Is there anybody going to listen to my story?

To tell a story in a compelling way is an art; to do it to a melody is a wondrous thing.

For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of tales of heartbreak, tales of war and famine, tales of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.

Not surprisingly, these ballads tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, which is hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went a little beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected a handful of tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.

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“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

81Gd3K9ctQL._SL1416_Great story-songs paint an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In the case of this remembrance from Chapin’s real past, there’s Harry, the taxi driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they share an uneasy moment.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, but as they part, he appears to be content just driving a cab, while she seems unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.  Chapin’s debut single reached #24 on the pop charts in the fall of 1972.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

meatloafThe entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy material for a Broadway stage play, with multiple stories about the exploits of numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman for his pal, Mr. Loaf, to sing.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” the vivid story of a teenage boy hoping to seduce his girlfriend.  They volley back and forth until she asks for his undying love in exchange for a night of passion (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”).  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties across America.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

MI0000383010Motown artists were known for short, punchy dance tunes, but they weren’t opposed to taking a stab at the story-song.  The Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September, a day I’ll always remember”).  It was originally recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the Top 40 version clocked in at nearly seven minutes.  The vocal group’s final #1 single set the tone for many more soul records that told stories over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

Front Cover copyThis song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from California who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

beatles_1478685cBy the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it was only a matter of time before they (actually Paul McCartney) came up with a story-song.  “Rocky Raccoon,” with an arrangement dominated by acoustic guitar and jangly piano, is basically a country-western yarn with McCartney front and center singing about South Dakota rivals Rocky and Dan, and the object of their competing affections, a girl named Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

51nB9lgIE-L._SX300_QL70_The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically crossed over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969.  The tune tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

thIn 1969, songwriter Kris Kristofferson wrote this poignant story of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.  It was first recorded by Roger Miller (a #12 hit on the country charts), then by Kristofferson himself, and then Gordon Lightfoot, and in those versions Bobby (Bobbi?) was the woman.  But then it was recorded by Janis Joplin in 1970 only a few days before her death, and Bobby became the male character.  Her version went to #1 on the pop charts in the spring of 1971 and remains the definitive rendition.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

wreckitlCanada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for more than ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with his ode to the sunken freighter.  It resonated with Americans and Canadians alike, especially those who lived near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story artfully told but, frankly, one of Lightfoot’s more boring songs, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

don-mclean-american-pie--albumcoverproject.comNot so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” took listeners on a journey, told in enigmatic language, through the evolution of rock and roll from its birth in 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its veiled references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and events like Woodstock and Altamont, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

Bobbie-gentry-Ode-toThis sleepy, sultry number about a fictional Deep South tragedy would’ve worked perfectly in the soundtrack to “In the Heat of the Night,” the Oscar-winning movie from the same year.  As it is, the song was a big #1 hit on the pop charts for then-newcomer Gentry, who wrote it with sensitive, descriptive lyrics.  It tells the tale of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to news of the suicide of local boy Billie Jo MacAllister at the Tallahatchie Bridge, the subsequent passing of the family patriarch, and the effects of the two deaths.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

alices-restaurant-1Perhaps the longest story in popular music (and subsequently made into a feature film), “Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute rambling account (apparently true) of what happened to songwriter Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one Thanksgiving Day during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness and disbelief at the folly and absurdity of war as well as the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

dan-fogelberg-same-old-lang-syneThis tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people who recall past flings and relationships, and Fogelberg deftly weaved in a few bars of “Auld Lang Syne” as the song concludes.  It reached #9 on the charts and still gets plenty of airplay during the Yuletide season.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

cd-cover“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  For his hugely successful LP “Fly Like an Eagle” in 1976, Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, kind of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.  It reached #11 as the first of three hits from the album that year.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in his movie “Natural Born Killers” after the felonious couple Miller described in the song.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

John_cougar-jack_diane_s“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  John Mellencamp was still Johnny Cougar when he wrote this commercial story-song about another down-and-out  couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Allegedly based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up a bit and gave it a more contemporary bent for the ’80s audience.  With a catchy guitar riff and stutter-stop rhythm, it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1982, and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

ZumaThis 11-minute opus, found on Young’s sprawling “Zuma” album, tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period of his life and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The-Wild-The-Innocent--th-017Like Dylan, The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as “Incident on 57th Street,” an under-the-radar saga from his “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Bad Company Straight ShooterWriting a story-song was not the exclusive domain of American composers — witness this minor classic by British rockers Bad Company.  Found on their “Straight Shooter” LP, “Shooting Star” tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his favorites in the Bad Company repertoire.

