originally published June 25, 2012
Today’s helpful article from the trusty e-quill of Mr. Handy serves to remind you that your music collection may in fact be larger than you think. Your favorite album may contain a hidden track, concealed from the general public by its omission from the album’s packaging, and designed to incite a squeal of ‘insiderness’ for those True Fans who make the effort to hunt it down.
Like almost everything innovative that ever happened in rock music, this can be traced back to the Beatles.
If you have never listened to “A Day In The Life”, the final cut on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you need to first telephone your parents and declare that you now have evidence that they failed in your upbringing, then listen to the track immediately. Many consider this song to be among the Beatles’ finest achievements, and if you haven’t been blasted into unconsciousness by the triumphant final piano chord, you’ll hear what may be the first hidden track in album history.
After a quick 15-kilohertz tone that your dog will likely hear more clearly than you, there’s a two-second loop of laughter and gibberish that repeats and fades out. Most importantly, it only fades out because you likely listened to the CD track or a digital download. This snippet was actually laid into the vinyl album’s middle groove, so people who had turntables that didn’t automatically lift up and re-dock after the end of a side (which was most people) would hear that loop endlessly.
Also, if you play it backwards, it allegedly kind of sounds like they’re saying “We’ll fuck you like Superman.” I’m not making that up.
The Beatles pulled another magic track trick two years later with Abbey Road. The 23-second “Her Majesty” was yanked out of its comfy place in the midst of the side-2 medley and accidentally tacked onto the end of the master tape after fourteen seconds of silence. This was done because engineer John Kurklander had been instructed to never throw anything away. The Beatles liked the effect, and “Her Majesty” was included with, but not listed on early pressings of the album.
Nirvana issued one of the more famous hidden tracks with the dark and grim “Endless, Nameless” which pops up after ten minutes of silence at the end of their Nevermind disc.
While avid fans gratefully lap up this bonus tuneage, there are downsides for the practical listener. If you dozed off during the mellow chewy taffy of “Something In The Way”, the final track listed on the album, Nirvana’s raucous bonus track may crunch you back to reality. Also, if you ripped the CD to play on your mp3 player, you’ll end up with one fifteen-minute track that will break up any playlist.
Some artists placed their buried treasure in the ‘pre-gap’ at the start of a CD. This is a particularly devious choice, as the only way to hear it would be to go back one track from Track 1. Certain devices – like computers, for example – would not read the pre-gap, adding an extra veil of cover.
Some of the albums which have a pre-gap hidden track include the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Ever Amen (just the remastered version), ELO’s Face The Music, and the Offspring’s Americana. To my knowledge, no one has yet pressed a CD with a hidden track on the flip-side of the disc. Either that or they have and no fan has been thorough enough to figure it out yet. In this age, I doubt that’s possible.
Another trick is to plant the hidden track after a series of soundless, content-less tracks. Danzig pulled this on Danzig 4, dropping their hidden track after the CD had skipped past empty tracks 13-65, making the bonus song track 66. Tool’s Undertow features dozens of blank nothing-tracks, followed by a secret track 69. Because their band name is ‘Tool’ and they were big on obvious entendre.
Some albums offered bonus tracks in an alternate file format so that they could only be read on a computer. Others are tossed into the middle of the album, like Tom Petty’s spoken-word “Hello, CD Listeners” on his hugely successful Full Moon Fever album, in which he jovially announces the end of side one, and indicates that this would be the point at which LP and cassette listeners would need to flip their media to hear side two. Tom has always had a sense of humor.
Sometimes the hidden track is blended with the music, rendering it an indiscernible parasite song attached to a larger host. Examples of this include “Can You Take Me Back”, an eerie McCartney composition at the end of “Cry Baby Cry” on side 4 of the White Album, and Syd Barrett’s final Pink Floyd appearance – an acoustic contemplation at the end of “Jugband Blues” on the band’s second album. These are clever, but not nearly as clever as hiding your track throughout an entire side of your album.
Monty Python pulled this off with their ‘three-sided’ album, Matching Tie And Handkerchief. One side of the record was double-grooved, so the point at which you’d drop the needle would determine which of two possible album sides you might hear. Cheech and Chong did a similar thing with their Rip-Off Album, which features a second groove on both sides that hosts a repeating loop of a voice stating, “You’ve been ripped off.”
Some hidden tracks actually became quite well-known. When the Clash released London Calling, they decided to tack on “Train In Vain” at the last minute, after the sleeves had already been printed, making it an accidental (and outstanding) bonus track. The same thing happened when the Rembrandts were putting out their LP album – they had an unexpected smash hit with that insipidly catchy theme to the show Friends, so it was added to the album at the last minute, and not listed on the sleeve.
Janet Jackson’s “Whoops Now” was a hidden track that hit the top ten in England and #1 in New Zealand (where they love hidden stuff, I guess). One bonus cut, Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, was even nominated for a Grammy.
It seems that the era of hidden tracks may be dwindling into the sunset, thanks to the onset of the age of hand-held music media. With so many albums being downloaded track-by-track, I don’t know how they’ll squeeze in a bonus song. Maybe a hidden link on their webpage that reveals previously unreleased material. Or porn. Either way, the fans will find it.