Annus Horribilis

2020 was not a particularly good year. In fact it was a horrible year. Normally, at year's end, we're supposed to reminisce about the year. But I think we'd all rather forget that 2020 ever happened. Let's ignore it, and instead skip back all the way to 1984, to a story about a Christian rock band, an LP record, and a very mysterious inner groove.

The year is 1984. The timely novel of the year was published 35 years prior by George Orwell. Ronald Reagan resides in the White House. All the cool kids have Commodore 64 computers. The new Compact Disc is getting some serious traction, but if you want to listen to music, you probably pull an LP record off your sagging record shelf.

One of the LPs you pull down might be the new album, just released, entitled Electric Eye. It is from a band named Prodigal. It is the band's second album, and will win Best of the Year honors from both Contemporary Christian Music magazine, and Campus Life magazine. Prodigal will release a third album, then they will disband in 1986. Their Electric Eye LP passes into obscurity. But a secret is hidden within.

Take a look at an LP record. Hold it to the light just right, and you'll see the inner groove become widely spaced; it is designed to carry the tonearm inward at the end of the side. It can hold the stylus there, and also trigger some turntables to pick up the tonearm. Looking carefully, you will also see some numbers and/or letters in the inner run-off groove area. These markings are matrix numbers. As with the groove itself, they are placed on stampers before they are replicated to the LP. They identify the side long before the paper label is applied. And, they can designate things like the record company and recording dates.

Now pull out your copy of Electric Eye. You'll see the marking “C-64” etched onto the run-off area of side 1. What could it possibly mean? Then you notice something extremely odd, something you've probably never seen on any other LP. There is a thin groove segment inside the run-off area of side 2 — a groove that a turntable would ordinarily never play.

Well, the “C-64” refers to the Commodore 64, and the run-off groove on side 2 contains a BASIC computer program. To state the obvious, data on vinyl was a very niche technology in the 80s, and moreover had absolutely no real commercial value. But data-to-audio and back again was certainly doable. Remember dial-up modems?

In any case, this LP does indeed contain a hidden computer program. And as you might recall, one of the ways to load programs into the Commodore 64 was via a cassette recorder. Intrigued? Then you should watch this video that explains how the program can be retrieved, and what the program accomplishes. No, it doesn't tell us the meaning of life. But it's satisfying to know that in 2020, some 36 years after it was hidden there, we can appreciate a warm message from the past.

Compared to 2020, 2021 will be a better year. Much better. I guarantee it. Stay cool, and I'll see you on the flip side.

A relatively unrelated postscript: If you take pleasure viewing the night sky, you should check out the Great Conjunction, preferably on the evening after this blog is posted: December 21. An alignment of Saturn and Jupiter that is this close happens only a few times over thousands of years. But if you miss it, don't worry — a much better alignment will occur on March 8, 4523.

utopianemo's picture

A buddy of mine liked Prodigal and I'm familiar with Electric Eye. Years later, with a sheepish embarrassment, he disavowed his former folly. But that's crazy. It was a good listen. Thanks for the blast from the past!

utopianemo's picture

.....And the secret was super interesting!