I’m not sure where George Orwell got the idea for “1984”. I’ve read the book five or six times in my life and it doesn’t have the aroma of a single “Eureka!” moment. Nor do I suspect that he had a deadline and a minimum wordcount to work towards, and after a frustratingly unsatisfying morning of writing descriptions of animatronic robots that serve complimentary jams and jellies, he decided to change the theme park into a totalitarian dystopia where all individual identity and desire is subservient to the needs of a faceless dictator, and see if that got the creative juices flowing.
No, I think it was a long, slogging process in which the larger work refused to reveal itself until the story was ready to be told. Surely if he knew that my idea for an iTunes controller that mimicked the behaviour and user interface of an 8-track tape player just sort of came to me all at once, and that the dream was given form only a couple of hours later, he would have been left with a bleak, distrustful outlook on humanity and Animal Farm wouldn’t have been the frothy frolic that generations of schoolkids have grown to love.
Yeah, it’s for real; download it from my Web site (www.andyi.com) if you don’t believe me. I’m old enough that my parents had an 8-track player but young enough that I don’t think they ever actually played it. The deck was a dusty box that remained tethered to the corpus of the living room stereo. Cartridges of Engelbert Humperdinck and Barbra Streisand and the soundtrack from Fiddler On The Roof waited out their sentence in a polite stack next to the thing.
I just never understood the concept. I fired it up once, as a kid, just to establish that this was indeed a working component and not merely decorative. You slide in a cassette and you’re off and running: the tape starts playing whatever song happens to be underneath the playhead, at whatever point in the song it was when the thing was last played. Controls consist of a single button marked Track: when pressed, the playhead moves down along the width of the tape, aligning itself with the next pair of stereo tracks. So if you’re halfway through You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore when you suddenly realize that you’re not a sappy 14-year-old girl with no taste, you push the button and a second later you find yourself listening to the final 20 per cent of The Way We Were, which appears four or five songs further along.
Now, of course, we shouldn’t dismiss this concept out-of-hand. I listened to a Barbra Streisand CD all the way through, once – yes, the phrases “I bet you” and “say… this keg is still nearly half-full!” were involved – and if there were some sort of magical device that could have teleported me over Evergreen, Second-Hand Rose and all the selections from her disco-fuelled attempt at a mid-career revival, gosh, I would have got on my knees and thanked the dear Lord for allowing me to live in the Push-Button World of Tomorrow.
Still, it seems an odd way to enjoy an album. I’m given to understand that even decent albums were released on 8-track. Take The Who By Numbers, for example. I know from personal experience that there’s great temptation to skip over However Much I Booze and cut straight to that most air-guitar-in-your-underpants-able classic, Squeeze Box. On CD, it’s a two-step process: (1) remove trousers, (2) press button… and you’re free to execute this procedure in any order you choose. But on 8-track, you just have to stand there in your briefs and stab the Track button over and over until, magically, you find that you’ve been listening to snatches of other music for five minutes and the playhead is now at the correct spot.
I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I could have got my hands on a player and a supply of tapes simply by waiting until early next Tuesday morning and cruising the neighbourhood ahead of the garbage collectors, of course. But this desire to experience music through the magic of 8-track technology was a profoundly stupid and pointless impulse, and like all such ideas it’s important to indulge them before common sense and/or a spouse can talk you out of it.
With iTrack, away goes the slick iTunes interface. It’s replaced by tacky simulated woodgrain, the butt-end of a cartridge, and that one magical Track button. I clicked it, and after a second’s pause the app had selected a song and a cuepoint at random, and started playing to U2’s Vertigo, 22 seconds in. Click. Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones, 1 minute and 31 seconds along. Click. Prevenge by They Might Be Giants, at the 49-second mark. Ready to Take a Chance Again by Barry Manilow, 8 seconds from the end, which is precisely the right place to pick up that particular song.
It was – not unpleasantly, mind you – like being at the end of one of those sci-fi movies where the transpositioning code on the time machine is malfunctioning and our heroes can’t get to the present-day and defuse the bomb hidden in the UN podium before they randomly leap from century to century and stop assassination after assassination.
After a compact three hours of iTracking through my 12,000-song iTunes library, I started to see why the 8-track concept might have caught on. The Seventies, after all, was a simpler, quainter time, when cocaine was healthy and non-addicting, every bit as safe as cigarettes. So with millions of people enjoying a morning snort or seven on their way to work, the music-listening public lacked the focus, attention-span, and higher brain function necessary to appreciate Quadrophenia in linear form. The 8-track is a brilliant example of accurately assessing your target customer base.
The experiment’s over, but I’m still using iTrack. I have more than 800 CDs in my iTunes library. It’s the residue of The Big Rip, a month-long process during which I ripped every CD I own in their entirety, omitting nothing. It’s just too much music to listen to with any sort of logic or plan; the best way to discover that Elvis Costello’s cover of I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself is only, like, the most awesome song ever written is to punch a Track button and drop in right at the bridge, without having to sit through an intro.
Which is not to say that I condone our forefathers’ choice of format. All iTrack does is confirm the power of the Button.
I think the app demonstrates that it’s a marvellous system
for playback in the digital realm.
The snag, though, it that the decks in our grandparents’ Ford Pintos were not, in fact, 24,100-Track Players. So perhaps we shouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that when your target consumer is a doped-up idiot, you can market a sweat sock filled with gravel and call it Technology.
And so, the foundations for Microsoft’s success were well-laid. Class dismissed. MW