In the 1970’s, the hippies advised America to “Keep on Truckin.’” Although R. Crumb’s accidental cultural catchphrase means different things to different people, the words instantly transport many to a time of black light posters, lava lamps, and 8-track tapes. It is the latter of those 70’s icons that captured the attention of Dallas resident, Jason Niebaum, aka “The 8-Track Guy.” In fact, Jason wouldn’t mind tweaking the slogan just a bit by asking us instead to “Keep on Trackin.’” Considering the number of operational 8-track tape players currently residing in America’s living rooms, it’s a big “ask.”
Music lovers of a certain generation undoubtedly feel both the nostalgia of the 8-track format and the connection it has to the classic rock era. For the past five years, Niebaum has done his best to reunite those colorful cartridges with the artists that made them famous. In doing so, he’s curated a collection of autographed 8-tracks worthy of an exhibit in a museum. As for The 8-Track Guy, he’d be the first to say the value of a signed 8-track tape is nothing compared to the thrill of meeting a rock legend.
Recently, Culture Sonar caught up with Jason and asked him to share some of the experiences he’s had in “tracking” down musicians from the 8-track era.
You’re known as 8-track Guy, but you look like you probably grew up in the cassette era. How did you gravitate towards the mostly forgotten and little appreciated format?
Well, “Cassingle Guy” and “MiniDisc Guy” were already taken, so I just went with the next most obscure format.
I was born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s so, yeah, cassettes were the dominant form of musical media in my house as far as I was concerned. Way more than vinyl. Now, as an adult, my musical tastes are still lovingly lost in those decades. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to 8-track tapes. They were only popular for about twenty years, but to me, they’re like little rock ‘n’ roll time capsules filled with badass history lessons for future generations. So, while I wasn’t old enough to appreciate 8-tracks in their heyday, they represent a very specific moment in our culture, which happens to be my favorite era of music. It’s Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused cruising around in a 1970 Chevelle SS cranking Ted Nugent on an endless loop. I never got a chance to do that, but it seemed cool as hell, you know?
Related: “Going Out Screaming: Peter Frampton’s Painful Goodbye”
Most people’s first 8-track was Frampton Comes Alive! or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Something that sold a billion copies. Mine was Men at Work’s Business as Usual. I bought it at a second-hand store for like a buck or something. It was one of those albums that meant a lot to me in my younger days, and I had never seen it in that format. I had to have it. About eight or nine years ago, I went to see the former lead singer of Men at Work, Colin Hay, at The Granada Theater in Dallas. I brought the tape with me thinking it might be cool to have him sign it if he made an appearance at the merch table or something. He did! I remember asking him, “When was the last time you saw one of these?” “About fifteen years ago,” he said with a grin. Every other fan in that line had a record album. He’d probably signed a hundred of those that week alone. I could tell that the 8-track actually brought something out of him. The look on his face was like I reintroduced him to an old friend. It brought him back to another time. I thought, man, that was awesome. Not just that he signed my tape (which was admittedly pretty rad), but that I made a tiny connection with one of my heroes. One that he might even think about later and share with someone else down the road.
Your collection of signed 8-tracks is impressive, and you’ve managed to get several big names on some of those carts. Talk about a few of your biggest autograph scores?
I’m still in shock over a couple of the tapes I’ve been able to get signed. Elton John was a huge one. I use the term hero a lot, and he’s certainly one of them. He stopped signing from the stage in concert years ago, but I managed to get his autograph on a copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in 2014. I think it even surprised him when he saw it. I remember him going, “8-track? Wow!”
Steve Martin was a huge score for me, too. He can be tough to get, but I went as far as to dress up as 1978 Steve in the white suit and arrow through the head to get his attention at a show. That night, he played the banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers. One of the guys in the band appreciated the effort and took the tape backstage for Steve to sign.
Any time a musician stops an entire concert to sign my tape from the stage and share it with the audience, that’s a big deal to me. It’s happened a few times. Cheap Trick. Bryan Adams. Jimmy Buffett. Sammy Hagar.
