Baller's Corner - The Mystery of Side F

A few months ago I made a noise album called La Monte Zuma’s Revenge: a throat-clearing mash of ambient field recordings, movie dialogue, and deconstructed music samples. Closing track “Fuck You Captain Tom” contains, among other things, a stretch of sound taken from Side F of the triple-LP soundtrack to the disco musical Thank God It’s Friday.

First released in 1978, Thank God It’s Friday is a five-sided album. Most of the songs are on the first two discs; the third is a “Special 12-Inch Single” containing a 15-minute cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” by Donna Summer on Side E. Side F is blank, but still has wide-set grooves (which were removed from subsequent pressings)--playback would theoretically result in surface noise and crackle, but nothing else. I’d never bothered actually listening to it—why would I?—but I’ve always been fascinated by how the medium of vinyl interacts with the music it holds, and Side F stuck in my mind as an example of all of the signifiers of that medium unclouded by any content. While putting together sounds for La Monte Zuma’s Revenge the thought occurred that I could use Side F as a texture in one of the more abrasive pieces. With that in mind, I set up my computer to record, put the side on, turned the volume down, rolled a joint, and cleared my mind.

At first, nothing registered but the expected crackle and hiss. Soon I began to notice something weird. Imagine walking into a dark room: just as the outlines of the room’s contents slowly make themselves known as your eyes adjust, so did my ears finally reach past that initial wall of static, deep into the canyons of those blank grooves. I couldn’t quite identify the sound tucked so far away: it was too obscured by surface noise and too quiet anyway, but it was THERE, waiting for me. Something was definitely down there. Jacking up the volume, the sound finally resolved itself into…music: the sound of a record stuck in a skipping loop. For three solid minutes this thing presented itself, two staggering, distorted notes insistently knocking at my ears.  Stoned and mesmerized, I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled onto some hidden message buried inside this disco record, a call for help sent by a loose slave, or an alien transmission…but then the loop resolved itself, and I heard what was clearly the (hideously disfigured) ending flourish of a pop song, one of those overproduced, late-‘70s deals that you only hear on road trips or in old supermarkets. A moment of actual silence—well, silence underneath the now-enormous roar of the record’s surface noise—and then a vague flourish of electric piano, and a man’s voice singing a recognizable melody: “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel. What the fuck?

The voice of this bastardized mutant-man and his grotesque orchestral antics continued for the entire side of the record. After the Billy Joel cover, another recognizable tune—Elvis’s “Love Me Tender”—and two unrecognizable ones after that. The record got caught in frequent loops. It was very mesmerizing. I was very stoned.

At the time I set aside the larger mystery of What the Fuck Was That in favor of completing my own work, but the question nagged enough that, several weeks later, I returned to the recording and attempted to solve the puzzle. Filtering out as much surface noise and crackle as possible revealed nothing new; the song-recognition app Shazam had no suggestions. Googling “Just the Way You Are cover” resulted only in cover versions of the 2010 Bruno Mars song of the same name (which, apparently, was not written by Billy Joel). Finally, I started the whole thing over from the beginning and typed out whatever lyric fragments I could understand: something about building a fire or a home or something, whatever nonsense love songs are ever about. Then the chorus, clear as a rasping bell: “WE ARE THE LAAAAAST OF THE ROMANTICS.”

The music hiding inside Side F was actually Side A of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1978 album Last of the Romantics. I hope this is at least fractionally as interesting to you as it was to me, because that shit blew my mind. Why? What is it doing there? Why is it so quiet? Why are there even grooves on Side F in the first place? Is this a mistake? Is it a coded message of some sort? The fuuuuuck?

To help solve this mystery, I looked into how a vinyl record gets made. A master recording gets run through a record-cutter, which is basically your turntable in reverse: a thing called a lacquer (a disc made of soft-ish material) is placed on a platter while sound from the master is translated into vibrations channeled through a fancy stylus which cuts grooves into the lacquer as it spins. A hard metal stamper, with inverted grooves that slope up instead of down, is created from the cut lacquer, and that stamper is stamped onto heated vinyl. The vinyl is sold to you, you put it on the turntable, and your record needle runs through the rotating grooves and translates those vibrations into electrical impulses which are then translated into the sound coming through your speakers. Thank God It’s Friday, being a five-sided album, was made using five different metal stampers, meaning that when it came time to press the “blank” grooves of Side F, they had nothing to use. The disappointingly mundane probability is that during the manufacturing process, the engineer or whoever grabbed a random stamper that they had on hand, which just so happened to be Engelbert Humperdinck, and pressed that at an extremely low volume. BUT.

But. This was not the first thing that I thought of. Back at the moment of discovery, confounded, stoned out of my mind, a few other things occurred to me.

The first possibility was that the record was cut by a needle with no sound being channeled into it—the engineer recorded 20 minutes of absolute silence. It made sense, then, that if the grooves were being cut according to vibrations, and no obvious vibrations were being created, then the machine would be more susceptible to incidental things than it normally would—like background vibrations. The engineer could have been listening to Englebert Humperdinck in the same room as the cutting apparatus. Maybe he was listening to it loudly. Maybe that sound caused the faintest movement in the cutting apparatus, which was then translated into the faintest recording of the music the engineer was listening to. That would explain why it was so quiet. (Of course, this theory is ridiculous: the music on Side F, while very quiet and massively distorted, is still too clearly rendered to be the result of incidental rumbling. Besides which, the cutting apparatus is almost certainly set up to be immune to unwanted outside vibrations.)

The second possibility, one I mentioned earlier and that has really stuck with me, is that…this was a message, tucked away where almost no one could find it. Someone wanted me to hear it, was trying secretly to communicate. Why not? In the 1980s it was plausible enough (okay, barely plausible) that Satanists were sneaking subliminal messages into metal records, and you could only hear those messages by playing the music backwards. Why wouldn’t someone take advantage of an entire blank side and send out a signal for those curious and dedicated enough to find it? Before I could tell that it was actual pop music, it was just a thin line of substance beneath the surface, a radar blip to be noticed or ignored, a locked box in the forest. Who put it there? How was it encoded? What does it mean? What kind of secrets are inside? I imagined some sweaty scientist in his study, paranoid, recording and encrypting a hurried monologue that he would hand off to a confederate in a Detroit pressing plant, who would then as quickly and silently as possible sneak that scrambled message onto Side F, knowing surely that most folks would never hear it at all, much less take the time to decipher it. Maybe he was found out somehow, and that was why the silent grooves were missing from later pressings. The records were sold and the message went unheard for 35 years, until I purchased a used copy from a Nashville-area Goodwill and sat on it for almost a decade before finally deciding to scan it for samples and suddenly found myself staring through a locked window into a past world that I didn’t understand, the scientist looking back at me from the other side, pleading with me to open up and join him and he would show me everything…

by Mark Sanders