The history of the hidden track
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
A hidden track on a CD or record is a song that isn’t included in the track listing or is otherwise obscured from the less-observant listener. Sometimes tracks are hidden at the start of albums, or sometimes they’re at the end or in the middle. There are a lot of reasons artists choose to do this. Since they are deliberately left off the track listing, there isn’t exactly one standard kind of hidden track, but it’s still possible to see how the practice of hiding songs has changed over the years.
Like so many things in music history, we can thank the Beatles for introducing the idea, with the release of Abbey Road in 1969. In July of that year, Paul McCartney recorded the 23-second track “Her Majesty,” but he didn’t like how the song fit with the rest of the album. He asked tape engineer John Kurlander to cut out and destroy the recording. Since the studio had a policy that Beatles tapes were never to be destroyed, Kurlander added it to the end of the album instead, after 14 seconds of silence. It was allegedly meant to be deleted later, but when the Beatles found out about it, they were amused and considered it a happy accident. Abbey Road ended up being released with the rough recording of “Her Majesty” at the end, as a surprise for listeners.
In the ’70s and ’80s, other artists and groups played with hiding extra, unlisted songs on records, for various reasons. On the Clash’s London Calling (1979), the band wrote and recorded “Train in Vain” once the album sleeves were already printed, but they decided it was such a good song that it deserved to be on the album anyway.
With vinyl, it’s also possible to hide tracks in multiple grooves on a record. A notable example is Monty Python’s “three-sided” Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973): In addition to having an A-side and B-side, the latter is double-grooved, so it can play three different sets of songs by flipping the record over and positioning the needle differently. However, it’s impossible to completely hide a track on vinyl, because you can see the grooves on the surface of a disc where there’s audio and you can see when the needle hits them.
The introduction of CDs changed things up because once you could no longer see grooves, tracks could actually be invisible. One of the first bands to popularize the practice of hiding a CD track was Nirvana, with the six-and-a-half-minute “Endless, Nameless” on 1991’s Nevermind. “Endless, Nameless” is tacked onto the end of the last track of the album after 10 minutes of silence, although it was accidentally left off the first pressings of the album and a lot of later releases didn’t include it either, making it even rarer.
CDs also offered the possibility of hiding audio in the pre-gap before a track, so that the CD player has to be manually rewound to hear the music. Queens of the Stone Age have the pulsing instrumental “The Real Song for the Deaf” as Track 0 on Songs for the Deaf (2002). (The album also has two more hidden tracks at the end,)
Some artists included hidden tracks because they were of lesser quality, or were deemed otherwise unworthy of going on the track listing, like Green Day’s “All By Myself,” an 81-second ditty sung by drummer Tré Cool at the end of Dookie (1994). In other cases, artists used them to sneak in music after the album artwork was finished, with or without the record label’s consent. The band Cracker, after being told their 1993 release Kerosene Hat was already too long, slipped in three additional tracks including their huge hit “Euro-Trash Girl.” The theme song for the TV show Friends was unlisted on the original release of The Rembrandts’ 1995 album L.P., although the song was so popular that the album was sold with a sticker advertising it, so it wasn’t exactly a secret.
A lot of well-known artists have included unlisted content, from Coldplay to Kanye West. And they’re still doing it: Relient K’s 2016 album Air for Free has an untitled piano version of another song on the album hidden in the pre-gap. But the trend of hiding bonus tracks has decreased a lot in recent years. CD-buying has dropped off considerably since a lot of listeners get their music directly as digital files from iTunes, Amazon, or through streaming services like Spotify. Now it’s easy to look up the full track listing online and find any formerly obscure songs.
The internet has removed a lot the mystique from hidden tracks. A lot of listeners might be happy about not needing to hunt around for them, but we’ve also lost that feeling of sharing a secret with our favourite artists.