You can buy an iPod for the same price as 20 CDs. Of course there are people in the sticks that haven’t given up on 8-track.
–from a music industry chat board discussion on the future of the compact disc
In the annals of consumer audio formats, neither
128kps files on the iPod nor the 8-track tape rate very high on the fidelity scale. Magnetic or digital, portable audio is designed for convenience. The quality of the reproduction is secondary.
When Bill Lear introduced the Stereo
8 tape system to consumers in 1965, he was not embarking on an adventure in hi-fi. Lear’s intention was to supply automakers (and the luxury private airplane industry) with an easy-to-use and more reliable version of existing audio cartridge technology that in one form or another had been used in broadcast and background music applications since magnetic tape recorders were liberated from Germany after World War II.
Lear’s system was optimized for a moving vehicle. 8-tracks played back four separate stereo “programs” recorded on a loop of quarter-inch tape that would cycle through the machine endlessly, right up to and including the moment when some part of the plastic cartridge malfunctioned.
With its low fidelity, non-standard formatting that broke albums up into (arbitrary, not artistic) 12-minute chunks, and fragile playback mechanism, it is amazing that the commercial 8-track format survived for as long as it did, and that its fans still support a small but thriving secondary market. New(ish)ly released on DVD, the film So Wrong They’re Right
preserves 8-track fandom for posterity–much, much longer than the tapes themselves were designed to last with normal use.
Shot during a coast-to-coast collector’s odyssey by the editor of fanzine 8-Track Mind and featuring interviews with many of its regular contributors, So Wrong They’re Right chronicles in loving detail the 90s subculture that grew up around an orphaned format most closely associated with the 70s.
The paradox of any subculture is that once enough cool people with shared interests find each other, they codify the fun right out of the ethos. Participants in the scene rather than objective observers, the filmmakers don’t ask us to decide whether the format they love is timeless or past it. So Wrong They’re Right simply records scenes from a decade–the 90s–awash in recycled culture. Some 8-track fans fancy the tapes and equipment as part of their retro lifestyle. Some are music and audio geeks (like a writer for
Stereophile) enjoying a fun goof on collector obsessions and audiophile connoisseurship. The core group of 8-trackers portrayed in the film would have us believe that it’s all about the music: they are the creative free spirits who just want to listen; they have had it with a consumer electronics and music industry that tries to cram a new format down our collective throat about every ten years, and to prove it they proudly immerse themselves in lo-fi renditions of thirty-year-old pop.
The lifestyle-accessory moments are not the most compelling in the film. The collectors who are most comfortable on camera joyously celebrate their dorky love of the obscure. They include record producer Don Fleming and members of the band Gumball with their mountain of 8-tracks, and a used-music merchant who displays examples of just about every tape cartridge format ever made.
But as the film unfolds there’s no overarching story to advance. Rather, we see multiple nationwide variations on a single theme: although one private dealer in rare tapes appears in the film, for most of the subjects collecting 8-track tapes and tape players at thrift stores was an affordable way to build a kitschy 60s and 70s music collection. The hobbyists say they’re analog at heart; because so many of them are given equal time, the film offers plenty of context but lacks narrative rhythm. It’s ironic that the filmmakers can’t actually explore the musical content on the tapes with any degree of depth, because to do so they would have had to buy rights and pay sync fees to the same music industry that made the 8-track tape obsolete.
If So Wrong They’re Right is not your first introduction to the minutiae of pop subcultures (because you belong to one, you study them…or you’re breathing), you may find that 90 minutes of 8-track flashback is about 30 minutes too much. It is by sheer length and the leisurely, repetitive nature of its narrative that So Wrong They’re Right visualizes the abandoned technology that it documents. It takes a long, slow loop around its subject, its title card transitions are awkward and clunky–and you may have to click through something boring to get to the good parts.
For a whole kit of good parts, check out another recent DVD
Cinema. A collection of public service announcements, television promos and industrial films salvaged from a Portland TV station dumpster, The 70s Dimension gives you the tools to take your own look back at the decade when the 8-track actually thrived.
Rechercher is the senior editor at Beyond The Roots of Lounge