But without question, the biggest score in my collection is an 8-track signed by Paul McCartney. I’ve been a massive Beatles fan my whole life. Been lucky enough to see Sir Paul in concert a handful of times. He’s my favorite Beatle. Love all the solo stuff, too. I remember putting an 8-track copy of The Beatles’ Revolver and a Sharpie in my back pocket before a show JUST IN CASE. Never thought it would actually happen. No fucking way. Between security moats and thousands of fans, he’d never bother, right?
Well, somehow, at the end of the show when he finished the final encore, I wormed my way to an unoccupied sliver of the rail in the front row, way off to the left. Paul and the band were taking their bows and waving goodnight to the crowd. In a sea of people holding up record albums and posters with handwritten marriage proposals on them, I waved my 8-track in Paul’s direction. Paul motioned for me to throw him the tape, though I couldn’t believe it at first. He motioned again as if to say, “It’s now or never, dude. Let’s do this. I gotta go!” So, I jammed the Sharpie into the opening of cartridge and hurled it over the security moat. By some miracle, Paul leaned over, caught it with both hands, then took his time walking over to the mic at the center of the stage. He said something like, “Goodnight people of Texas, we’ll see ya next time.” My fear was that Paul would forget who threw him the tape and blindly hurl it back into the crowd. But he signed that tape and threw it right back to me. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. Not only did I kinda, sorta play catch with my favorite Beatle, but I have the greatest-ever memento of that night. It is hands down, the coolest damn thing I own.
(There’s a super grainy video of Paul signing my tape. Someone in the cheap seats shot the whole encore and zoomed in on the deal.)
Again, it’s less about the autograph than it is about making a connection with the artist. They see a million albums and those can sometimes be off-putting. I can only imagine that signing autographs on the same things over and over has to get old. But there’s something about the 8-track that’s very disarming. It proves I’m a fan and not some eBay autograph hound. I think most artists appreciate that and are happy to oblige in those instances. I’ve had lots of artists tell me that they’re breaking their own “no autograph” rule by signing one of my tapes.
Many late-era 8-track issues are tough to come by and are quite rare. Autographs aside, which 8-track recordings were you surprised even existed? Have you run across artists that did not know their albums were issued on the 8-track format?
If you were a member of the RCA or Columbia record clubs in the mid-80s, you could still buy a few popular albums on 8-track until 1988. That was the only way you could get new releases on 8-track.
The legends speak of a Beastie Boys License To Ill 8-track, though I have yet to see proof. If you see one, let me know! Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast is another one I’m surprised exists. So are the first couple of Whitesnake albums. Paul Simon’s Graceland is another. Michael Bolton actually released his first two albums on 8-track when he was known as Michael Bolotin. I’m still waiting to get mine signed. There’s Richard Marx’s 1987 debut. U2’s Rattle and Hum was a surprise to me, given how late into the 80s that album was released. Spinal Tap came out with an 8-track for their 1992 album Break Like The Wind, a promo that was sent to radio stations. Though I’m not sure that one counts. It was basically another band’s 8-track with the Spinal Tap label stuck on top of it. I found one on eBay a few years ago. Had to have it.
The biggest surprise for me when I meet classic-rock era musicians is how many artists don’t realize their music was ever released on 8-track. Again, these people see record albums, CDs, and cassettes all the time. So, being the guy to introduce one of my heroes to something of theirs they’ve never seen before is pretty rad.
The guys in Huey Lewis and The News had never seen their album Fore! on 8-track before signing my copy.
Related: “Huey Lewis’ Top 10 Songs”
Chubby Checker. Brad Gillis from Night Ranger was blown away when I showed him a copy of his band’s 1985 album 7 Wishes on 8-track at a local music festival years ago. I mean, he flipped out. He ran backstage to have original members Jack Blades and Kelly Keagy sign it, too.
