8 TRACK RHAPSODY – Gary Genosko

Cultural historians of the formats and associated technologies of pre-recorded popular music do not look kindly upon the 8-track tape. Fortunately, many disparaging reflections are perfused with factually erroneous and selectively incomplete descriptions, not to mention wildly hyperbolic dismissals that put into relief the high fidelity prejudice that shapes much writing on music and technology. Tapes (cassettes and 8-tracks), as the story goes, are plagued by inherent sounds like hiss and the cartridges themselves create no end of squeals, clicks, rumbles… . They are also unmixable (Malsky, 2003). Since 8-track tapes relied on a metallic splice to enable program changes, most manuals warned against repair work that might spread ‘magnetic particles on the tape’ through use of a tool (i.e., razor blade or utility knife) that was not properly demagnetized; the results are described as ‘an annoying click’ (Ritter, 1975: 24). We are clearly far beyond the introduction of mere dust, of the plastic or oxide variety. 8-track tapes attracted and housed a range of debris because of the rubber or plastic pinch roller which, like a rollerball on a computer mouse, gathers dirt, but unlike a rollerball profited immensely from light lubrication, applied manually. Regular maintenance helped prolong the life of an 8-track.

Consider, for example, a fairly typical version of the 8-track’s inferiority. In the late 1970s 8-tracks were on their last legs. Cassette tapes were making major inroads into the music marketplace in a battle over tape formats in which the introduction of the SONY Walkman in 1979 played a significant, some think decisive, role. As Mark Coleman maintains, the Walkman broke the more-or-less equal sales enjoyed by the two aforementioned formats, but the death knell of the 8-track had sounded. Coleman concludes:

Today, the 8-track format is fondly recalled as a relic of smiley face seventies kitsch, about as practical as a pair of men’s platform shoes. Conceived by William Lear, inventor of the Lear Jet, the 8-track cartridge contains a continuous-loop tape with four sets of paired stereo tracks. Beginning in 1966, the Ford Motor Company installed Motorola 8-track players in its cars as a luxury option. In an exclusive software deal, RCA offered hundreds of prerecorded selections for the new machines to play back. The success of the 8-track format (by 1975, it accounted for 25% of all prerecorded music sales) must be attributed to the automobile. Convenient for drivers owing to its size and shape, an 8-track tape could be inserted and removed with one hand while driving. Tellingly, this awkward format never caught on outside the car-crazed United States. Despite a generous total playing time of one hour, the 8-track automatically switched from one pair of stereo tracks to the next, which means glaring interruptions in the middle of a song. Also, a selection couldn’t be repeated without running through the entire tape. There was no fast forward or rewind, which meant 8-track tapes didn’t manually cue as a cassette did, and while the sound quality couldn’t compare to vinyl LPs, it sure beat cassettes, at least for the time being. (2003:157-58)

This litany of criticisms and complaints rehearsed by Coleman need to be met. After all, he raises a number of salient historical, technical, socio-cultural and aesthetic points. This is one of the tasks of this paper. But this paper is not merely a defense of the 8-track format. I do not intend to meet Coleman head-on. One obvious reason is that 8-tracks excel in the display of an impressive range of flaws and inflexibilities. There is no defense of 8-tracks on the basis of technical, that is, high-definition sound reproduction. The cartridge itself also presented a minefield of problems. This is why the repair and replacement parts industry played – and still plays – a significant role in 8-track culture. Ingenuity on the ground with regard to tapes and hardware has always been part of the 8-track mind. And isn’t part of the mythos of turntablism that early rappers like Grandmaster Flash repaired and cobbled together unstable equipment that gave rise to scratch and sampling (Toop, 2000)? Why deny this golden history to other subcultures organized around low-tech media like 8-tracks?

