Kathy and Daniel Gibson pose in their shed full of 8-track tapes at their home in Arlington, Texas.
Saturday, June 23, 2001
ENDICOTT, New York — The ABBA 8-track plays in Len Saaf's apartment as he shows off the rest of his collection.
There's Kansas, the Commodores, Cheap Trick and a K-tel cartridge with the Barry Manilow chestnut "Mandy." This is music Saaf heard on the radio growing up in the '70s. Then there's the stereo, the one he found in a thrift store. It has a flywheel tuner, faux wood sides and — crucially — an 8-track slot.
"It was really something amazing, up out of the ground."
Or the grave.
Eight-tracks are supposed to be dead and forgotten, a musical format long ago relegated to the dustbin of pop culture's history, a dud technology, a symbol of '70s goofiness as potent as the leisure suit.
Despite that — or more likely because of that — 8-tracks are embraced by a community of collectors. These 8-track aficionados are music lovers, retro-technophiles, '70s survivors, iconoclasts.
But mostly, they seem like people hip to some really big joke.
"There's a certain humor in playing an 8-track in 2001," said Daniel Gibson, a Texan who sells 8-tracks online with his wife, Kathy.
Everyone who can hum "The Rockford Files" theme knows about 8-tracks. Cartridges popped into a player would shuttle among four musical "programs" — making a distinctive "ka-chik" noise each time. Developed for car audio systems in the '60s, the 8-track format flourished in the '70s before being abandoned in the '80's.
In retrospect, it's easy to see why.
The cartridges were chunkier than cassette tapes. Song sequences were shuffled to fit the four programs (two stereo tracks for each program, thus eight tracks). Maddeningly, some 8-tracks would fade a song out at the end of a program only to fade back in after a "ka-chik." The fidelity could be good, but tapes were prone to snagging.
The latter-day attraction of 8-tracks is a mystery even to the people who collect them — few report becoming a "tracker" intentionally.
Saaf, for instance, fell into it after finding the stereo. The 38-year-old software engineer already had a keen eye for retro-kitsch, evidenced by big-eyed waif paintings hanging on the wall of his Binghamton, New York, area apartment.
A common tracker story involves coming across some old cartridges, then maybe picking up more and more over the years. The next thing you know, you have 20,000 cartridges.
At least that's the way it worked for Malcolm Riviera, a pioneering tracker from Hickory, North Carolina, who maintains the popular www.8trackheaven.com Web site.
"It's the music and the nostalgia and the funkiness of it all," Riviera explains. "And it's a cheap hobby."
Price is certainly a lure — 8-tracks can go for under $3 on the Web and 25 cents at thrift stores.
There also is a widespread feeling that 8-tracks are so lame they're lovable, like a runt puppy. Collectors trade tips on the proper care of 8-tracks, like how to replace worn out old pads (weather stripping works well, or a cutup sponge).
Add to this the oddball factor — among the people figuring in the 8-track's history are the inventor of the Lear Jet and a California entrepreneur known as Earl "Madman" Muntz — and the attraction becomes clearer.
But nostalgia might be the biggest draw. Since the format's heyday more or less rose and fell with the '70s, 8-tracks tend to evoke powerful associations with that decade.
Saaf can recall listening to Supertramp in a Monte Carlo owned by his best friend's mom in high school. Riviera remembers listening to his new "Abbey Road" 8-track on Christmas morning 1969 as he played with his sister's Spirograph. He still remembers where those old Beatles songs would fade out to a "ka-chik."
Daniel and Kathy Gibson, who keep a shed full of 8-tracks for sale at 75 cents to $1 a pop in Arlington, Texas, see their typical customer as a guy about their age — 39 — who maybe bought a Trans Am with an 8-track player and is looking for the music from his youth.
The Gibsons' top sellers bear this out: Kansas, Boston and the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack.
Business is brisk. The Gibsons report getting a lot of calls from "mainstream people" in both the United States and abroad. Elsewhere on the Web, e-Bay lists hundreds of 8-tracks.
"Maybe it's the American way," Riviera says. "You kick something down then you go back to it years later."
It's not like 8-track mania is sweeping the nation, mind you, but collectors say the 8-track market has grown since the mid-'90s, when Russ Forster made the documentary on 8-track collectors, "So Wrong They're Right."
The movie consists of interviews with people — "stubborn visionaries" in Forster's words — apt to see deep meaning in the discarded technology.
"They were mostly into the philosophy, the strangeness, the total unhipness of 8-tracks. It was almost an anti-aesthetic aesthetic," Forster says.
That look-back-with-irony world endures, at least in places like Saaf's apartment, where the ABBA 8-track is followed by Cheap Trick's "Live at Budokan."
It's almost impossible not to think of Monte Carlos and Spirographs and white disco suits. The 8-track spell is broken only when the song fades out midway through to a jarring "ka-chik!"