After The Beep

Answering machines were a form of technology in use before telecommunication was monopolized. At first, they were huge, then they used micro-cassettes, then regular cassettes, then a computer chip, then they went in the garbage. Telephones were not generally mobile prior to the year 2000. The average home had a room where the phone and answering machine resided.

The answering machine was the predecessor to the ringtone, in terms of personal expression through phones. There was even a default recording of a robot intoning “please leave a message after the beep”, which is how you knew your dad or grandpa wasn’t at home. Older relatives were confounded by the damn things, and would require the aid of sons or nephews, just as with smartphones today. A family would retain an answering machine until the tape wore out, meaning that for much of the 1980s, there was a phantasmagoria of wood-paneled plastic boxes, varying in quality. “Wireless” meant “unreliable”, which meant that the telephone station generally resembled an improvised bomb, to 21st century eyeballs. 

Not a bomb.

Not a bomb.

Recording the answering machine message was a big to-do. I am not making this up. Like the machines themselves, there were tapes produced by small businesses loaded with “funny” messages. (This was back before American ingenuity was stomped out of the tech industry forever. There used to be video game consoles produced by little American companies, too. Ever heard of the Atari 2600?)

“Funny” answering machine messages came to be the domain of parents and corny jokers. Before every character had to be likable, The Simpsons illustrated this beautifully, with Homer and Marge bickering over horrendous recordings… just like our parents did.

"So HERE COME DA BEEP. HERE COME DA BEEP." (That's a Flip Wilson reference. Exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

“So HERE COME DA BEEP. HERE COME DA BEEP.” (That’s a Flip Wilson reference. Exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.)

Believe it or not, couples argued about what to put on the machine. I myself alienated my former mother-in-law by deliberately recording obtuse messages. I meant it as a non sequitur, but I can understand the confusion when I used the following lines from Mink Stole in Desperate Living:


Can you imagine being a regular mom, checking up on your daughter and her creep of a husband, and hearing that shit? My eternal, raging hard-on for Mink Stole is nobody’s fault but my own. I made matters worse when I replaced it with Jello Biafra’s intro to “Triumph of the Swill”:

“We came home and found our son lying dead on his bed from a gunshot wound. He had his headphones on and an Ozzy record on the turntable. So we called our lawyer.”

I did not intend to cause grief to that poor woman, I just thought it was funny. This was the 90s analogue to “sig quotes”, and their misinterpretation. My final capitulation was an exchange from the British comedy The Young Ones:

Rik: Neil, have you just farted?
Neil: I don’t think so.

This went over about as well with the in-laws. I went to my room to think about what I’d done. I never got crazy with answering machine messages again. I felt like I’d tampered with the family phone. That’s a time-out.

See, the phone used to be a heavy-duty object. It had wires you could easily lynch someone with. The receiver was ideal for skull-smashing. I think the only way a murderer could utilize a smartphone as a weapon is to cram it down the victim’s throat; a dicey maneuver to be sure. Part of me wonders if the traditional telephone was slowly phased out of the American home because of its common use in domestic killings.

Originally, phones had a rotary dial, which was very difficult for kids and old folks to use properly. Fancy ladies like my mom used to gripe that it broke their nails. That’s because it was military issue, made for the use of MANLY MEN!


They weren’t made of plastic; it was bakelite. You could literally smash rocks with it. When an “upgrade” happened, the phone company would visit your home, take away your old console, and grant you a new one. It was their property. They threw the old ones into a dingy truck, set for parts unknown, where mysterious wrestlers come from. That’s why it’s tough or expensive to lay hands on a vintage telephone.

Answering machines were the only personal (and ownable) aspect of the home phone. That’s probably why they felt so important. Well, other than the fact that there was no other way to know if someone called you while you were out. We didn’t have “call waiting” at my house until I was a senior in high school! People who called while the phone was in use got a busy signal!

When was the last time you had an argument with someone, got angry, and the other person made it impossible to continue? You could get into a shouting match on the phone, hang up, and find out later they ruptured an aorta trying to reconnect. All you had to do was leave the phone “off the hook”! It was a tool of warfare!

Answering machines were the first place a lot of people got to hear a recording of their own voice, which can be intoxicating. It can really go to your head. Not everyone likes it. Like all technology, it could be divisive; some mastered it, some tried and failed.

A lot of us did terrible impersonations.

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Filed under Bad Influences, Faint Signals, Nostalgic Obsessions