Re-Creating My Dad’s Long Lost 1986 Treadmill Mix Tape

by Howie Decker @HowardTheDeck on December 31, 2020

in The 80s, Trends

I’ve always loved Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing. Besides being a great song and a boss music video, I’ve always just associated it with the 80s- the best damn decade in pop culture history.

But it goes a little deeper than that. For me the song always sat upon that exclusive top shelf everyone has in their mind/heart- that shelf where you keep songs and other stimuli that invoke a very specific and powerful emotional response. You might not even particularly like the song (which isn’t the case here, trust me), but the memory or feeling attached is significant. You know the ones- those songs that instantly take you back to a very specific and meaningful place, be it a wedding reception, a summer, a relationship, a chapter of your life. Odd as it may sound, Money For Nothing sits on my top shelf because it takes me back to some of my happiest and most valuable memories. Money For Nothing takes me back to my dad.

When I was young, our family seemed to invest in one “big ticket” household item per year. One year it was a computer, another a dishwasher, a new refrigerator the next. In 1988 it was a new Oldsmobile. Multiple big ticket items per year just weren’t in the budget though. Nothing surprising here- my father was a cop, and my mom stayed at home until I was old enough to be trusted to get off the school bus on my own and keep myself alive from 4 to 5PM. My parents did what they could with the money they had. The Decker Big Ticket Item of 1986 was a “family” treadmill.

As with many household items, the “family” prefix was mostly a misnomer. My dad logged the vast majority of the mileage that treadmill saw, but while I barely have memories of the dishwasher, refrigerator or Oldsmobile, that treadmill plays such a huge role in my lasting childhood memories.

I was ten years old in 1986, and my clearest memories of my father’s treadmill time involve mix tapes and headbands. My dad kept a white headband draped over the handle of the machine, a must-wear for a bald man looking to keep sweat out of his eyes during a workout. The mix tapes were just as essential. Sometimes played via a Radio Shack boombox we lovingly called “The Realistic” (a reference to its brand name), and less frequently played privately on his Walkman, we heard those same 12-16 songs on repeat for the better part of a year. On non-Walkman days he had to play his tape loud to hear it over the whirr of the treadmill and the pounding of his steps, but our house was very small, so when dad was on the ‘mill you didn’t hear much but the music.

I somehow inherited that treadmill mix tape when I went off to college ten years later. At that point it must have become a permanent resident of one of those wood grain three-drawer mini cassette dressers, and I had just taken the whole thing with me when I moved. Years later, the case and the tapes it housed are long gone, but my memories of that treadmill mix tape’s contents remain somewhat intact. There are a handful of songs that were on that tape that remain in heavy rotation on adult contemporary or 80s music stations, but some others take a small amount of deliberate effort to hear these days. Regardless, when one comes on I can usually identify it as a trusty treadmill mix tape warhorse, a 3-minute fitness anthem from a long gone era.

I think about my dad a lot. I think about him when I look at my sons, and how much he would have adored and spoiled them. I think about the fact that he knew deep down that I’d end up marrying the girl I was close to for nearly a decade before his passing, but that he never got to see us “make it official”. He never got to see me as a husband, as a father, and I think about how different our family’s life would be today if he were still here. I think about how much better my mom’s life was with him in it. Sometimes I find myself playing out hypothetical “if he was still alive” scenarios. An exercise in futility for sure, but a cathartic coping mechanism nearly ten years after his passing. So much has changed, but I’m so much like him now that I can extrapolate how he would feel about and react to things if he were still here. My wife and I play the “If Pete were here, this is what he’d say” game often, and we’re always spot on. My five year-old references “Grandpa Pete” occasionally, an abstract paternal figure he’ll never meet or have any memories of.

It’s silly to ascribe all of my childhood memories, and more specifically my memories of my dad, to a handful of 80s songs, and I’d never do that. But I do have a distinct desire to see all of these songs collected, even if just in print, one more time. Individually they serve as random and brief memory catalysts, popping up on the radio and giving me pause to remember my father and my childhood, but to see them collected in one place will bring the kind of lasting memory high that I crave. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and I’m honored to have those of you reading this along for the process of piecing together a precious memory.

I began this project as a list in the Notes app on my phone. I figured I would add songs as I remembered them, sometimes reminded by a random recollection. I found I could rattle off five of the mix tape’s songs instantly, without having to think too hard. Before I list these, I’ll give you my father’s single criteria for what made a good “treadmill song”: the beat had to match a reasonable walking or running pace for him. Some were songs to run to, some a brisk walk. He let the beat dictate his pace, and I even remember him constructing the tape to end with a “cool down” song. The five that came to mind instantly:

  • The Power of Love – Huey Lewis and the News
  • Take On Me – a-ha
  • Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears
  • St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion) – John Parr
  • Money for Nothing – Dire Straits

Not your typical fitness songs, right? I think most people could see a fitness montage set to a few of those songs but no one in their right mind is “pushing through the wall” and air-punching to a-ha. That was the best part about Pete Decker: it didn’t need to be a quintessential “pump up” song like Eye of the Tiger. It just needed a beat.

I don’t remember much about the order in which the songs appeared on the tape, but I know it was important to him. Momentum was everything. I know Everybody Wants to Rule the World was the first song on side 2. To be honest, when the idea to re-create the mix tape hit me, I had no idea what year it was born or existed in. I only arrived at 1986 as the year of the mix tape (and the year we got the treadmill), when I realized that all of the songs I could immediately identify were from 1985-1986. My dad was by no means on the cutting edge of the new age music scene, so all of these songs would have to have seen heavy radio station airplay to have been on his radar, meaning 1986 would really be the earliest point that the tape could have been assembled.

Armed with the realization that the remaining songs more than likely saw time on the Billboard Top 100 in 1985 and 1986, I was able to identify more songs that were on the tape:

  • Shout – whether he knew it or not, he had a thing for Tears for Fears and I love that
  • Broken Wings – Mister Mister
  • West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
  • Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel
  • Raspberry Beret – Prince and the Revolution
  • The Boys of Summer – Don Henley
  • If You Love Somebody Set Them Free – Sting
  • Out of Touch – Daryl Hall & John Oates
  • The Heat is On – Glenn Frey
  • Never Surrender – Corey Hart

Special note about that last song, one that should have immediately come to mind with the first five, based on the circumstances: my dad had a part-time job as a limousine driver shortly after retiring from the Sheriff’s Department and before becoming a U.S. Marshall. The company he worked for, called Shuffles Limousine, was owned by an old friend, and they had somehow become the default limo provider for any musical act or performer that came to the Rochester War Memorial on tour. Among others, he drove Bob Seger, Sam Kinison, David Lee Roth, Judas Priest (I only list Judas Priest because of how many times I’ve pictured my father trying to make small talk with them) and more, and somewhere I still have a stack of autographed backstage passes to prove it. One of those acts was Corey Hart. My dad became a fan based on how personable the young and upcoming Canadian singer was, and how well his entire entourage treated him. Corey Hart became our de facto “family rock star” for a few years.

I wish I could remember what the “cool down” song was, as I’d love to have it mentally play me out as I put the wraps on re-creating this long lost mix tape. It may be one of the ones already on the list, or it might be a song I’m forgetting entirely. It feels good to think about these songs as a group once again though, reunited after all these years.

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