My goal is to wax rhapsodic, rather than philosophic, about the 8-track on the grounds of its flaws and, in so doing, reinsert it, if you will, into other contexts and practices that allow some of its commonly denigrated dimensions to acquire new, positive senses – more positive than Coleman’s claim that 8-tracks were momentarily better than cassettes (the introduction of noise reduction technologies like Dolby changed this). I am not writing, then, a corrective, as if my representation of the ‘facts’ is more accurate than existing versions. Further, this is not a nostalgia trip carried by Ebay dreams and what ifs. Instead, it is an effort at resignification based not on underappreciated attributes that have suffered critical wrongs, or a revision typical of pop inversions dear to 8-track lovers – So wrong they’re right – to quote the title of Russ Forster and Dan Sutherland’s documentary on the 8-track scene in the mid-western United States (Provisional Films, 1997) – but an enthusiastic, unabashed, reverie on the many weaknesses of the 8-track format. This ecstasy of the 8-track is written against, as I suggested in passing above, the audiophilia of music and technology writing that uncritically accepts that formats push forward toward a state of representational grace – evolving, progressing, towards transparent representation and the giddy perfection of an absolute sound in which the medium recedes into the background and the simulacrum, having dropped its frame, engulfs us in a living vividness or vivid liveness. Unencumbered by materiality and noise, a ‘format’ thus imagined shows no signs of its presence and delivers the perfect simulacrum of sound. On the contrary, 8-tracks, I am arguing, are paragons of imperfection.

The form of ecstasy peculiar to the appreciation of the 8-track derives from the loop of tape in its hard plastic rectangle, the size and thickness of fine waffles. Imagine how much more user friendly a waffle would be if it had finger grips like my precious things! This places 8-tracks at the vanguard of the analogue revolution, albeit in the digital age, as Forster, the editor of the zine 8-Track Mind, boldly assures us. Brandishing my portable 8-track player, a tan and white Realistic (Tandy Corp.) that folds apart and whose speakers detach for honest-to-goodness manual stereo separation, I wait, ever so patiently, for the tell-tale signature, the beautiful mechanical break/flow when the cartridge changes programs. Ka-chunk (sometimes Ker-chunk). This sound sends aficionados into 8-track dreamtime, while repelling high-fidelity dilettantes with an aversion to inherent tape and machine noises. The tape loop is the material flow into which the program breaks cut, conditioning the compositions (Deleuze & Guattari, 1977: 36). The most satisfying track changes are those that occur without warning in the midst of a song and, if it happens to be one’s favourite, or even a hit, all the better. The change is not only a break, an interruption. It is also a flow that is vehicular, and it connects with a lubricity whose purposiveness is never random but faithful and of the moment. Pragmatic, yes, that’s the word. Why? Because it gives definition to the assemblage. And it just keeps on happening at vital conjunctures – the same pleasure points once the loop rolls – again and again. But a break/flow is always surprising even in its predictability: it continually catches you unaware and makes itself felt in different ways. A diversion of the procession of break/flows would mean that a tape is broken. It then connects to another machine, a collecting machine, a series, a collector.

One of my favourite examples of this crucial phenomenon occurs between Programs 1 and 2 during ‘Werewolves of London’, Warren Zevon’s late seventies hit from his album Excitable Boy (Electra/Asylum, 1978). This audacious break/flow is noted not in terms of time, but rather signified in brackets (Begin.) and (Concl.) as if this song had become a work divisible into parts like a treatise and the break itself was a method of invention that detotalized it. It was very common to find otherwise whole and complete songs divided into Parts 1 and 2 when they appeared on 8-track, as opposed to the vinyl version. In some cases, numerous breaks were required by the technology in order to manage long songs; Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ was split into three parts and distributed over 3 programs (Autobahn, Phonogram 1974). Multiple splits in songs are found in Patti Smith’s Horses and David Bowie’s StationtoStation (RCA 1976).

