Something happened to me this weekend. In fact, I quite possibly lost my mind. I bought eight-tracks. There they were, sitting in a moth-eaten shoebox at a yard sale, the seller an old man who offered them to me for a quarter a piece. I rifled through and saw a couple Beatles and Beach Boys tapes on top. One of my general rules of collecting is never leave these two groups behind in any format. And for good measure, I also bought all the Partridge Family eight-tracks in the pile, too. Partridge Family and eight-tracks? Like peanut butter and jelly. AND A BAG OF CHIPS. I’m that serious.
But I needed to be cautious. Did I really want to be flirting with eight-tracks? Was this really a relationship I wanted to get into? I thought about our possible futures together. Staying up late nights ironing—yes, ironing the crinkles out of her magnetic tape that got eaten by the player. Weary times sitting at the dining room table, drilling into the cartridge to gain access to the spindle to adjust her tension. Long hours spent kneeling by the stereo, hand-spinning the eaten tape that drooled out of the cartridge.
And they certainly ain’t pretty. Unlike a vinyl record collection that has a sheen and sexiness to it, eight-tracks are the klutzy and homely-looking girlfriend you want to forget you dated. There’s a reason there’s no one in America who wants to admit they owned one. And yet, we did own them. A lot of them. In fact, we even loved them, once.
Eight-tracks are the icon of obsolescence, but not deservedly so. They were massively popular in the United States, their reign lasting nearly two decades beginning in the mid-1960s and kept alive well into the late 1980s through mail order record clubs and truck stop gas stations.
Synonymous with American car culture, the eight-track was kind of a big deal. Championed at its 1965 inception by Ford Motors, the eight-track player was offered as an option in the complete line of 1966 model cars. It was the first time you could listen to your own music in the car. Before that, it was either the handful of radio stations your tuner picked up or the humming sounds of lonely open road.
The eight-track itself was an endless loop of standard 1/4-inch magnetic tape around a single reel. The tape was divided along its length into eight channels, or tracks (hence the name). The playback head played two tracks at a time, four programs total in stereo. The program started and stopped signaled by a one-inch-long piece of metal foil that activated the track-change sensor in the player, which caused the infamous clicking and gear-shifting noises that sometimes occurred right in the middle of songs.
If that all sounds entirely too complicated, well, that was exactly the problem that to the eight-track’s eventual downfall. In other words, everything you’ve heard about eight-tracks is true. They were clunky, cheaply-made, and prone to malfunctioning. There were a large number of moving parts in the cartridge, encouraging tangling and backups. The parts inside were of low-quality, often breaking down and deteriorating into black goop, known as the dreaded “eight-track tar.” The poor design of the players themselves also meant all of the moving parts in the cartridge were under constant pressure. Even the crappy glue they used to adhere the labels hasn’t withstood the test of time.
As far as sound quality? At best, they sounded a bit fluttery and hissy, and at worst, they sounded like a burning dumpster. What I’m saying is, they were a hot mess. Then add forty years age to the tapes. There are few brave souls out there who still collect them—and it ain’t for the dainty who like their shit mint in box, sealed and sparkling. It’s for the absolutely insane who are up for the challenge of scouring Radio Shacks in remote areas in desperate hopes of finding leftover reel-to-reel foil sensing tape in some cobwebby corner.
And all for what exactly? One lousy, sleazy evening listening to the Partridge Family on a gauzy-sounding eight-track. But perhaps that’s exactly how it was meant to be heard.
That’s how I got to be standing there holding a small stack of eight-tracks in my hand. Honest, it was nothing more. I swear. This was like sitting in a bar, and the eight-tracks had offered to buy me a drink. I knew it wasn’t going to be worth it. It wouldn’t end well. But fuck it. I was bored and the open road was the only road I ever knew. I handed the old man three bucks for twelve grimy cartridges. David Cassidy’s faded facade grinned up at me. I felt dirty.
Here’s my other excuse—we have an eight-track player at home that I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to indulge. The girlfriend brought this one to the relationship. She grew up with it—an actual eight-track stereo, a massive beast of furniture unleashed on the world by Magnavox in the 1970s.
The eight-track player itself is small, encased in the huge cherry wood cabinet. There are hearts and tulips painted quaintly on the doors which have polished white knobs. It sat in her parents’ family room, where it also doubled as an unassuming end table to hold a lamp and magazines. In all honesty, this is the kind of stereo you’d expect somebody’s grandmother to have—but hell—both of my grandmothers had cooler stereos than this to play their Perry Como on. In fact, when the girlfriend said her parents were going to give us this thing when we moved in together, it sounded more like a threat.
“I don’t want that grandma-looking cabinet in our living room next to my entertainment center,” I said.
“It was my childhood! I’m going to listen to Annie!” she said.
Oh God no. Annie. The original cast recording. On eight-track. Pass me the gun. Better yet, just hand me that dull butterknife so I can gouge my eardrums out.
The girlfriend has been chirping about eight-tracks since I met her. She dreams of a day when I’ll give in and prance around the living room to “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” with her. So far, the muscle of my vinyl collection and sheer determination have held back the original cast recording of Annie from playing, but I fight it every day. Every. Single. Day.
But aside from the whole Annie thing, the girlfriend might just be uber-hip and way ahead of all of us. Listening on eight-track might just be the new listening on vinyl for the hipster crowd. Or it might not. Because it’s probably just a fling. And besides, the girlfriend is already plotting a way to sneak the Grease soundtrack onto my record player.