Music History

Secret Codes Hiding in Your Music Collection (part 1 – album artwork and liner notes)

Even as physical media drifts away, music artists of all genres like to hide messages and images in their releases. Sometimes little more than band member names, sometimes clues for finding treasure. Part 1 looks at album covers and liner notes.

A few weeks ago I started thinking about Arcadia. If you’re under 30 you may not recognize the name. They were one of two “spinoff” projects that the members of Duran Duran put together during the band’s mid-80s hiatus. The other project, The Power Station, made a bigger impact on the charts. They had Robert Palmer on vocals and a decent cover of the T-Rex classic “Get it On”. But Arcadia always had a special place in my heart. During that era a significant portion of my music consumption and knowledge came from my brother’s extensive and ever-growing record collection. He had the Arcadia album So Red The Rose and a 12″ single of the minor hit “Election Day”.

If I’m being completely honest, I only vaguely remember the music. It sounded mostly like a continuation of the type of music that Duran Duran had been making, with perhaps a bit more attention paid to the brass section. What really secured its place in my memory was a series of 2-digit numbers in various places on the artwork. My brother and his friends decoded it. It wasn’t anything special (the album title and the band members’ names), but that was okay, because they had the satisfaction of knowing that they cracked the code. There was a secret interaction between themselves and the band, and they knew something that someone glancing at the album cover in a record store didn’t know.

Of course, hiding a simple substitution cypher in album artwork is neither difficult nor original. And we’ve been firmly in the Internet Age for long enough now that such “secrets” often get decoded and posted on Reddit before you’ve even had a chance to hear the music. But when done effectively, it can still be rewarding and fun for those who care enough to take the time.

Winks and Nods

As much as we’re moving further and further away from physical media’s dominance, this idea is not a thing of the past. One of the first names I encountered when researching this was Taylor Swift. She’s been hiding messages in her liner notes since her 2010 sophomore release Speak Now. Initially it was mostly calling attention to specific letters to spell out the names of the ex-boyfriends she was singing about, but for 2014’s album 1989 there was an autobiographical poem/story.

On the back cover of New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies, there is a wheel design made up of various coloured sections. The outer two rings of this design form a “decoder ring” to decipher messages hidden elsewhere on the cover. This code is also used on the 12″ singles for “Blue Monday” and “Confusion”, and New Order’s official website. Like Arcadia, there’s no new information revealed if you take the time to decode. It’s mostly the catalog numbers and/or titles of the releases on which they appear. But again, the process is its own reward.

The cover of A Perfect Circle’s album Mer De Noms displays several exotic-looking symbols running down the middle. With no key and little context, fans managed to decode it as “La Cascade Des Prenoms”, a shorter version of one of the working titles for the album.

(side note: Arcadia came from Duran Duran, New Order came from Joy Division, A Perfect Circle comes from Tool. Is there something inherent about being a spinoff of side project that makes one want to play with codes like this?)

Hints and Clues

Radiohead went a step further and hid an entire second booklet behind the CD tray of Kid A. It contained what may have seemed at the time like random bits of poetry, but were actually samplings of lyrics from their next two albums.

David Bowie’s final album Blackstar is perhaps one of the most examined and discussed entities for this sort of thing. The partial star shapes form a language. Certain images reveal new things when viewed in certain ways. Both black light and direct sunlight reveal new images in some elements.

Back in February, the album’s designer Jonathan Barnbrook told NME:

There is something else which I may reveal in future, I may not. The thing is, it’s not a competition. It’s like ‘oh, you’ve discovered it, here’s your prize’. We live in a world where everything is verified by going online. People tweet me, and I don’t answer them. I think the creative process of putting those elements together and coming up with a reason what the secret message is, actually is something that he absolutely would have approved of.

Perhaps one of the most involved and most fun examples of such shenanigans comes from Imagine Dragons. In late 2014, the band teased the upcoming Smoke + Mirrors album on Twitter with an image of the album cover and some cryptic clues. One enterprising super-fan, 13-year-old Lindsea Taylor, discovered GPS coordinates hidden in the artwork. She was in Florida and the coordinates were in Las Vegas, but luckily for her she has family in Utah not too far from Vegas. She convinced her grandparents to take her on a literal treasure hunt. The buried treasure included signed drumsticks and Polaroids, a signed acoustic guitar, and a pass for free admission to any concert on the Smoke + Mirrors tour.

Bits and Pieces

Iron Butterfly, Roger Waters, and Missing Persons have all used Morse Code on their covers. The back cover of Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway has a braille message (reportedly for Stevie Wonder’s benefit). The cover of Kate Bush’s Ariel incorporates a waveform of a birdsong presented as a reflected landscape. And dozens of artists have had messages etched directly onto records, in the gap between the label and the music.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of messages visually hidden in the physical media. In part two, I’ll explore inventive ways artists have hidden messages in the actual audio of their releases.

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