ONE FOR THE ROAD: A SPECIAL EDITION OF THE GREAT CURVE, OR HOW TO GO FROM 12 REVIEWS TO 45 ON THIS PAGE WITH JUST ONE POST, LIKE I’M J.D. BLANKIN’ CONSIDINE
curated by Todd Berryman
This entry goes to a fantasy that I’ve reconstructed repeatedly over the years, and I was somewhat inspired by the Cat Stevens post in THE GREAT CURVE 012 to come back to it, finally, in some sort of official sense, rather than just talking about it with pals. I also remember those extended road trips in my youth, when my dad was in the Air Force, and we could never plant roots for terribly long. So, we’d invariably find ourselves back in an Oldsmobile with an 8-track player, moving to Michigan or Colorado, the strains of Jim Croce’s Photographs and Memories or Elvis’ final album whirring throughout the drive.
The other major inspiration is probably the William Least Heat-Moon book Blue Highways, a must, if you haven’t read it already. Without giving away too much, Blue Highways is about the author’s trip across the country, traveling the backroads and discovering small towns and out-of-the-way places. The catalyst was Heat-Moon’s separation from his wife, along with being laid off from a teaching job. This is when he decided, one spring, to throw himself “into the real jeopardy of circumstance” and take to the road in a Ford Econoline van, and it transcends from a road trip into something a little more spiritual. (It really is a great book, one of my favorites that rewards repeat reads, and so I really strongly encourage you to dive into it.)
As I’ve said in other posts, the thing that always seems to be missing from books is the soundtrack, what got heard. With movies, it’s a different story, but with books you’ll hear about the wind in the trees or the crickets at night, but never something about a compilation of Segovia’s late 1920s recordings playing softly in the background while the man with the cigar sits on the patio and plots the revolution. Now, I don’t necessarily think that William Least Heat-Moon did a lot of music on his drive, it was about the drive more than anything else…actually, I can’t even recall if he mentions playing the radio at all, now that I come to think of it.
For me, this is a fantasy trip built on happier circumstances, a few friends going off to explore the country. You could be heading to the Rocky Mountains, you might be going to minor league baseball games across the land, or looking up pioneer cemeteries, following a jam band, finding the signs on the highway that tell you about historical landmarks, whatever. Maybe we’re in that Ford Econoline van, maybe we’re in a VW Microbus. The destination and the means aren’t the thing, but the journey, and what you’re doing along the way, in the moment, either on your own or with like-minded traveling companions.
And I’m making this trip a little more retro. No smartphone connected by Bluetooth to the stereo, and no playlists for us! Nope. We’re bringing a case full of 8-tracks, three dozen of them to be exact, fueling up the means of transportation, and off we go.
The exercise that helped spawned this happened a few years ago. I started thinking about all those people who talk about their essential 10 albums, or the CDs that had to be in the case on a road trip, and so on. Back in the 80s, it might have been a mini-suitcase with 12 cassettes that always had to be in the car. My version of this was informed by those travels in the 1970s, driving to the next Air Force base with Joplin in Concert playing as we sped through the night, and memories of all the other 8-tracks that were always in the car. There was a certain limitation to storage, as you might have the case with the faux-alligator skin finish that maybe held 15 cartridges, or the vinyl covered one that could hold 36, but you could only have SO MANY. And this was an operation of “comfort food” as well: Mom wouldn’t buy tapes all that frequently, but when she did, they got played to death. I recall three hour trips in which I heard the first Eagles greatest hits album four times, back-to-back. So, what I’m saying is that our tape case took a LONG time to fill up.
I’ve asked variations of this question of friends once every couple of years or so: you’ve got a tape case that can hold 15 (or 24, or 30, or 36, the latter as far as I know being the largest size) 8-tracks. Which albums go with you on the road, the ones that must be there, or things aren’t right with your world?
