Wednesday, 7 March 2007

After the Silence......

Why Hidden, Secret or Ghost tracks, should captivate the imagination so much struck me whilst compiling January’s mixtape for the International Mixtape Project. As I collected more songs together, I began wondering exactly what it was that all these bands and artists wanted to achieve with these pieces. What is it about hiding tracks that bands find so appealing and what purpose do they serve? Why would The Beatles put some infinitely repeating chatter in the inner groove of Sgt. Peppers’? Was the Super Furry Animals’ decision to hide live favourite ‘Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ in front of the first song of their Outspaced B Sides & Rarities compilation just another in their long line of stunts? And why did Jarvis’ comeback single ‘Running the World’ find itself languishing in all its glory after 25 minutes of silence? We can only hope that it was not because it contains a naughty word and Mr Cocker feared for his chart placing. Some tracks find themselves hidden due to legal reasons: The Ramones were forced to put ‘Carbona Not Glue’ at the end of live album Loco Live after a lawsuit from the Carbona corporation banned it from appearing on its intended album Leave Home, after taking offence to it’s opinion on their company.

But why should the idea of hiding things in records be such a persistent theme? From The Beatles, through the 80’s hysteria of Satanic messages hidden in heavy metal records, up to Radiohead tucking another booklet under the cd tray of Kid A (it had a secret track on it too, naturally). Far less common in hip-hop and non-existant in any other genre, it seems the true home of hiding things is in the world of rock and pop.

The Beatles, in another shocking first for pop music, are credited with conceiving the first hidden track, putting it in the run-out groove of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band shortly after the end of ‘A Day in the Life’. The clamoring collage of voices continue to repeat the phrase “Couldn’t do it any other way”, amongst other less audible chatter as the record keeps spinning. It is possibly hard to imagine how that was such a terrifying innovation today, but the album format had only truly been around since Frank Sinatra created the first concept record, about relationships, with 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. Just twelve years later, the Beatles turned up with the highest concept album ever made, so it is hardly surprising they should make such a small but significant invention.

Discovering these tracks can be a joyous exciting event - a friend told me that on recently buying Nirvana’s In Utero on cd, having had it for so many years on cassette, the revelation of ‘Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip’ nearly reduced her to tears - or a terrifying ordeal – the time in university halls when my blissful narcotic stupor was violently disrupted by the slaughterhouse squealing at the end of Marilyn Manson’s Smells like Children remains deeply embedded.

Just like different artists and albums themselves, these songs are wildly different, but it is the idea that they can differ wildly from the rest of the album that seems to hold appeal for many. The brief, rough, almost demo like untitled track at the end of Electrelane’s Rock It To The Moon is a brittle paean to a lover that counters the motorik instrumentals that make up the rest of the album. Likewise, the cacophonous burst of overdriven guitar and drums at the end of I Am Kloot’s Natural History is diametrically placed against the gentle witticisms of the preceeding songs. Of those that are sympathetic to the sound of the album, ‘J.L.H. Outro’ at the end of Godspeed’s F#A#∞ reprises the themes, quickly building into humanity’s final push for survival after gathering it’s strength in the intervening 12 minutes of silence. Indeed, this silence sounds almost integral to the album, like a deliberately placed respite after the apocalyptic climax, so that it seems not quite like a hidden track after all, despite not being listed on the sleeve. Islands’ ‘Bucky Little Wing’ from Return To The Sea appears linked to the rest of the album by the 10 minutes of rainfall that lead up to it. Many of these tracks are spoken words, dialogue or the sound of a room with a microphone left recording. Ash’s 1977 has the sound of one member vomiting while the others laugh around him, Mastodon’s Blood Mountain has Josh Homme reading a fan letter he is supposed to have written to the band and The Pixies Surfer Rosa & Come On Pilgrim contains a short piece entitled ‘You Fucking Die!...I Said’ in which you can feel the tension between Kim Deal and Black Francis as he claims to be, somewhat unconvincingly, merely finishing off a sentence for her. If it’s a lyrical contrast a band wishes to fulfill, Mansun achieved just that with ‘An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter’ at the end of Attack Of The Grey Lantern, which, like a punch-line to the album, posits that lyrics do not mean a thing and are the reserve of lazy musicians attempting to cover up weak tunes, as Paul Draper explains; “‘Lyrical Trainspotter’ was just a pisstake really, saying don’t take too seriously all the lyrical content.”

