Thoughts about a technology that only Wile E. Coyote could love
They sounded like shit, the cover art was a sham, and heaven forbid you leave them on a hot dashboard in the summertime: 8-track cartridges, aka the Tyrannosaurus Rex of audio (not to be confused with the '70s band T. Rex, also available on 8-track), stalked the earth from the mid-'60s to the early '80s, only to become extinct during the Cassette Age.
The 8-track is to the CD as the Edison wax cylinder is to the vinyl album (except cylinders are antiques and 8-tracks are kitsch): a relic that you purchase not for its sonic qualities, but for its nostalgia factor. What was it like to ride in an AMC Hornet with the windows down blasting Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes with that jarring click between programs? Well, I can tell you: It was sheer joy.
According to 8trackheaven.com, airplane inventor Bill Lear designed the 8-track and convinced Ford Motor Company to include players as optional equipment on its 1966 models. Other car manufacturers followed suit, and soon home audio equipment included 8-track players, usually embellished with a lot of faux chrome and faux wood. Later, colorful plastic portable players came on the market, including one that resembled the TNT detonator used by Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons.
The 8-track was essentially an endless 1/4-inch tape loop; the tape had four "programs" that held two to three songs each. You could switch between programs, but you couldn't rewind or fast forward between songs, making it an incredibly cumbersome format. Moreover, when the program switched, it generated an annoying clicking noise.
For those of you born after 1970 and who have never heard this sound, 8trackheaven.com has a recording; it's uh, fascinating, really.
The 8-track's drawbacks were numerous. Generally, the fidelity sounded flat, although some 8-tracks were recorded in quadraphonic, which was supposed to be an ear-blowing experience. Yet, to enjoy the fidelity, you had to afford a quadraphonic player, which, like today's high definition television, wasn't available to the working-class. As a commoner, I never experienced quadraphrenia.
The tape cartridge was housed in a plastic case that usually had a sticker with a minimalist version of the cover art; over time, the sticker developed air bubbles underneath, warping what little artistic merit it had. The foam pressure pads that helped guide the tape across the heads had a tendency to melt in the heat, turning the tape's innards into a gooey mess.
Despite the format's limitations, an 8-track cult flourishes. For many years, Russell Forester published the ultra-cool fanzine 8-Track Mind ; 8-track sellers hawk their wares on eBay, where the J. Geils Band is available for 99 cents, the same price as three blank 8-tracks. Yet, the Holy Grail of 8-track esoterica is 8trackheaven.com, which includes not only technical information and interviews with 8-track pioneers, but a link to hate mail the site receives. Here's a sampling, reprinted as written:
"Why are you people obsessed with shitty technology that died over 20 years ago. youre like those gen x kids who like old shit just to be cool. get a life losers."
"THE 8 TRACK MACHINE (and the 8 track format) WAS THE SINGLE BIGGEST ABORTION IN THE HISTORY OF AUDIO."
All I can say to 8-track detractors is, I guess you had to be there. And as for the AMC Hornet, the driver eventually bought a cassette adaptor. •
By Lisa Sorg