FLIP-SIDE STORY

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

Many a garage classic--the Surfaris' "Wipeout," the Gentrys' "Keep On Dancing" and the Yardbirds' "I'm a Man"--were flips brimming with spontaneity their A-sides lacked.

B-sides also afforded many great Sixties bands a place to test the waters as composers. Both the Stones and the Hollies began their careers performing covers of American R&B material. The bands' early B-sides, however, showcased group compositions, albeit under pseudonyms like "Nanker Phelge" and "L. Ransford."

A recent, three-CD Hollies retrospective shows that the group saved some of its hardest-rocking efforts for B-sides. In the collection's excellent liner notes, singer Allan Clarke reveals to writer Dawn Eden, "You could always have fun with B-sides, because it's like, 'Okay, guys, we've got the A-side, now let it rip.'" Partner Tony Hicks agrees that "a lot of the B-sides were probably better than the A-sides."

And the flip side was not always meant to be lesser than the A-song.
Early rockers Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson charted with both sides of virtually every single they released in their heyday. The Beatles single-handedly saved the industry from one-sided singles by providing excellent value on both sides of every Fab 45. Creedence Clearwater Revival, besides bridging the gap between AM and FM in the late Sixties and early Seventies, had many two-sided hits. (The split airtime may be one reason the group never had that elusive No. 1 hit.)

When Album Oriented Radio became the format of choice in America, though, the single's importance diminished, becoming little more than a three-minute trailer for the associated album. The B-side was usually just another track off the same LP or a previous album.

It was left to the punk movement in England to give the single the gobby kiss of life. There, the single never stopped being important.

"In England, during punk and early New Wave, there always has been and still is a market for singles. People would get on the cover of NME and Melody Maker based on a single, whereas here it's not even remotely possible," Berstein points out, while noting Sub Pop still does a brisk business selling singles, particularly in England. "Indie labels over here use the single as a promo tool for an album, but in Britain, the single stands alone."
Elvis Costello earned the nickname "bonus baby" because he used the B-side as an outlet for his prolific songwriting output. He has often named "Big Tears" (the B-side of "Radio Radio," featuring a stinging Mick Jones guitar lead) as one of his favorite recordings. In fact, an enduring track, "What's So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding?", was first released in the UK as the reverse side of Nick Lowe's "American Squirm," and credited only to Nick Lowe and His Sound.

In underground music circles, the vinyl 45 is still seen as the best way to expose people to new music. Sub Pop led the pack in 1988 with its Singles Only Club.

For a subscription fee, collectors could get a new, highly collectible single every month featuring previously unreleased recordings by bands like Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Afghan Whigs, Rapeman, Fugazi, Urge Overkill, L7 and the Rollins Band. The series kicked off with Nirvana's "Love Buzz," which featured the non-LP B-side "Big Cheese." The Singles Only Club was recently discontinued because Sub Pop felt it was taking time away from the artists on its roster. And, according to Berstein, "Most people joined not because they wanted to be exposed to new music every month. It was the only way you could get those collectible singles." Considering the way many people listen to CDs (i.e., by programming out every song that isn't a favorite), it is possible to conclude that there really is no need for a B-side anymore. What once would have been set aside as "non-LP B-side" now turns up as filler for long, boring albums.

But without B-sides, the listening public will never learn many things--including the paucity of lyrical ideas to be found inside Elton John's head. If you ever needed a reason to appreciate the lyrics Bernie Taupin writes for John, listen to "Flintstone Boy," the flip of the 1977 flop single "Ego."

This flip side can't help but make you wary of a solo "Elton John" songwriting credit:

Please don't talk about the Flintstone Boy
He's all right with me
Please don't worry about the Flintstone Boy
He's got trouble but he ain't got joy
Please don't talk about the Flintstone Boy
He's all right with me
Oh yeah . . . oh yeah . . .

If digital technology can cram 75 minutes of musical data onto one round little disc, can't someone devise a CD that plays on both sides?

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