The noise/silence relation is not well understood with regard to the 8-track’s inherent and inherited qualities. Consider John Cage’s observation on silence: ‘There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound’ (1961: 191). The inherent noisiness of the 8-track cartridge – Lear Jet Stereo models or any number of cartridges made under license like Audiopak and consisting of lighter materials with less design savvy (more rounded, hence ill-fitting) – is superceded by the inherited silence introduced by the programmer who scrambled and rewrote the order in which the songs were presented in accordance with a more-or-less equal distribution of time to each of the four programs or paired programs (1&2; 3&4). In many cases 8-track song lists were modified, new material added (a phenomenon that only became common much later with CDs, although I know of no example of an embedded, unlisted track appearing on an 8-track), but in some very important instances, silence was inserted into one or more programs. The quality of silence varied widely – it could be quite noisy, scratchy, poppy and if it picked up enough dust, crackly. The remarks of anonymous programmers are not difficult to find on cartridges. A good example of this is found in King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (Atlantic, 1974). In Program 4 a note alerts us to the fact: ‘(Due to programming, there is :41 of silence between Program 4 and 1)’. In order to underline the significance of the programming intervention, the total time for each program is given on the 8-track (which was not a normative practice, but common to Atlantic products). The inserted silence could not be fast-forwarded; if one wanted to progress to the outset of Program 1 from Program 4, patience was needed. The silence had to be endured. The interventions of anonymous programmers in this regard constitute in 8-track technoculture a substantial contribution worthy of recognition as a form of editing akin to the editing of prerecorded songs into fragment by turntablists. Of course, the programmer never emerged from initial obscurity like the MC. Further, the introduction of an unpredictable element of silence/noise is additive and not subtractive and cannot be so readily controlled. Subtraction is not part of the lexicon of 8-trackers because, to take the matter physically, it is not possible to splice just one song on an 8-track as the tracks are stacked atop one another on one side of the tape – one cut through the tape affects every track. In addition, it was difficult to record music onto blank 8-track cartridges because mistakes could not be stopped and corrected (no autoreverse; and the stop function was none other than unplugging the unit or disengaging the tape: ‘manual override’). ‘And…And…And’ is the prerogative of the 8-track mind. The ‘pause’ function was unknown on playdecks; the tape was too easily stretched out of shape.

Occasionally, programmers are referred to as ‘editors’. For example, this is how former AMPEX technician Ron Schauer describes the kind of programmer who came forward and noted the insertion of silence. Reflecting on his work on the mass reproduction of 8-tracks in the AMPEX facilities in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in the 1970s:

If an editor was really considerate, they would warn you by putting a ‘2:13 silence’ notation on the playlist or something like that. However, in any such endeavor, there are folks who really grooved on say, Bing Crosby or Hank Williams and who could [not] give a green flying leap about the latest lyrical offerings from Mott the Hoople, The MC5, Aretha Franklin or The Nazz, much less experiencing any recognizable form of sensitivity regarding the seemingly 15 second long fade outs and fade ins they put around the track switches. Remember this was close to 30 years ago, and the record business was structured a lot differently. I would imagine that nowadays you’d have the artists, their agents, or their attorneys screaming bloody murder if someone chopped up their songs like that. (Schauer, 2002: 2)

Schauer legitimates the programmer as editor, but criticizes sloppy edits, in so doing lending qualitative texture to the insertion of silence: long fade-ins-and-outs on either side of a program switch exacerbate a technical challenge of the format. A good editor meets this challenge with tight fades around switches. Moreover, a trained ear can hear the rumblings of switch tones recorded at low Hertz levels on 8-track tapes.

Beyond silence, however, is the issue of the insertion of bridging material as a way to ease a program switch to a song otherwise already divided into parts. This was the case with Pink Floyd’s Animals(Harvest/Columbia, 1977), and the editing together of Parts 1 and 2 of ‘Pigs on the Wing’, linked across programs, unlike the separation of the parts on vinyl as first song on the first side and last song on the second side. The bridge across the switch is made by means of the insertion of a band commissioned guitar solo by ‘Snowy White’ (English backup player Terence Charles White). This is an exception to the rule noted by Schauer that unscrupulous programmers chopped up songs with impunity.

