Tinkering with tape: Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973)


(Above: 1970s technology – turning kids into radio stars all over the world)

November 25, 1976 was Thanksgiving Day. As we almost always did, we went over the canal and around the forest preserve to get to my grandparents’ house on the South Side of Chicago. Our ritual for the holiday was not unlike what other families did: we ate, there was football, people napped. If you’re a seven-year-old that’s not terribly interested in football (St. Louis vs. Dallas, if I remember right), you have to find some other way to keep yourself amused.  This particular Thanksgiving was memorable for that, because I got to tinker with a new (to me) piece of technology: the cassette recorder.

My grandparents had a Ross Record-O-Matic cartridge recorder. It’s the same one that my parents used to record me when I was two and three. (Those tapes survive, and are on my list of things to digitize.) It was laying around in their basement, and I asked if I could use it.  I forget who it was that showed me how to plug in the microphone and use it, but I spent the evening doing bad impressions, reading made-up advertisements, interviewing people who were trying to watch the football game, and cracking bad jokes.  Put another way, it was not unlike the same radio show I did thousands of times later in life.

Suffice to say, this was an important milestone.  For my next birthday (#8) I would receive my own basic tape recorder. Two years after that I’d find myself in a sort of independent study in the sixth grade where I recorded assignments for my teacher to grade later (this will get its own post in the future). On days off from school I’d sit in my room and play disc jockey, even figuring out how to tape the records and talk over the intros at the same time.  And then, of course, I would do nothing with any of this interest until I got to college.  Thanks, math-and-science-centric high school guidance department!

Why the Elton John song, though?  An accident, pure and simple. When I got permission to use the tape recorder on Thanksgiving, I was also told I could use any of the old cassettes that were in the box with the recorder. So, I grabbed an orange Audio Magnetics cartridge and threw it in.  My aunt Patti, who would have just finished high school around this time, used to use the tapes to record songs off of WLS – and this was one of the tapes she used at that time.  It turns out the reason the tape recorder was banished to the basement was that it no longer erased recordings – it just added new audio over existing audio.  Put another way, the creation of my impromptu “show” ruined a perfectly good WLS aircheck.  I haven’t listened to the tape all the way through in years, but am now curious to dig it out and pay attention to what’s going on in the background to see if there’s anyone I know. As I introduce myself, saying “Today is Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976,” we can clearly hear Sir Elton in the background, performing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” As long as I’ve had this tape – about forty years now, to be exact, I’ve always associated that song with going into my own sort of showbiz.

You can hear “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – without a lispy seven-year-old talking over it – by clicking here.

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