The coolness of the 8-Track

By Dave Thompson

What is the most satisfying sound in the world of recorded music? Is it the gentle crackle of a newly-minted stylus touching down on the edge of a much-loved LP?

Is it the flitter-flutter urgency of a reel-to-reel tape as it hits the climax of a favorite spool?

Or is it the grinding ker-LUNK of a well-worn 8-Track, reaching the end of one program and switching over to the next, absolutely regardless of how far into a song it might be?

If you think about it, the 8-Track tape is the ultimate punk rock art form. It had no respect for pretension, no time for procrastination, and it didn’t give a damn for concept or continuity. Because when the program ended, so did the music, and then a gentle hiss and a loud ker-LUNK and, if you were lucky, the song would fade back in. And if you weren’t, and your player decided to mess with you too, you could be listening to something else entirely.

Welcome to the world of 8-Tracks. Welcome to musical paradise.

8-Tracks, for those who do not know, are those fat old tapes you used to find piled up in corners in thrift stores, priced to sell and still not moving.

You usually ignored them; who could possibly need a couple of dozen easy listening cartridges cluttering up the house, regardless of whether or not you have something to play them on. And easy listening, for some reason, is one of those things with which every unwanted 8-Track collection overflows, which itself is a contradiction of Warholian proportions. For what in the world could be less easy to listen to than, midway through Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, the sound of an elevator plunging down its shaft, crushing every last vestige of the mood you’d just built up?

8-Tracks are hard-core performance art, and do not believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Which may, or may not, be the reason why they have suddenly come back into collecting vogue.

The more measured heads among us will tell you that their rebirth is just another revolution of the cultural cycle, the ceaseless passage from clutter to kitsch, from nonsense to nostalgia, that is the afterlife of all forms of discarded technology. (Coming soon – the MiniDisc Revival!)

Collectors will argue that 8-Tracks represent a final frontier of sorts, a 20-year catalog of releases that has never been properly cataloged or assessed, but which is already known to include some quite fascinating musical rarities.

Put aside all those easy listening tapes… except for one. Over there, the Frank Sinatra with Antonio Carlos Jobim cartridge. It’s the follow-up to their first collaboration Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, this time titled with their surnames alone. But did you know that the release was cancelled, and didn’t even make it to the stores?

Well, most of them didn’t. Except nobody told the shippers at tape-maker Ampex’s Illinois plant, which means the 8-Track was already on its way to the stores, and in some cases flying out of them, before Reprise could issue the recall. Result? One hell of a rarity.

It’s not the only time that happened, either. In 1974, the same label forgot to tell the same factory that they’d canceled the release of Alan Price’s “Savaloy Dip.” And so, once again, the 8-Tracks hit the shelves while the LPs hit the recycling pile, and don’t you feel sorry for all the Alan Price fans who saw the tape on the shelves on the day of release, but ignored it because they wanted the album?  No, I didn’t think you would.

Other 8-Track legends. Pink Floyd’s “Animals,” with the vinyl’s top-and-tailing “Pigs on the Wing” parts 1 and 2 delivered as a seamless single song, the two halves linked by a lovely guitar solo. Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” with its title track appended by a 30-second instrumental coda that has never been heard again.

Quadraphonic 8-Tracks for such sonic gems as Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and five titles from sundry ex-Beatles: John Lennon’s “Imagine” (Lennon himself supervised the quad remixing of the title track) and “Walls and Bridges”; Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run” and “Venus and Mars,” plus the “Live and Let Die” movie soundtrack; and Ringo Starr’s “Goodnight Vienna.” Which set the pulse racing because, of the latter, “Imagine” alone was granted a vinyl quad release, and that was in Europe only.

Of course, the fact that nobody collects 8-Tracks (which isn’t a fact at all, but it’s a generalization you often encounter) doesn’t mean these rarities are simply sitting around the junk store, waiting for you to buy them. Lots of people collect these 8-Tracks, and some even have machines to play them on. Twenty or so years ago, 8-Track players were still fairly easy to pick up at genuine bargain prices; today, time alone has seen the old glut dissipate, and even those that do still turn up on the shelves tend to need a lot more TLC than most would-be purchasers (or repair men) have the knowledge and parts to administer.

Many of the surviving tapes, too, are in tragically trashed condition. For reasons that do have a good scientific explanation, but it’s way too dull to get into here, the big black rollers that propelled the tape around its housing have an alarming habit of turning to mush, a thick sticky goo more suited to paving the highway than playing a song. And it’s impossible to clean off the tape.

The playing pad might fall out and get lost. The little silver band that denotes each of the tape’s four programs (we’ll explain that in a moment) is invariably missing, which means that when you play through the album, you’ll be hearing the same group of songs forever and ever.

The tape might twist somewhere deep within the enclosing cartridge’s bowels, but unlike a cassette, you can’t simply stick a pencil into a hole and wind the tape round till you reach the problem. You have to pull the whole thing out and fix it, and then push the whole thing back in again. There is, after all, only one spool of tape, an eternal loop whose only other practical application, somewhat worryingly, is the black box recorder on older aircraft.

It’s a very simple piece of machinery, then, but a fascinating one as well — the name 8-Track is derived from the fact that a single piece of stereo (two track) tape has been divided into four programs. So there’s another problem; if your machine’s playing heads are even slightly misaligned, you’ll be hearing two or more of those programs playing at once. Which is great if you don’t actually like the album, and want to get it all listened to quickly, but a real pain in the patootie otherwise.

And another one, which we have already broached. Those four programs are of an equal length. But what happens if a song is longer than that length? It will fade out, make its noise, and then fade in — and sometimes be forced to fade out again. The epic rendition of “Southern Man” on the 8-Track of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “4 Way Street” begins on one program, continues across the next, and finally concludes on a third!

That was an extreme example, of course; with shorter numbers, it quickly became apparent to the labels that simply rearranging an album’s running order would keep such interruptions to a minimum. Which was great until you happen to be listening to a concept album, which demands its contents be enjoyed in a certain order. The Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow” is particularly intriguing.  Poor Sebastian’s girlfriend dies before he even meets her.

All of which leaves us to wonder, once again, why do people even bother with 8-Tracks?

Well, because they’re fun. Kitschy, yes, but fun. They make great conversation pieces and are a genuine challenge to hunt.

But most of all, and you’re probably not going to believe this (particularly if you’ve never owned some tapes and a decent player), they sound fantastic. Better than CDs, better than vinyl … okay, maybe not better than reel tapes or Blu-ray discs, but there isn’t much that does. So far as the rest of the hi-fi range is concerned, though, 8-Tracks kick so many shades of ass that even CD could not displace them until the late 1980s.

That’s why 8-Tracks were pioneering quadraphonic sound several years before it reached the vinyl market; that’s why classical music fans, whose own demand for perfect fidelity makes rockers look like deaf guys in a wind tunnel, were so swift to adopt the format, again before pop got into the picture.

8-Tracks sound good. 8-Tracks look good. 8-Tracks are good. And if you hurry out now and buy a stack, then sit back to admire them in all their chunky, clunky beauty, you’ll realize that 8-Tracks make you feel good, too.

This has been a public service announcement from the Goldmine Hall of Recorded Technology Fame.

 

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