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGloryThis one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Bob_Dylan_-_DesireDylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  Perhaps his most notable is the one about real-life boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, who, though far from a saint, got unjustly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently outraged to write this lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.

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Damn, that 8-track, it takes me way back

When I was 17, in 1972, my best friend had an 8-track tape player installed in his Ford Maverick.  Like me, he was a music lover and album buyer, but he had grown tired of having to listen to commercial radio in the car, with its incessant commercials and DJ banter.

Now he had the option of enjoying 8-track tape versions of some of his favorite albums iWbHN-1460403005-314-lists-8tracks_beastieboys_1200while he drove around town.  True, he had to buy the tapes even though he already owned the albums…but it was worth it to him to be able to control the music he could listen to on road trips.

As the guy riding shotgun, I enjoyed this too.  But it didn’t take long for me to see several significant, annoying drawbacks of the 8-track format which prevented me from ever considering investing in it.  To this day, for the reasons I’ll explain, I contend the 8-track tape was an ill-conceived and poorly executed idea.

Perhaps you shared my distaste for 8-tracks and didn’t succumb to the temptations of portability and convenience.  Or maybe you joined the millions of other Americans who embraced 8-tracks in the 1970s, only to rue the day several years later when the entire format went the way of the dodo bird (and rightly so).

Here are the six most obvious defective characteristics of the 8-track tape that, in my view, doomed the format to an early obsolescence:

No rewind or fast-forward options.  

At home, when you listened to albums, you could change songs easily.  Simply pick up the needle on your turntable and move effortlessly to another specific song, or put on another album.

If you were one of those rare folks who had a reel-to-reel tape deck, you could hit “FF” or “REW” to get to the desired place on the tape.

149161e85e1fd464c0b2fcd2dedbc692--the-player-record-playerWith 8-track tapes, you didn’t have that flexibility.   Eight-track tapes were configured as four “programs” sharing four parallel portions of the tape bandwidth.  If you were listening to a song and decided you wanted to skip to the next song, or maybe go back and listen to the same song again, you were out of luck.  All you could do was jump to one of the next programs and listen to whatever song was playing on that program.  To listen to the song you really wanted to hear, you had to listen to other songs first before the one you wanted came back around on the program.  Man, was this irritating!

Messing with the way the artist sequenced the music.  

Because 8-track tapes are set up as four programs lasting about 10 or 11 minutes each, the order of songs often had to be changed in order to maximize efficient use of the available tape.  For example, if an album’s first three songs lasted more than 10 minutes, one song might be replaced on Program 1 by a different, shorter song from later on the album just so the music would fit the 8-track’s limited format.  This might happen on all four programs, completely altering the flow of the music as intended by the artist.  A particularly egregious example was “Abbey Road” (see tracking below).

1 Abbey road white appleEven worse, sometimes there was no mathematical way to make the various album tracks fit in four 10-minute sets, so one or more tracks would actually have to be interrupted midway through.  The tape would then fade out, and several seconds (even as much as a minute or more) would pass before it would automatically switch to the next program, and the song would then fade back in at the point of interruption and proceed to its conclusion.

Needless to say, this was an abominable way to listen to a song, and certainly not the artist’s intent.

Physical limitations of the tape.

The movement of the head at the point where it switched between programs could sometimes pull the tape up or down, causing the tape to fold over and start playing the back side of the tape. The tape would continue to play, buy very muffled and barely audible. Continued playing would flip the entire tape over, so the tape would be wound on the reel inside with the backside showing.  The program switch point is often the place where the tapes would sometimes be ingested into the player (“eaten”), most often when the tape head moved from program 4 to program 1, its furthest track change movement. At that point, the tape was ruined, and the player could no longer play that tape, or any tape.

Head alignment:  Misalignment results in reduced high frequencies and allows sounds from adjacent tracks to bleed over, an effect sometimes known as “double-tracking.”  Among audio service technicians, there used to be a joke that “the 8-track is the only audio device which knocks itself out of alignment four times during each album.”

The sensing foil that allows the tape to switch programs would sometimes dry up, fall off, and the tape would separate, and disappear inside the sealed cartridge. This was especially prevalent on bootleg tapes that typically used cheaper sensing foils.  In 8-track-tape-unwinding-from-case-1024x768general, the 8-track market was flooded with cheaper bootleg tapes, found at truck stops and service stations.

Had the tape been reinforced on both sides at this point, the tapes would have been much more reliable. Many modern collectors replace the old sensing foil with a more robust, properly reinforced foil.

