In Praise Of The Pregap

The secrets that only your CDs can offer…

With the music industry still shooting the shit over social media about whether or not the album format is dead – pro-tip: it’s not, you tits – it’s been easy to drift from that chatter into the always-boring debate over what is, or isn’t, the best format to actually listen to music on. Because for all the rhetorical ruminations on how we ‘consume’ music – sigh – there is one constant: we use our ears. And how the music gets to these great big lugholes, most of the time, doesn’t really matter.

I stream music. I buy music. I put music on shelves and I fill hard drives with it. I share it with friends, by both linking them to YouTube videos or SoundCloud posts, and by actually sharing it with friends – by buying them a record and telling them: “Hey, I love this, maybe you will, too.” Chances are, you’re probably the same. I quiver when I see that peers have set about the process of going entirely digital – I can’t begin to think what I’d do if I lost music that was so important to me, so very connected to memories, because of a computer malfunction of some kind.

So, I’m in full support of the Hard Copy Collection – much to the chagrin of my wife, who’s had to put up with a good few thousand compact discs cluttering up the homes we’ve shared together the past 10 years or so. And yes, that’s my chosen format: the compact disc. Sure, I buy vinyl, and I’ve got a fair old stack of it – but it takes up so much room. I’m someone who began buying music in earnest in the early 1990s, when CDs were the only way to go, so that’s what I naturally gravitated towards – usually for the kind of money that’d make the biggest rip-off merchants in the commercial sector blush. (I distinctly recall getting The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ album, of 1997, for £16.99, which in today’s money must be £300.)

The Chemical Brothers, ‘Setting Sun’, from ‘Dig Your Own Hole’

I own tapes. Tapes are terrible. And yet, tapes have their own celebration day: Cassette Store Day. And when it comes to things like Record Store Day, and the Independent Label Markets held across the world, the emphasis always seems to be on collectible vinyl releases. Why? Well, they’re bigger, they feel nicer, and you can put your sexiest 12” in a frame, onto your wall, and just glow whenever you see it – even if you can’t actually hear it. Put a CD on your wall and it just looks stupid. Put one in your stereo, though…

Oh, wait. You don’t own a stereo? A computer with a CD drive? No? Okay, for the sake of this article, let’s pretend that you do. You put the CD into your stereo and: wow. This is the best sound quality that most of us will experience in our homes. This technology is pretty old, having been prototyped by Philips in the mid-1970s, and first released to the public in 1982 – the first new-release album to be issued on the format being Billy Joel’s ‘52nd Street’. High-res audio (HRA) might be a growing thing in the digital market right now, but these type of files are far less accessible than the low-quality MP3s and AAC songs comprising the majority of anyone’s iTunes library.

I’m not about to get into boring figures, but CD-quality sound is substantially better than what you’ll hear in these compressed equivalents, even if ripped onto iTunes from a CD copy. And besides, I don’t want to dwell too long on the cold, hard stats – what I want to do is highlight the magic of the CD, as it offers something that no other format can. It offers the pregap.

Vinyl albums have long offered the opportunity for backmasking – the inclusion of messages only detectable when the record is spun in its opposite direction, often at the risk of cue burn or complete stylus failure, most of which are only designed to work one way. Famously used by The Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra – and rather less famously, Chumbawamba and Chris de Burgh – this is a fun enough way of giving extra to the listener, to the fan, to make them feel special when they find the extra layer of meaning, or complete gibberish, lurking inside the mix. But it’s mostly silly fun rather than anything substantial: hearing some dude from Linkin Park tell you to brush your teeth and wash your hands, as on ‘Announcement Service Public’ is hardly as satisfying as, oh, I don’t know, having an entire bonus song or two hidden in plain sight.

Linkin Park, ‘Announcement Service Public’, forwards and backwards

And this is the pregap: something that’s easy to see when you tilt a disc at the light just right, but just as easy to miss if you’re not hovering a finger over the rewind button, ready to ‘seek’ in reverse just seconds after the first track commences. I thought that most people of CD-buying vintage were perfectly aware of these secrets amongst their collections, but recent pub conversations suggest: maybe not. What the pregap enables the artist to do is include extra music that isn’t readable by a computer – so if you were to rip a CD with pregap content to your iTunes, this content won’t be found. To uncover it, you need a regular CD player.

The first time I was aware of the potential of the pregap was the same day that I sold my once-faithful, now long-forgotten, Sega Master System. I’d received some cash for the console and a bunch of games – some great, like Wonder Boy III and the SMS version of the original Sonic – and immediately went to Eastleigh’s Our Price to fill my boots with new albums. Obviously, given the then price of CDs, I’d have needed to be wearing some fabulously tiny footwear to get anywhere close to stuffing them tight. I think I came away with three albums, total, and some chump change. One was definitely ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ – I’d had my eye on that Smashing Pumpkins set for a while – and another a much newer release, Ash’s debut album proper, ‘1977’. Which puts this transaction at around May 1996. I was 16.

