It’s all about the music… except when it isn’t. There’s nothing like a good gimmick to lend a little pizzazz to an album release or a tour, and sometimes musical artists just toy with us because they can. Here are some of the most notorious games musical artists have played with their fans over the years.
Do musicians hide secret messages in the grooves of their records? Rumors have long flown. The “Paul is dead” Beatles theory is most infamous: when you play “Revolution 9” backwards, you’re supposed to hear “turn me on, dead man,” a supposed clue that Paul McCartney was killed in a car accident. McCartney later parodied the rumor with the title of his 1993 album “Paul Is Live,” which also had a cover alluding to the supposed death hints hidden on the “Abbey Road” album cover.
After a scene in “The Exorcist” (1973) had the possessed girl speaking backwards, concerned Christians became convinced that rock and metal albums were full of backmasked satanic messages. Most of those supposed messages were only in the listeners’ imaginations; Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne said that the idea of backwards messages on ELO albums was “skcollob.” (See what he did there?)
In a few cases, though, the musicians actually had inserted the effects. Slayer’s 1985 album “Hell Awaits,” for example, does in fact begin with voices chanting “Join us,” backwards.
Artists have been “hiding” tracks for decades, whether deliberately or not. The Clash’s “Train in Vain” was hidden on “London Calling” (1979) insofar as it didn’t appear on initial pressings’ track lists, but that was just because the song was added to the album at the last minute.
The ‘90s were the heyday of truly hidden tracks, with CD technology allowing artists to squeeze in all sorts of places. The classic trick was just to leave a long interval of silence at the end of an album, then drop a song out of nowhere. Most famously, this is how “Endless, Nameless” appeared on Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (1991). If bands wanted to mess with listeners playing the discs on shuffle, they could cut the silent interval up into dozens of tracks—like Danzig did on 1994’s “Danzig 4,” where the hidden cut “Invocation” was actually the 66th track on the album.
Those songs would eventually play, though, even if you didn’t know they were coming. Artists who wanted to truly hide a song could use the area known as the “pregap,” which plays before a given track. Audio programmed into the pregap of track one won’t be heard unless a listener knows to start the disc on track one, and then scan backwards. This trick was employed by dozens of artists, including Blind Melon (“Soup,” 1995) and Pulp (“This Is Hardcore,” 1998).
In the 21st century, artists like Kanye West (“Graduation,” 2007) and Arcade Fire (“Reflektor,” 2013) were still at it with the pregap tracks—and in the streaming era, tracks hidden on CD are more hidden than ever.
Speaking of Arcade Fire, did you follow the kerfuffle over the dress code for their livestreamed album-release show? After the “HIP & TRENDY” dress requirement sparked controversy, the band blamed a social media strategist who apologized via fax. Wait, fax? Some fans started to suspect the whole incident had been a promotional prank cooked up by the wickedly witty Canadian rock stars.
— Arcade Fire (@arcadefire) July 24, 2017
Father John Misty is also partial to pointed pranks, like the “streaming service” he launched in 2015 with the announced intention of making music more affordable for both artists and consumers. The “Streamline Audio Protocol” featured his then-new album “I Love You, Honeybear” in the form of bleepy, bloopy MIDI files. It was a swipe at actual streaming services, like Spotify, that have been criticized for having poor sound quality.
Remember Chris Gaines? He was Garth Brooks’s not-so-secret alter ego, who released a horrible rock album in 1999 as the country star tried to explore new musical territory. More successfully, cult-hero rocker David Johansen of the New York Dolls found genuine pop stardom as ersatz lounge singer “Buster Poindexter,” whose cover of Arrow’s “Hot Hot Hot” filled dance floors in 1987.
There are entire bands made up of characters; the most elaborately costumed are GWAR, whose members have names like “Balsac the Jaws of Death,” “Jizmak Da Gusha,” and “Sawborg Destructro.” Some bands take this to the point of being entirely fictional—most notably Gorillaz, a joint project between musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett.
Japan, of course, is on the cutting edge of this trend: Hatsune Miku is a fictional character voiced by a synth app, and unlike Gorillaz, she doesn’t correspond exclusively to any one musician. Her voice has been used on over 100,000 songs, and she plays concerts via hologram. Chris Gaines, eat your heart out.
David Bowie’s “Blackstar” vinyl features an album sleeve that glows blue under blacklight—and if you bounce light off either side of the record, the reflection projects a star or spaceship in a circle. Even more elaborate vinyl effects are possible: shine a light on a special edition of “The Force Awakens” soundtrack, and a TIE fighter or Millennium Falcon appears in hologram form.
You may have heard what happens if you expose it to sunlight. Well, it turns out that if you put the Blackstar LP under a blacklight…. pic.twitter.com/WvDg7xkF8t
— Matt (@RobboRobson21) November 13, 2016
It’s Jack White, though, who’s the crown prince of vinyl shenanigans. The “Ultra LP” version of his 2014 album “Lazaretto” includes a hologram of a spinning angel, and a dual-groove segment that plays an electric or acoustic intro to the song “Just One Drink” depending on exactly where the needle is dropped. There are two literally hidden tracks—as in, hidden under the center label—and they play at different speeds, one at 45 RPM and one at 78 RPM.
Maybe the best record trick Jack White ever played, involved a recording he made before he found fame with The White Stripes. He was working in furniture upholstery, and he and a fellow upholsterer formed a band called, wait for it, The Upholsterers. A story circulated for years that the duo had embedded 100 copies of their second single inside the linings of random furniture pieces.
It seemed like an urban legend, too crazy to be true, until 2014, when two fans actually found copies of that single. The song’s title: “Your Furniture Was Always Dead…I Was Just Afraid To Tell You.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.