This Day in Music, September 15: Eight-Track Tapes Were Rubbish

By , Contributor

On this day in 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 favorite tunes while you were jogging, on the bus/train, back of Dad's car, school playground.

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.

!B9QJp9!Bmk~$(KGrHqMOKjMEzKOGE8KJBM5Q8c,9dg~~_35.JPGAnyway, enough, back to the eight-tracks. My first job was working in a very large record shop, well before the invention of the compact disc. We sold music on 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, 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 collectible because of the low numbers that were produced! Among the most rare 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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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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