On July 2, 1969, Paul McCartney recorded “Her Majesty” live with his acoustic guitar in Abbey Road Studios. The song, less than 30 seconds long, took three takes get down. It was meant to appear between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” on Abbey Road‘s now-famous B-Side Suite, but on July 30, McCartney decided he didn’t like that sequence. He asked the tape operator, John Kurlander — a young man just starting out in music production — to get rid of “Her Majesty” all together. Kurlander, as the story goes, knew to never destroy a Beatles recording, so he removed the song and instead tacked it on to the end of the album, leaving 14 seconds of blank tape between it and “The End.” When the album was pressed, “Her Majesty” didn’t appear on labels or album covers, making it one of pop music’s first hidden tracks.
“It’s quite possible that listeners might have lifted the needle before ‘Her Majesty’ started,” explains Walter Everett, a music theory professor at the University of Michigan. But while some may have missed it the first time around, the song didn’t stay hidden for long. After the initial pressing of Abbey Road sold out, the second one included the song title on the album cover and LP label. “Her Majesty” also appeared on all Abbey Road CDs worldwide and, eventually, in 2010, as its own digital track on iTunes.
Depending on how you define “hidden,” and on whom you ask, “Her Majesty” may not be the Beatles’ first hidden track. On 1968′s The White Album, McCartney sings “Can You Take Me Back” between “Cry Baby Cry” and “Revolution 9.” What is clear, though, is that “Her Majesty” sparked a practice that has surprised and annoyed listeners for decades: End an album, but attach a little something extra.
There was a smattering of hidden tracks in the decades that followed: Pink Floyd experimented with backmasking (or audio reversal) on their 1979 album The Wall. When played backward, the track “Empty Spaces” congratulates listeners for discovering the “secret message.” Slayer used backmasking on 1985′s Hell Awaits, hiding the message “Welcome back, join us” in the album’s introduction.
But it was in the 1990s that hidden tracks became almost de rigeur, as more artists discovered that the young compact disc format made it easier to disguise an album’s contents. It’s harder to hide music on a vinyl record because the grooves are visible, but CDs, people soon found out, could conceal secrets.
Nirvana’s “Endless, Nameless,” at the end of Nevermind, became perhaps the most famous example. At first, the bonus song was hidden almost too well. Howie Weinberg, who was in charge of mastering the album after its recording, omitted the song accidentally. When Kurt Cobain found out, he was furious and so Weinberg immediately reinserted it, placing it after a 10-minute silence that followed the last titled track, “Something in the Way.”
Bands had different motivations for hiding tracks. Some songs were hidden because they didn’t fit an album’s theme. Others were cheeky and deliberately designed to mess with listeners. The final track on the pop-punk band Boris the Sprinkler’s 1995 album Saucer to Saturn was a continuous recording of the entire preceding album, allowing fans to play the whole record on a jukebox while purchasing just one credit. After seeing the fan reaction to the song “Eurotrash Girl,” Cracker tried to get it included on their album Kerosene Hat. Virgin Records, their label at the time, told them the album was already too long but the band snuck it in, anyway, as a gift. The secret song went on to become one of their biggest hits.
Bands also hid songs that were outtakes, experiments or covers. Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was hidden on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, and it earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1999. In 2002, Counting Crows put their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” at the end of the album Hard Candy. The cover ended up being so popular that the band paired with Vanessa Carlton to release it again as a single.
Bands also discovered that songs could be hidden in the “pre-gap” — the portion of a CD that precedes its first track, and can be accessed only by pressing the rewind button on a CD player. New York’s Patrick Dillett produced They Might Be Giants’ 1996 album Factory Showroom, which contained “Token Back to Brooklyn,” an ominous, minute-long song about a subway ride, hidden in the pre gap.
Dillett recalls tension between the band and their label over the added song. “They were on Elektra then,” he said, “and [the label was] really pissed off about it.” The reason? In this case, a hidden track meant more work for the label. Because plants had more control over how records were pressed, the addition required a band’s record label to spend more time communicating with the plant to ensure it was handled properly.
