One of the most underappreciated losses to the musical world since the rapid decline of the CD from our collective culture has been the disappearance of the secret song.
Now, the secret song was actually a secret back in the days of pre-spoiler, limited music media, especially if you had one of those CD players where you couldn’t tell how long the final track was.
Sometimes the secret track was hidden deep within the final track; if you didn’t have one of those CD players that fast-forwarded, you were forced to sit patiently through ten minutes of silence in eager anticipation. (Fast-forwarding was a relatively late feature in the life of CD players, possibly due to the mistaken belief — clearly a hangover from vinyl and tapes — that quick skipping could somehow damage the CD.)
What could it be?
Sometimes you got an entire song – a legit, coulda-be-on-the-proper-tracklisting song. That was the most exciting thing. It felt like a freebie, a wink to those who bothered to search for such an easter egg. Powderfinger’s Double Allergic featured three secret songs – a bounty in those $31 album days akin to buying a CD and finding a bonus EP nobody’s heard of glued to the inside.
More often than not, the secret song is something silly. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Ever Amen features a long period of silence before somebody slurs “I’ve got your hidden track right here: Ben Folds is a fuckin’ asshole!” A handful of people laugh, and the album ends. Brilliant.
Mark Hoppus uses the secret track on Blink-182’s ‘Dude Ranch’ to record himself talking a comedically-long piss (a joke I still believe Mike Myers nicked for Austin Powers) before getting a dog to drink it. This was among the band’s more mature secret songs, a catalogue which features secrets named ‘Fuck A Dog’ and ‘When You Fucked Grandpa’.
The first secret song in popular music is from either of two Beatles albums, depending on how you choose to define such things.
1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band contains a short sound collage in the inner groove, meaning once the album finished (on original vinyl pressings) the needle locked into this groove, looping the same part to infinity. Automatic return arms on record players entered the market a few years later, and ruined the fun. The first secret song that bears a resemblance to what we now consider this particular artform to be was released two years later, on 1969’s Abbey Road.
Paul recorded a 23 second song called ‘Her Majesty’ which was intended to be part of the song suite on Side B of the record. McCartney didn’t like where it was placed, and asked the engineer to snip it out. At the time, EMI dictated that no Beatles recordings were to be erased — a forward-thinking attitude in an era when TV networks were routinely erasing tapes containing now-historical artifacts in order to spare tape — and so tape-op John Kurlander inserted 14 seconds of silence after Abbey Road‘s master tape to separate the album proper from this discarded snippet. The band liked how this brief burst sounded hanging there as a bonus treat after the ceremony of the album’s closer ‘In The End’, and so they left it there. The short, goofy, secret song was born.
iTunes, WinAMP, and CD-ROM drives came about around the turn of the century and threatened to ruin the fun, as people started noticing suspiciously long final tracks, or finding 75 three-second tracks of silence suddenly imported into their iTunes libraries.
Bands and labels tried to keep up the fun, hiding songs in the ‘pre-information’ before track one (just rewind past zero – it’s a mathematical impossibility, but you find good tunes) or between tracks. Technology meant that some CDs could be pressed with the track timer seemingly paused between tracks while music continues to play.
The game felt over, though… And soon it was.