THE GREAT CURVE 014
curated by Todd Berryman
We’ll go for a pause in the typical action, and actually do another thought experiment. Fair disclosure: this is a slightly modified version of something I wrote about in a Facebook post about three years ago, and it goes hand-in-hand with last week’s “you’ve got limited space, which 8-track tapes would you take on a road trip?” post.
This time, it goes to a mixtape. I did a LOT of cassette mixtapes back in the day…so this time, we go to another level of difficulty. (With a nod to online pal Emily, who embraced the idea and ran with it, too.)
A Blank 8 Track Made by Capitol Records (ca. 1975?)
Most of the mixtapes I came up with back in the day (which is to say, mid-1980s up to about 2009, when I still had a deck in the car) were on cassettes. 90 minutes to 110 minutes of space was a perfect form to let loose with a fantasy two-record-set’s worth of stuff on occasion.
In a different era, though, I would have been spinning them out in THIS format, 8-tracks, instead. It wouldn’t have been straight dubs of albums, but combinations of singles and b-sides and great album tracks. I’m still thinking about this myself, but what would you put on your 8-track? And, in that old grade-school adage, SHOW YOUR WORK. (Which means: put up a playlist, ’cause I’m curious…but read on, first.)
In other words, to avoid that pesky “click” of a program change making a hash out of some of my songs, I’m actually trying to time this out so that they all fit in the allotted space on the tape, with no cutoffs or interruptions. More on that shortly…
The picture here is of the longest 8-track cartridge I’ve ever seen. Each program runs a half-hour. What songs are the essentials for you? If you bought this blank 8-track on eBay and wanted to make the perfect tape with EVERY essential song from your life on it, what would be on it, and why? And where would you put the songs, so they’d be in the perfect sequence, with no Part 1/Part 2 breaks in the songs?
Or, if you like, a change of fantasy, somewhat: if you could record all the important songs from across your lifetime on this tape, and then send them BACK in time so your younger self could listen to them, what would make the cut? And would your younger self like the material at first? This is one I’m still working out, myself, in terms of the “time-travel” aspect. Would me at age 7, or 12, GET this music that I’m into now, or would I be completely thrown by it? I hope the former.
First, I am aware that there are many people who’ve never experienced the format (I can say with some measure of certainty that if you were born after, say, 1980, this probably was something you never lived with), so let’s describe how it works. You probably already understand the functions of a regular cassette: two sides. Play one, flip to the other. You can fast forward and rewind, and pause.
In the case of 8-track, instead of Sides 1 and 2, you have the tape that runs in a continuous loop, which means you can’t rewind it. Think of it like this: you have a tape with four “sides” of equal length. If it was a 90 minute tape, each program would run 22 1/2 minutes. With the tape that I have pictured above, each program would run for a half hour (120 minutes, divided by 4).
The other thing is that each “side” is playing, from beginning to end, all at the same time. You are playing four different audio programs simultaneously (although only one is audible), with no chance to return and hear something you really liked, without going all the way around the tape again. When the next program starts, the tape cues to the beginning, with a piece of silver foil covering the splice, which is what makes the famous click sound, and jumps to the next slate of music. When Program 4 completes, the tape goes back to the beginning, Program 1, and starts over.
To illustrate this a little better, let’s show you one of these things with the hood open, so to speak.
Okay, so now that you can see the process a bit better, I’ll describe it. The “endless loop” of tape runs clockwise inside this cartridge, with the exposed tape facing the heads (that exposed tape is visible in the back/top of this image) and a roller on the top right of the cartridge, which helps pull the tape along. Now, once it goes by the heads, the roller pulls it back into the cartridge, and the tape gets added back on the outside edge of the big reel inside the tape, from the right. When the tape finds its way into the inside of the reel, it basically slips from the hub, and goes to the left, to the exposed section mentioned earlier. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So you can see the side of the tape facing the inside of the deck, with the exposed tape, here’s another perspective on an 8-track cartridge…and you can also see a bit of design similarity with the cassette.
You can now see why 8-track, with the slipping tape on the reel, can be a bit impractical, if one plays a tape a lot more than average use, in a warm player, in a warm car, especially in one sitting, again and again and again (that’s how my mother was with 8-tracks, and to be fair, a lot of people were). Eventually, the lubricated backside of the tape will start to wear, and that lubrication is what allows the tape to slip out from the inside of the pack as part of the playback mechanism. When it wears out enough, it will start to jam, and sound like it’s warbling when heard over the speakers. And there are other impracticalities, such as the same factors of heat and wear causing the sensing foil’s adhesive to loosen, which means the tape breaks at the splice and won’t play (although this is fairly easy to fix, with a little know-how). The bigger concern goes to the quality of the tape stock IN the cartridge, as some tape turned out to not wear as well as some others.
Now, there are still 8-tracks around, obviously, because not everyone left them in hot cars, or played them over and over and over in three-hour bursts, every time they were in the car. Some of them perform just as well as if they were new, but that again is dependent on the quality of the tape loaded in the cartridge itself.
