Happy Birthday to the Eight Track
Posted on March 21 2019
By Peter Skiera
A couple of weeks ago I watched a shocking video. It centered around a radio station DJ who visited a local high school and randomly showed an 8 track tape to students and asked each one if they knew what it was. Without exception, each one of them said no. My first reaction was that of surprise…that there were people on this planet who had no idea what an 8 track tape was. These weren’t aliens from another planet who knew nothing about our music; these were American kids who loved music. My second reaction was to feel old, for not only had I heard of 8 track tapes, I had listened to them when I was young. My father gave me a Hitachi stereo system one Christmas that had a built-in 8 track player, and he owned a similar system himself. I remember he had a plastic carousel fully stocked with 8 track tapes of the popular bands of the day. The only tape I remember specifically in his collection was ELO’s Out of the Blue because the album art featured a space ship that I thought was really cool.
If the 8 track hadn’t been widely adopted and had lived a very short life, I could understand it being an unidentified foreign object. But from when it was first introduced until it was overtaken by the compact cassette, the 8 track tape had a lifespan of nearly 20 years, and it was enjoyed by millions of people (granted, mainly in the USA, Canada, and the UK). According to the RIAA, in 1978, 8 track tape sales topped $900 million. What was behind the 8 track’s popularity? It was the first truly portable music format. Sure, there were portable record players, but lugging one around along with a box of records was hardly convenient. With portable 8 track players, home units, and players in the car, 8 tracks had you pretty well covered wherever you were. Although the tapes were bulky, they didn’t weigh much, so carrying a dozen or more in a carrying case wasn’t going to strain your back.
A Pioneer car stereo 8 track tape player from the 1970’s.
Their portability may have allowed music lovers to overlook their shortcomings, of which there were several. For one, the frequency response only went up to 15-16kHZ, putting it on par with FM radio. The sound wasn't bad (unless it was a truck stop bootleg tape), but it didn't quite stack up to most hi-fi records and reel-to-reel tapes. Then there was the inevitable and annoying point in the tape where a song would be interrupted as it advanced to the next program. Imagine really getting into Pink Floyd's Us and Them, only to hear it prematurely fade out and fade back in a few seconds later. Without adjustment of the playback head, bleed-through from one music track into another was another common annoyance. Worst of all, if the playback device wasn't regularly cleaned and demagnetized, it would eventually develop a healthy appetite for tapes. The image of removing more than one cartridge with its wide brown tape still inside the machine, tangled around the capstan, will be forever burned into my memory.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the quadraphonic 8 track tape (do I hear laughter?). Like their 12” diameter quad vinyl counterparts, they contained four dedicated channels…two front and two rear. Think of quad sound as an early, primitive iteration of surround sound. If you owned a stereo 8 track player and bought a quad tape you were out of luck, as the multiple channels could only be reproduced using players designed to playback quadraphonic tapes (and you also needed to have four speakers). By most accounts, quadraphonic sound was a major flop which didn’t help the 8 track’s overall reputation.
Charles Mingus in quadraphonic glory.
Faults aside, there remains something strangely romantic about this awkward format originally developed by, of all companies, the LearJet Corporation. Perhaps it was the loud ka-clunk noise of the playback head moving when changing from one program to another (my Pioneer sounds almost like a gunshot when it changes), the glow of the equipment’s program lights, or just the chunky, vintage video game cartridge-like design of the tapes themselves. And let us not overlook the fact that they’re 100% analog, which almost nothing is today. Whatever the reason, there still exists a contingent of 8 track secret admirers of all ages. I decided to take the plunge and see if the passage of time had been any kinder to this relic of the 70’s.
“Faults aside, there remains something strangely romantic about this awkward format...”
My time machine of choice was the Pioneer HR-100, widely considered to be one of the finest home 8 track player/recorder models made, which I procured on eBay. Since the unit was only semi-working and I had no idea when it had last been serviced, I sent it off to Kate’s Track Shack in Arlington, Texas to get a cleaning, new belt, and general tune up. Kathy Gibson emailed me progress reports, and her husband, Dan, even sent me a video of my player in action after he finished working on it.
The Pioneer HR100 still performing admirably after 40 years.
I also had Kate’s Track Shack service my vintage Telex 8 track “juke box”, which proved a bit more challenging.
Music in the round: The Telex 8 track player accepts 12 8 track tapes for hours of continuous music.
Always curious, I fired off a few questions to Kathy, which she graciously answered:
PS: Why do you and others feel so passionately about 8 track tapes and players?
K: We've been doing this for over 20 years now and it just doesn't seem to slow down. It's fun and exciting to see how excited people get when they discover 8-tracks for the first time or rediscover 8-tracks after many years of being away from it. For many people 8-tracks represent a time from their past that brings back fond memories.
PS: Has your 8 track tape/player repair business been steady, increasing, or declining?
K: Again, we've been doing this for over 20 years and so far we haven't seen any real decline in business. If anything, we're seeing more business.
PS: You'll actually mass release an artist's new music on 8 track if they want?
K: Yes, we will. Whether it's one tape or 1,000 or more.
“For many people, 8-tracks represent a time from their past that brings back fond memories.”
Surrounded by sound: Kathy and Dan Gibson of Kate’s Track Shack.