Within the 8-track subculture, experiments with hybrid, rebuilt systems are not unknown. Former Columbia studio sound engineer Jim Parksmounted a playback head from an 8-track playdeck onto a reel-to-reel, spliced and wound as many as 15 tapes from 8-tracks onto a reel (7″) in order to play them as a long loop; he used a manual adjustment for isolating all of the tracks (1995: 24). This machine was superceded by a combination of tape reel mounted on a child’s record player and fed through the modified reel-to-reel. This Goldberg machine answers to the inefficiency of satirical machinic assemblages (Wolfe, 2000). The hacking of stereo equipment is a widespread practice in music subcultures – think of the manipulation of the stylus and introduction of headphones in turntablism (Coleman, 2003: 142). Everyday hacks were necessary with 8-track cartridges and players – ‘splinting’ or more technically ‘shimming’ an ill-fitting cartridge in order to improve program separation and definition, eliminating crosstalk, was commonplace and a matchbook was most often used.

A further observation on silence is in order. Programmers of 8-tracks sought to balance the total running times of each program. An ideal balance was achieved in UK’s self-titled cartridge (EG, 1978) in which each program runs for exactly 11:41. In other cases, lengthy compositions were carefully distributed over all four tracks, like Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ (Tubular Bells, Virgin, 1973), to within a few seconds (Program 1 – 12:06; Program 2 – 12:08; Program 3 – 12:06; program 4 – 12:14). It is the appreciation of this practice by programmers that leads into the cultural logic of such timely interventions: silence was a tool deployed toward the realization of an ideal of equal distribution and balance. But the programmer also ‘footnoted’ such interventions and coded them as ‘natural’. A remarkable example is found in The Orchestral Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1975) where it is noted: ‘Due To Programming Of This Album There Is 1:00 Of Silence Between Programs 1, 2 & 3, 4. This Is Quite Natural And Is Not A Defect Of The Tape’. (FIGURE 1) The spectre of the vinyl album haunts the programmer. The insertion of silence punctuated by a loud ka-chunk as the program changes is naturalized in order to be distinguished from so-called defects. The emphasis is not on technical breakdowns. Rather, it is on the proper representation of the productive tools of the programmer’s art. The use of silence is not contingent; the duration of the silence is, in relation to the translation of any given album to the 8-track format. The programmer was a precursor of the engineer whose ability at remastering determines the translation of the quality of sound from the vinyl album to the CD. Silence is a necessary feature of the 8-track format: a cagey Cagean phenomenon. What I am arguing is that the noisiness of inherited and inherent silences in the 8-track format realizes Cage’s claim that attention to noise turns disturbance into interest.

Figure 1

Perhaps I’ve already admitted too much. I know what may be crossing your mind: collecting is a pleasing enough diversion, but 8-tracks! Honestly! You’ve seen them in sad, stained, and neglected heaps gathering new dust (complexifying their oxide streaks and greasy films of plastic dust) in thrift shops, and what’s worse, you’ve also witnessed people like me running expectant fingers over derelict piles of them. My pulse quickens, sweat leaps from my brow, a strange aggression overcomes me, my teeth itch. 8-tracks are perfectly satisfying. They’re cheap, available and obedient, like little castrated doggies bred for carpeted interiors and loneliness: this makes 8-tracks the perfect pet technologies. Both dog and cartridge collection are perfectly adapted to the narcissism of domestic interiors, as Jean Baudrillard long ago recognized, in referring to the collectible object as the ‘perfect domestic animal’ (1968: 108). A remarkable fact of print advertisements for music formats is the consistency of this motif from the heyday of 8-tracks to the CD (FIGURE 2 & FIGURE 3 included here are self-published, circa the mid-1970s, and corporate, from the mid-90s): the bored housebound dog wrapped up in the tape pulled, feline like, from an 8-track tape, or surrounded by spilt jewel boxes, attempting, in its own way, to partake as a friend in its master’s hobby.

Figure 2
Figure 3

8-tracks always afford satisfaction because they are my mirrors – perfect friends, like a faithful hound: ‘the singularity of the collection bestows singular identity on the collector’ (Gelber, 1999: 172). And when we’re together, I feel secure. My 8-tracks have never let me down, even when they break, which is a fairly regular occurrence given the drying of the adhesive that secures the vital factory splices, not to mention in any great detail the disintegration of the foam pressure pads sitting on springy metal strips.

