The surprise B-side: The flipside was often top of the pops

As BBC Radio 6 Music devotes a day to vinyl, Simon Hardeman laments the loss of the format's hidden treasure

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The Independent Culture

On New Year's Day BBC 6 Music is going to be dusting off the decks and playing nothing but vinyl. Remember vinyl? It was all the rage till the early 1990s. Black, round, rotating shiny stuff with a spiral scratch in it, in which a shard of sapphire on a metal arm physically vibrates – and that amplified vibration is the music. Over 45 or so years from the mid 1950s, when the 7-inch single and the 12-inch album gained supremacy over other formats, billions of discs were sold, making record companies and artists fortune upon fortune.

But vinyl records weren't perfect. Dust would gather around the needle, making the sound rubbish, and even causing the needle to skate across the surface like a car on winter ice. The arm would jump if you danced too heavily or too close to the turntable, and the scratch that it left would click irritatingly for ever more, every time you played the record. Albums were huge – a foot across – and heavy, and generally had a maximum of six tracks in a row. And you couldn't change the order. And players were hardly portable. And so on.

What a pain it all sounds. And yet the radio station's "All Vinyl" day is an example of the increasing fondness with which old-fashioned records are viewed, both among those with fond memories of their youth (I've lost count of the number of friends who had record players for Christmas, or who have set up decks in their living rooms) and among younger fans who are fascinated with vinyl. The reason most frequently given is that it sounds better, and there is something in that (though there are digital formats that have all of the dynamic potential of vinyl, if only people could be bothered to use them).

I have a different reason for missing vinyl. Consider this. Who could not be aware of the record that kicked off the rock'n'roll revolution in 1954: "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)" by Bill Haley & His Comets? It's almost as memorable as Gene Vincent's incendiary "Woman Love", from 1956, and that very first British rock'n'roll classic – "Schoolboy Crush", by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, from 1958. What music fan could be ignorant of these three tracks?

Well, I could. I'm not even sure I've heard them – and yet they are records that changed pop music. They are from the days of vinyl, when singles had two physical sides – one featuring the track that the record company thought was the hit (the A-side) and one that just needed filling (the B-side); these three were all A-sides. Before reading on, see if you can guess what their original B-sides were.

They were "Rock Around the Clock", "Be-Bop-A-Lula", and "Move It": songs that, if music back then had been bought track-by-track, as digital downloads are now, might never have been there for a DJ (a "disc jockey"), promoter or fan to flip over to discover.

Isn't that scary? What are we missing now? Could it be tracks of the quality of "God Only Knows" and "Don't Worry Baby" by the Beach Boys, or "Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite, or "How Soon is Now" by The Smiths, or "Gloria", by Them, or "Into the Groove" by Madonna? All B-sides, as was "The Model" by Kraftwerk – in its case, twice – and Rod Stewart's solo-career-launching hit, "Maggie May". And – though admittedly perhaps less crucially – imagine a karaoke evening without Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" – both flip-sides.

And these are just a few of the tracks that went on to be major hits. Also languishing on B-sides are countless tracks that never made it to a physical A-side, but which fans preferred – take "Liza Radley" by The Jam ("Start!"), "Fade Away" by Oasis ("Cigarettes and Alcohol) and "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" by Ian Dury ("Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick") for starters.

Acts often had a special affinity for the other side. This is because B-sides could make a band money. Publishing royalties from sales were split 50:50 between the A-side and the B-side, so a band like The Sweet, for instance, whose mega-selling glam-rock A-sides of the 1970s were written by their producers Chinn and Chapman, could put their own, less commercial, compositions on the B-side and ride the royalty bandwagon.

Of course the B-side has its own, er, B-side. It has given us at least two acts we might prefer to have done without. "Funky Moped" was a hit in 1975 but the B-side was the one that was really selling it – a piece of filthy stand-up that made the name of Jasper Carrott. And, when "Rock'n'Roll Part 1" didn't tear up the radio playlists, that might have been it for the singer making a last stab at stardom, had not the B-side, "Rock'n'Roll Part 2", been so catchy. Totter forward, Gary Glitter.

Although the era of the black plastic single was the B-side's heyday, it continued through the cassette single (which had a similar "flip" side) and even the CD single (which had so much space that two or three extra tracks could easily be added).

Now, though, the B-side is no more, and who knows what we are missing? Imagine downloading the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women". Fantastic in itself but, if you'd bought it as a vinyl single, you'd have taken it home and, after playing it a few times, flipped it over to hear the sublime "You Can't Always Get What You Want". That's my vote as the greatest B-side of all time, and the thought that, in the age of the digital download, there may be similarly great tracks that I may never hear has me in a cold sweat.

So here's a suggestion: when acts sell a digital single, what about giving away a free extra track – a digital B-side? It'd be flipping easy, wouldn't it?

Hit parade: The five best flip sides of all time

You Can't Always Get What You Want

The Rolling Stones (1969)

The B-side to "Honky Tonk Women" has been described as the Stones' attempt to do a "Hey Jude", but it is much more than that. It's a languid, world-weary lament that is at the same time a statement of defiance, shot through with all the tawdry, drug-addled, romance of the end of the Sixties. A couple of curiosities about it: Charlie Watts didn't play on it because, apparently, according to Jagger, he couldn't get the groove; and Nanette Newman is credited as singing backing vocals – in fact it's not the famous actress but US singer Nanette Workman, who couldn't get a work permit, and sang under a false name.

Revolution

The Beatles (1968)

Talking of "Hey Jude", the B-side of that is, with the possible exception of "Helter Skelter", the hardest-rock thing that the Fab Four ever did. It's a Lennon composition and, despite the glorious fuzz guitar and the title, is much more equivocal about the benefits and desirability of violent revolution than many fans were at the time – 1968 being the year of the Paris riots and fighting across the US, and when there were genuine fears that society as we knew it was falling apart. It is a harder, rejigged version of the "Revolution 1" that appeared on the 'White Album'.

Gloria

Them (1964)

Van Morrison's garage-rock classic was originally the B-side of "Baby, Please Don't Go". It is a repetitive three-chord masterpiece (perhaps only rivalled in that category by "Louie Louie"), hardly wavering from the E-A-D riff that anyone with a guitar and a smile can play, over which Morrison wails and growls about his girl Gloria, coming down his street, coming to his door. It has been covered a million times, perhaps most notably by Patti Smith, whose whole album "Horses" is, effectively, variations on G-L-O-R-I-A.

God Only Knows

The Beach Boys (1966)

The song that 'Mojo' magazine rated the 13th greatest of all time, and 'Pitchfork' called the best song of the 1960s, was the B-side of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" – both songs featuring on the classic 'Pet Sounds' album. Perhaps its unorthodox opening line counted against it as an A-side – "I may not always love you" doesn't appear the most positive declaration of devotion – as well as the use of the word "God" in the title. The lyrics were by producer Tony Asher, though production (including the harpsichord and French horn intro) was the work of visionary composer Brian Wilson.

Be-Bop-A-Lula

Gene Vincent (1956)

The rockabilly superstar with the limp (supposedly from a motorcycle accident –very romantic in the era of Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One') had released "Woman Love" as his first single on the Capitol label, but radio stations balked at the suggestive nature of the lyrics ("I'm lookin' for a woman with a one-track mind", no less!) and tossed it over to find this classic about the girl in the "red blue jeans". It became a huge hit. That same year, Vincent sang it in the film 'The Girl Can't Help It'.

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