The secret history of messages etched into records

By in Features





“ROBBIE WILLIAMS IS SHIT”… and other profound notes from the runout groove.

Could James Murphy be losing his edge? Not one to miss an opportunity for a sardonic aside, the LCD Soundsystem mastermind had the words “SEE U IN 5 YEARS” cut into the D-side of new album American Dream. Sure it’s annoyingly oblique, but in the grand tradition of scratching secret missives, anti-establishment incitements or surreal aphorisms into the run-out grooves of records, it’s positively vanilla.

It’s also not the first time LCD Soundsystem have gone there, with editions of 2010’s This Is Happening etched with pithy phrases like “amateur dance music,” “beauty is a rare thing,” “get weird,” and the heartfelt “in loving memory of jerry fuchs” – a tribute to the band’s live drummer who died a year earlier. On The Long Goodbye, the band’s 5xLP swan song recorded live at Madison Square Gardens, the messages scrawled piecemeal across the combined 10 sides reads, “NEW YORK I LOVE YOU BUT YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN.”

But the history of the runout groove etching doesn’t begin and end with James Murphy’s subconscious. Practically since day one, the inside track or runout groove of a vinyl record or 78rpm disc has been the domain of the matrix number, an alphanumerical code either stamped or handwritten into the wax to help pressing plants assign the correct stamper and label to each side of the record. Extra digits often refer to the cut or take of a particular record, while some plants or cutting engineers will assign their own signatures to the space. Far from an exact science, matrix numbers will often be taken into consideration by collectors, either as proof of first pressings or sought-after alternate takes and re-cuts.

All this code though is rather formal in contrast to the hidden messages which have since jostled for space alongside their more conventional brethren in the runout groove.

Its chief architect is the legendary mastering engineer George Peckham, who signed off many of the hundreds of thousands of records he cut from the ’60s onwards with his nickname “Porky”, or “A Porky Prime Cut”. Occasionally he’d respond to lyrics on the record with witty asides, while on others, like Elvis Costello’s 1978 album, This Year’s Model, he’d kick-start frenzied competitions by inscribing telephone numbers that fans could call to win prizes. On Primal Scream’s 1990 EP Loaded, Porky cut the words “FREE SLY STONE!” onto one side and “FREE JAMES BROWN!” onto the other.

While it’s difficult to trace the exact provenance of unsigned cuts, by the ’70s and ’80s these hidden inscriptions were also firmly in the hands of the artists themselves, seen as a clever way to code a little bit of provocative meta-data into the disc. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ 7″ carried the words “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law”, the four sides of The Clash’s London’s Calling incited fans to “tear,” “down,” “the,” “walls”, while Dead Kennedy’s Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death proclaimed “THE SKULL IS THE SMILING FACE OF THE 80s” on one side and “DOLPHINS MAKE BETTER ANARCHISTS THAN PEOPLE DO”.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to stick it to the man in the runout groove became the calling card for independent labels too, with the likes of Hüsker Dü and Minutemen giving bastions of the American hardcore scene SST a reputation for runout etchings. Released on Sub Pop, the 7″ of Nirvana’s 1988 single ‘Love Buzz’ famously reads “Why Don’t You Trade Those Guitars For Shovels?” Earlier this year, old bigmouth struck again on The Smiths’ Record Store Day 7″ of ‘The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,’ scratching “Trump will kill America” into the runout groove.

On the dance music spectrum, labels like Underground Resistance also held their own, not so subtly mirroring the track names on 1992’s ‘Message To The Majors’ in the runout with ‘fuck the majors’. Released on London-based electronic label Unexplored Beats, Kruton’s ‘Granular Plateaux’ 12″ (which also features a worthy Autechre remix) echoed the sentiment of the times with “ROBBIE WILLIAMS IS SHIT” on the A-side. Robbie probably never saw it.

Others chose to be less combative with their messages. Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ 7″ on Factory Records reads imploringly “DON’T DISILLUSION ME” on the A-side and “I’VE ONLY GOT RECORD SHOPS LEFT” on the flip, while our man Porky appears mischievously on the instep of Unknown Pleasures.

Having covered his low-key funk ballad ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ on their George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley, Red Hot Chilli peppers paid homage to Sly Stone with ‘FOR SLY WITH LOVE’ in the runout of the A-side.

More often than not though, the runout has been a depository for utter nonsense, such as on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, where meaningless aphorisms like “IF LOVE IS THE ANSWER YOU’RE HOME” and “LET’S RAISE THE BAR AND OUR CUPS TO THE STARS” appear on the LP and ‘Get Lucky’ remix 12″ respectively.

The eagle-eyed will have noticed Thom Yorke and FKA Twigs get in on the act in recent years too, while it goes without saying that Jack White’s runout grooves groan under the weight of hidden tracks, holograms and any possible configuration of text space will allow.

We could go on. But as with all great artistic statements, the cycle isn’t complete until someone gets a little bit meta and takes an axe to the form itself. The last word therefore goes to Australian hardcore punk outfit the Hard-Ons, whose 1989 LP Love Is A Battlefield Of Wounded Hearts carries the simple message “What the fuck are you looking at? There’s no secret message here you stupid prick!” on the A-side, before clearing things up once and for all on the flip with, “And there’s no message here either cunt!!” Thanks for that.

Shout out to this Discogs thread for proving a valuable resource for this feature. Add your favourites below.