Eric Idle didn’t realize that any of the Monty Python albums were released on 8-track. That was a cool moment getting to show him his first Python cartridge.
I think the strangest version of this encounter has to be Barry Bostwick, the guy who played Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I asked him if he’s ever seen the Rocky Horror soundtrack on 8-track before. He told me he’d never SEEN an 8-track before. He kept asking me to explain to him what it was. “So, what is this again?” He may have been messing with me, but I’m pretty sure he was being sincere.
Watermelon-smashing comic legend Gallagher didn’t realize his album came out on 8-track. I’m just glad he didn’t take a Sledge-O-Matic® to mine after he signed it.
What’s really cool is, most of these artists have a Facebook or Instagram account, so they get just as excited about taking a picture with ME and posting it as I do with them. When I see one of my tapes – or me – pop up on their account, that’s pretty bitchin’.
What is your fondest or most unusual experience you’ve had getting an 8-track signed that doesn’t include a big named star?
That’s a great question. The one name that immediately comes to mind is Paul Williams. Some people might have to Google Paul’s name now, but this dude was everywhere in the 70s. (He was in a recent documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive, so I don’t think he’d be offended by that.) As an actor, he was in a ton of hit movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. He made a bunch of appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He wrote hit songs for other artists like Barbara Streisand, David Bowie, and Three Dog Night. He even wrote The Love Boat theme. But the work I know him from best are his collaborations with Jim Henson and The Muppets. Paul is the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection.” As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was infatuated by The Muppets, so that song is particularly special to me. A few years ago, I emailed Paul asking him if he’d sign my copy of The Muppet Movie on 8-track and he immediately wrote back with his address. Sometime after that, I met him after a concert in Vegas. He was so nice to me. Took pictures, signed my tape, the whole bit. What a sweet, brilliant guy. I’ll never forget that.
As an autograph collector, are there any artists you consider your “white whales?”
Man, I always say that if I can get Paul McCartney to sign an 8-track, anything’s possible. I’ve had a ton of successes, along with a few artists who’ve stiffed me for one reason or another. Hey, they’re under no obligation to sign anything for anyone. I get that. But the one artist who’s eluded me like nobody else is Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead. I’m a HUGE Deadhead, and I’ve seen Bob Weir perform dozens of times. I’ve waved a tape from the front row at his shows. I’ve hung around stage doors and tour buses waiting to see if he’d walk by. Nothing. I’ve tried 30 times, at least. But I kinda love that I haven’t gotten him, yet. It keeps things interesting.
Be honest. Do you own a working 8-track player?
Heck yeah, I do! Actually, I get asked this all the time. It’s the number one question I get from classic rock artists when they first see my tapes. Todd Rundgren asked if it’s an old pickup truck. I wish! Actually, the player I have is a portable, banana yellow contraption called a Dynamite 8. I got it on eBay many years ago. They were very popular in the mid-70s. It’s got a denotator-like plunger that lets you change the song. Looks like a Fisher-Price toy, but it’s actually pretty badass.
-Photo: A selection of signed 8-tracks, courtesy of Jason Niebaum
Eight tracks were a necessary evil with some cars had built in systems. You really had no choice. I still have over 600 albums sitting in my garage.
This is fascinating; great interview. I grew up in the 70s, and we had a house full of 8-track tapes. Alas, my dad had terrible musical taste, mostly stuff like the Carpenters and Herb Alpert and Henri Mancini; but we had one rock tape, Paul McCartney’s Ram, and I would insist he play it all the time (though as a child I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand why I loved it so much more than, say, Barbra Streisand). The format itself was awful; with the songs divided into four “tracks,” you couldn’t skip around very easily (which meant my family would be stuck listening to “Monkberry Moon Delight” even though my parents hated it). Alas, that tape was in the glove compartment when my dad’s care was stolen, so I never saw it again.
If he has the spinal tap 8 track i would be interested in purchasing it, if he would sell it.