Along with the limitations imposed by the tape case, you’ve also got limitations from the era. The 8-tracks must be albums that were legitimately released in the format, somewhere in the world, and so there’s a cutoff point where the format wasn’t being made anymore. This is why there’s not much classical in my list, as some manufacturers never did much with that genre on 8-track, not that they sold terribly well in the first place (jazz, depending on the label and time frame, however, had some fair representation, and some big lions got in, surprisingly). Also, mixtapes on 8-track don’t count; this presumes that you could go into a record store in the late 1960s/1970s/early 1980s and grab this tape right off the shelf, take it to your car and start playing it immediately.
What I’ve done is selected tapes that I feel would wear well with repeated plays, albums and artists and songs that have generally held up for me in other formats, and that bear returning for more listening. Because of the limited space, I also decided to make sure that each of these was the equivalent of a two-record set on each tape, so there would be more music available at any given time (this includes three multi-tape sets in this list, in which each individual cartridge will equal at least two full-length vinyl albums). In the cases of artists represented more than once – the Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones specifically – there’s no overlap in songs, very much by design, from one of their albums to another. (There is, however, an occasional song overlap from those artists, plus Otis Redding and the Kinks, into a various artists collection below, which by its very nature is unavoidable in this case. Read on for more.)
There are certain albums that were left behind, also by design. Although there’s much to be said for the famous Beatles “red” and “blue” collections from 1973, these were issued as two-tape sets in the U.S., which doesn’t help with the “real estate” problem (although they were issued as single tapes in the United Kingdom; I have a Beatles album in this list, but it’s a little more wide open in terms of the song selection…more to come on that). Likewise with the self-titled album from 1968, aka “The White Album” – this was also issued on two tapes (again, different in the United Kingdom). Pink Floyd’s The Wall was not included because it doesn’t match up with the vinyl, in that it’s shorter, and the edit that was done actually changes the meaning of the album. To explain: the beginning of the 8-track is missing the ambient intro and the “we came in?” at the opening, and the end of the album is missing the ambient outro, and the line “Is this where…” with the abrupt ending. The Wall is meant to be understood as a cyclical work, in that the protagonist will be returning to this mindset, and so with those almost unnecessary edits – “due to mechanical limitations, this tape cartridge program has been edited to a shorter length than the disc version,” my ass; the label routinely issued albums that were much longer than The Wall, and had been doing it for YEARS – I can’t in good conscience bring it along for the trip, because it’s a not-quite-right version of the concept album. (Also, it’s damned depressing.) Likewise Willie Nelson’s Willie and Family Live, which had songs shortened for inclusion, again when it wasn’t really needed, and Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, with songs dropped outright.
These are albums I’ve enjoyed, and many are here to explicitly acknowledge different friends. I won’t identify them here for the sake of not embarassing them, and also because I want you along for the ride, and if you see yourself in one of these picks…you’re right. 🙂
There’s a lot of great stuff in one place here, and this collection runs almost three times the length of Otis’ original studio releases, which often clocked in around a half-hour. I might quibble with a couple of the song picks, but by and large this is a fine representation of what I like about Otis Redding. This man’s ballads can be more intense than most performers’ uptempo work. Reason enough for its inclusion in the “top shelf” slot in the case, the number one go-to. (One song overlaps another entry, detailed below.)
Literally one of the best live albums ever recorded. Van, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, no retakes, no doctoring, no fixes. Although some favorites are missed, what’s here is so above and beyond that I don’t care.
A recompiling of work done for the Verve label, about five records’ worth of stuff on vinyl in the late 1950s, nicely caught in two 8-tracks here, on a label owned by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Pretty much any of Ella’s Songbook albums from the era would work – I was seriously looking at the Rodgers and Hart 8-track, but that was missing seven songs from the original sequence (the same reason I kicked Belafonte at Carnegie Hall to the curb). A rare example here of a jazz album done for 8-track, again reason enough to represent, because you can’t be balls-out rock every minute of the trip.
One of my albums I return to as “music to do good work by,” having been used during research papers, final projects in college, and so on. On the road, this is one of those 8-tracks that comes out when I find myself deep in traffic and I’m trying not to stress out.
