8 Tracks

On 15th September 1965, the Ford Motor Company became the first automaker to offer an eight-track tape player as an option for their entire line of vehicles on sale in the US. Tapes were initially only available at auto parts stores, as home eight-track equipment was still a year away.

I wish it had stayed away! Well, not really, but if there was ever a rubbish, unreliable, and difficult format on which to listen to music, then the eight-track tape wins all the awards.

Stereo 8 was created in 1964 by a consortium led by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation, along with Ampex, Ford, Motorola, and RCA Victor Records.

Don’t get me wrong; they did work, but only sometimes. Maybe my judgment is clouded, it probably is, but I have first-hand experience of this useless invention.

What is an eight-track I hear some of you ask? Well, if you were born, say, after 1974, you won’t remember; you don’t know how lucky you were. By the time you’d hit your teens, Mr Sony had invented the Walkman. Now that was a good invention, which as we know revolutionized the way we all listen to music. All of a sudden we had music on the move without having to cart around a huge boom-box on your shoulder. Just slip the long-play cassette in and you could listen to your favourite tunes while you were jogging, on the bus/train, back of Dad’s car, schoolyard.

It was the forerunner to the iPod – you were mobile with your music. Just that the batteries didn’t last very long, and they were expensive.

Anyway, enough, back to the eight-tracks. My first job was working in a very large record shop, (before the invention of the compact disc). We sold music in three formats: vinyl, cassettes, and eight-tracks. It was my misfortune to often man the eight-track counter during the busiest part of the day – lunch.

Men in suits would queue to buy the latest releases by the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc., knowing full well they would be returning to the store within the next few days with a very long trail of tape wrapped around the plastic case.

Yes, the tape always came out of these things. Not only were they very temperamental, but the music would pause as the tape changed from its spool. So halfway through rocking out in your car to “Stairway To Heaven” the music would stop. Silence for three seconds, then back to Jimmy’s guitar solo.

Here is the technical explanation for this: The cartridges had an audible pause due to the presence of a length of metallic foil, which a sensor detected and signaled the end of the tape and acted as a splice for the loop. The foil passed across a pair of electrical contacts, which were in the tape path. Contact of the foil closed an electrical circuit that engages a solenoid which mechanically shifts the tape head to the level of the next track.

Still here?

Eight-track tapes were rubbish. They would jam as the tape got dirty, the lubricant wore away, and if the tape was exposed to heat when you left it on the rear shelf in the car, it would flatten the pitch and, over time, would wow and flutter, and then spool the tape all over the floor of your motor.

In the US eight-track cartridges were phased out of retail stores by late 1982. Some titles were still available until late 1988. Many of these late-period releases are now highly collectable because of the low numbers that were produced! Among the rarest is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood. Another is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Live/1975-85, which was one of the very few boxed sets to be released on vinyl, cassette, compact disc, and eight-track tape.

There is a debate among collectors about the last commercial eight-track released by a major label, but many agree it was Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits in November 1988. Well, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

By today’s standards, where the world is filled with portable music, the eight-track tape seems rather (click) antiquated: big and bulky, the endlessly looping tape, the annoying habit of (click) interrupting songs midway through with an audible click as they moved through each of their quadrants. Furthermore, the intended order of songs was often disrupted (click) resulting in those long periods of silence between tracks.

I’m off to charge up my iPad.

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  1. You don’t have to love them. You can hate them. Please send my your Led Zeplin and Moody Blues 8track tapes. I have 8track players and tapes, and I can fix them when they break. They are rich, fuzzy, round, warped, and living–every play is the only time you will hear that song exactly that way. Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” shouldn’t be played on any other format. It’s true, they are temporary, but I don’t hate cats for living shorter lives.

  2. I don’t know why you are so angry about 8 tracks. My brother in law had one in his 57 Chevy. I listened to a lot of classic rock on 8 tracks. The first time I heard Highway to hell, it was on 8 track. They were crude, but they did work. And BTW, Mr. Sony didn’t invent the Walkman. Tom Shulz did. Know your history.

  3. I have owned hundreds of 8 tracks since the 1970’s. Your description of the problems inherent to 8 track is something I have yet to experience. I have a 1969 Doors 8 track that still plays perfect along with many 1980s Columbia House tapes that still play and have never been serviced. I have played my Madonna 8 tracks to death for 35 years and they still play. Maybe I just got lucky??

  4. Most people that spout off about how terrible 8 tracks are have never even owned a single tape. The kind of people that think a diamond tip riding on piece of plastic will have more longevity, lol

  5. The advantage of the 8 track over the cassette, was selecting a song. The cassettes you had to rewind the whole tape, the 8 track you pushed a button through the tracks to get to your song you wanted.

  6. 8-Track Tapes were NOT rubbish! As with everything in life it was mostly “people” who were responsible for them not working right or correctly. Not keeping your player clean, storing/leaving them in super Hot environments (cars at 100’s of degrees), mishandling them, etc. As others have said, properly maintained & cared for, these Tapes STILL sound & play great today… They were invented by very knowledgeable, super smart engineer type people. (George Eash & Bill Lear with Earl “Madman” Muntz thrown in for measure). People who dismiss them or say they were terrible – have no idea!

  7. I just grabbed some post-Beatles solo stuff for my collection. Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Lennon’s Imagine, Ringo, and McCartney’s Band on the Run.

    If you had the correct tape player, some tapes were mixed in quadraphonic. I had Lennon’s Walls and Bridges in quad. Never should have gotten rid of it, as they are EXPENSIVE on eBay these days.

    I doubt that I will ever get another 8 track player. I will most likely put the tapes on display on a shelf next to my rotary telephones.

    What are those?

    That’s for another discussion.

  8. makes u wanna weep he is going to charge his ipad so he can listen to metallic silky tunes with nothing left in them
    Stereo 8/ 8-Track indeed any analog medium had meat and bones underneath the skin … the digital con only leaves the skin no substance no bass no drums seriously you need to have wax in your ears and not on your turntable to not hear the difference … fat-free music like fat-free food sad reflection on where we have got to collectively ….. it is 2021 and i use only 8-Track and cassettes but the sound is thinner …. I never use CDs and would only use an mp3 player to walk around …. but dude do us a favour talk about what you understand or better even get new ears

  9. Harsh but true. I have just repaired a Sharp 8 track player and the main issue I have had to deal with has not been the player, but the degradation of the components in the cartridge itself. The case, roller, pressure pad plus debris on the tape….all very time consuming to repair. Great fun when it works but trying to buy decent quality old carts off E Bay has proved challenging!