In early 1976, I bought a tape deck to add to my stereo system for playing and recording. While I briefly considered a cassette deck, in true 70s-geek fashion, I eventually popped for an 8-track deck. I’ve still got it, a big old Channel Master that was simplicity itself: on the front, a big slot for the tape cartridge, four lights to tell you which program was playing on the tape, a big “record” button, another button for “auto stop,” and one to change the program; on the back, cables to connect it to the receiver or amplifier. Recording levels were set automatically.
For the uninitiated, 8-tracks were boxy cartridges containing a continuous loop of tape. The tape had four “programs,” and the player switched from one program to another when its head was tripped by a metallic sensor spliced into the tape. The tape would play forever, over and over again, unless your player had an auto-stop function that told it to quit after Program 4. Eight-tracks were more popular than cassettes in the 60s and 70s because they were considered more convenient for in-car listening, and since the tape ran at twice the speed of cassettes, the fidelity was better. They eventually fell out of favor as cassette fidelity got better, and because the continuous loop of tape was virtually destined to crap out at some point, snagging or jamming into a mass of useless oxide-backed plastic.
I used my deck for almost exclusively for recording—albums, mix tapes, music off the radio—and the limitations of the format quickly became apparent during this process. Blank tapes came in various lengths: 32 minutes, 40 minutes, 80 minutes, but the tricky part was organizing the recording into chunks of eight minutes, 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. If you went long, the program would change in mid-song, with an accompanying drop-out of the sound and a big old clunk from the player. I got so I didn’t mind this, although record companies releasing albums on 8-track couldn’t get away with it. To preserve the running order of an album, some 8-tracks featured extra silence on the end of one or more programs. Some albums were released on 8-track with their running order rearranged. On rare occasions, 8-track editions would include longer versions of some songs to fill the time—as on Lou Reed’s Berlin and Animals by Pink Floyd, according to the Wikipedia article on the eight-track tape. It was not at all unusual, however, for some songs to appear on 8-track in multiple parts, breaking for the program switch with a quick fade-out and fade-in, or even at a pause in the song.
The only commercially produced 8-track tape I ever owned, Station to Station by David Bowie, has several of these features. The title song fades out at around the 9:40 mark for the program change, then pointlessly fades back in for the last half-minute of an extremely long fade. “Wild Is the Wind” is interrupted at a big climactic moment in the song, where there’s a natural pause, by the clunk of the player switching programs. (When I hear “Wild Is the Wind” in mp3 or cassette form today, I still hear the clunk in memory.) The running order is different, and less effective, than on the original vinyl release.
Regardless of format, however, Station to Station remains Bowie’s highest-charting American release. (I’d have guessed Let’s Dance or Young Americans.) Its Wikipedia entry contains some fascinating bits of trivia, which may or may not be true because they’re on Wikipedia, for chrissakes. Among them: Bowie doesn’t remember anything about the recording of the album thanks to the vast amounts of cocaine he was using, and the big single, “Golden Years,” was written for and rejected by Elvis Presley.
Last spring I posted video of Bowie performing a track from the album, “Stay,” on Dinah Shore’s daytime TV show. Here’s a longer clip featuring Dinah’s introduction, with help from her other guests that day, Henry Winkler and Nancy Walker.
For more clips from Bowie’s appearance on Dinah!, click here and here. Although some of the clips and several sources say they’re from 1975, that’s when the show was recorded. The Dinah! episode more likely aired in January 1976. A couple of sources say it was January 3, but that was a Saturday, so I’m betting it aired sometime the week after. In any case, Bowie was well-received enough to make a return visit, with Iggy Pop this time, in April 1977. (I’ll say it again: housewife TV in the 70s was awesome.)
A new deluxe edition of Station to Station is supposedly on the way later this year, with a 5.1 surround-sound mix. A 1991 CD release featured a couple of live tracks from the 1976 Station to Station tour; the new edition will reportedly include a whole show, recorded at Nassau Coliseum in March 1976, which has been one of the most-bootlegged Bowie shows of all time.
It will not be available on 8-track.
Recommended Reading: At WNEW.com, my post on the life and times of Wolfman Jack. At Clicks and Pops, the joys of mono. At WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, the fascinating story of how NBC-TV screwed its late-night talent . . . over 40 years ago, and how the situation led to one of the most expensive failures in television history.