Wow, we’ve established an entire decade’s worth of superstars on the basis of the first three years of the decade? Okay, then. 🙂
Actually, to be fair, this is a pretty well-thought out compilation of music. On vinyl, it was a four-record set, by and large meant to highlight the artists under the Warner Communications umbrella (musicians appearing on Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Elektra, Asylum and a few others), plus a couple from RCA. And it isn’t quite all seventies music, a couple of things are definitely late sixties. It’s a good cross-section of what you’d hear on FM radio at the time. The album moved quite a few copies for a four-record set, in part because of where it was sold: less in record stores, more in drugstores and grocery stores. Trying to reissue this collection in the present would be murder due to the licensing issues, which are now much more scattered. (There are five song overlaps from this collection to four other 8-tracks in this list due to the breadth of the song selection, but I figure context is everything, anyway.)
This was put together and released without the inclusion of the title track from the FM soundtrack, which is the only major shortfall (although along with changing that out with one specific song in the lineup, I’d also consider swapping a couple of the lesser disco-era tracks to put in “Deacon Blues” in their place, given an option). But what’s here is fine, and bumped up a notch for the inclusion of the excellent “Here at the Western World” (unavailable on any original issue album).
I first saw live footage from this show when I was a 12-year-old, and I started to get why people were so into Neil Young. The two 8-tracks of Decade (a three-record-set on vinyl, so although at least one of the 8-tracks isn’t a double album as such, it’s at least longer than standard) would be good if this one wasn’t available…although I might have difficulty figuring out what OTHER 8-track in this case would have to be dropped to make room for it.
You always hear people going on about the “muddiness” of the mix on Exile on Main St. It’s an assessment, I should note, that I don’t agree with. But if it’s muddy to you, then there shouldn’t be any format quibbles over this one. 🙂 (Two songs overlap Superstars of the 70s above.)
I hesitated to include this one, only because so many of these songs have become such overplayed warhorses over the years, but for completeness’ sake and to pair it with More Hot Rocks, this one comes aboard. (Also, I’d hate to leave “Wild Horses” behind, and since we’re not bringing Sticky Fingers with us…)
The vinyl version of this one is a little more logically programmed, with the blues-leaning early songs and rarities put on one side of the four, and a couple of single B-sides floating about, although the overall chronology is a bit peculiar. Here, things are a bit more shuffled than that, but it surprisingly makes for a more interesting listening experience to have the older AM-friendly stuff and the progressive-FM stuff even more intertwined. It’s like channel surfing on the radio, but on one 8-track.
The Beatles’ more rockist sensibility here. (A companion volume, Love Songs, came out a year later.) There’s an overlap in this set of maybe a fourth of the songs into the “red” (1962-1966) and “blue” (1967-1970) collections that were issued in 1973. A few things set this one apart, one being that it isn’t “all about the hits” here, in fact a large number of these songs were never issued as singles on either side of the pond, so it’s often about album tracks that shouldn’t have been missed, or got radio play but never showed up on a 45. Another is the mix differences, as George Martin did a little remix work on this collection, so the songs don’t always sound exactly the same as their 1960s counterparts (closer listening reveals that the stereo image is reversed compared to the original releases). Finally, where the “red” and “blue” collections were all about the Beatles as songwriters, this has a disproportionately large number of cover versions, the largest since the original UK Beatles for Sale album…and with the recent (as of this writing in March 2017) loss of Chuck Berry, it’s nice to have “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” on hand somewhere nearby.
Concept albums can be tricky on 8-track, in part because they can’t be resequenced without destroying their meaning. This one (and another coming up in the list) are solid in this format, because the running order hasn’t been doctored. (I also enjoy this one more than Tommy, in part because when it’s ON, which is more often than not, it rocks better, and harder, and the songs can often stand up better on their own.)
One of the two shortest “double albums” on this list, clocking in around 65 minutes. (The other is Exile on Main St. from the Rolling Stones, which comes in around two minutes longer.) This is another one where the sequence has been altered somewhat, but it may actually work better in places. “Jimmy Jazz” appearing during the long dark teatime of the soul in the middle of the album is a nice breather, compared to the middle of Side 1 of the vinyl. This one’s also included because of its relative rarity.
