From our technologically-advanced perch here in 2014, 8-track tapes appear to us as a monstrous “bad memory”—a ridiculous object worthy of nothing more these days than being dragged out for a good laugh at some 70s retro party hosted and attended by yuppies of a certain age unabashedly smug about their ability to carry around their entire collection of Hootie and the Blowfish songs on a media player no bigger than the head of a pin. And while it is true the 8-track tape is more of a 70s phenomenon than an 80s one, the fact is this red-headed stepchild of music media managed to avoid extermination until 1988, primarily due to its continued production and sale via the Columbia House Record & Tape Club. Certainly you remember that highly selective, not-so-secret society based in Terre Haute, Indiana? For just a single penny new members would receive 13 cassettes or LPs or CDs or, yes, 8-track tapes, but these members would then be beholden to the club for the rest of their lives or at least until they bought a certain number more of musical recordings at the club’s regular price of $8.98 plus $14.95 “shipping and handling.”
Although pretty indefensible as a medium for high-fidelity musical playback, there was something solid and permanent-feeling about 8-track tapes. They were fairly big and bulky. The clunk between tracks resonated about the listening room with the significance of a Mercedes-Benz S Class door slamming shut. Plus, listeners had the added bonus of having all the songs rearranged from the order the artist originally intended. Even better, who didn’t enjoy hearing a few moments of dead silence IN THE MIDDLE of a cherished song followed by that familiar ker-chunk, and then the abrupt continuation of the song. Best of all, a lucky few with money enough to install a Sparkomatic or Kraco 8-track tape player in their car could take their tapes on the road for some truly mobile jammin’! Although if you left them on the dashboard for too long the label would fade into illegibility and the plastic case warp like a slice of melted Provolone.
Billy Idol had already provoked the question “Who is that creep?” from my father as he peeked over his Wall Street Journal one evening during a Radio 1990 broadcast of the promotional video for the song “White Wedding,” but at that point not too many people knew enough about the guy to really say.
“White Wedding” was a minor MTV hit from Billy’s self-titled first album with a low-budget video that had been shot in some Home Counties churchyard. For his next album, Rebel Yell, William threw all his chips into the pot and hightailed it out to Hollywood, where there were endless rows of Yank birds to shag, endless lines of coke to hoover up, and endlessly energetic videos to make. His pursuit of video immortality was so dogged, he was even willing to blind himself for the sake of recording some memorable imagery, ironically for a song called “Eyes Without a Face.” For three days after this particular shoot Billy was literally a “face without its eyes” as the 30 straight hours of posing and sneering in front of smoke machines had fused his contact lenses to his corneas!
With four video hits and two additional tracks notching tons of AOR airplay, Rebel Yell was a monster record that perched Billy pretty much near the top of the pile during 1983-1984 and the dude sure looked like he was enjoying it. Of course the “secret sauce” to all this popularity had those very same initials. His name was Steve Stevens and he wrote just about every note of music on an album that stayed in the charts for 70 weeks. But Billy, ever the egotist, immediately started easing his partner out of the picture. Stevens would only receive songwriting credits on roughly half of Whiplash Smile and then he was gone. And so was Billy’s career. Within ten years he’d be releasing something called Cyberpunk, a whacko reinvention about as convincing as that time George Herbert Walker Bush “dropped in” at J.C. Penney’s to buy socks.
Today, the “rock of youth” mentioned in “Catch My Fall” is a pillow of pebbles, pebbles that are getting smaller with each passing day. Before we know it, it’ll be a pile of dust. For all of us. So make sure you head out onto that Blue Highway as much as you can while you still can…Billy sez so!!
When I was growing up in the Midwest, I never seemed to like any of the bands that actually came from there. My favorites at the time hailed from places much further afield: California hotshots Van Halen, English country squires Pink Floyd, London wastrels The Clash, NYC LES pin-ups Blondie, Dublin deities U2, and on and on. What on earth did I need Joe Grushecky, Donnie Iris or Michael Stanley for? It all seemed hopelessly derivative of Bruce Springsteen to me and I didn’t really like The Boss, either. In any case, those previously mentioned fellows and their respective bands were all small potatoes compared to the biggest “Little Bruce” of them all. His name was John “Cougar” Mellencamp, and he pretty much took the gospel Bruce was preaching in New Jersey some 700 miles inland to Bumfuck, Indiana to start a whole new platinum-selling religion.
I wasn’t buying it and my aversion to John and his hymns to a life lived in the middle of nowhere lasted for years, until about 1985, in fact. It was around that time that, while thumbing through some “rock yearbook” at B. Dalton Bookseller one day, I came across a picture of the guy wedged into one of those wire mesh trash cans that used to be on every city street corner. He was grinning like a bandit, obviously having some fun with his image at his own expense—the critics had, from day one, disliked him even more than I did, so there he was, basically saying both he and his musical output were garbage. Hahaha. But what caught my eye about this picture wasn’t John’s cheeky self-deprecation, but the fact that he was shod in Tretorn sneakers! Classic canvas Nylites, white with the blue stripe! What kind of rock and roller, let alone a self-proclaimed “biker,” wore preppy shit like that?
I’ve followed his work ever since…
If Sammy Hagar was the Voice of America (and why on earth would he title a long-playing album released under his own name just that if he wasn’t?) then Easterhouse was the Voice of Great Britain. Hagar’s America was apple-cheeked, tow-headed, red-blooded youth, Chevrolet Corvettes, Louisville Sluggers, luscious “American thighs” and ice-cold Budweiser. Easterhouse’s Britain was weedy, spotty, bedraggled communist-sympathizing proles, cars named after jungle cats that looked nice but never ran correctly, cricket bats, pointy-nosed “birds” and warm beer that claimed right on the can to be “bitter.” None of that stuff traveled well, so if you ever wondered why this band never sold as many records in the States as other imports like Bryan Adams (Canada) and Men at Work (Australia), now you know why. The Exalted Lady Princess Diana Spencer of the House of Thorpe was fine, Easterhouse, not so much.