The last in a trilogy of “Vinyl Culture” articles, this appeared in The Word’s issue of July 2012.
You can see Part 1, on the Art of the Album Sleeve, here.
And Part 2, on Vinyl Record Labels, is here.
The vinyl single is pop at its purest. It’s no more “real” than any other medium of delivery, but it’s fundamentally different. If you’ve ever used a turntable you’ll know the frisson that comes with shifting up from 33 to 45: here is where things will really start moving. (Long before Jeremy Clarkson, the BBC’s pop radio show was called Top Gear.)
Why are singles so exciting? Partly it’s to do with process. Ever since the first cassette Walkman, we’ve been progressively trained by new technology to treat music as background. It plays continuously without our intervention, and normally it happens while we’re doing something else. But the vinyl 45 won’t stand for that. To play at all, vinyl requires some investment of labour. And singles need tending every couple of minutes. Listening to vinyl is immersive, and that’s unique today. It makes us concentrate. And then, for a thrill that’s practically illicit, you turn the record over and take a trip to the Dark Side.
B-sides are the purest expression of vinyl devotion. B-sides separate the men from the boys (and often, alas, from women). They are not for plastic punks or weekend hippies. In a way that’s practically subversive, the very word “single” seems to deny the B-side’s existence. Singles are actually doubles, but to many people the “flipside” is invisible: it’s the mad relative locked in the attic, or the royal consort marching five steps behind. That’s why proper vinyl obsessives are so fiercely protective of them.
And it’s why, to their minds, every A-side implicitly ends with the same words as ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. Do you know that line? The happiest single ever written, it’s the song that never wants to end. But when it finally does, listen closely and a sleepy vocoder croaks, “Please turn me over…”
Double-sided discs were technically possible from the earliest days of the shellac 78, but they weren’t standard until the 1920s. It’s likely that gramophone companies could not see the point of giving away more than necessary (though one marketing wheeze involved pasting lyrics on to the blank side). More profoundly, though, there was the existential question of what to put on a double-sided disc. “There has never been consensus regarding how the two sides of a record should relate to each other,” says Dr Richard Osborne of Middlesex University. B-sides receive a whole chapter in his forthcoming book, Vinyl: A History Of The Analogue Record (to be published by Ashgate later this year).
For years, he writes, it was common to stick unrelated artists on each side, even performing in unrelated genres. The idea, presumably, was to expand the record’s appeal by addressing different markets. Eventually that practice died out and one-act-per-disc became the norm. But there was, as yet, no distinction between “A” and “B” tracks, let alone a hierarchy of importance. Reviewers in the early music press used the neutral term “sides” to describe any recorded work.
In America, things began to change with the spread of jukeboxes and the rise of radio play. It finally became clear that most records had a more popular side. US charts were based on jukebox plays and radio exposure, and while the two sides of a disc might show up independently, it made sense to put your marketing muscle into the track that DJs and punters were getting behind. The reviewers were suddenly talking about “flipsides” and advertising budgets went to the main track. The B-side was born, and its fate was to be ignored.
Which is precisely the point at which, for connoisseurs, B-sides start to acquire mystique. There are famously two sides to every story, and through the vinyl underbelly of pop hits we trace an entire alternative history. The first five Elvis Presley singles, writes Richard Osborne, were “stellar examples: each of these backs a countrified blues song with a blues-drenched country tune. They represent the world turned upside down and inside out.” Sun Records, therefore, used the B-side with far more imagination than the average label: “The B-side is both mirror and inversion, and the greatest couplings have taken advantage of this fact.”
B-sides can pull off astonishing surprises. The epoch-defining song of early rock’n’roll, Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, originally languished as second-choice to a lame thing called Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town). The same goes for those twin classics of infant British rock, Cliff Richard’s Move It and Johnny Kidd’s Shakin’ All Over (the latter was intended as support act to the cornball Yes Sir That’s My Baby).
It’s striking how, in all three cases, the better track was deemed too raw for mass exposure – B-sides are a traditional site for experiment and freedom – and we often have radio DJs to thank for their belated rescue. Similar stories lie behind Louie Louie by Richard Berry, Gloria by Van Morrison’s Them, Green Onions by Booker T. & The MGs, Maggie May by Rod Stewart and I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. Left to their own devices, B-sides are the keepers of great secrets.
Despite their lack of prestige, B-sides claim financial parity at least. Publishing royalties make no distinction between the different sides of a single, a fact not lost on Phil Spector, who liked to back his pop symphonies for The Crystals and Ronettes with session-man freak-outs that earned just as much money. (The ruse never quite disappeared: see for example Swinging London on the B-side of The Pretenders’ Brass In Pocket.) Spector’s ploy is forgivable. It now seems greedy to expect a masterpiece like Baby I Love You to oblige with second helpings. Less attractive were the manoeuvres of certain pirate radio stations who would offer airplay to a track in return for a publishing interest in its mediocre flip.
If it happens to back a mega-hit, the adventurous B-side can be smuggled into millions of homes. Roger Taylor of Queen has seldom done a better or more profitable day’s work than writing I’m In Love With My Car for the B-side of Bohemian Rhapsody. And yet the public can reject a song as well. It’s bizarre to think that Wings’ inescapable Mull Of Kintyre was conceived as a double A-side with the widely-ignored rocker Girls’ School.
The Monkees were not a “proper” band in some ways, but they knew the value of a great B-side and therefore deserve respect. So did T. Rex, The Jam and The Smiths. Richard Osborne quotes Johnny Marr as saying, “It wasn’t actually the number next to the chart placing [that mattered]… I was more concerned with what my mates thought of the B-sides.” He’s quite right: a world without Half A Person or How Soon Is Now would be a barren place indeed. Reggae reinvented the B-side as an instrumental “version” to reflect dub culture. Twelve-inch dance singles took advantage of wider groove spacing to deliver added oomph for the re-mix.
But what’s a B-side nowadays? Our modern digital landscape finds no room for them. As long ago as the 1980s the CD single made flipsides redundant. Oasis, for instance, saved some of their best work for CD “B-sides”, but tracks that play automatically after their nominal A-side lack the chic obscurity of real vinyl. LPs, in any case, had long accustomed us to expect a climax somewhere towards the end of a disc.
We must probably accept that as a living art-form B-sides are gone. But they are still around to be rediscovered. I nowadays trawl my vinyl with especial reverence for them. Most famous A-sides have been digitised, anthologised and generally i-Tuned to death. But with each passing month – CRASH! – another chunk of masonry falls from the edifice of memory. The half-forgotten B-side is all the more magical for being found again.
And what’s this, playing now? Why, it’s Gilbert O’Sullivan’s wry 1971 heartbreaker If I Don’t Get You (Back Again), partner-song to its much more famous A-side No Matter How I Try: “Now that you’ve turned me over,” it begins, “… the title of which you’ll see, they’ve written in capital letters, just below the hole in me.” That’s the genius of the B-side in one inspired couplet. Mr Blue Sky would surely smile his approval.