Rock means nothing if you don’t have a sense of the history, which the Clash certainly had, which is why London Calling works so well…and so, now to this. A nice, long collection of oldies, and by the time it’s done, you find you’re much further down the road than you expected. Conversely, during those stuck in traffic moments? That many songs at once could lead to the driver feeling homicidal. 🙂
From one graffiti to another. Possibly winning the award for “stupidest album title” in my book – I mean, I don’t exactly get WHAT Jimmy Page was thinking with it – but the music’s still pretty damned great. And at least there’s not a title track, so there’s that.
The slight bit of resequencing that pulls the instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” up to the end of Program 2 on the 8-track may actually make the album better, as it signs off the first half with a nice acoustic coda, before embarking on the rest of it. Kinda gives it the “Little Martha” feel before you hurtle on into “Mountain Jam” on the CD version of Eat a Peach, if you get my meaning. Speaking of that…
Another case where the doctored sequence may help. For one thing, prior to the advent of the CD, this was the only way to really get the shorter songs in one place – the opening half – and then the epic live “Mountain Jam” to complete the album. (On vinyl, “Mountain Jam” was split across Sides 2 and 4.) Also, the juggling ends up putting the sadder or more restrained material toward the top, and then the optimism of Program 2 sets up everything else. Another thing to note is that because this is an 8-track, “Mountain Jam” divides differently; on the vinyl, the first 20 minutes roll on Side 2, and the last 15 close the album. (The opening song here overlaps Superstars of the 70s above.)
The Allman Brothers Band
At Fillmore East (1971)
Another one of the greatest live albums ever, although granted there’s a hell of a long chasm at the end of Programs 3 and 4. On Eat a Peach, it makes an odd sort of sense to have the long gap on Program 4, because it’s the last you hear of Duane Allman, and so a moment of silence is highly appropriate. Here…I know it’s a technical limitation, and they don’t want to fade in and fade out all the time, but I’d have been tempted to flip 3 and 4 just to make it less HUGE. (Something interesting to note here: this is back when their record label’s parent company didn’t have its own manufacturing facilities for tape formats, and so this edition was made by Ampex instead.)
If we’re talking about great live albums, this one probably needs to be somewhere in the case, too. Granted, the occasional interruption going from program to program isn’t thrilling, but when you’re talking about songs of this length, what ELSE do you do? Included primarily because this version of “Dark Star” is optimal driving music, when it hits the zone. (Another one here from when Warner Brothers didn’t make its own tapes, and so this tape was made by Columbia. Notice the similarity in fonts to the Miles Davis 8-track above?)
May as well include the third one of the bands that appeared at Watkins Glen, I suppose. (That music festival also had the Allmans and the Dead.) This one isn’t quite a cheat: it’s a Canadian edition of the 8-track. I’ve also seen a version from the United Kingdom that’s configured the same way. The reason I’ve picked this edition over the U.S. release is that our version is on two cartridges, rather unnecessarily. Sure, I’m giving up that gorgeous front cover photo in color – still one of my favorite album covers – but I can live with that here. It’s not like I’d be able to look at the cover art while it’s in the player, anyway.
Since Jethro Tull won the first award for Heavy Metal Album at the Grammys in 1988, this should serve nicely as a token “hard rock” album. 🙂 (I’m reasonably sure that Quadrophenia and a couple of others are more intense…)
More honestly, this is a fine collection of primarily singles and a couple of album tracks, plus one extended play, all in one place. It’s a nice stand-in, if a little loosely, for a greatest hits album, which wouldn’t happen for a couple years anyway. (And it handily puts everything together, bringing us up to speed on stuff that didn’t make it onto albums before.)
Oh, what a lovely collection in this one! 28 songs, a good number not on any other album, occasionally a different mix here and there…and I’d really like to have “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset” in easy reach on the road. One of those collections that’s not quite a greatest hits, but such a wide swath of their best work that the hits aren’t ever really missed, in this case. (One song overlaps from this collection to Superstars of the 70s above.)