Vinyl hides sound in it’s run-out groove allowing the loop to repeat forever, jumping back to the beginning every rotation. CD’s stow pieces away at the end of the album after an interlude of silence from the end of the final track, after maxing out the track limit to 99 or rewinding from the first track – a more recent and possibly craftier way to hide songs on an album. Perhaps simply hiding songs at the beginning and end is just one way musicians have discovered to further utilise the formats they release their work on. Some bands have found artistic uses for the CD through the various digital functions of players. Antichrist Superstar – the album that could conceivably by considered Marilyn Manson’s own Sgt. Peppers in terms of concept - finishes with ‘Empty Sounds Of Hate’, a noisy, distorted vocal loop at track 99 that flows smoothly into the beginning of track 1 when played on repeat. Asunder’s recent Works Will Come Undone is an album consisting of two monolithic slabs of brooding grey drone that continuously merge together, creating an infinite soundscape, unrelenting yet constantly shifting with each circuit blurring the cusp, obscuring beginning and end. Gescom’s Minidisc was the first album written specifically for Minidisc players back in 1998, taking advantage of the seamless shuffle mode the format could exclusively offer (though now available on CD since they caught up with that particular technological challenge). The 88 tracks on the album were designed to be played at random offering an ever evolving pattern and texture over repeated listens and with the repeat and shuffle functions combined this album comes across as some mind warping parallel universe of sounds, collaging together, refracting, imploding in on itself, mirroring and intertwining, completely deconstructing the concept of the linear album and challenging the traditional format to offer a new method of presenting music.

The future of the hidden track in the MP3 era may be in doubt with no pregap before the first track to rewind through and the file sizes of final tracks giving the game away. However, new albums show no signs of abating the tradition. Klaxons stormed the singles charts on the strength of downloads, appealing to the digital demographic, yet their album contains one of its most interesting moments – an industrial, Eraserhead-like instrumental – right at the end, so the idea of people downloading has certainly not dimmed bands’ passions for playing hide and seek with their listeners.

Pete Jobson of I Am Kloot gives an explanation as to how these tracks come about, and drops clues in the process as to why bands will always be in thrall to adding stuff at the ends of albums that they could not get away with in the middle: “Our debut album Natural History was recorded on the Isle of Mull in a church on an eight track mini disc machine with producer/engineer and friend Guy Garvey from Elbow at the controls. It took a week to record; the budget was £500 of which £430 was spent on chicken and Guinness. The album ends with a spacious atmospheric lament entitled ‘Because’ and if the CD is left to run another 5 minutes there is a mood change in the form of a hidden track. This track remains nameless; but considering John (Bramwell, Singer) screams “Gimme love” at the top of his compass I reckon we can call it ‘Gimme Love’. The days were relatively structured as far as we played and recorded a track at a time. Live band takes in the morning and overdubs in the afternoon - evenings were food and booze and listening. The night of a particularly beguiling full moon and a drunken swim in the loch down from the church we sat down to play. What came spontaneously was a fifteen minute din that was later edited by Mr. Garvey into a 40 second slap in the face which we were delighted to hide at the back of the LP. The plan took its inspiration from an old Chinese proverb: “Get all your enemies gathered together and when they are laughing free from any care run up behind them with large sticks of bamboo and batter them”. It has come back to us on the odd occasion where listeners have relaxed into a slumber during ‘Because’ only to be thoroughly disturbed by the barbed hidden track that secretly follows. This says as much about Kloot as anything I could tell you here.”

It also tells us a lot about the recording processes of an album, and why stowing these tracks is so attractive to bands who find themselves with material imbued with so much of their spirit of the recording sessions that it seems a waste to leave it on the cutting room floor.

