FLIP-SIDE STORY

CDS HAVE MADE THE B-SIDE OBSOLETE. FOR BETTER OR WORSE.

Wanna know what's wrong with the CD single? Get a copy of Belly's new CD maxi-single, Moon. If this were a vinyl 45 release, the A-side would be the group's recent cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced." The snazzy take of Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" would be the flip. Simple.

In the CD format, though, you get the Hendrix cut, three different mixes of "It's Not Unusual," a song that already appeared on Belly's previous album, and two additional remixes of that song. The result is seven songs that overextend their welcome by a good half-hour.

At two minutes and 18 seconds, "It's Not Unusual" is good fun. Nine minutes and two remixes later, it's bloody torture. Belly is forcing the audience to do its own editing each time this maxi-single is played.

"The fantastic thing about the three-minute single is that it stands alone. It's a simple statement," said Pete Townshend in 1968, when the Who was at the peak of its powers as a singles band.

The British group's rise to prominence was fueled by a rapid succession of landmark hit singles: "I Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "My Generation," "Substitute," "I Can See for Miles." Each had its own pigheaded agenda, and the format ensured it would be afforded undivided attention. Whenever you purchased any of these 45s, you were casting your vote for that singular vision, that frozen moment in time. With CD singles, that "stand alone" quality has become a thing of the past. The one-sided format forces the listener to hear another song--or sometimes as many as six--in proximity, thus diluting the featured song's impact. But what's really lamentable (all the more so because no one seems to have noticed) is the vanishing B-side.

When the B-side was in effect, only the adventurous or masochistic listener dared to flip a single and discover a hidden gem--or an unfathomable lump of shit--on the other side. Suppose you were one of those people who loved John Lennon, but wished Yoko Ono had never existed. It couldn't have pleased you to find her "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)" or "Who Has Seen the Wind?" sneaking onto your turntable on the B-sides of John's hit singles.

But there was always another side to the B-side.
"I was always totally into B-sides, and everyone thought it was weird that I even listened to them," says Nils Berstein, publicist for Sub Pop, the Northwestern indie record company that issued Nirvana's first recordings.

As if to confirm his longtime membership in a secret society, he rattles off some personal favorites. "The B-side of Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' single was '11:59' off Parallel Lines. That was their best song. The B-side of 'I Will Survive' was great; it's called 'Substitute.' When you're young, you have weird ideas.

"You think if they don't play something on the radio, it must not be good."
Most twentysomethings know little about this forbidden zone, this musical equivalent of "don't look under the stairs" that loitered behind the radio favorites of yesteryear. Whether B-sides were very, very good, or horrid, depended on a host of factors.

There were practical reasons that put crummy music on some B-sides in the Fifties and Sixties. Before marketing research ruled the radio airwaves, deejays had the power to make or break hits.

If they didn't like a record, the disc jockeys were apt to flip it over and start playing the B-side. This back-and-forth could result in split airtime, with neither side moving very high on the record charts.

Legendary record producer Phil Spector built his empire by making brilliant hit singles, often spending weeks, months and thousands of dollars in studio time recording an all-consuming musical statement. So it's no surprise he hated it when a song he had sweated over was left standing at the altar, in favor of a B-side song he considered its inferior.

It happened with the very first Phillies label release, the Crystals' "Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby," which was thrown over for the hastily recorded flip, "There's No Other Like My Baby," later a Top 20 hit. After that, Spector left nothing to chance. Flip over almost any Ronettes, Crystals, Bob B. Soxx or Darlene Love single and you'll find nothing but crappy instrumentals. This was Spector's Napoleonic way of saying, "I'll tell radio what the hits are."

These throwaway titles served as winking tributes to his session players (Harry and Milt Meet Hal B."), his flunkies (Nino and Sonny [Big Trouble]"), his promo man (Chubby Danny D.") and even his analyst (Dr. Kaplan's Office"). Because the author's royalty rate for the B-side was the same as the A-side's, Spector, the "Tycoon of Teen," made sure these junky instrumentals carried a lone "Spector" credit. Supposedly, he used the additional revenue from the B-sides to pay for his sister's sanitarium fees! Because the B-side had no artistic responsibilities, though, it could offer more than sloppy takes and slapdash recording techniques. The flip side occasionally captured something the mapped-out A-side had missed.

Onetime B-sides like "Tequila," "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" and "Kung Fu Fighting" were brainlessly thrown together in the final minutes of recording sessions; all went on to become No. 1 hits. In the case of "Tequila," the Champs didn't even hang around to hear a playback of the instrumental that would bring the band its fleeting seconds of fame.

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