Joni Mitchell in transition. Although I liked the L.A. Express well enough as the backing ensemble for her prior live album Miles of Aisles, I found I didn’t really enjoy listening to the album as a whole all that much. By this point, six years later, her band for this show included people that, if not already legendary, were ABOUT to be. Guitarist Pat Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays were on loan from the Pat Metheny Group, and the band also featured Jaco Pastorius (who worked with her on Heijira, one of my two favorite studio albums by Mitchell) on bass, Don Alias on drum kit (and man, does he BRING THE NOISE here, really goosing the rhythm in a way the studio takes of these songs often didn’t hit) and Michael Brecker on sax.
This is probably the least user-friendly album in the tape case. Produced by Frank Zappa, this is a unique listening experience, for reasons enumerated better by others elsewhere. But it’ll damn sure keep you awake in Kansas. Langdon Winner probably had the last word on this album in his essay for the book Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, where he said “if one is to enjoy Trout Mask Replica…two major obstacles must be overcome: its music and its lyrics.” Bear in mind, he likes the album. And it’s not a bad album, far from it in fact. It is a difficult album, but ultimately rewarding in the same way that Tom Waits’ work can be. After hearing it, nothing else sounds quite the same again. (This is another one made by Columbia Records for a Warner Brothers-distributed label: again, note the font similarity to Miles Davis earlier in this list.)
I had considered including The Essential Jimi Hendrix in this space – more hits, you know, and a representation of more albums – but I’d be missing too much stuff from this album too hard, especially “1983” (which was the whole reason I had it on vinyl in the first place). This is probably the one 8-track I had the most reservations about, for that reason. Depending on my riding companions, I might consider switching that one, with some reluctance. (Another one made by Ampex, on behalf of Warner/Reprise this time.)
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)
Put together by Lenny Kaye (who later played in the Patti Smith Group), this is garage rock – mostly – at its best, or at least one angle of it. This basically serves the same function as the American Graffiti soundtrack above, just a decade down the line. What we’ve got here is a collection of one-hit wonders, although there are roots of bigger things hiding out in here as well, such as Todd Rundgren as part of the Nazz…oh, and here are the Remains, the opener from the Beatles’ last concert tour. It’s effectively a “singles” collection that functions as a concept album of sorts, a nice trick. I don’t love every single thing here, every time I play it, but I treasure the experience when I do. (This is another one made by a different company on behalf of the original rights holder, which was Elektra Records for the vinyl. Interestingly, the cover art’s changed from the original, and the record label acting as middle man is Sire Records, I’m sure due to some legal complications having to do with the format change and licensing, although this is a hunch on my part – there IS an Elektra 8-track from approximately the same era, so I’m not certain. To be honest, I’ve included the image of the GRT/Sire version because, unlike the Elektra, it listed the artists that go with the songs, and I would assume it’s probably more rare. Also, it should be noted that Sire was eventually distributed, then owned, by Warner Communications around the middle of the decade.)
One of my big regrets is that Warner Brothers never issued their Loss Leaders various artists samplers on 8-track (the double albums you’d see advertised on the sleeves for albums you’d buy from the company, about $2 a throw). This will do, then. It’s a nice cross-section of various pop/rock/blues artists from the early 1970s from Columbia’s label group, serving as a more esoteric version of the Superstars of the 70s collections above, as there aren’t many “hits” here. But what’s here is pretty solid.
Including best-ever versions of “After Midnight” (aside from J.J. Cale; I mean here that I can pass on any other approach that Clapton’s taken to the song) and “Blues Power” (which is long AND driving, which is a nice metaphor for what we’re doing in this little fantasy in the first place), plus tunes on loan from Dire Straits and Don Williams, this may be his ultimate live expression, quite probably better than any other live album from E.C., prior or later. It hits all the notes: his blues, his rock, his country-rock, his ballads, and does all of them equal justice…he isn’t sleepwalking through any of these songs. (And, since he recorded it live at Budokan, and the title Live at Budokan had already been taken by other performers, Just One Night it became, because producer Jon Astley recorded two nights of shows at the venue, but genuinely only ended up using performances from one.)
