Among the joys of listening to one’s music collection alphabetically by track is the occasional few minutes of complete silence. Ah, the realisation dawns, that song was the final track from the album and we are now waiting on… the secret track. These are a bit of a specialty breed in pop song farming. Too long? Too weird? Too in Flemish? Stick it at the end and a few hardcore fans might get excited. Quality-wise, it’s a mixed bunch. They obviously don’t lend themselves to playlists or mixtapes (and actually tend to disqualify perfectly good closing tracks from those). So rather than attempt a compilation, how about a run-down of the good, the bad and the better-kept-secret-altogether.
The Music- Welcome to the North, 2004- “The Walls Get Smaller”
I’m very fond of The Music and Welcome to the North is probably their catchiest collection of tunes. Given that the high vocals and lyrical flashes of frontman Robert Harvey is mostly what distinguishes these guys from any auld indie jam, an instrumental secret track shouldn’t really work. But, three minutes after Harvey finishes “Open your Mind”, it begins to transpire the other three are worth their french toast aswell. In fact, in many ways, this the algorithmic secret track. It has to be departure from the rest, otherwise, why the secret. Instrumental is often how this is achieved. This start quiet and builds and builds, leaning on a couple of anthemic riffs. Those happen to be very strong riffs and this is one that a fan might even be secretly hoping to hear as an encore.
Placebo- Without You I'm Nothing, 1998- “Evil Dildo”
At the end of a solid 12 which included “Pure Morning” and “Every You Every Me”, stretching the final track out to 22:39 seems like taking liberties and that it is. The silence lasts almost eight minutes and you’d almost miss it when it ends. It sounds a lot like once Nirvana had done it, everyone else had to do 20-minute final tracks for the rest of the 90’s. Again, we’re shorn of the trademark Brian Moloko vocals and again we’re building from tingly solo guitar through slow dirge up to bassy distortion jam, with French radio sample for company. But after a pretty fatty finale in “Burger Queen”, this feels like a bag of chips soggy with vinegar which you regret ordering in jumbo size and are only eating to prove a point.
Damien Rice- O - “Prague” and “Silent Night”
Two- really? In this case, I couldn’t even get a Spotify link to “Eskimo” that hadn’t trimmed
Probably all involved sensed that the less-than-faithful acapella rendition of “Silent Night” (Broken night, All is fallen, When you take your flight) sung by Lisa Hannigan might attract the wrong kind of sharing. As for “Prague”, I’m not entirely sure why this wasn’t included on the album itself. To me it’s fairly in keeping with the rest of O if perhaps a little more agro. Then again, where among the more whispery ones would you include it, except for last. This seems like an example of a kind of hedging of bets: “Eskimo”, with its operatic coda is a more fitting crescendo, but, but, but, wait, there’s this other thing I wanna say! At least, in the 16 minutes, silence is kept to a minimum
Nirvana- Nevermind - “Endless, Nameless”
Now we’re talking. Nevermind supposedly isn't thinking fan's Nirvana album. Excuse me a second while I roll down the window and spit. Oh, excuse me for writing all these stonewall classics. Hang on and I’ll saw this old Fender in half and see how that sounds.
If that’s what it was, an effect to play to the fans that might somehow be alienated by the infectious pop sensibilities of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium”, well they really overshot the runway. I really like this one. Lurching from fingerpicky verses with detuned strings and unintelligible vocals to screamy hyperdistorted and atonal nu-metal, it’s possibly as raw and high energy as they ever got in a studio.
And it’s right on the money (naked swimming babies aside) as far as secret tracks go. No way could this have slipped in anywhere else in the tracklisting without ruining its greatest hits flow and feel. But it also feels like something they didn’t want left unsaid. We still headbang guys, and we still mean it.
Oasis - Heathen Chemistry - “The Cage”
I re-listened wondering could this possibly be as bad as I remembered. It's worse. Even the time spent skipping through the full half hour of preceding silence feels wasted as this slow tuneless guitar dirge trundles away. I like Be Here Now and I thought “Fade In-Out” was a solid deep cut with some nice playful takes on the sounds of the American desert as brought to us Europeans by beer ads. This, on the other hand, is like the version where they tried playing it on half speed on a left-handed guitar. A 50-minute track. The effing cheek.
