Everyone loves the idea of a treasure hunt. Since The Beatles first hid a secret song in the inner groove of Sgt. Peppers, artists have loved to hide bonus material on their albums. The most common form of hidden track is to have a long silence after the final song, after which – say, 10 or 15 minutes into the runtime – another song begins to play. These songs often aren’t that good, and can disrupt the sense of closure that a good last song should bring to an album. But they can be quite fun and startling, too, especially if you’ve left the CD player on after the album’s finished and forgotten about it, and then a song erupts from nowhere to surprise you.
My favourite place for a hidden track, though, is in what’s called the ‘pre-gap’ of a CD. The pre-gap is the few seconds of silence built in at the start of the first track, also called the ‘index 00’. But it’s possible for the manufacturers to make this gap longer, as long as they like in fact, and to fill it not with silence but with secret, hidden sounds. To hide a track here makes it genuinely quite difficult to find – it is the ultimate place for a truly “hidden” track, the antithesis of those “bonus” tracks they tell you about on the back of the CD case, thus ruining all the fun.
It only works in certain CD players. You start the first track playing, and then hit rewind (not skip back) and suddenly you discover you’re travelling back in time, zooming into negative time, -0.02 secs, -0.25 secs, -2.56 secs, and so on, until blip! the whole thing crashes and you’re back to 0.00 and the first track starts playing again from the beginning. This is the thing about the pre-gap, see – if you go too far back, you die, but the only way to know how far is too far is to keep rewinding till it happens. It’s like the videogame Limbo, where the puzzles can only be solved by failing them.
So, you try to remember what number you reached just before it crashed. Was it -3.33 secs? -3.34 secs? Then you try to stop rewinding just as you get to that number, just before you start rewinding into nothingness and the player resets itself. And hopefully, if you get it right, if you stop rewinding just in time, time starts flowing forward again (-3.32 secs, -3.31 secs, -3.30 secs), counting down towards the start of the album proper and playing, in that hidden space, a secret song.
I remember the first time I discovered one of these, on Bloc Party’s album Silent Alarm. I don’t remember what caused me to rewind the CD in the first place – perhaps I was trying to skip back to the start and hit the wrong button – but I remember the sheer thrill of finding this secret song hidden in such a strange place. At the time it didn’t have a title or any context to it – it was years before I would discover its name. (“Every Time is the Last Time”). I wondered if I was the only person ever to have heard it.
The pre-gap has been put to all kinds of uses. Kanye West’s Graduation has a secret intro-song cheekily titled ‘Goodnight’. Muse’s Hullabaloo has a hidden poem read by Tom Waits. Brand New’s The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me has overlapping phone messages. The reissue of John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space contains various false starts for ‘Jupiter Variation’. Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper has a cover of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. Pulp’s This is Hardcore has the sound of a cymbal.
What I like about these pre-gap tracks is that they’re hard to access. In an age when almost all recorded music is just there, available, accessible, merely a few clicks away, the pre-gap song is concealed. It has to be actively sought, searched for. These hidden tracks reassert the CD as a physical object, too. Whereas vinyl LPs are obviously covetable objects, CDs are often seen as simply carriers of information, there to be imported onto iTunes and then forgotten about. But the pre-gap won’t show up on iTunes. It won’t import. You have to access it on the actual, physical CD. (Of course, this isn’t quite true; as the YouTube videos periodically interrupting this post attest to, people have found a way to get these hidden tracks on the internet, like all other music. But in principle, at least, they are different, and it’s much more fun to listen to them in their original hiding places than simply play them on YouTube. The treasure hunt is half the fun).
My favourite use of the pre-gap is on Arcade Fire’s 2013 album Reflektor. Put it in the right CD player and the first disc of Reflektor will allow you to rewind a whole 10 minutes, revealing a secret montage of reversed clips from the album. This odd collage of sound mirrors another hidden track at the end of ‘Supersymmetry’, which appears after a period of silence, and similarly features various bizarre, reversed sounds. Together, the two hidden tracks bookend the album, surrounding it with noises that sound like strange signals whizzing through space.
These two tracks reframe everything that comes between them. Reflektor is an album that reminds me of the internet: an enclosed space in which everything reflects off of everything else, a hall of mirrors, a ‘prison’, a ‘prism of light’. The two halves of the record are like two mirrors bouncing ideas endlessly between each other. Everything seems to be happening all at once. Orpheus and Eurydice exist alongside ‘little boys with their porno’ and the reflective glare of a thousand iPhone screens. This is true, too, of the internet. Content on the internet exists divorced from context: everything is perpetually present, without any real sense of past or future, geographical or social context. So when we read or hear or consume things on the internet, we have to translate them into our own contexts, map them onto ourselves. The Internet is surely the great Reflektor. And yet, on Reflektor, there are two secret tracks that exist outside of this self-perpetuating, endlessly reflective chamber. The sounds in these hidden tracks splinter and escape. They allow room for space and silence: things the internet doesn’t permit. There is a world outside this prism, these hidden tracks suggest. It is the world Eurydice and Orpheus are trying to escape to. It exists. We exist.