Record Collecting Miscellanies: Eight Track Strangeness

The first 8-track I ever purchased was The Clash's underrated Give 'Em Enough Rope from a dusty shelf at my hometown thrift store in the mid 1990s. It was quite a musical find, and has, perhaps, led to a lifetime of scanning such shelves for musical esoterica.

The Give 'Em Enough Rope 8-track is an unassuming wonder; it does not even have the iconic font of other early issues. The band's name is in the block capital print of the early U.S. pressings; I'm not sure how many of these were even manufactured. The later U.S. pressings had a fake oriental font that was later replaced by the UK design. The iconic cover adds another level to the Clash's cowboy/rebel mythology. Indeed, the final mastering was done in the United States under the eye of Sandy Pearlman, best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult. A great account of these sessions and others is found in Pat Gilbert's superlative biography, Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash.

The 8-track's sound is significantly spotty; I eventually purchased the album on one of the early CD issues, which did not sound much better, but the songs still stand up on subsequent listens. Note that the 8-track listing is much different than that of the LP due to the time constraints of each side. "Safe European Home," a stylized account of Strummer and Jones' not so successful trip to Jamaica, where as Strummer complains: where every white face is an invitation to robbery." England seems much better after a Jamaican vacation spent in the hotel because they were scared to go anywhere, except, of course, scoring some weed. "English Civil War" is based on "Johnny Comes Marching Home" and captures Strummers's fears of a war between the left and the far right. "Tommy Gun" is a propulsive ode to gun toting thugs that points to Strummer's increasing reliance on war rhetoric. Topper Headon's martial gunfire drumming is one of the best musical moments of the album. "Last Gang in Town" is a roll call and call-to-arms for various subcultural groupings that has often been touted as the Clash's calling card. I still get excited when I hear it. Later tracks on the album are less solid but have been surprisingly moved to an earlier position on the 8-track, making the order more interesting than the LP's filler laden listing; the 8-track also contains some songs twice. For example, Mick Jones' "Stay Free," a seemingly tender ballad about Jones' childhood centering on his friend, Robin Banks being sent to prison after going on a "nicking spree," while Jones "practised daily" in his room to be a better guitarist. The song charts these differences, but it also musically hearkens back to Jones' glam roots and pop star ideals. "All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" closes the album on a high note, with a slight nod to Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," encouraging the "young punks" to live their dreams; even if the future isn't so bright, "it's better than some factory." Despite it's poor audio quality, or maybe because of it (I've always been a sucker for lo-fidelity), I can't think of a better way to start collecting obscure audio artifacts.

Some of my best finds have been at thrift stores in the years since, although Illinois stores have not been as kind to me as the pricier, yet better stocked stores of my home state, which have turned up such gems as Dee Dee Ramone's fabulously over the top, Standing in the Spotlight, and a first printing of Mission of Burma's Vs. My 8-track finds have been less interesting. As of this writing, I have racked up less than ten albums on the much-maligned format. These include: The Box Tops - Dimensions, a broken copy of The Beach Boys' arguably fine seventies album, Sunflower, the country rock of The Souther-Hillman-Furay band's Trouble in Paradise, and Judy Collins' So Early in the Spring: The First 15 Years. A few others line the closet at my parent's house awaiting retrieval.

I have long wanted a very specific 8-track player, a Panasonic TNT 8-track player, like the one I used to listen to in my parent's basement while playing pool. I would spend my teenage years shooting stick (as the locals call it) and listening to Three Dog Night and the American Graffiti Soundtrack from my Dad's collection. That player stopped working long ago, but continues to inspire me. One day I will find one without having to resort to Ebay. I always find the typical 8-track record player combo, invariably without a needle and without a functioning 8-track deck. There is never any love for the 8-track.


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