Ash - 1977 - “Sick Party”
As you’ll shortly see talk-about-ability is something I rate in a secret track and for years I heard tell of this only through word of mouth. As an owner of Walkmen and cassette tapes growing up, my version of 1977 held only joyous pop-rock licks, unsullied by the darkness that lay at the end of the CD version. Tapes, like vinyl records, had physicality and symmetry to concern themselves with, so indulgent 10-minute gaps were literally a waste of space.
But my CD-owning associates assured me, if you let “Darkside Lightside” play out to the end... “You hear them Puking”. Eh, yeah you do, and hardly spontaneously either. It sounds like it was funny at the time, but that you had to be there. You have the info, find it for your self.
Green Day - Dookie - “All By Myself”
And we have a weener.
Years before American Idiot, knowing the words to “Basket Case” or the opening chords to “When I Come Around” became a rite of passage. If Oasis had the albums your Dad might listen along to, this was the one you needed to hide from your Mum. Speaking of which, “All by Myself” begins with the sound of someone out of breath and proceeds to say everything you can say without saying aloud that this is a song about a teen male’s quest for self-pleasure. It’s sung by drummer Tré Cool using a creepy mock-geek voice uses the title as a refrain: “I was all by myself- no one was looking”. The creepy ratchets up until it’s Something About Mary-level watch/listen through your fingers.
On an album of classics, this was probably the most talked about minute or so of audio among the people I knew who knew the album. And honestly, if you’re gonna throw a pisstake curtain call on there, it might as well generate some chat, especially if it gets people saying the words “Tré Cool”. Also, the intro, which sounds like someone wandered into a Mexican cantina, is genuinely cool and intricate. Best of all, it draws attention to a great closing track in “F.O.D.” which might have otherwise slipped by unnoticed.
All the stars to the North
Whipping Boy - Heartworm - “A Natural”
And we have a winner for reals.
Heartworm doesn’t lack for emotional highs. I’ve never seen them live, but I’ve always wondered how the fans sing along to the arhythmic spoken verses of the anthemic centrepiece “We Don’t Need Nobody Else”. Do they yell up to the stage and at one another “I hit you for the first time today… Yeah and you thought you knew me!”? It’s an album-lover’s album, again breaking from the pack through the expression of a unique and beautifully accented voice, that of Fearghal McKee. For the most part he sings fairly conventional verse-chorus indie anthems, but sings them raw and gives it loads. Then we hit “We Don’t Need Nobody Else”, a kind of psychotropic “Parklife” and something truly new emerges.
After the barbiturate “Morningrise”, a quiet hum of traditional instruments rise up and introduce another piece of spoken word. “This is not a day for me”. It is the diary entry of someone just diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and unpacks the meaning of the condition and the diagnosis. “The mean side grew hungrier and if it wasn’t fed each time, it began to eat the other.” It concludes with a sung refrain of the first spoken line and a warm wall of sound.
Again here we have a secret track with a function, this time a narrative one. Its uncoded honesty changes subsequent listens. If offers an explanation for why what you’ve been hearing sounded so strange all the while.
All the remaining stars
Having been de rigueur in the 90’s, secret tracks are now more of a rarity, giving way almost entirely to bonus tracks. These confuse me because I never know when an album is over and when I’ve strayed into the exclusive content secured by Spotify or iTunes. Annoying as they could sometimes be, at least the periods of silence told you something: it created an actual separation between what just concluded and what’s to come. As to how those platforms now deal with these, silence doesn’t seem to be part of the business model. Spotify either slices off at the end of the final track or creates a new track and includes a helpful “(hidden track)” note in the title (“Look at me Mum, I’m hiding”). Wedged between the eras of premium real estate on the surface of vinyl and everything must be playlistable, secret tracks may be one legacy from the CD era.
Somewhat in keeping with that tradition, Belfast’s Civil Simian last year upended the prevailing model by having their bonus secret track to “Auroboric” on CD only. To be fair, they compromised: fast forwarding was always a pain and just made the thing less like to be heard. So they leave the gap at the end of the final track and then conclude the CD with an extra track 11. Track 11 is like a reverse overture, cycling back through each of the preceding 10 tracks all fit to the rhythm of the first one, where the journey ends. Wanna hear it? Next time you see me, remind me to bring the CD.