Requiem for the Hidden Track

December 7, 2015

Essay by John Stirratt.


Mas issue hidden requiem for the hidden track 01

© JNL Graphic Design.

I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get a grasp on Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief Side 2, a hand-me-down. I loved the skit “Minister for Overseas Development” in which Terry Jones and Michael Palin are old ladies talking to an adult professional John Cleese like he’s a baby. When I put the needle down on vinyl, it would sometimes be there, but other times there was an entirely different performance. I was probably too young to understand the mechanics behind the idea of the double-grooved record, but that’s what it was, Side 2 mastered with two concentric grooves that played different recordings depending on where you dropped the needle. That it was this irreverent group that joined in what was already a rich culture of vinyl mastering trickery is understandable, but backmasking, run-off grooves, and run-off groove messages reflected the times of the 60s and 70s and the medium. These were ways for artists to create intrigue, to speak to their fans obliquely. Though with backmasking, or backwards recording, it was sometimes accidental; the backwards-playing human voice was easily misread. And it was usually associated with the ominous, beginning with “Paul is Dead” from “Revolution 9,” to the Judas Priest fan suicide trial. Run-off grooves and run-off groove messages were other anomalies of the era, mysterious, recorded snippets appearing at the end of a side, between the end of the groove and the label, sometimes with associated messages etched into that part of the vinyl. The etchings in this “dead wax” zone were often as mysterious. If you looked at every side of The Clash’s double album London Calling, you would get one word per side, telling you to Side 1: Tear Side 2: Down Side 3: The Side 4: Walls. Surely the most chilling message had to be Joy Division’s Still LP, with the words “The Chicken Stops Here,” referring to the final scene in the Werner Herzog film Stroszek, which shows a dancing chicken in an arcade as the protagonist ends his life offscreen—the movie singer Ian Curtis watched just before committing suicide.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise Beatles started this practice, with the ghost track “Can You Take Me Back” on Side 4 of The White Album, to “Her Majesty,” a track omitted from Side 2 of Abbey Road and randomly tacked onto the end of the master by a young assistant. Instead of firing him, the band liked it, included it on the pressing, and the hidden track as we know it was born.

The idea of art within art has been around forever—artists from Michelangelo to Pollack have left messages in their work. Subliminal messages in film have always been a thing, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 reference in A Clockwork Orange record store scene, to Alfred Hitchcock’s sneaky cameo in Lifeboat. You could say artists use whatever methods inside or outside the medium to create allegory, but more importantly, they’re playful and precocious people who like to have fun with whatever tools they have available.

For bands, it was the introduction of the CD that created whole new set of opportunities for the artist, giving a whole new bag of tricks to use on your more obsessive/attentive audience. The pregap, (or track 0) unearthed a track by pressing the back button immediately after play at the start of a CD. I remember a college DJ conspiratorially showing me this trick on Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile. But it was the conventional, twenty seconds after the end of the record-type track that had its heyday in the 90s. In the late 80s and 90s, it became de rigueur for bands to include these song or songs at different lengths after the initial sequence was over.

There are few examples of a hidden track in this era that might have improved a record. There was the occasional hit, like Cracker’s “Eurotrash Girl” or Lauren Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” that was nominated for a Grammy. My band Wilco’s third album Summerteeth from 1999 was released dead in the storm of the craze—we liked our song “Candy Floss” enough to not let go of it, but it was a bit of an outlier and we couldn’t find a home in the sequence of the record. We hid it twenty seconds after the last song on the sequence, along with a remixed “Shot in the Arm” that was rejected by us for the main body of the record. This was what the hidden track was to many bands—a song that you were attracted to but couldn’t fit in the overall scheme of the album. But many memorable hidden tracks represented departures and anomalies. Beck’s “Diamond Bollocks,” from Mutations was a good example of this; a more rocking piece in what was a more traditional, muted album for him.

The CD format gave the artist extra time at his disposal—74 minutes, and had changed the dynamic from the LP medium immensely. The idea of a fourteen-song, sixty-minute record would have been unfathomable in the fast-moving 60s, where bands recorded three albums a year that would often reflect huge creative change in that time period. Releases were now farther apart and longer, time-wise, adding a more self-conscious and pressure-filled aspect to releases—this idea of your next record as a “statement.” And adding to this slightly bloated format was the opportunity to add MORE tracks to the album. Was it just artists wanting to share more with their audience, to see a different or unguarded angle of the band? Some artists felt it added value to a record for the fans, or to reward the more staunch supporters. Or was it more of a reflection of the post-Nirvana industry boom years, big budgets, more space, more content—a precursor of the Internet era?

Although the practice of hiding tracks still continues with CDs and the vinyl resurgence, streaming and iTunes has rudely exposed hidden songs—demystified them and left them suspended—in files right below their previous tracks, out of context forevermore.