Capstan wear and buildup was also a chronic problem with 8-tracks.  As tape residue, dirt and lubricant built up on the capstan, the tape speed would increase and, since the buildup was uneven, the tape speed would become correspondingly uneven.  Similarly, some units were subject to the capstan wear, causing a decrease in tape speed.

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I had a couple of other friends at that time who invested in reel-to-reel tape decks as an additional component in their home stereo system.  These devices, introduced in the 1950s, became more popular by the 1970s.  They offered high-quality sound but were relatively expensive and a little tricky to operate for most casual music fans.  But they 432ad570-2007-11e7-b057-e54777097c6d-500gave consumers the ability to assemble customized mixed tapes that collected choice tracks from their album collections.

I loved this concept.  It was like being your own DJ, without the commercials and talk.  You could put together mixes for every occasion — holiday parties, pool bashes, romantic encounters and more.

But reel-to-reel tapes were not portable.  You could take them to a friend’s house only if he/she also had the necessary reel-to-reel player.  Most important, you couldn’t play them in a car.  So I chose not to invest in this format either.

Enter the cassette tape.  When first introduced in the early ’60s, their sound quality was 64a39c41e3cbaf61a22a0e03b8794082--mixtape-cassettepathetic, marred by a prominent hiss and muffled sound.  Their use was adequate for use in voice dictation and playback of children’s nursery rhymes and such.  So music lovers shunned the format…until the Dolby Noise Reduction technology arrived in the early ’70s to substantially improve cassette tape sound quality.  This development, combined with newer chromium-dioxide tapes, made cassettes a much more attractive format.

Cassettes therefore became ubiquitous around 1975, and the 8-track began its inevitable slide toward extinction.

So what was the thinking behind the 8-track, anyway?

The “Stereo 8 track” cartridge was designed by Richard Kraus while working under Bill Lear for his Lear Jet Corporation in 1963. The major change from the reel-to-reel tape players then available was to incorporate a neoprene rubber and nylon pinch roller into the cartridge itself, rather than to make the pinch roller a part of the tape player, image-2reducing mechanical complexity.

In September 1965, Ford Motor Company introduced factory-installed and dealer-installed 8-track tape players as an option on three of its models, and RCA introduced hundreds of Stereo-8 cartridges from its labels of recording artists’ catalogs.  This push from major corporations helped spark the interest in this new product, despite its drawbacks which would become obvious later.
Cars and trucks, and some homes, had 8-tracks throughout the 1970s, but by the 1980s, you didn’t see 8-track players much anymore, except in pickup trucks in backwater regions that hadn’t yet figured out there were better ways of listening to their music.  By 1982, you could no longer buy new music in 8-track format.
Some folks loved the format and defended it to its dying day.  Here’s one opinion from someone who felt 8-track was superior to the cassette:
“Cassettes sound like shit.  They only play at 1-7/8 IPS (inches per second), so even with all the metal tape formulations, and Dolby, etc., the sound quality is limited compared to an 8-track.  If 8-track manufacturers had invested in the metal and chrome tape the cassette had, it would have blown away the cassette, because 8-track plays at 3.75 IPS, twice the speed of a cassette, and with analog tape, it’s all about tape speed.”
“Those who say that not being able to rewind an 8-track is a drawback are crazy.  You could just let it keep playing.  Want to start over again? Just switch from track 2, to 3-4 and back to 1.  There you are, rewound, with a few button clicks.”
Others were merciless in their assessment of 8-tracks:
“The primary reason the 8-track became extinct was because it was an unreliable piece of shit.  They simply weren’t built to last and, subsequently, they earned a reputation as ticking time bombs.  Truth be told, brand new eight-tracks often sounded good, and the tapes themselves were virtually indestructible — they never melted in the sun or cracked.  It was the internal components that started to fall to pieces over time.  If the manufacturers hadn’t opted for cheap construction, things might have turned out differently.”
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“If the heads became misaligned even slightly (a VERY common occurrence), one track would bleed through into another track.  Worst case scenario:  two songs at equal pitch would play at the same time.  Best case:  a faint background of an altogether different track.  Either way, it was a thoroughly miserable listening experience.”

So there you have it.  The 8-track format, while perhaps not all that bad a concept, was shoddily merchandised and manufactured, and nothing was done to combat the onslaught of pirate/bootleg tapes on the market, which helped kill its credibility.

Cassettes, on the other hand, lasted well into the ’90s until the digital compact disc format completely overwhelmed analog tape in all its forms.

Now, even the CD is considered a dinosaur, as consumers turn to mp3 files and online services to purchase their music.

But if you want to get a chuckle out of anyone who lived through the ’70s, pull out an 8-track tape and ask them to slip it into their player!