Why CDs had more interesting hidden tracks than vinyl records
The compact disc was such a forward-thinking format when it first came out that it needed its own bible. That bible was called the Red Book.
The book, formulated by Philips and Sony, explains the detailed technical specifications of the format, including the maximum length of a CD (74 minutes), the maximum number of tracks there can be (99), the minimum length of a single track (4 seconds), and the standard sampling rate (44.1 kHz).
(If you would like to read a copy of the Red Book, good luck with that: being a book that describes the innards of a proprietary material, it'll cost you a solid $295.)
The Red Book also hid within its specifications a number of quirks that bands would later discover and take advantage of. They introduced a number of opportunities to do really interesting things with albums that you couldn't do during the vinyl era. For one thing, you could mess with the track listing by adding a few seconds of silence between tracks; for another, you could actually put music before the official start of the album, in an area called the pregap. It's a spot so hidden—only accessible by rewinding the CD as far back as possible—that most computers to this day still can't access these hidden tracks.
For the most part, hidden tracks at the end of the album tend to hide full songs (most famously "Endless, Nameless" at the end of Nirvana's Nevermind), while hidden tracks in the pregap area tend to hide introductory music in most cases. (One notable exception to that rule is the Northern Ireland band Ash, whose album 1977 included the band's pre-album single, "Jack Names the Planets," in the pregap.)
To this day, new albums are taking advantage of these tricks—even though most buyers are most likely never hearing them in this form. A good example of this is the Arcade Fire's most recent album, Reflektor. The first disc of the double album includes a ten-minute pregap track of reversed instrumental music culled from other parts of the album.
Problem is, the pregap was a better trick when we were using five-disc players. Computers, for the most part, don't recognize pregaps, and modern DVD and Blu-Ray players don't recognize them either, as one Arcade Fire fan learned when his Blu-Ray treated the pregap as part of the first track of the album.
Oops. Sounds like someone should go look over the Red Book again.
“We had these visions of stoned fans, of which there were a lot in the early '70s, having the shock of their lives when brand new material was playing on a record they had had for months. Some people thought there was an alternative version because they would hear talk of these mysterious sketches that they had never heard on their record. It drove people mad. This was precisely why we did it, of course".
— Monty Python's Michael Palin, discussing the comedy troupe's reasoning for creating a three-sided record. The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief, which came out in 1973, featured a record with concurrent grooves, an impressive technical feat pulled off by recording engineer George Peckham, who had experience with tricks like this, having worked on numerous Beatles records in the past. The goal of the trick was confusion: both sides of the record were labeled "side 2," and they basically wanted people to trip upon the third side by accident. Peckham later invented another vinyl phenomenon, the "run-off groove," in which hard-to-see messages are placed onto the dead area of the wax.
Five examples of "hidden tracks" that transcended their "hidden" status
- "Train in Vain," the final track on The Clash's London Calling, was added to the album after the sleeves had already been printed, but nonetheless was a calling card for the band, becoming one of the band's two Top 40 hits in the United States.
- "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," as performed by Lauryn Hill for her 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was such a critical success that it received a Grammy nomination that year—one of ten that she received for the album that year. It was one of the album's two hidden tracks.
- “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” an unlisted track on Dr. Dre's landmark 1992 album The Chronic, found a second life on the pop charts in 2005 after Ben Folds made a version that … well, made it whiter.
- "Euro-Trash Girl," a 1994 hit by Cracker, was one of three hidden tracks at the tail end of the band's 1993 album Kerosene Hat, and (thanks to the help of numerous blank tracks) it was listed at track number 69. The band added the song at the last minute due to positive fan reaction to the song.
- "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues," one of the most popular singles released by Mark Oliver Everett (better known as Eels), was put on his album Daisies of the Galaxy essentially because his record company told him he had to. He put it at the end of the album because it ruined the flow of the record anywhere else. They made it the single, and essentially forced him to put the song in a Tom Green movie.
The hidden track these days is seen as a relic of the past, something that we didn't appreciate while we had it.
But back in the late '90s, they had been overdone to the point that people were starting to get sick of them. A 1999 New York Times essay by Scott Sutherland made the case that such gimmicks were transparently wearing thin.
"It's time for musicians and labels to rethink why they hide what they hide," he wrote. "If most artists have a hard enough time filling even half the space on a 74-minute CD with compelling material, why bother hiding something equally uncompelling? And if a song is good enough to be the best thing on the disk, why hide it at all?"
As annoying as they were for the listener, they could often be just as annoying for the label. A 2014 Wondering Sound piece on hidden tracks noted how They Might Be Giants really peeved off their label by including a pregap track on their 1996 album Factory Showroom.
The reason for this is that such tracks require a more detailed production process, meaning that the label has to do more work to ensure that the discs are up to snuff during the pressing process.
These days, we just call these extra pieces of art what they are: bonus tracks. No hiding necessary. It's not like Spotify will let us hide them anyway.