Being 16, I rode the bus: from the town centre to a stop a five-minute walk from what was then a still-new home, not so far from the school I’d so soon leave, it offered time enough to pore over the art and the credits to these new acquisitions. People go on about how great it is to turn a 12” over in their hands, to smell the sleeve and to drink in every last detail – but I used to (and still do) have this experience with CDs, just as much as vinyl.

I knew Ash from their pre-album singles – sprightly, spunk-filled Britpop winners like ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Angel Interceptor’, and the to-this-day heart-swelling rush of ‘Goldfinger’ – so that was on first, to see if the rest of this collection could meet expectations. For me, it did – and still does, when the sun’s out and nostalgia’s heavy. My then CD player, an awful old double-cassette boombox thing that I’d got as a 12- or 13-year-old, registered the disc, but before it spat out the TIE Fighter scream that opened ‘Lose Control’, its display ran to minus digits. Minus two, minus one, zero, track starts. Huh?

Ash, ‘Jack Names The Planets’

I held rewind instinctively, and the track kept going back. Music spluttered forth, garbled and twisted and entirely nonsensical – until release, and ‘Jack Names The Planets’ made itself known. The band’s first-ever single, released through La La Land in February 1994, this version differed from that heard on Ash’s ‘Trailer’ mini-album of October 1994. And then came its B-side, ‘Don’t Know’. The National Lottery had launched in the same year as Ash began releasing records, the first draw taking place a month after ‘Trailer’ was in stores, and as someone so young I was yet to play it. But, I imagined, this is what it must have felt like to match four numbers, at least. (Side note: I have still never won anything on the Lottery. Surely by now I’m good for a tenner?)

Pop ‘1977’ in your Mac and it’ll fail to spot these hidden delights, smuggled in beneath the album ‘proper’. Likewise, place the (perhaps first pressing only) disc of UNKLE’s debut album of 1998, ‘Psyence Fiction’ (another that cost me the best part of £17, according to the very-much-intact price label on the inside sleeve), into a laptop and it heads straight for ‘Guns Blazing’, the collection’s fiery, Kool G Rap-featuring opener. But play it in a stereo, rewind, and you uncover a two-minute melange of musical influences, mixed (presumably) by the duo’s then-star-attraction, DJ Shadow. Titled ‘Intro (Optional)’, there’s little wonder why it’s hidden – imagine the headaches involved in clearing all of these clips, even in the sampling-still-a-grey-area landscape of the 1990s. Just listen to it, and picture the paperwork.

UNKLE, ‘Intro (Optional)’

The use of the pregap – other ’90s albums to employ the tactic include Beastie Boys’ ‘Hello Nasty’, Super Furry Animals’ ‘Guerrilla’, Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’ and The Wannadies’ ‘Bagsy Me’ – to store hidden music continued through the ’00s. With CD sales high right through to the end of the first decade of the new millennium, artists from across the sonic spectrum set about stashing secrets in their albums’ private preambles.  I Am Kloot, Damien Rice, Muse and Soulwax were all into it. One of the best hidden tracks amongst the ’00s set is found on Blur’s ‘Think Tank’ (2003) – ‘Me, White Noise’ welcomed ‘Parklife’ narrator Phil Daniels back into the fold, and builds from slow beginnings into an explosive number fairly out of keeping with the more melancholic content that followed it.

Blur, ‘Me, White Noise’

In recent years though, perhaps due to the slow down of CD sales as the public goes digital, the number of artists utilising the pregap appears to have fallen. I can’t check every CD ever released, of course, but the most recent example of an album featuring this sort of additional material is The Dead Weather’s 2010 set, ‘Sea Of Cowards’ – and that’s just a 30-odd-second instrumental noodle. (To be honest, it’s more than we got on ‘This Is Hardcore’, which was basically a four-second hum.)

I’d like to see bands bring back the pregap content, though – it adds a degree of mystique to a format that, to many, is cold and clinical compared to cassettes and vinyl. I mean, just read this from the CD version of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, of 1984: “The Compact Disc Digital Audio System offers the best possible sound reproduction – on a small, convenient disc. Its remarkable performance is the result of a unique combination of digital storage and laser optics.” Even at the outset, the powers that be found a way to make this exciting new medium sound incredibly boring.

It’s asking too much, I’m sure, to have a Compact Disc Day, in the vein of Cassette Store Day. And besides, it’d be just as unnecessary – these events should be used to highlight great records, whatever format they’re presented on. But I’d really like to see more done with the medium, as it was when I’d discover these brilliant bonuses on my new purchases. Are acts still using the pregap in this way? If you know of a recent album with a pre-track-one extra, rather than a load of pointless remixes shoved onto a deluxe-edition reissue, please, do let us know. Meantime, I’m going back to my personal racks for a rummage, as who knows what further secrets are in there.

Update: Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’ album (4/10 review) features a 10-minute pregap track on disc one. Of course it does. It’s called ‘Reflektive Age’, and it sounds like this.

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