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The crazy coolness of an 8-track

By George Pelletier - Milford Bureau Chief | Jun 13, 2020

George Pelletier

Call it the kitsch of death. When you think back, the 8-track tape was the music equivalent of the middle finger. It was a punk. It was skateboarding on the sidewalk, shoplifting at Woolworth’s stupid. It had no respect for pretention, had no use for societal norms and sound quality? Let’s just say it lacked a certain refinement.

That said, I love 8-tracks.

I have several players, all vintage of course, that range from practical, mid-size stereo component models, to cool portables, (the red Panasonic TNT model, resembles the detonator from a Roadrunner cartoon) and even one housed in a rich mahogany cabinet, a stand alone, not unlike the goliath stereo consoles that your parents and grandparents had in their living rooms with a high fidelity record player and AM/FM radio and those fantastically tacky cloth-covered speakers.

Listening to an 8-track for the music quality is like dating an escort because you’re ready to settle down.

So, 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 KA-JUNK 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?

Like the phonetic fireman once said: It’s the latter.

At least for a moment.

They say that everything old is new again. If that were the case, I’d be virgin wool.

A few bands, Cheap Trick and the Oh-Sees (who released a 12-tape set entirely on 8-track tapes) have gone retro with the release of new albums on 8-track.

What’s sad about 8-track cartridges is that they are Edsel of music. The Betamax of symphonics. The ‘New Coke’ of new ideas.

Remember RJ Reynolds’ smokeless cigarettes of 1989? They were better than an 8-track, which can implode upon inserting into an 8-track player. And unlike those smokeless cigarettes, an 8-track player will catch on fire when you’ve rewired it incorrectly.

Anyone recall the ‘Apple Newton,’ with a price of $700, it was 8” tall and 4.5″ wide. Its handwriting recognition was so bad that the Simpsons made fun of it. (Homer not Jessica.)

Still not as rotten as the 8-track.

How about 1995’s ‘Microsoft Bob’? It faced a death worse than the 8-track. There are still 8-tracks on my stereo. There are ‘Microsoft Bobs’ at the bottom of a landfill.

Did you ever try a 1999’s Cosmopolitan Yogurt? Named after the women’s magazine, not the “Sex and the City,” favored drink, the yogurt never met a person that didn’t like it. Mainly because nobody ever tried it.

Then there’s the Zune which was built to beat the iPod. It didn’t. You can still buy these on eBay if you’re like me, and prefer to own things that are obsolete. I use my Zune to skeet shoot. Unfortunately, I’m a lousy shot.

While these clunkers had all the excitement and sexiness of an armpit fart, 8-tracks have enjoyed a renaissance.

Color me silly, but I have bought some outrageously hard to find 8-tracks for little to nothing, only to play them once and have them disintegrate in one of my machines.

So, if buying a reissued piece of vinyl wasn’t cool enough, and the remastered CD just sounded too polished, I have taken to buying old 8-tracks, taking them apart and replacing pads to the plastic contraptions to make them work. I probably could have created my own state-of-the-art compact disc player in the time it took me to fix one 8-track cartridge.

And if that’s not nutty enough for you, with so many 8-track players filling my house, I quickly found myself taking these relics apart and either repairing them or slightly rebuilding them. I have one with an eject button so pronounced it can launch an 8-track clear across the room. Let’s see your CD carousel try that.

And it’s alarming what some 8-tracks can fetch price-wise. An unopened Bob Marley “Kaya” 8-track was going for $75. Collectors know what certain 8-track tapes are worth and sell them accordingly. The problem is these are 40 year-old tapes that have never seen the light of day, let alone the inside of a player, so often the tape will just snap before the first song has begun.

One hard-to-find classic is a Frank Sinatra with Antonio Carlos Jobim cartridge. The reason for its rarity status is because the release of the 8-track never quite made to store shelves. Most of them anyway.

Shippers at the Amplex’s Illinois tape making plant were never told, which means the 8-track was already on its way to store and in some cases, was sold before Reprise Records, Frank’s record label, could issue a recall. The result is the Holy Grail of 8-tracks.

Another one of the most sought-after 8-tracks is also one of the last to see production: Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits (the album that has a green background). If you can find one, good luck justifying the price they’re asking, which as of today, is $499 on eBay for a sealed, unopened cartridge. Riddonk.

During the pandemic, I’ve fiddled with many a tape and a machine and even added a state-of-the-art equalizer to one of my stereo systems, to balance the hiss of the tape. I suppose that’s a bit like building a prominade deck on a rowboat.

Considering that 8-tracks were invented in the ’60s and saw their heyday in the ’70s, these puppies are decades old. Audio cassettes kicked 8-tracks to the curb and CDs followed suit with cassettes.

So, while I still enjoy my vinyl and CDs, digital recordings and Sirius radio, playing an 8-track is about imperfection. It’s flawed, it’s gritty and it’s a throwback. And with everything going on in the world with our new normal, life is strange and unrehearsed. That’s when I say it’s the perfect time for a little audio therapy, via one vintage tape that in the end, doesn’t sound so bad. Until it breaks two seconds later. Dammit.


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