So, now to the recording of a mixtape. I’ve timed these out in such a way that no song would be interrupted by a program change, and the dreaded “click” sound, or wouldn’t require a fade to go from one program to the other. I wanted the songs to play to completion within a given program. The times listed only reflect the length of the music, and so the songs would be dubbed – for the most part – with minimal pauses at best. Most prerecorded albums on 8-track that were not concept albums or concert recordings would generally have about a three-second gap between songs, but I dispensed with that as not entirely necessary. I’d rather have more music than silence. However, on the example below, note that Program Two would need to have a little more silence between songs simply to avoid a 12-second gap at the end of the program.
Here’s what I came up with:
PROGRAM ONE (29:54):
UNCLE TUPELO “D. Boon” (from Still Feel Gone)
THE MINUTEMEN “Corona” (from Double Nickels on the Dime)
IRON AND WINE WITH CALEXICO “He Lays in the Reins” (from In the Reins)
SOUL COUGHING “Soft Serve” (from Irresistible Bliss)
THE BAND “Jawbone” (from The Band)
THE BEATLES “It Won’t Be Long” (from Meet the Beatles)
DIRE STRAITS “Portobello Belle” (from Communiqué)
ARETHA FRANKLIN “Think” (original 1968 version from Aretha Now)
PAT METHENY “Into the Dream” (from Trio -> Live)
PROGRAM TWO (29:48):
HELMET “Like I Care” (from Aftertaste)
OTIS REDDING “Respect” -> “I Can’t Turn You Loose” (from Live in Europe)
BIG JOHN PATTON “Latona” (from Let ‘Em Roll)
XTC “Summer’s Cauldron” -> “Grass” (from Skylarking)
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN “Flowers” (from Key Lime Pie)
NRBQ “Some Kind of Blues” (from Grooves in Orbit)
PROGRAM THREE (29:58):
TALK TALK “After the Flood” (from Laughing Stock)
BOB DYLAN “Shelter from the Storm” (from Blood on the Tracks)
THE COURT AND SPARK “Rooster Mountain” -> “National Lights” (from Bless You)
STEVE REICH “Electric Counterpoint, Movement 3” (from Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint)
PROGRAM FOUR (29:57):
THE HANG UPS “Jump Start” (album version, from He’s After Me)
CROWDED HOUSE “As Sure As I Am” (from Woodface)
SUZANNE VEGA “99.9F” (title track)
STEELY DAN “FM” (title track from soundtrack)
THE DB’S “Change with the Changing Times” (from The Sound of Music)
VAN MORRISON “Like a Cannonball” (from Tupelo Honey)
SUN KIL MOON “Carry Me Ohio” (from Ghosts of the Great Highway)
THE WATERBOYS “When Ye Go Away” (from Fisherman’s Blues)
The Dire Straits song kept me from doing something really stupid and desperate in my teens.
The XTC pair did much the same when I was 20.
The Aretha selection was one that I fell in love with at age 5, hearing it thanks to an older aunt who gave me a whole slew of abandoned albums from her attic.
The Dylan came to me on an 8-track, in my aunt’s 1974 Ford Pinto, playing one day on a drive to the county fair, one steamy July day in 1980. I went from not having any interest in that particular performer to being entranced.
The Band and NRBQ take me back to junior year of college at ISU.
The Otis Redding tracks are a callback to my days of wage in a record store. Nick Hornby, in a collection of essays called Songbook, wrote about the fact that so many of his favorite songs have come up again and again in different contexts, that now the songs only remind him of themselves, and how loved they are. That’s true for all of the above for me, between different romances, work situations, friendships, visits to museums, magical nights with friends, you name it. They all speak of many great things.
Effectively, these are songs that I know have held up over repeated playings overall, with a few internal themes to tie them together. For example, on Program One: “D. Boon” by Uncle Tupelo leads it off, followed by “Corona” by the Minutemen (D. Boon being one of the band members), followed by “He Lays in the Reins” by Iron and Wine with Calexico (Calexico covered “Corona” on an EP). The themes, such as they are, were more for my own amusement than anything else. The sequence is designed so that the songs will all sound really good in this order. If I had to take this tape to a desert island and it was all I had, I could live with every one of these choices. (Although I also picked songs from a few favorite albums, so if I had songs that ran long or short, I could replace a little more easily.)
There were a few rules that I set myself: 1) An artist could only be represented twice if he wasn’t the “title artist” – as in, if he guested on someone else’s album, he could appear again. That happened with Pat Metheny, who’s also playing on the Steve Reich piece. 2) Alternately, an artist could appear in two songs provided that they came as a natural coupling from the source album. “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass” by XTC segued together in the SKYLARKING album, and one doesn’t really work without the other. 3) No song could occupy the same position from its original album. In other words, if it was the first song on its album side, it had to come up somewhere else in any given program sequence.
Does that make any sense at all? It’s kind of hard to explain, if you’ve never really lived it. If it helps you get a lock on it, make your list of essentials, make sure you’ve got four lists, and each list runs no longer than a half hour. I hope that helps…
Anyway, it’s a nice little way to reconsider your favorite music, that means of sending a sonic letter or diary entry of sorts into one’s past, a variation of the desert island question: you’ve got two hours to play with on a vintage blank 8-track, to compile some music that you know you can’t live without. What do you pick?
If you’d like to share images or your own show-your-work playlist, or even your own explanations for choices, whatever you like, I’d like to hear from you. Drop yours as a comment to this article, or as an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or as a personal message here…and if we’re not already friends on Facebook, maybe now’s the time. 🙂