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.
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."
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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?