After Silence: Hidden, Secret, and Ghost Tracks
Why hidden, secret, and ghost tracks should captivate the imagination so much struck me whilst compiling my January mixtape for IMP. As I collected songs, I began wondering exactly what it was that all these bands wanted to achieve with these pieces. What is it about hiding songs that bands find so appealing, and what purpose does it serve? Why did The Beatles put some infinitely repeating chatter in the inner groove of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band? Was the Super Furry Animals' decision to hide live favorite "Man Don't Give A Fuck" in front of the first song of their Outspaced B Sides & Rarities compilation just another in their long line of stunts? And why did Jarvis Cocker's comeback single, "Running the World", find itself languishing in all its glory after 25 minutes of silence? We can only hope that it was not because it contains a naughty word that caused Jarvis (or his label) to fear for the album's chart placing.
The idea of hiding things in records remains a persistent and challenging theme, particularly in rock music. Note that hip-hop and dance music have refrained almost completely from hiding songs or messages on album releases, favoring the interludes and skits that have become the distinct filler of those two genres. From the subliminal messages hidden by the bands of the psychedelic '60s to the hysteria caused by supposed Satanic messages on heavy metal records to Radiohead tucking another booklet under the CD tray of Kid A, which naturally also had a secret track, rock bands and rock fans have shared an obsession with the novelty of secret tracks for more than 40 years.
The Beatles, in another shocking first for pop music, are credited with conceiving the first hidden track, putting a clamoring collage of voices repeating the phrase "Couldn't do it any other way" on the run-out groove of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band shortly after the end of "A Day in the Life". Today, it is hard to imagine why that was such a terrifying innovation, but the album format had only truly been around since Frank Sinatra created the first concept album in 1955 with In the Wee Small Hours. Just 12 years later, The Beatles turned up with the highest concept album ever made, so it is hardly surprising they should include such small but significant inventions.
Some tracks find themselves hidden due to legal reasons: The Ramones were forced to put "Carbona Not Glue" at the end of live album Loco Live after a lawsuit from the Carbona corporation banned the song from appearing on its intended album, Leave Home, because Carbona took offense to the song's portrayal of the company's stain-removal products.
No matter what their reason or origin, discovering these secret tracks can be an exciting or terrifying event. A friend told me that, despite owning Nirvana's In Utero on cassette for more than a decade, only recently, upon buying the album on CD, did the hidden track "Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip" reveal itself, nearly reducing her to tears. The occasion in university halls on which my blissful narcotic stupor was violently disrupted by the slaughterhouse squealing at the end of Marilyn Manson's Smells Like Children remains deeply embedded.
Just as the choice to include a hidden track or omit a song's information from an album's tracklisting sets that artist apart from other musicians of the day, the songs that are selected as secret tracks are usually wildly different, distinguishing themselves from the rest of the album. It is this distinction that seems to hold appeal for most listeners and recording artists. The brief, rough, almost demo-like untitled track at the end of Electrelane's Rock It To The Moon is a brittle paean to a lover that counters the motorik instrumentals that make up the rest of the album. Likewise, the cacophonous burst of overdriven guitar and drums at the end of I Am Kloot's Natural History is diametrically placed against the gentle witticisms of the preceeding songs. Islands' "Bucky Little Wing" from Return To The Sea appears linked to the rest of the album by the 10 minutes of the sound of rainfall that leads up to it.
Of those that are sympathetic to the sound of the album, "J.L.H. Outro" at the end of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's F#A#oo reprises the EP's themes, quickly building into humanity's final push for survival after gathering its strength in the intervening 12 minutes of silence. Indeed, this silence sounds almost integral to the album, like a deliberately placed respite after the apocalyptic climax, so that it seems not quite like a hidden track after all, despite not being listed on the sleeve.
Many hidden tracks are poetry, dialogue, or the studio's ambient sounds after the microphone has been left recording. Ash's 1977 has the sound of one member vomiting while the others laugh around him. Mastodon's Blood Mountain features a secret track with Queens of the Stone Age's singer, Josh Homme, reading a fan letter he supposedly wrote to the band. The Pixies' Surfer Rosa & Come On Pilgrim contains a short piece entitled "You Fucking Die!...I Said" in which the listener can almost feel the tension between Kim Deal and Black Francis as he claims to be, somewhat unconvincingly, merely finishing off a sentence for her.
If a band ever hoped to achieve a lyrical contrast on a single album, Mansun filled the order with the secret track "An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter" at the end of Attack Of The Grey Lantern, which, like a punchline, posits that lyrics are simply the reserve of lazy musicians attempting to cover up weak tunes. Singer Paul Draper explains, "'Lyrical Trainspotter' was just a pisstake really, saying don't take too seriously all the lyrical content."
Unlike CDs, the physical nature of vinyl allows records to hide sound in their run-out grooves, even allowing album-ending loops to repeat forever by jumping the needle back to the beginning of the loop at the end of every rotation. Contrarily, compact discs stow pieces away after noise, sound effects, field recordings, or periods of silence following the end of the final track. A particularly crafty way to hide tracks is to max out the available track limit, thereby placing a secret song in the negative tracks before the beginning of the album, accesses only by searching or skipping backwards from the first listed track on the album.
Some bands have found artistic uses for the album format through the various digital functions of CD players. Antichrist Superstar—the album that could conceivably by considered Marilyn Manson’s own Sgt. Pepper's in terms of concept—closes with "Empty Sounds Of Hate", a noisy, distorted vocal loop at track 99 that flows smoothly into the beginning of the album's opening track, but only when played on repeat. Asunder's recent Works Will Come Undone is an album consisting of two monolithic slabs of brooding grey drone that continuously merge together, creating an infinite soundscape, unrelenting yet constantly shifting with each circuit blurring the cusp, obscuring beginning and end. Gescom's Minidisc was the first album written specifically for Minidisc players back in 1998, taking advantage of the seamless shuffle mode the format exclusively offered (now available on traditional CDs, since the format caught up with that particular technological challenge). The album's 88 tracks were designed to play at random, offering an ever-evolving pattern and texture over repeated listens—with the repeat and shuffle functions combined, this album comes across as some mind-warping parallel universe of sounds, collaging together, refracting, imploding in on themselves, mirroring, and intertwining, completely deconstructing the concept of the linear album and challenging the traditional format to offer a new method of presenting music.