Tuesday, August 10, 2010

B-Sides - What They're Good For

B-sides…a true music collector loves them, but what are they good for? Well, lots of things… If it’s a standalone single that’s not part of any proper album (and these are the best kinds of singles), then the B-side(s) is as important as the lead track, ‘cos everything on there you want to be the best representation of what the artist you’re purchasing is about. And then there are artists who utilize the B-side for songs they don’t know what else to do with, songs that stand aside from the feel of the album sessions from which they came, and why waste a good song just ‘cos it’s an oddball? I read somewhere once that the Police used B-sides for their more experimental songs, which is saying something considering the fact that all five of their albums have some pretty out there tracks. So, for every A there is a B, right? Actually, no, not really…I mean there’s a flip side to every single release (speaking from a vinyl perspective), but often as not, and especially with major labels, the B-side is an album track or a live version of a previous single, which to me isn’t catering much to the music fan, but to some one-off purchaser whom they’re trying to lure in to buying a bit more than Unskinny Bop or whatever (take that, Poison). Alas, so it goes for the true music lover...and yet there are still plenty of loose odds and ends out there from most bands for collectors to enjoy their happy hunting and find everything. But the intent of this post is not stray obscurities from movie soundtracks, charity compilations or Japanese only releases, but true, honest to goodness, turn it over and listen to side B offerings. These are a few, though certainly not all, of my favorites (in alphabetical order by artist)…

· Belle & Sebastian – Winter Wooskie (Legal Man): One of the things I loved about B&S was their non-album single/EP aesthetic, something they held onto religiously through the “classic era” of their career. For me the standout amongst the many B-sides is the quaint and charming Winter Wooskie. I believe the lead vocal here is taken by Stevie Jackson (please correct me if I’m wrong), and it’s a sweet and simple little jingle about a mystery girl out in the snow. The real charm of this song is the frank openness of the lyrics, an innocent admiration for a girl he does not know and can’t even really see since she’s all bundled up in winter garb, and yet he allows himself to project his ideal love on this otherwise blank canvas of a figure. Perhaps I’m letting my own imagination run away with me, but that’s my right as the listener and it’s the vibe I feel when I hear this song (which I do fairly often).

· The Cure – Harold & Joe (Never Enough): Back in their pre-Disintegration “heyday,” the Cure weren’t overly known for their B-sides. Sure, there are some lost gems here and there, but mostly those songs are just leftovers that didn’t mesh with the sound of whatever album they hailed from, or were obviously just studio tinkering and half baked throwaways. With the Big D, B-sides and album track culminated into one boiling juggernaut of awesome…and then something strange happened - the B-sides beginning with Wish were not only better than most of the album tracks, but sometimes more so than the singles they backed. I won’t get into the why and the wherefore (it’s all speculative rot anyway). But I will say that post-Big D and pre-Wish, the horrific Mixed Up came out and produced one of the most obnoxious songs in rock history, Never Enough, which doesn’t fit on anything Cure related or any album by any band worth a shake. However, as appalling as this single is, its proper B-side (not counting the “Why did they do that remix of Just Like Heaven?” debacle), Harold & Joe, is one of the most whimsical, lighthearted and enjoyable bits of mellow rock ever produced. Though with different production it could have fit along rather easily with some of the more upbeat moments of the Japanese Whispers era (for those of you tuning in from the US), it’s really too much of an anomaly to fit in anywhere other than where it does…which is a shame because the result leaves it forgotten and woebegone – though it does redeem the purchase of an otherwise ridiculous piece of non-rock, non-pop flutter.

