RIP secret songs? Celebrating the unlisted gems of your favourite records
When I think of the secret track, I think of Frenzal Rhomb.
Their 1996 album, Not So Tough Now, had either 17 songs or 18 songs, depending on how you look at it. The 18th is spread over 32 more tracks, each a few seconds long and named things like ‘Secret Track’, ‘Yet Another Secret Track’ and, my personal favourite, ‘The Secret Track So Secret We Didn’t Know It Was There Til We Counted’.
On the song, a rowdy bit of punk rock not unlike the rest of the album, Jay Whalley uses an unpublishable word to describe the band’s recently departed guitarist, Ben Costello. The whole thing was a lark – the songs weren’t really secret, they were listed on the sleeve. It was poking fun at a trend in album production that started with The Beatles and felt married to that time when we consumed music via a physical product. Secret songs were a thing, and we loved them.
The secret or hidden song was everywhere in the 1990s. Even Nirvana’s crossover record Nevermind included what came to be known as ‘Endless, Nameless’. After ‘Something In The Way’, the last song on the record, there was 10 minutes of silence, then bam: a maelstrom of guitar thuggery and Kurt Cobain’s wailing.
In hindsight, it seems like an intentional nod to their pre-Nevermind punk roots on what is an otherwise very supermarket-shelf album. Nirvana repeated the trick on In Utero in 1993, with a song called ‘Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip’, which appeared 20 minutes after the end of ‘All Apologies’.
But in 2018, when music is more and more enjoyed via digital stream, the secret track is in trouble.
It is now more visible than ever, because these songs are sometimes given their own listing on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. This might seem objectively good: little bits of previously throwaway creativity you might have missed on CD are now given the credit they deserve. But what is lost in this new paradigm is the thing I loved most about secret songs: their secretness.
That sounds obvious, but on CD or record, you had to hang around and give your full attention to the end. Sometimes it would take you weeks of listening before you noticed that little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
You had to do what is becoming less of a thing among 21st Century music fans: listen to the album in full.
In this era of playlist dominance and post-release production – you know, all this talk of the death of the album – the secret track, while ostensibly given more air time, has lost its soul. If the secret is revealed early – if ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You', one of two hidden songs on Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is right there on your Spotify tracklist – something beautiful is lost.
In some instances, too, secret tracks are being erased from music history. Hilltop Hoods had a song called ‘Stay The F*** Away Because I Spit When I’m Talking’, which appeared on their third album, The Calling, as a pregap song – that is, you had to rewind the first song before 0:00 to hear it.
Kylie Minogue did the same thing with a song called ‘Password’, from Light Years. Neither song appears on the albums on Spotify or Apple Music.
This is not a jab at the streaming giants, which have arguably made accessing these records (and plenty more you loved or forgot about) easier than ever. But the secret track was a reward for your engagement with an artist. It was a quiet pact between musician and fan, an in-joke for the truly in.
What can fill that gap these days? The VIP ticket, the limited-edition physical release?
I’m not sure, but I hope it’s as cheeky and revealing as those hidden Nirvana gems — or as funny as that Frenzal Rhomb record.