In a sense, all collections are like 8-tracks. They are replayable, and actually replay themselves at will, and this feature does not permit any compromise of the anxiety-absorbing, suspended temporality of the safe haven of a collection. Such hobbies are out of step with time. The preferred temporality of the collection is the closed loop. Tape loops have an avant-garde pedigree – think of Steve Reich’s (Hillier, 2002: 53-4) early efforts experimenting with intensities and rhythms of repetition with identical loops falling in and out of unison, another kind of out-of-step shifting – which the 8-track can share, however vicariously.

The first rule of collecting is that every piece only refers back to the collector, and away from its normal function, if it has one (in the case of what are called secondary collectibles – mass produced objects that have uses and/or functions in everyday situations, but have since partially or wholly lost them, like postage stamps or sealed, unplayed 8-tracks (Gelber, 1999: 59)). My most precious item does not even play. I am not prepared to admit that it is in need of repair. More than 8-tracks in working order which seduce one into playing them, broken tapes enable me to better recognize myself as singular: I am a great collector; I am the prize piece of my collection; eventually, I will collect nothing but myself, for an object becomes precious because I collect it. I am cool, calm, and collectible. If my tapes are already broken, they will remain so, thus eliminating any worries about the introduction of foreign elements, or functions, into my collection and upsetting the intensity of my relationship with my tapes. Baudrillard captured this process by describing the collector’s ‘sequestering’ of objects as a defense; amelioration of jealousy, management of the fear of castration, and focusing of pleasure on possession (1968: 118).

For much of the 8-track collecting subculture, repairing tapes and machines is not only normal but constitutes next to the collecting of the tapes and players its most intensely participatory dimension. Good splices may make good lines, as Glenn Gould (quoted in Payzant, 1978: 124) recognized, indeed, celebrated in turning his back on live performances and retreated into the studio, but to tell the truth, tapes in working order make me nervous. I can’t properly confine and savour them. They might suddenly change themselves in collusion with my portable player, steal away, and cut me out. The very portability of my player is worrying. Perhaps I should look for something heavier like an immovable piece of furniture – a wooden console stereo with 8-track player – and take off its legs, just in case. There is no better guard against the threat of this castration than a collection that consists of broken and still sealed tapes, a safe haven into which I can disappear and guard my libido. This is the perversity of collecting: the demand for faithfulness taken to the extreme. Yet how can I give up the signature sound of a program change. Have I gone too far?

The hard lesson of collecting is that satisfaction creates frustration. The most desirable pieces, the endgames, as it were, as usually missing. They are ones that need to be found out. The thrill of the hunt is well-known to collectors; yet missing pieces are the reason why I (still) open my collection for the wonderment of others: how else to advertise what I need. Needless to say, my agents are widespread, and my virtual dealings rich. The completion of a collection is, however, a terrible blow from which few recover; the necessity to sell one piece in order to acquire others is also a matter of regret, but a dynamic one that is often an unforgettable juncture in a collector’s personal history, regardless of the object at stake (Finn, 2003: 123). The only known cure for this condition is to start another collection.

Forster and Sutherland’s So wrong they’re right may be viewed as a psychoanalytic case study of a neurotic ‘cartridge family’. This family has lost its putative daddy, designer of the Lear Pack 8-track cartridge, William Powell Lear (1902-1978), and can neither confirm his paternity nor consult his personal archive. The Lear estate was acquired by Bombardier Aerospace of Canada in 1990; before being swallowed by Bombardier, Canadair had purchased the rights from Lear to manufacture jets based on his designs in 1976, and had been paying royalties to the Lear Estate for some time. This precipitates a family romance replete with a search for the 8-track capital and traces of the father’s famous Lear Jet. The failure to have the family’s affections fully reciprocated is vented through testimonials, daydreams, wild tales of big hauls, and no end of procreative ingenuity, especially the homemade manufacture of newly issued 8-tracks. A crazy uncle even emerges: Earl Muntz (1914-1987), inventor in 1962 of the 4-track tape (Stereo-Pak) and player for under the dashboards of cars. Lear based his 8-track on Muntz’s 4-track system. Muntz thought that his system was superior to the 8-track since the parallel tracks of the latter (doubled from 4 to 8) were too narrow, therefore encouraging tape head misalignment, and the pinch rollers in Lear’s cartridge were of low quality plastic (in Muntz’s system the rollers were in the playdeck and made of rubber). Lear managed to place his units (AM/8-track) in all new Ford vehicles in the 1965/66 season by successfully courting Motorola, Ford’s radio supplier , a marketing coup to which Muntz had no response (Palenchar 1999:33). Muntz earned the nickname ‘Madman’ because of his promotional personality on ubiquitous radio advertisements for used cars in the 1950s in Chicago and later on television in southern California in the 1960s.

