The Quadraphonic 8-Track Tape Format

I once viewed a 1999 documentary entitled "So Wrong They're Right," about the eccentric people who collect and maintain old, Seventies-era 8-track format tapes and tape players. (I was astonished to learn that 8-tracks were still being manufactured as late as 1988!)

I quite enjoyed it - but find myself at complete odds with the people who maintain that the old 8-track format is superior to CDs.

I embraced the quadraphonic revolution in 1972 when it came my way and bought a Sanyo quad receiver, quad 8-track tape player and four big bookshelf speakers. The system was located in the den.

In 1975 I also had a Sanyo FT862 quadraphonic 8-track player in my VW Beetle (at left), which I installed myself. The front speakers were in the front doors and the rear speakers were in the side panels of the back seat. Anyway, I was listening to a quad recording of Deep Purple's "Machine Head," one of the great recordings from the 70's. The bass in "Highway Star" was thumping furiously away on its own channel in the back seat and I was getting immersed in the music as only a nineteen year-old could. Then the inevitable happened: snarrrrllllll, grinnnddd, halt, tear.

8-track: the industry's only really self-destructing tape format.

As I happened to be passing by Warner Brothers in Burbank when it happened, I pulled over, yanked about thirty feet of tape out of the cartridge and flung it at Warner Brothers' headquarters in protest. (Deep Purple recorded for Warner Brothers Records.) It sailed across West Olive Avenue, a plastic case with a thirty-foot streamer, and landed on the grass where I hoped record executives would walk by.

A Machine Head quadraphonic 8-track was sold via on e-Bay for $18.01 - once again proving P.T. Barnum's famous quote about the birthrate of the gullible.

Having related a bad 8-track experience I shall relate a good one, involving the very same Sanyo 8-track player. It was with a different tape, however: a quad Columbia Masterworks "Wagner Overtures" cartridge. I was listening to it very late one night on Route 66, somewhere in Texas, making my way back to California from Sheppard AFB. In particular I was listening to the "Der Meistersinger von Nuremberg" overture, brasses blaring and kettledrums pounding all around me. As I was growing sleepy and my eyelids began to droop, I began to suppose that instead of merely piloting a Volkswagen Beetle along a two lane farm road at top speed (perhaps 70 miles an hour), I was Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Boulez, conducting the New York Philharmonic. It was heavenly. Then I snapped to, rolled down the windows and forced myself to stay awake until the next hotel.

Another quad recording I liked was the 1973 Pierre Boulez/New York Philharmonic recording of Bela Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra," which was especially recorded for quad, with various instruments spread 360 degrees around the conductor. (See LP cover image below.) I liked the lonely little tam-tam drum that ushered in the second movement, off in the corner of the back seat.

Oh, and I liked my "Bread's Greatest Hits" 8-track. From this I learned to imitate the "bwwwaahhhhhwaahhhwaahhhwaahhhwahhhh" guitar sound that is a feature of the opening of their song "If" (which appears in all of the arrangements of it that I have ever heard). I still do it on demand, or to annoy.

When my parents bought their 1979 Mercury Grand Marquis I was amazed to find that it came with a quadraphonic 8-track player. Better yet, it included a Ford demo cartridge - with an especially obnoxious disco version of the Star Wars theme. When Mom died in 1995 I inherited the Mercury, and shortly before selling it gave some of the dusty - no, make that dirty - 8-tracks in the trunk a run for old time's sake. Not surprisingly, many of them jammed.

The only other 8-track story I have is with a quad remix of the Blue Oyster Cult's "Secret Treaties." In the song "Dominance and Submission," the baritone voice that repeats the phrase "radios appear" was mixed so that it appeared on one back channel with nothing else. It was fun to turn down the volume on the other three channels and play only that, supposing that a member of the BOC was crammed into my back seat, chanting.

When I got to Camp Pendleton and tired of repairing 8-tracks, I traded my Sanyo to a fellow Marine for a Petri 35 mm camera - an exceptionally good deal, as I took many good pictures with the Petri and still have it!

Looking back on it, I guess the quadraphonic 8-track was kind of fun after all! - I have to admit, I like number one of the "8 Noble Truths of the 8-Track Mind": "State of the art is in the mind of the beholder."

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