Behind the Music
May 6, 2015 | by Adam Fleming Petty
The lost art of hidden tracks.
Nearly everyone who came of age in the nineties remembers hidden tracks, those Easter eggs of the CD era. Artists embedded secret songs or demos after a disc’s final track; listeners combed through the silence to find them. For me, growing up in a small town with plenty of time to kill, sitting in silence and waiting for music to appear was an ideal way to spend an afternoon. The less patient among us, I know, would fast forward through the quiet. I didn’t.
The hidden track was born of the LP age, with the Beatles’ “Her Majesty”—which appeared uncredited at the end of 1969’s Abbey Road, following fourteen seconds of silence—serving as a kind of urtext, though Paul McCartney has claimed its inclusion was an accident. In 1979, the Clash added “Train in Vain” to London Calling at the last minute, after the album’s packaging had been printed. When vinyl was music’s preeminent medium, though, there were analog clues to an album’s secrets: you could examine the surface of a record and watch the needle make its way through every groove. It was when the CD, that tesseract of a medium, flourished that hidden tracks did, too.
Like the Doctor’s TARDIS, CDs were bigger on the inside than they were on the outside. A single compact disc held almost eighty minutes of music. (I can sense some of you scoffing at the past tense—CDs still exist, of course, but the days when they were the primary vehicle for compiling, transporting, and playing music are long gone.) Artists took advantage of this broad canvas almost from the very beginning, but arguably the first group with major exposure to do so was Nirvana. Listen to their 1991 album Nevermind, wait for ten minutes after the last track and you’ll find “Endless, Nameless,” a sludgy, droning jam that, to be honest, I could never listen to all the way through. But I still found it.
That thrill of discovery, of sharing a secret with the artist, was one of the great pleasures of the CD. I get wistful for the leisure that hidden tracks represented, for artists and listeners both. If you took the time to sift through silence—even if the discovery was little more than a studio outtake—you never felt cheated. The sense was not that you’d abused your daily allotment of close attention, but that you’d exercised a kind of diligence: you’d stuck it out, like a runner finishing a marathon. When artists hid these songs, they did so with full confidence that their audiences would search for them: that listeners were thorough.
That said, the act of detection was often more satisfying than the hidden track itself. Many were the equivalent of B sides—songs that weren’t quite up to snuff or didn’t cohere with the rest of the album. Sometimes they weren’t even songs. On Radiohead’s Kid A (2000), “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is followed by several moments of silence, until a lovely wash of electronic noise rises toward the heavens; it sounds like the dialing-up of a celestial modem. At the very end of Dookie (1994), Green Day placed “All By Myself,” which finds their drummer Tré Cool picking up an acoustic guitar and singing a plaintive ode to self-pleasure while his bandmates crack up in the background. This was the kind of goof the band was known for, and the hidden track was its ideal outlet.
Other artists approached the form with more bravado. The hidden track on the Roots’ Phrenology, “Rhymes and Ammo,” is a genuinely great song, boasting a stellar guest verse from Talib Kweli. Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” hidden at the end of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is so strong that it went on to get nominated for a Grammy. Even record-industry bigwigs were searching for hidden tracks. And the medium revealed ever more cunning ways of hiding them: “pre-gap” hidden tracks, for instance, sometimes referred to as “Track 0,” were accessed by rewinding the disc immediately after starting it.
My personal favorite hidden track, the one that best took advantage of the unusual form, is Beck’s “Diamond Bollocks.”
For a stretch in the midnineties, recall, Beck was one of the most exciting figures in music. Critics compared him to Bob Dylan—especially impressive when you consider that he was first regarded as something of a novelty act. After “Loser” charted in 1994, few expected to hear anything more from him; this was the artist, after all, responsible for an anthem celebrating Generation X’s collective lack of ambition. But his work ethic belied his image. In 1996, he released Odelay, a wide-ranging yet cohesive album that critics fell over themselves in praising. The collage, the kaleidoscopic style, the sense of play—one could almost think there was more to Gen X than just slacking! Fans and critics awaited his follow-up eagerly, expecting something even more wide-ranging yet also more cohesive.
What they got was 1998’s Mutations, a quiet, folky album that seemed like a placeholder, even a step backward in terms of ambition. Reviews were polite, finding precedent in Beck’s earlier work, but you could sense the disappointment. Why wasn’t he living up to the potential of Odelay? Was he scared of the spotlight, like so many others of his generation?
The irony—this was the nineties, remember; irony was the order of the day, even if Alanis didn’t seem to know what it meant—is that Beck did record a track that equaled the whacked-out inventiveness of Odelay. He just hid it.
Listen past the last song on Mutations and you’ll be jolted, as I was, by the sounds of a harpsichord, a 4/4 drumbeat and a vocal line that goes “Ooh! Aah! Ooh! Aah!” This is the start of “Diamond Bollocks,” a six-minute epic whose title I didn’t learn until months after I’d heard it, when I read the British music magazine NME at the Borders in Fort Wayne, a forty-five minute drive from my small Indiana hometown.
In its multipart structure, “Diamond Bollocks” can be read as a response to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” which had come out the year before. (Beck’s career shares interesting parallels with Radiohead’s; both began with seemingly fluky hits about the disaffected life before finding critical acclaim.) It certainly features as many changes in style and tempo, whipsawing from stately folk to buzzy freak-outs to strutting funk, with the lyrics finding Beck’s brand of Kmart surrealism in peak form: “Girl you dream infectious from a noxious heart / Choice cuts from derelict boulevards.” It’s easily one of the highlights of his entire catalog. Anyone who found the song had proof positive that Beck was up to more than he was letting on. But it didn’t become a topic of conversation—how could it, when so few of us even knew what it was called? Instead, it was the closest thing to music for its own sake: a secret discovered by audiophiles scouring every last one and zero of their CD collections for hidden meaning.
All you have to do to listen to “Diamond Bollocks” right now is open up Spotify: no waiting, no hunting, and certainly no absence of metadata. Hidden tracks are obsolete, and not just because no one listens to CDs anymore. Artists can’t afford to have listeners go unstimulated; after a few seconds of silence, they’ll simply scroll through the rest of the track or abandon it altogether. Which makes me wonder: Are fans still cultivating that sense of intimacy with artists that hidden tracks provided?
I’ll concede that I may have developed a case of early-onset nostalgia. Having been born in the early eighties, my habits of media consumption were formed well before I applied for dual citizenship from the Internet. I walked to the library twice a week to read Time magazine. I remain mostly mystified by the practice of, say, regularly checking Drake’s Instagram account—it’s a form of artistic devotion I’m not fluent in, though I don’t think his fans are any less devoted than I was. And I recognize that the intimacy in such acts is really no less mediated than the experience of listening to a CD.
I guess what I really miss is the time when musical celebrity consisted of withholding as much as sharing. As a teenager, living life entirely offline, I had little sense of Beck’s personality beyond what I could glean from his music. There were no tweets about his haircuts, no photos of his breakfast to like. Today, fans consume so many forms of media at once that sitting quietly, waiting for a hidden track to start, can seem like meditating. And so it is: hearing “Diamond Bollocks” for the first time, crouched before the off-brand stereo I got from Walmart, felt like enlightenment.
Adam Fleming Petty is a writer living in Indianapolis. His work has appeared in the Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Electric Literature. He is at work on a novel about Dungeons & Dragons in Iraq. Find him on twitter @flamingpetty.