Eureka Moments

Eight-Tracks: Taking the Plunge

Issue 117

Eight years ago, The Village Voice ran an article on the opening of The Eight-Track Museum in Dallas – a destination open to the public and a celebration of everything associated with this recorded music format. I hadn’t really thought about eight-tracks much over the years and was convinced that most people felt the same way. But did they? The article prompted me to do some digging, some soul searching, and walk just a bit down memory lane.

Sure, 8-track was the first practical way to play recorded music in your car. Great, that was novel. It was also interesting to learn that the format was invented by Bill Lear and developed in the 1960s by a diverse consortium that included RCA Records, Lear Jet, and the Ford Motor Company. In fact, in 1966 Ford became the first automotive manufacturer to make it available in all of their models. The commercial development of the eight-track tape, officially known as Stereo 8, by the consortium was all the result of someone looking at its predecessor, the 4-track tape, and asking, “what if?” The 4-track was introduced in 1960 and had quickly become a favorite at radio stations for use in playing jingles and ads. Again, jingles and ads – not high-fidelity music! Across the course of its 15-year lifespan that fidelity issue would remain a hurdle that eight tracks would never overcome. Ever.

So now a museum arrives to celebrate what exactly? Eight-tracks didn’t have any liner notes, no expansive cover shots to wow you or any spectacular packaging to gaze upon. Eight-tracks were plastic boxes with labels that never stayed fully glued to their surface. I guess none of this mattered because the news of The Eight Track Museum’s grand opening captured the attention of The Village Voice and likely thousands of other readers just like me.

Probably as no surprise to readers of Copper, my relationship with eight-track tapes began and ended with a car. My second car was a 1974 Ford Mustang that my Dad had bought from my cousin Caren and it came with a factory installed in-dash eight-track deck. This was in the mid- 1980s so by then the eight-track craze had long left town, replaced by cassettes and the Sony Walkman. I thought for sure that I’d never use the player. Its odd placement all the way to the right of the dashboard would simply become something of a novelty item that I’d discuss with every new passenger that jumped in and rode shotgun. Boy was I wrong! Almost immediately after taking possession of the vehicle it seemed like people came out of the woodwork to dump off old eight-track tapes that they had been gathering dust in their attic, basement or garage.

Days of Future Passed indeed. Courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Within no time at all I must have had about forty of these things lying on the back seat and flying around the foot wells of the car. I had everything from Steely Dan’s Gaucho to Bread’s Greatest Hits to Neil Diamond’s live record Hot August Night. The sound quality and functionality of eight-tracks was horrible, but as a teenager I have to say that they were kind of indestructible and survived extreme summer heat, bitter winter cold, and random cold drink spills where they were almost entirely submerged in fluids. People sat on them, stepped on them, and I even mistakenly ran one over pulling out of my driveway. The tape still played even with a tread mark over its cover! I’m sure others have similar stories of how these tapes survived the harshest of conditions

But were those enough of reasons to build a museum? Time would tell. But that piece in the Voice held my attention and made me think about the one moment that eight-tracks were actually cool, really cool. It was a moment when the format was ten years old and on the verge of death, desperate for a lifeline. Eight-track found one in Panasonic, a company that actually made it hip to have a collection of tapes and tapped into what was supposed to be the format’s greatest benefit. From the start, the tapes were designed to fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans. This ability to take music with you wherever you went was novel. Panasonic found a way to “bring it to life” as their ad slogan went, wherever you went, and portability became the eight-track tape’s hallmark.

In 1974 Panasonic introduced the now infamous Dynamite 8 Portable eight-track player. It was available in Detonator Red, Bomb Blue or Explosion Yellow. White and black versions were later added to the line. At this time the company also went to market with a long-lasting advertising tagline that spoke to their products’ innovation. “Panasonic: Just Slightly Ahead of our Time.” In some respects that was really true because the design of this player was something no one could ever have imagined. It didn’t look like a radio or a stereo component. It looked like a kids’ play toy. However, that’s where the innovation ended.

Blow-up: we couldn’t resist a sneak preview of this ad in last issue’s Audio Anthropology.

The Dynamite 8 was a very rudimentary piece of equipment. It had one speaker and played in mono. Unlike every other player in the market it didn’t automatically switch tracks. Instead, you had to hit the “plunger” that sat on top of the player and sink it like you were detonating dynamite to move from track to track. There was no headphone jack, no tone control, and while it ran on batteries (they always recommended that you use Panasonic’s “long-lasting Hi-Top batteries for more footloose situations”) it did come with an adapter that allowed you to plug it into power outlets in your home or car. These limitations didn’t matter! Kids went wild for this thing. This was officially the iPod of the 1970s. It made music portable and fun. There was no cooler audio device to be found on American beaches in the mid to late ‘70s. Not a one!

“She comes in colors…” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Leonard Nevarez.

To further fuel excitement for the Dynamite 8, Panasonic wisely signed Jimmie Walker as a spokesperson. He was then starring as James “J.J.” Evans Jr. on the hit television sitcom “Good Times.” Panasonic’s print and television ads played off his infamous television retort, “It’s dy-no-mite!” By the late 1970s his ads began to include a new portable cassette player Panasonic had launched called the Take-N-Tape. This was also available in a variety of colors. In the spot Walker would welcome viewers with “My fellow music lovers! My music machines.” He would point out their features and then end with, “but what makes the Panasonic Take-N-Tape and Dynamite 8 so right is that they both sound like dy-no-mite! The campaign worked and helped accelerate unit sales beyond anyone’s realistic expectations. But it wouldn’t last.

One of the campaign’s final appearances was during the 1979 holiday season. His catch phrase got reworked for the holiday, suggesting that this year shoppers should “put a little dy-no-mite under the tree.” That Christmas one of my cousins wanted her parents to do just that. In the end they did and the player she chose was white. All of the relatives were let in on what the gift was going to be and were encouraged to give her eight-tracks as gifts. Her mom slipped everyone a list of tapes she wanted and I remember her getting JT, Running on Empty, Minute by Minute and other big hits from the late 1970s (but no Hot August Night! 😉 ).

I remember all of us being in her room watching her pop one tape in after another. She’d only play part of each song and bang the plunger like it was going to transport all of us into another realm. For many of the kids in her room it did. As I looked around at our cousins and friends everyone was looking that the Dynamite 8 in awe, probably hoping that they would be as lucky and find one under their tree when they arrived back home. Not me. Even then, beyond the cool design I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. The sound was horrible.

Pretty soon after that much of America finally came to the same conclusion. The fate of The Eight-Track Museum was similar. It closed for good in 2015. Cassettes were smaller, didn’t have track jumps that occurred mid-song and the sound quality was just better. Some cassette players even looked pretty cool. But none would ever look again as cool as the Dynamite 8. As the portable format evolved the focus would be on making the players smaller and improving sound quality. The outward look and design of portable players was never again as “playful.”

Panasonic created a pop culture phenomenon that gripped the nation for almost five years. Today these players are not as easy to find as you might think – even if Panasonic did make a zillion of them. Refurbished models can command sales prices as high as $700. But the real “get” is a copy of that Jimmie Walker print ad. If you see one, grab it. Some framed ads are selling on eBay for up to $75, and in the infamous words of Jimmie “J.J.” Walker, that’s dy-no-mite!

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JC Haywire.

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