· Duran Duran – Secret Oktober (Union of the Snake): One of the many casualties of mainstream (and 80s) success, Duran Duran’s timeless (and time-defining) singles overshadow the brilliance of their original era albums and even more so, the B-sides backing many of the aforementioned singles. I could click off several here…Late Bar, Khanda, Like an Angel, not to mention a fantastic live version of Steve Harley’s Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), that are all as good as most everything you’ll find on the band’s first three “classic era” albums. But the one that stands out most to me, if my DD-lore memory serves me, is simply Simon and Nick doing a little one off deal in the studio. Coming from the mindset that produced the most over the top, and arguably least creative, of the original Fab Fives’ three albums, Secret Oktober is a low key, brooding number, mindful of what these two boys would deliver a couple of years later with Arcadia, with Simon at his lyrical best crooning, “Holding your arm in a battered car, all night parties, cocktail bars and smile when the butterfly escapes the killing jaws.” I don’t know what it means, and it hardly matters, but that line has haunted me for a very long time, ever since I purchased the Union of the Snake 12” more years ago than I’m going to admit (ok, roughly 23). Though equally as dark and obscure, it’s the juxtaposition in every other way of the slinky, dance-worthy A-side it supports, and at the end of the day, or rather era, holds up much, much better.

· New Order – 1963 (True Faith): New Order was certainly a band known for their singles, especially in their 80s heyday. And while there’s loads of confusion (on my end at least) as to what were A-sides verses B-sides based on how they appeared on vinyl versus the Substance collection, one that I’m pretty sure I’ve got straight is 1963 from the True Faith single. This is Bernard Sumners take on the JFK assassination, the idea that Jack (or as the song calls him, Johnny) was in love with Marilyn Monroe and hired Jack Ruby/Lee Harvey Oswald to kill Jackie-O in what looked like an attempt on his own life. If this is true there are several flaws from the get go, two glaring ones being A) JFK was killed in November 1963, not January, and B) Marilyn Monroe had died over a year earlier on August 5, 1962. (Also, did you see what I did with the A/B thing there?) Be that as it may, it’s a neat concept and an even greater pop song, full of catchy hooks and a totally emotive chorus, rivaling if not quite surpassing its A-side counterpart. Honestly, the best version of this song is a remix by I believe Shep Pettibone, which can be found on the Best of New Order compilation album.

· The Old 97s – The Villain (Nineteen): Our favorite boys from TX are more known for solid albums than a slew of chart topping singles (though in my universe they should certainly be known for both). Even more scarce are B-sides or many stray tracks at all, but an exception is The Villain, backing their 1999 pop breakthrough, Nineteen. While the A-side does tend to wander from the alt-country feel these guys helped pioneer, as well as the ramshackle grace of Fight Songs, The Villain embraces a very Marty Robbins-esque feel with its whimsical, two-step swing, which ironically (or not) still wouldn’t have fit well with the album (which is a much more moody affair). Still, this is a misplaced gem that should have been reworked and/or rerecorded for a later album (thus giving it the notice it deserves), with Rhett playfully lamenting yet another wrecked romance, and the boys at his back delivering a lively performance on par with…well, everything they put pick and stick to. I want to say that this song is on their best of compilation from a few years back, which is a nice rundown of what the Old 97s have to offer, and the Villain is a high profile bonus.

· The Smiths – Wonderful Woman (This Charming Man): If nothing else, the Smiths were a singles band front to back, and I’m sure most Smiths enthusiasts would shake their heads and say “No, no, no, no, no…” at my choice of B-side to single out (ha, ha “single out”). Not that they don’t enjoy this simplistic and rather overlooked little ditty, but it hardly reaches the majestic heights of Is It Really So Strange?, Half a Person or London. Right? Well, I beg to differ. With Wonderful Woman you have everything that was integral to the early sound of the Smiths – ringing guitars, understated drumming, Moz’s lovelorn croon – and it really all comes together quite nicely. Perhaps it is a bit under developed, but that’s all part of its charm, as we get to see the band in an embryonic, pre-glory state, without all the production tricks – stripped and open and honest. If you can’t close your eyes, listen to this song and pictures a sepia toned, bob-haired teenager moping through a cemetery (for those of you inclined to such things), then you need to have your daydream glasses checked.

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