioned from cassettes to CDs to streamable music, Sony finally killed the device, conceding defeat to the new age iPod.
Yet, almost a decade on, memories remain, and a huge Sony exhibition in Ginza, Tokyo, displaying 230 models of the device that made music portable has attracted hundreds of visitors since it opened on July 1.