PS: The 8 track has a bad reputation for lots of reasons. Do you think it's well deserved or do 8 tracks get a bad rap?
K: Everyone has their own opinion about the 8-track. Many didn't like it because it was too big or that you couldn't rewind it to listen to a particular song, songs faded in/out, the "ka-chunks" between programs. But people are going to complain about something no matter what. Overall, I'd have to say we have far more people still singing the 8-tracks praises than those tearing it down.
PS: What are a few of your favorites 8 track tapes and why?
K: Personally, I like pop/rock, the more mellow stuff like Bread and John Denver, Carpenters. Dan's [husband] music tastes are more varied. He's a big Beatles fan, likes a lot of the 60's and 70's and 80's stuff, but likes stuff from all early 20's as well.
PS: Can you share a few interesting stories or encounters you’ve had over the years?
K: Some years back we had a customer who lived in the area stop by with a tape to be repaired and transferred to CD. In chatting with him, he told us that he used to be a writer for Hollywood Squares. Dan enjoyed Paul Lynde so he asked him many questions about the show. Not long after, he contacted us to see if our family might be interested in being guests at a taping of Wheel Of Fortune while they were recording in Dallas. His friend, who produced WOF, was also a writer for HWS. We were pretty excited! Our middle daughter thought Vanna White was so beautiful. When we got there we had to stand in a long line waiting to go into the show. A lady came up and asked for the Gibson family. We were then escorted past all the other people and taken down front near the stage. We didn't get to meet Pat Sajak but we did get to speak with Vanna. We were also able to go stand up at the wheel between taping for the next show. That was pretty cool. Vanna also mailed our daughter a signed photograph for her birthday.
We were also able to meet Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterson from Cheap Trick and have them sign one of our 8-tracks. We gave one to Rick as well. We had just finished making new 8-tracks of their then newest album The Latest. When we were told they would be in our area we asked the folks we were working with on the album if we might be able to meet them and they arranged it. When the show started Rick held up the 8-track we gave him and told the audience that they had the number one 8-track in the country. The crowd went crazy! It was an awesome feeling knowing we had done it! We also did a few 8-tracks for Tesla and got to meet them at a concert down in Austin.
Last year we met the Cowsills and had them sign an 8-track that we brought to the show. They thought that was so cool and it brought about some discussions from those around us. We also met Tommy James last year and took one of his 8-tracks to be signed. We talked with him after the show and he signed it for us. We talked to him about maybe doing his next album on 8-track. We'll see what happens.
Getting into 8 tracks is easy, almost too easy. The equipment isn’t all that expensive, especially when compared to the cost of some other vintage audio equipment. Tapes can be had at reasonable prices, provided you don’t go after rare titles from artists like Prince, Culture Club, Cindy Lauper, Duran Duran, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, and Madonna, any of which will easily run you between $30-$100 or more for a single tape. Tens of thousands of tapes of all genres are on eBay, even whole collections. You’ll find some on Amazon, too, but not the cheap ones. Want more? 8-track-shack.com has over 60,000 titles for sale! Just bear in mind, due to their age, the tapes can have a short shelf life unless your player is working properly and the tapes have been revived by having their pressure pad and metallic splice replaced. The latter you can do yourself by buying the materials and watching some Youtube videos, or send them to Kate’s Track Shack as I did and they’ll do it for a nominal fee.
Trivia: What’s one of the rarest 8 track tapes? The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits. Capitol Records decided not to release it in 1982 and had them destroyed. Less than 10 copies exist in the world.
If you see this 8 track at a yard sale or a thrift store, buy it!
I bought a bunch of used 8 track tape titles from eBay to put my player to the test…Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Best of Bread, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Neil Young’s Harvest, Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, BB King Live at The Regal, and others. This experience exposed me to some titles I might not have otherwise explored like The Commodores Live (including an extended version of Brick House), Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough, The Alan Parsons Project I Robot, Ike and Tina Turner What You Hear is What You Get, Big Brother and The Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, and Mike McGear’s (Paul McCartney’s brother) McGear.
My stack of (8) tracks.
I set up my newly-serviced Pioneer player and popped in Pat Metheny’s Chautauqua. I cranked up the volume on my vintage Pioneer SX1980 receiver and was very pleasantly surprised at the sound coming from my 1972 JBL L100 Century speakers. Next was Willie Nelson’s wonderful Stardust album. Again, I was quite pleased with what I heard. Watching the little backlighted VU meters and pushing the program button was a hoot. Audio should be fun, and this definitely was fun! Streaming music might be a lot more convenient, but it isn’t nearly as fun. Like a record, tape, or CD, there’s a certain feeling you get being able to physically hold the music in your hands and look at the album art and track information…something you don’t get when streaming. Mind you, I have nothing against streaming. I stream music almost every day, be it from Spotify Connect, Tidal, Amazon Prime Music, or music from my smart phone. It’s just a different kind of experience.
Ultimately, 8 tracks went the way of leisure suits, platform shoes, and shag pile carpeting. A moment of silence, please. Despite the 8 track tape turning 55 this year, it still enjoys a broad, enthusiastic fan base (apologies in advance, but Como Audio will not be making a hi-fi 8 track player!). As much as some people are into them, don’t expect the 8 track to make a major mainstream comeback. But that’s okay. It just makes it more special for those of us who are enjoying the music.
Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. Peter can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org