Another prime example of the interpreter’s art. I first heard this album on vinyl in 1975, from an original pressing, and it stuck early. The cast of musicians on this 8-track is practically a who’s-who of the scene, and, as in the Joni Mitchell live one above, if these musicians weren’t famous THEN, they were soon about to be. With Leon Russell leading the band, you’ve also got the rhythm section from Derek and the Dominos, the horn guys that would light up some of the Rolling Stones’ best stuff, and a vocal ensemble including Rita Coolidge.
Since we’re on interpreters, Rod Stewart’s another example of a guy who’s done distinctive versions of other performer’s songs. He doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the originals, but puts his own idiosyncratic spin on them (although the uncredited-as-Faces backing band on the Temptations cover might actually make that performance an exception, because it’s such a great workout). This collection overlaps seven songs from Sing It Again, Rod, a favorite 8-track of my mom’s early on, and includes a couple of single B-sides that didn’t appear on a full-length album. It also beats the compact disc by virtue of the fact that it includes the unedited versions of two songs (the vinyl and cassette also using the longer ones).
The “second half,” issued about six months after the first, the two collections appearing before (April) and after (November) the album A Night on the Town (June) for his new record label, which amazingly didn’t kill its sales. This half grabs the other five songs from the Sing It Again, Rod running order, adds a few more covers and some good album tracks in another context, but nothing that hadn’t appeared on another album. Between this and the first volume, you pretty much get everything worth having from his Mercury era recordings. (Having said that, if Faces had a good double-album anthology on 8-track, I’d probably drop both of these.)
This album is the definition by some lights of “platinum turkey” – meaning an album that does go platinum, but doesn’t sell as much or succeed the way a record label might hope. Regardless, it’s my favorite full-length by the band, not the least of which is for the album closer “Never Forget” by Christine McVie, which gets props from me as my all-time favorite Fleetwood Mac song. (If my pal Jason, who’s also quite fond of it, asked me to spin Program 4 again, I’d be likely to.)
Also, “Storms” is the sound of Stevie Nicks at the end of her rope, easily one of the most quietly intense performing/listening experiences in her repertoire. Some have said that Lindsey Buckingham under-produced her material in the aftermath of their breakup, but you couldn’t prove that to me by this song.
Minimal resequencing between Program 2, 3 and 4, versus the vinyl, with three of the Buckingham songs switching positions, which seems to make Side 3 especially stronger by giving it more of a “heart of darkness” in the running order.
As I said regarding Quadrophenia above, usually concept albums don’t work terribly well on 8-track. This one, the last album by Genesis to feature Peter Gabriel as vocalist, thwarts that expectation somewhat. The songs that rock, rock. And people like Jeff Buckley found it worthwhile enough to cover a song from it, and sometimes you need a little movie in the middle of the road trip, so this will do for me. (Also, seeing Bruce Springsteen at Hammersmith Odeon was what pulled the pin for Peter Gabriel to decide it was time to leave the band, the fortunes of both the band and its vocalist soon improving…this was probably the last really pretentious thing they ever did, on either side, and it was still better than most of the band’s earliest work.)
If you’re not familiar with the ensemble, the listing of songs above can occasionally look light, but look again, and remember that John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were known for occasionally taking lightweight fare and turning in inside out, because it’s all about the power of a good melody regardless of source. Plus it’ll be nice to have a copy of “Bags’ Groove” somewhere in easy reach.
So, if the road trip’s a little shorter, heading somewhere closer by, not wandering the whole country, you may understandably say, come ON, Todd, certainly you can make this a shorter list.
Man, just like going home. Even used a paper clip to open it, just like one of those diaries with a lock when you’d lose the key. (My aunt Rita also had an 8-track case like this, I wonder if that’s how she learned the same trick.)
All right, the 15 essentials from the list above would include the following:
1) The Best of Otis Redding
2) Van Morrison It’s Too Late to Stop Now
3) Miles Davis Bitches Brew
4) Neil Young Live Rust
5) The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St.
6) The Who Quadrophenia
7) The Clash London Calling
8) American Graffiti soundtrack
9) The Allman Brothers Band Eat a Peach
10) Bob Dylan and the Band Before the Flood
11) Joni Mitchell Shadows and Light
12) Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band Trout Mask Replica
13) Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968
14) Eric Clapton Just One Night
15) Fleetwood Mac Tusk