The Beauty of The B Side

noun: B-side; plural noun: B-sides
  1. the side of a pop single regarded as the less important one.

There is something quite special about the single. Primarily a sample of the work to come, it has inherently provided musical artists with a platform to sell themselves to a mass audience, particularly one that might not be familiar with it’s product. In the same way as a free sample of laundry detergent might arrive through your letterbox, the single was packaged either solely or matched with an appropriate music video in duality, to enter your thoughts and mind and ultimately to affect your wallet, spending both time and money learning more about the music therein.

In 2017 the CD single is all but extinct in it’s physical format. The occasional novelty single, particularly in the category of Vinyl, is a useful tool for bands to market themselves in a nostalgic and somewhat independent (in the case of Punk bands, rebellious) format and achieve market penetration. Artists who embrace the single tend to sell these items to fans directly, either through their website or concert, offering a novelty spend that increases revenue and gives the music fan something they can’t just pick up in their usual retailers. The UK Singles chart continues as strong as ever, that is, but in a digital format based on downloads and iTunes statistics rather than actual physical units.

lot of records in sleeves full frame

But for me the CD single has always represented an art piece within it’s own right. Bands I grew up in admiration of, such as Queen, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses provided CD singles in abundance throughout a large part of their career – and I personally love the idea of discovering the singles artwork, it’s hidden linear notes, it’s photographs (which often differ from album artwork and themselves remain unique to that print) and, of course, their potential B and C sides. Often several months, if not years, elapse between the first and last single release from a given album; all a small insight into the personal history of the band. My experience has taught me that for every artist who is asked to sign a copy of their latest album, an artist asked to sign an obscure 7″ or CD single has responded with interest and intrigue, in itself something once considered throwaway and disposable (and in some cases ultimately useless once a consumer has purchased the album) has suddenly become a cherished piece of music memorabilia.

Beyond the physical, however, is another thing that we have lost in the replacement of real singles with digital music. Granted, iTunes will provide you a picture of the singles cover art, and it’s unique liveries on your phones track selection screen, but it will also be much more restrictive than a physical format. True again, is the lack of any additional tracks, which digital singles by their very nature do not contain. And rather than actually asking for iTunes to include B Sides, the point of one is to be as carefully packaged and sided. Designed, almost as much as the single itself, to sell the artist.

The fact is that it’s my belief most artists do not understand the importance of a B Side, and less so today, when such things are considered obsolete. But for those too young to understand what I’m talking about, the explanation of a B Side (and even calling it that), is essentially very simple. A traditional 7″ vinyl, upon which a single was traditionally released, contained an A side and a B side by definition of it’s creation. The A side would always (ultimately always) contain the single – whereas the B side could contain literally anything in the format of another song. Some bands often included another track from their current album, one which was unlikely to become a single in it’s own right, maybe considered a weaker or less commercial track. Others included a live track, either a popular single or not, from a performance which (especially in pre digital days) gave a listener the idea of what a band sounded like live in concert outside the studio.

While both are useful marketing tools, neither contained much creative spirit or use for this side of the record which, during most of it’s commercial life suffered from a continuous lack of use. The Rolling Stones are a band who released no fewer than 11 non LP songs between 1971 and 2009 for example, songs which could only be obtained through the initial single, having both the marketing potential to attract those looking for as much material from the band as they could but also those who really wanted to hear a more experimental song like ‘Cook Cook Blues’ and ‘Jump On Top of Me’. They might not have represented the best of their catalog, or even a song good enough to make the bands latest album, but it was a song which could be heard as an experimentation of their sound; maybe it featured a long time guitarist on vocals or a drummer playing bass.

Artists such as Elvis Presley found that B sides had a life of their own, releasing hits on the “flip side” rated just as strongly as their A side, becoming stronger in their own right. Others took the opposite approach, most notably producer Phil Spector who would encourage artists to fill B sides with on the spot instrumental material which would be unlikely to ever be played on radio; thus assuring no DJ would be tempted to flip the record over. The track ‘I’ve Got Fire’ from Iron Maiden appeared as a B Side single in 1980, to date the only officially released version of the song with vocalist Paul Di’Annio – the song proved so successful the band re released it a year later on the album ‘Flight of the Icarus’ with vocalist Bruce Dickinson.

And there are even more ingenious examples of the beauty of a good B Side. The group Bow Wow Wow released the track ‘C30 C60 C90 Go’ in 1980; with a blank reverse side that was allegedly put there to allow listeners to tape their own music from the radio. The Dead Kennedys EP ‘In God We Trust’ went one step further and included a message directly addressing the home taping of music by fans, claiming that it was time such a practice was upheld. Today you’ll even notice Pirate Bay includes a cassette and crossbones in their infamous logo because of the original anti-Home Taping campaigns of the 1980s.

As a young music fan I was particularly interested in taping over B sides (or indeed A sides) that I didn’t like, creating my own personal cassette single from what remained of the tape. I felt this was such a personalized way to become involved in the artists music – albeit a little unusual – that it encouraged me to buy more. At the same time the cassettes casing and artwork provided me a chance to see something unique that wasn’t on the album. The extra photographs, including one from the inside of Queen’s ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ single provided an insight I never expected – a nice surprise. Lars Ulrich’s liner notes until such time as he wrote about having nothing further to write and questioning why the band had released five singles for the same album! It humanized music, made it more personal and less disposable.

Today I truly feel that the music world mourns the loss of the B side. A silent death to which nobody paid any real notice, but which provided so much while at the same time constantly referred too as the “less important one”

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