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School of Phish Secret Language

We are looking this week at one of Phish’s more endearing audience participation exercises, The Secret Language. Most famous for the Simpsons’ ‘Doh!’, there are actually 21 secret language cues/signals. Some have only been played once or twice, some 100 times or more. When you look at the Secret Language as it occurred in Phish’s history you find an interesting delineation, a 1.0 and 2.0 so to speak.

One has Trey signaling the band and one has Trey signaling the audience. To differentiate the two I will call them ‘cues’ and ‘signals’. A cue is more subtle than a signal, and since it was a listening exercise while they jammed that seems appropriate. Where a cue is a guide, a signal requires a predetermined behavior, like saying ‘Doh’. With that distinction, let’s go back and see where it all started.

Dateline: 09/13/1990 THE WETLANDS PRESERVE NYC

Phish played a monster show at the New York city Jamband staple. They debuted 9 songs in addition to what would become known as the Secret Language. It appears during Possum when Trey plays a 9 note riff that became known as Charlie Chan. This riff was originally from an 1847 American stage show and is most famously quoted in the intro to The Vapors Turning Japanese. Possum contains three Charlie Chan cues and Popeye, Oom Pa Pa and Random Note cues to close the first set. Deep in set 2 both ACDC Bag and Buried Alive have Charlie Chan and an I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart cues.

By the end of the night, we heard 5 of the 9 cues that we know existed at this point. These cues appear consistently for the next 18 months, most often during Possum or David Bowie. A band member, usually Trey, would play the Charlie Chan cue and the rest of the band listened for which of the other 8 cues came next and responded accordingly.

Because they played before it every secret language cue, Charlie Chan is the most common Secret Language cue, with Oom Pa Pa and The Random Note coming in 2nd and 3rd most played. Popeye and Random Laugh are next, being played 15 and 21 times, respectively. They played the other 4, I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, Tritone Down, Complete Stop and How High the Moon a few times each. (8,11,4,7)

Oom Pa Pa involves repeating 3 notes twice creating an ostinato, reminiscent of a waltz. The Random Note is based on the song Entrance of the Gladiators that the audience was to sing ‘ahhhh’ after hearing. This was the first audience participation signal. Along with Oom Pa Pa and the rare Complete Stop, they were the only cues that survived once signals were introduced.

The biggest issue with Random Note and expecting a reaction from the audience was that it was secret. At this point, many fans weren’t even aware there was a secret language. Most of the cues were musical jokes and they were easy to miss. This changed on 09/25/91. Three new cues were played, but they were really signals because the band expected audience participation.

Besides adding Random Laugh and Clapping signals, tonight includes the most famous of the secret language signals. Even casual fans know when you hear the 10-note sequence that opens the Simpsons, you yell “D’oh!”, but they still faced the same problem, people didn’t know they were expected to take part. So the band gave the audience instructions and a whole new set of signals was born.

By Fall 1991 the Secret Language had existed for a year with three 1.0 cues remaining, one new cue, Random laugh and two signals, Clapping and Simpsons. Now there were 2 signals for the audience, but since no one bothered to let the fans know what they expected of them, Trey gave instructions one night.

Dateline: 03/6/92 The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH

Another night full of Debuts. It is also the night Trey formally introduced us to the secret language in a long intro to David Bowie. This is when Secret Language 2.0 went into full swing as the internal musical cues from before had mostly disappeared, now replaced with signals for the audience to respond to. Trey taught the audience 5 signals tonight; Aw Fuck, All Fall Down, Simpsons, Turn Turn Turn and the Random Note. Turn never caught on, disappearing after only 15 appearances.

The other 4 fared better. Aw Fuck, signaled by Trey running his pick along the guitar strings and prompting the audience to scream “Awww, Fuck!” while holding up your middle finger, made 38 appearances and is one of the rare signals that made it into 3.0. At 183 appearances, the Simpson Language is the most played signal, but not the most fun. That honor would be bestowed on All Fall Down, this series of 4 descending notes prompting the audience to fall like they had been hit on the head, which Trey called “the best one” On May 14th 1992.

There were 11 other occasions over the next year where Trey instructed the audience about the Secret Language signals. The Secret Language, sadly, was largely forgotten after 1.0 ended, making no appearances in 2.0 and only 2 in 3.0 with Simpsons being played twice on 7/2/2011 and 12/28/2013 and Aw Fuck once, also on 12/28/2013.

So remember, you never know when there will be a Secret Language pop quiz at a show, study hard.

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