The joy of the hidden track

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Blink 182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, an album I don’t remember particularly well beyond the fact it was released as three versions, each with two different hidden album tracks. When I went to listen to this album this morning while reading an excellent write-up, I realized those hidden tracks weren’t included in the streaming version. Hidden, indeed.

Hidden tracks were possible because of the strange nature of CDs, which followed a technical formatting called Red Book. These specifications allowed all sorts of goofs, like putting music before the start of an album, adding silence between tracks, or just inserting silence at the end of a song. Some of this stuff was possible with vinyl, which had its own tricks like locked grooves or double grooves, but it wasn’t the same. The consensus is the “first” hidden track is the Beatles’ “Her Majesty,” which came in a mere 23 seconds after the last track.

The first hidden track I distinctly remember “finding” was the one on the joke-metal band Green Jello’s (aka Green Jelly) album, Cereal Killer Soundtrack, an album that middle school me adored (their followup, 333 also had a kickass song called “Carnage Rules” that was used in the Maximum Carnage video game). I can’t for the life of me find the hidden song and it’s not included in any of the streaming versions of the album, but I am 100% sure it existed. But in any case, Cereal Killer had a guest song with Maynard James Keenan, singer of the dye-your-hair-black-in-high-school-band, Tool, which had the second secret track I remember finding on its EP, Opiate. Again, the digital streaming services do not appear to include the secret track, “The Gaping Lotus Experience.” The streaming services do at least have “Endless, Nameless,” the hidden track on Nirvana’s Nevermind, a track that some credit for kicking off the modern era of hidden tracks:

The author added that Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain might have come up with the idea months earlier. While sharing a studio apartment with friend Jesse Reed, Cobain had once wound a tape forward almost to the end and recorded himself saying in a scary voice, “Jesse . . . Jesse. . . . I’m coming to get yooooou. . . .”

As they were getting ready for bed, Cobain popped the tape into the stereo, hit “play” and turned the volume down low. Forty minutes later, a voice said, “Jesse . . ,” and Reed sat up startled. “Hey, did you hear that?”

The most memorable hidden track I can conjure up is from Korn’s album Follow the Leader. The original version of this album had either 25 tracks, 19 tracks, or 55 tracks. I very much remember hearing people at school talking about this the day after the album came out, with everyone sharing their own tips for finding the track, often baffled by how different the tips were. Another one from around the same time was the soundtrack to the X-Files movie, which included a hidden track with series creator Chris Carter explaining the whole mythology of the show after a history lesson of late ’90s hits from Filter, Tonic, Foo Fighters, and the Dust Brothers.

Even more hidden was albums with pregaps, which were only accessible by “rewinding” the first track, something that only worked on certain CD players. Some notable ones included a Ben Folds album where he talked about being Ben Folds and an absolute ripper from world’s-greatest-live-band Melt-Banana that covers the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat.” Even more recently, Arcade Fire put 10 minutes of instrumentals hidden in the pregap of Reflektor.

The entire concept of the hidden track was popular enough that there are hundreds of other examples, of which they seem to fall into one of a handful of categories: joke songs, songs the band hated, poor recordings, songs that didn’t fit with the motif of the rest of the album, or the occasional atmospheric thing. There’s a few radio edits buried in there too.

Some of these have even gone on to be singles, including Cracker’s “Euro-Trash Girl,” (which was track 69, in case you were wondering how far back that joke goes) and Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which was even nominated for a Grammy.

The whole hidden track thing was trendy enough that it pissed off at least one critic at The New York Times, who I can only imagine is a huge buzzkill at parties, considering he penned these lines:

From hip-hoppers to singer-songwriters to rockers, more pop artists than ever are adding hidden tracks — bonus tracks that are not listed on the song lineup — in an effort to surprise, delight, mock or annoy fans. Hidden tracks can last a matter of seconds or 30 minutes or more and range from original songs to uncategorizable noise. They can be the best thing on an album, or they can be so juvenile and gratuitous that they prompt listeners to reconsider the artist’s entire oeuvre.

I am sure that, as an adult in this time, the idea of a hidden track had worn thin, but as a kid? Finding these felt like an achievement, and sharing the little easter eggs was an amazing experience. It’s too bad it’s simply not possible anymore.