Once in a fortnight I permit myself the ultimate satisfaction of engaging with my display case. It’s a little like a bookshelf but with vertical shelves to hold the stacked tapes, tipped slightly backward to prevent forward slippage, and whose face is covered by a plexiglass shield through which the tapes are accessed by means of several well-placed, round holes. The circumference of each hole is not large enough to permit the removal of the tapes. There is, however, a ‘secret’ way to liberate them. When I place my hands into two of these portals in the prone position, I am like a man whose wrists have been secured in the stocks awaiting a public pillory. Every collector has a prone position, and this is mine. It happens to be one of the main ways that 8-track tapes were accessed in commercial retail environments. So it should be familiar, what might be called an 8-track comportment.

Although the spectre of anality is ever present in collecting circles owing to the power of retention over the collector’s consciousness, one of the consequences of the portable 8-track carrying cases in circulation in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that they were designed to accommodate tapes in individual slots, but on the proviso that the packaging did not remain on the tape. That is, only sleeveless cartridges could be stored and carried in this way. As some collectors have complained, this led to the loss or destruction of both art boxes and title sleeves, which accompanied a small percentage of tapes normally sold in cardboard sleeves bearing the logo of the manufacturer or record company without song titles or other information (Brecka, 1995: 55). Art sleeves sought to replicate in a less expansive format the gatefolds (double, triple, with inserts, etc.) of vinyl records. A few remarkable examples include Yessongs (Atlantic, 1973): two separate 8-tracks in full-colour individual boxes with title sleeves; Yoko Ono’s Fly (Apple/Capital, 1971), a single box with a black and white cover photograph containing two 8-tracks, each with colour images and track listings (admittedly, compared with lavish inserts that included artwork, poster, and decorated inner sleeves of the two vinyl LPs, this Ono 8-track is relatively impoverished). In these two examples the cartridges are inserted lengthwise into their respective boxes; however, not uncommonly, cartridges could be inserted width-wise into an open-sided cardboard slip (i.e. The Exorcist Music: Excerpts from the Motion Picture, Warner, 1974). The Exorcist’s black cartridge and black open sided sleeve pales in terms of the concentrated contrast of the bright pink cartridge of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (Atco, 1973) and its black sleeve. Undressed 8-tracks are today the norm, even though collectors prefer the learned look of their tapes wearing cardboard sleeves and wrapped in the original cellophane, lending them a sanitary air. This preference must be modulated by the fact that many prize tapes are in pristine condition with the exception of the drill hole or burn mark or delete puncture that defaces them. Original non-deleted tapes do not bear this indignity.