Dillett was also involved in producing They Might Be Giant’s 1992 album Apollo 18, the final song of which, “Fingertips,” was comprised of 21 separate pieces, some lasting only a few seconds. “It’s listed as one track, but on a CD they made us use different IDs for all of them, which is cool because if you put your CD on shuffle mode, these little pieces will pop up [between songs],” Dillett said. “It was kind of messing around with the idea of what you can do with a CD.” When the album appeared on iTunes years later, it was initially outrageously priced because of all the extra tracks. “They insisted that each of those [short songs] be 99 cents, because they had their own IDs, so the album was something like $30. The idea was to have them listed separately so that people could skip around,” he said. “It was cool. iTunes didn’t think it was that cool.”
Bruce Kimmel, a producer of cast albums from Broadway and off-Broadway shows, pioneered the practice in his genre, adding hidden spoken-word tracks to more than a dozen albums in the course of his career. “We were the king of these things in show music,” he said. “Nobody really ever knew when we were going to strike.” Sometimes, Kimmel would try to engage artists from the booth and ask them to talk and tell stories into the microphone. He had a sense of humor, and almost all of the hidden songs arose from his suggestions. Kimmel put several minutes of spoken comic banter (plus a dead-on Julie Andrews impression) at the end of a duets album by Broadway stars Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. And on the album Bells Are Ringing, he added a song from the show’s kooky dentist character, played by Martin Moran.
The motivation to hide tracks was occasionally economic. In 2001, Darrale Jones, then an A&R representative for Columbia Records, told Vibe magazine that because it costs more to record more than 12 songs for an album, adding a “hidden” 13th could be a way of rewarding fans with more music without cutting into a band’s recording budget. Chris Martin of Coldplay told MTV in 2008 that the hidden tracks “Chinese Sleep Chant” and “The Escapist” on Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends were attempts to “add a bit of value” to their album at a time when album sales were down. The unlisted songs both appear after others on the album.
Though it’s harder to hide extra minutes in an mp3 file, hidden tracks haven’t become relics of a bygone era. Coldplay included one, titled “O” on their most recent album, Ghost Stories. And though the song can hardly be considered secret — it appears as “O (Hidden Track)” on iTunes — the band came up with another way to reward their fans with bonus material. Before the album was released this past spring, they hid lyric sheets inside books of ghost stories in libraries around the world. After all nine of the handwritten sheets were found, the band released a PDF copy of them for free on their website. Jack White and Third Man Records, long known for reviving vinyl-era innovations, took the gimmick to new heights on White’s latest release Lazaretto. The “Ultra LP” includes a hologram; dual-groove technology (which plays one of two different intros to the song “Just One Drink” depending on where the needle drops); different mixes and running order from the CD version; and has two secret songs hidden under the center label. With 60,000 copies sold, it’s by far the year’s highest-selling vinyl record.
Many hidden tracks find their way online, even if they didn’t originate there. Jonni Mogul hid a secret song on his band’s 2001 EP, Rotunda, which was first released on pink 7-inch vinyl. Online, the song appears as the plainly named “Hidden Track,” Mogul insists that this labeling doesn’t remove the mystique of the song. Bandcamp also has a feature that allows artists to release hidden tracks to fans. The Virginia folk pop band Great Minds have a hidden track listed online, but also use the site to send out bonus songs to people who have paid over a certain amount for their music.
The Internet has also demystified hidden songs by becoming a place where listeners can locate and learn more about them. When Erik Millsap of Michigan learned to rip and burn CDs, he started making compilations of all the hidden tracks he could find on the albums in his personal collection. In 2003, he launched a website, HiddenSongs.com, which catalogs all known secret tracks. At first, Millsap simply scrolled through fan message boards and newsgroups, hunting for song titles to add to the list; he’s since opened the site up for others’ submissions. When a new song comes in, Millsap searches the web a few times to confirm the entry. “It’s really just to see if others have reported the tracks elsewhere, since it’s not really feasible to buy or download all of these CDs to verify them myself,” he said.
One person who won’t be contributing to the site is Kirk McElhearn, a tech writer in England who finds hidden tracks gimmicky and pointless. “Why bother to make a song and hide it?” he reasons. “Why make life more complicated?” McElhearn, who in 2008 wrote an article for Macworld explaining how to remove the silence from tracks on iTunes, thinks the whole practice is steeped in snobbery. “When I buy a record, I want to know what’s on it,” he said. “The hidden track always comes across as something for the ‘in-group.’”
In a way, McElhearn’s right. Hiding songs in albums has long been a way for artists to play with the confines and commoditization of their music and to reward only their most loyal and attentive listeners. Though technology has made it easier to dig up and extract these songs that emerge unexpected from silence, they continue to outsmart and delight those who find them.