Four-track tapes were, for a short time, the future of rock ’n’ roll.
Though they are barely remembered today and, when encountered, are often viewed as a bizarre (or even faulty — what is that big hole in the top where the roller should go?) variation on the 8-track, the 4-track not only preceded its better-known cousin, it actually inspired that format to be created.
However, whereas 8-track aficionados can look back at their hero’s demise at the hands of the cassette and say that the smaller tape was victorious because it was cheaper for the record companies to produce, the war with the 4-track was won fair and square. Eight-tracks really were superior — at least for the purpose they were designed.
The fact that 4-tracks offered marginally better sound quality, were less prone to breakage and, due to the (quite deliberate) absence of an internal roller, were easier to maintain, does not even enter into the equation. Eight-tracks offered more music, and that’s what it’s all about.
One Earl Muntz developed the 4-track tape, specifically for use in automobiles.
Utilizing the endless loop technology that was exercising so many other designers at the time, Muntz created a method by which two “tracks” of stereo sound could be positioned side-by-side, lengthwise, on a piece of tape, to be played on tape decks, which read each one in turn.
Although the 4-track technology was originally developed as early as 1956, it was 1963 before Muntz began marketing it, initially in California.
Buoyed by the support of several major record companies, the so-called Muntz Stereo-Pak received immense publicity when players were installed in vehicles owned by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, James Garner, Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton — and even more when an order was placed to install them in the newly developed Lear Jet.
However, upon delivery, the jet’s designer, William Powell Lear, became convinced that he could make a far superior portable tape cartridge. Within a year, he had developed the 8-track and was moving into many of the same markets as Muntz had hitherto dominated.
Nevertheless the 4- and 8-tracks existed side by side for some time,
with canny hardware manufacturers even marketing players capable of dealing with both formats.
Retailers, too, saw little difference between the two formats and frequently stocked them side by side, while many record companies were happy to see their latest releases issued in both formats, as the world watched to see which would ultimately win. Of course, it was the 8-track, although it would be as late as 1970 before the victory was finally complete.
As in virtually every other area of record collecting, the most popular act on 4-track today is the Beatles. (Elvis did not appear in the format).
Capitol was one of the first major labels to strike a licensing deal with Muntz — in 1964 — and issued the first Beatles 4-tracks that same year. Thereafter, every Beatles album through Let It Be (Apple X434001) appeared in the format, together with such early Apple releases as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins (Tetragrammaton/Apple TNX 45001), Mary Hopkins’ Postcard (4CL 3351) and George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music (Apple 4CL 3350).
Paul McCartney’s soundtrack to the movie, “The Family Way,” (London LFX 17136) also made an appearance.
The last Beatles-related 4-tracks to appear were the debut solo albums by all four members, during 1970.
Outside of Beatledom, few 4-tracks have any collector value, although fans of individual artists often will be tempted by the occasional find. From the last years of the format’s lifespan, such releases as Cream’s Disrae