In conclusion, the poverty of the 8-track is its crowning glory. Paul Gilroy (2001) has used the coinage ‘automotivity’ to describe the social context and consequences of the ‘auto-enthusiasm’ of American Blacks, linking driving and race. Here I am concerned with the automotivity of the 8-track, that is, adapting his usage to technological history (the car stereo) and the material identity of the object (parts industry, repair, and maintenance). At the material level the success of the format was based on the in-dash (and later under-dash) inclusion in Ford models of the Lear system, a product of Lear’s personal friendship with the Fords and his entrepreneurism within the auto and aerospace transportation sectors. This moment of mobile music is indelible. The car reference is inescapable at many levels. Former technicians working during the era of 8-tracks in recording facilities liken the flaked oxide dust from the backside of Memorex tapes to ‘disk brake dust’ (Schauer, 2000:2). Some repair manuals liken the pinch roller that Lear moved into the cartridge as ‘the motor of an 8-track’ (Ritter, 1975: 30). The shaft of the pinch roller needs regular maintenance – not exactly every few thousand miles – as does the platform shaft (‘clean and lube’ sparingly, as Turner recommends, in mechanic-mode,1976:17). Moreover, Earl Muntz, whose empire imploded as Lear came to dominate the new location of the 8-track business, achieved pop culture fame as a used car salesman with a Napoleon fixation, an image he transferred onto car stereos in the form of a logo of a shortish man with a three cornered hat and his hand inserted into his jacket. Indeed, the very idea of the niche sound system was born with the Muntz car stereo.

The beginning and the end of the 8-track was the automobile. The 8-track had no defense against the harsh environment of the automobile. The fluctuations in temperature wreaked havoc with the tape, and the commonplace bubbling of the paper tracks list affixed to the cartridge with heat sensitive glue signifies the deleterious effects on tapes of the heat generated on the dashboard. The automobile environment hastened the already programmed disposability of the 8-track cartridge; many were crushed underfoot after ending up on a car’s floor. My own valorization of the broken 8-track may invoke a perverse economy of retention and control, but it also indicates the telos of the 8-track subject to the harsh conditions in automobiles and its own built-in fragility. The automotivity of the 8-track may be also appreciated in terms of the importance of the spare parts and repair sector in its heyday and later the tracking subculture in terms of the trade and sale in hard-to-find replacements parts like sensing foil, not to mention advice about substitutes. Like old automobiles, 8-tracks are cannibalized for parts. Repair manuals, while originally corporate packages that accompanied tool kits, constitute a place within the subculture for innovation and self-publishing. The ability to repair and remake the material objects around which the subculture is organized makes membership participatory and in this way the subculture is active rather than passive, figuring creative labour as a form of resistance to quasi-impenetrable corporate commodities. In this respect the 8-track subculture has important affinities with other amateur technologically organized subcultures in as much as the degree of modification of the object signals a strong craft-based revolt against industry standards, or lack thereof, shared specialist languages and tools, and the circulation of competencies (Denney, 1957: 154-55).

Although the zine 8-Track Mind, edited and self-published by Forster, lasted 100 issues, spanning the 1990s, it, too, succumbed to the editor/filmmaker’s debt, low subscription numbers, and the commercialization of the tape market; the web site 8-Track Heaven (http://www.8trackheaven.com) soldiers on. The refrain in collecting circles that money ruins everything has been well-documented in the case of sports card collectors (Bloom, 1997); yet, in both collecting subcultures a buoyant optimism remains against the damages of the toxic cocktail of fun and business to community, creativity, and personal history.

A final note on the nomenclature of the 8-track noise-text is in order. A former member of the Lear design team, Frank Schmidt (1999), who helped redesign (‘cannibalize’) Muntz’s 4-track, is credited with the invention of the technology – a piece of aluminum tape passing over a solenoid that activates a switch that moves the playhead to the next program – generating the sound signature Ka/Ker-chunk of program changes. Within the tracker subculture, this sound is described as both annoying and/or pleasurable. Whatever the case, and it must be the latter, it is a signature machine noise claimed by trackers even though it also figures in the worlds of ham radio operators as it is used to describe someone who pushes a touch tone repeater in order to test their system in lieu of a response after receiving a call, what I have elsewhere described as a phatic dysfunction (Genosko, 2005); in another arena, Ka/Ker-chunk signifies for a generations of phone phreakers (telephone hackers in the ‘digital’ counterculture of the 1960s and early 70s) tandems stacking and unstacking on a phreaked trunk line (‘kachink’ was the transliteration used by Rosenbaum, 1971:121). The aural text of the 8-track subculture is not locatable, then, in the music, but in the inherent and inherited silences and noises delivered by programmers/editors and the technologies themselves.


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