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Saturday, July 29, 2017

AMAZING JOURNEY

  Eight-track tapes remain to this day one of the peculiarities of the recorded music world. Even people who temporarily favored them often lacked basic understanding of how the cartridges worked and today mention of the eight-track is typically met with a smirk or a good-natured groan. Originally designed to snap into a slot on the automobile dash, the singular advantage of the eight-track was that it would continue to play the album recorded on itself perpetually. If one were to embark upon an extended trip across the country and believed in all sincerity that Steppenwolf's Sixteen Greatest Hits would never get tiresome, then one might plop an eight-track of that recording into the socket, crank up the speakers (which, it was not uncommon in such times, cost in excess of the automobile itself), and cruise. Each tape contained four "programs" or divisions which played in stereo. Four times two equaled eight, even in 1965, which is when the Ford Motor Company introduced eight-track players in their 1966 Mustangs. Because the tapes stayed in cars more often than they did on record shelves, they often picked up an amazing amount of dust and debris. Debris is not conducive to clean surfaces, so the recording industry's manufacturing arm countered this malady with the application of dobs of oil which kept the tape spinning safely but which also lay between the magnetic tape-reading heads and the tapes themselves, thereby muddying up the sound far more than one would experience on even the cheapest Sears portable turntable. 
   Not all of us who were in our teens in the early 1970s (the peak of the eight-track fixation) owned our own cars and instead made our way around the world on either bicycles, skateboards or roller skates. Strapping a forty pound eight-track player to the handlebars of a three-speed Huffy (yellow, in my case, with black racing stripes, monkey bars, banana seat, over-long sissy bar and genuine stick shift mounted on the frame, all sitting above a sixteen inch front wheel and twenty inch rear, a real competitor for bad ass machine of the neighborhood) was, to put it mildly, awkward, and being such an unserved market, the music industry set out to both include the eight-track in its basic stereo packages along with turntables and receivers, as well as making the eight-track player available as a singular entity for home use. 
   As it happened, in 1974 I was employed and used some of my meager earnings from the Blue Drummer Steak House to purchase from a stereo store (Crazy Ed's, I think it was) a handsome console stereo cabinet which included the by-then pro forma eight-track player. Even at the age of sixteen (one year for each Steppenwolf hit), I had amassed an enviable collection of vinyl records. To my presumed misfortune, I did not own (or even rent) any of the coveted eight-track tapes in vogue with my insular coterie of friends. Hope was far from lost, however, because my mother worked as a sales clerk at a department store called Heck's (an acronym of founders Haddad, Ellis and Cook). Heck's had a decent music department and a sprawling assortment of eight-tracks, some of which turned out to be second generation copies discounted for the consumer's alleged convenience. The very first eight-track I bought (and hold on tight because we are approaching the money shot of this piece) was one of those second generation compilations called The Who Again. No such album ever saw legitimate commercial release. I nonetheless owned a copy and with some care slipped it in the virgin slot of my new sound machine, recoiled in horror at the initial cluck that eight-track players made at the start of each "program," then settled in for the most amazing audio experience I had known to that time. 
   But first, an aside: I was, in those feckless times, a rather discriminating music listener (Aw, hell, I was a calculating snob). I cared not at all for the James Taylor folk singer brand of popular music, for instance, because people such as Taylor, Crosby Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and others seemed to want me to get in touch with myself. I knew myself quite well enough--too well, in fact. A better understanding of my neuroses and foibles would have only made worse what was already an untenable situation. Likewise, I loathed the blues pretensions of heavy metal with its attempts at bludgeoning my sensibilities into submission. Fusion was an abomination in the face of true jazz masters. Disco--just coming into vogue at the time--left me numb from its artifice. And I sure as hell wasn't going to listen to the Archies or the Partridge Family. 
   What I did like--what knocked all the grotesque recent memories of teenage oppression out of my quivering cranium--was rock and roll and soul music. Perhaps we will talk about soul another time. 
   The opening song on my newly acquired album was "Baba O'Riley," the first song I know of to use the synthesizer as an instrument rather than strictly for ambient sound affects. 
   Hearing a song on the radio in those days had its value. With the exception of bands such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, most groups recorded songs specifically to be heard on portable radios with the treble built-in high and the bass nonexistent. Hearing The Who song on the radio had given me a mild satisfaction. Hearing it at maximum volume on my very own super-duper Crazy Ed's stereo system knocked me across the room with my legs wide and my arms over my bouncing head. 
  I never did quite get over that initial explosion, just as one never gets over that first real kiss, or the first sip of a strange wine, or the death of someone well-loved.  
   Next up came "A Quick One (While He's Away)," a mini-opera with brief movements looped together with a mature story-line, punctuated with the word "cello" thirty-two times (yes, I counted them). I wanted to hear this again immediately. However, one of the tragedies of eight-tracks was the absence of a rewind button. You had to wait until the "program" ended and then press the changer button three more times to get back to where it all started. So I waited. And I listened. And I became a better person.
  (It should be noted that the above version of the song is from The Rolling Stones' Rock n Roll Circus, a Who performance so good that it dwarfed everything else in that program and caused Mick and Keith to block the movie's release for decades because they didn't want to be showed up by The Who.)
   
   Thus began what was to become a life-long obsession with The Who, at least in the original line-up of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, all thanks to a dollar ninety-eight cent second generation eight-track tape. 
(This is rock and roll. The above clip is from The Kids Are Alright, a far superior movie than the one which this writer will, it is hoped, eventually get around to discussing.)

Being a fan has not always been easy, as anyone who has suffered through the movie version of Tommy can attest, or as anyone who remembers the massacre of eleven fans in Cincinnati can avow, or anyone as disturbed as was I to acknowledge that it was The Who that introduced corporate sponsorship into modern rock concerts, or as anyone equally appalled as I by the fact that the band has released more greatest hits packages than they have albums of original material.


But being a Who fan also means recognizing that bassist Entwistle was among the first white rock musicians to use his instrument as more than creating "bottom" for the songs, that Keith Moon went beyond being technically brilliant and actually reinvented what drumming looked and sounded like, that Roger Daltrey's singing got better on every album the band released (except the aforementioned greatest hits), and that Pete Townshend was a songwriting genius.
   It was therefore with some disappointment that I walked away from Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007). I'm not going to tell you who directed it because I don't remember and it is not worth the trouble to look it up. Just because someone has access to rare footage and can speak to the surviving members of the band, as well as the surviving managers and art directors, does not mean that person can capture the vitality of the performers in question. Yes, it's nice that Roger and Pete are still alive and like each other very much. What would have been better is to make a movie about the making of The Kids Are Alright. People will still be talking about fond memories of eight-tracks before anyone ever has anything positive to say about what is the most uninspiring biopic in rock history.


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