Maybe this essay is as effective as musing on the songs bands choose to open their albums with. It certainly seems that some consider it as important a place for music and the freedom it gives them is something which they will not relinquish lightly. So let us cease with the questioning and continue to revel in this nether world of mystery and secrecy for a long time to come.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Aunties' Troopers

London based four-piece, The Be Be See are comprised of singer, lyricist and ideologue Kkevin 'BSB' Retoryka, bassist Philip 'ATV' Collins, keyboardist Beth 'CNN' Randow, and drummer Ross 'History Channel' Gidney. They have followed one of the great mythological journeys of Rock & Roll, getting signed up to a major by their third gig, without being strong-armed into compromise. Doubtless, EMI and its’ subsidiary At Large must have considered this confrontational entity that calls itself Auntie, detourning her very nature with post-modern Situationist irony, delivering what the band term “motorik shoegaze glam pop”, quite an intimidating prospect. Through an email interview, frontman Retoryka says that “We wanted to fukk around with something truly iconic and taken for granted. The BBC occupies a very unusual place in the psyche of the UK, the fact that a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, actually trust it. We never ever hear any opinions of ours or those of our friends on the BBC and we wanted to create an alternative one where we did. More than that, it was the most completely reckless name for a band that actually wanted to make records and reach people we could think of - It could get no exposure whatsoever or it could get loads, but it was the one that looked like it had the potential to cause the most trouble, and we just thought that would be the most fun.” It seems, almost unbelievably, that a major has well and truly stuck its’ neck out somewhere even your Bill Drummonds would have hesitated at. Burning a million is nothing compared to the razing of a national treasure.

An ambition to “be on the National Lottery this time next year” is not the usual ethos of any so called self-respecting band, but that’s what The Be Be See are here to do to you, to reduce your pop pretensions to rubble and glory in the potential of the great mass communicator and harness her powers for their own ends. Subversive? Kkevin flatly counters that admitting “it would totally blow my chances of getting away with taking the piss out of the media - if that was what I wanted to do.” Ask about his ambitions for the band and the answer is simple: “We just want to be the most important pop group of the next 15 years. Lyrically, musically - you name it” and he is acutely aware that the key to the nation’s heart is acknowledging that “People know what they like - Songs for the pub and club and the bedroom. That is what it is all about for me.”

His position on this populist approach to music, rescuing it from its’ mire of conglomerate sterility, assuaging Pop’s bad rep as lowest common denominator art form, revitalizing it (or transforming it, if you have to make a choice within yourself to protect your own indie sensibilities from offence) is one that has the ability to speak to all people everywhere equally. Listening to the two tracks on their debut single is an emotionally galvanizing experience. You K Gold on first listen appears as the classic yearning love song, striking lusty chords at sexy angles, but peeling back the layers on subsequent listens reveals themes picking at the tenets of government surveillance, Cold-War style paranoia and manipulation of civil liberties. The throbbing metallic pulse of Daily Mail taunting Discover E, hits me with the impression that theirs is a record extending from the lineage of dystopian story-telling British bands like The Auteurs, Earl Brutus, Pulp and Black Box Recorder: “We do like those groups but wouldn't ever claim to be part of any lineage. I used to be very into dystopian futurist stuff but nowadays I feel like you can't give up on the future” says Kkevin. “You've got to fight for it - it's important to do what you can to reclaim your world from the idiots who would destroy everything. It's a very natural response to looking around the world.”

Despite the sugary coating, dark and deliberate mechanics grind under the shiny bonnet and clean Saville-esque designs of their artwork. Intriguingly, Kkevin says “We actually spent more time interviewing actors at the start of the group than musicians. Can't say what for yet - it's a surprise.” It would be an unusual statement from your usual factory line band of “mockney public school poets in trilby hats”, but from The Be, Be, See, such promises of art-performance make sense and more. After all, great pop is an art-form and performance and visual elements are the medium through which it is ultimately delivered – Andy Warhol warned us and MTV saw to it, unequivocally. Striking an important chord that should resonate through everyone, even the darkest doom sergeants, noisemongerers and BM kvultists, Kkevin states “This was the whole thing about Peel's death - if everyone listened and loved his show so much then how come all the music he played didn't sell more? I just love pop music - I grew up taking more notice of music on TV and in the weeklies than anything John Peel did or played. I wasn't a sussed kid at all. There is something brilliant about performers getting exposure, almost by accident, when they are not slick or calculated and have just written an eccentric and catchy pop song that people love”

An honest, undeniable, universal truth. As much so as good old Auntie herself.