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Death of the ‘B’ Side

In the discussion on my post about whether rock and roll died with John Bonham, commenter Michael makes an interesting point:

I was discussing it with my wife over the weekend and she made an interesting observation: there is no longer a “B” side.

Her specific point was that musicians often used the “B” side for introducing new, experimental ideas to their audience. Without it, the only thing that gets sold is the formulaic songs that they know people will buy.

I seem to recall, and certainly Bithead can clarify this, that radio stations only play what’s been released on a single, which means that adding experimental tracks to a full album doesn’t accomplish the same thing.

I had a few 45’s when I was a kid, mostly of the country genre (I recall, for example, that “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” was the flip side of John Denver’s “Country Roads”).  By the time I started buying music myself, though, the cassette tape and subsequently the compact disc had largely obviated the single.  Nowadays, of course, digital singles have largely obviated the album.

Anyhow, the “B” side thesis strikes me as quite plausible.  It provided a means of introducing songs that weren’t manufactured as radio hits into the repertoire.  If the flip side of the record was also a hit, it was largely accidental.  For example, the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” was the B side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and became a hit because radio stations deemed the latter too risque.

Photo by Flickr user Ann Althouse under Creative Commons license.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    James-

    True, although with the web, the overhead costs of music production can be lower. Established stars can produce as much bizarre and eccentric content as they desire and simply throw it out on the web for mass consumption (see Trent Reznor).

    The debate over the ‘concept album’ is an interesting one. The tech is making music more like ‘Hitsville, USA 2.0’ Whether or not that’s a good thing, who knows.

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  2. PD Shaw says:

    At least the selling point of the AOR radio format was that they would play songs that couldn’t fit on a 45, longer than say 4 minutes or so.

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  3. anjin-san says:

    The core problem is that the major labels today don’t want creativity, they want formulatic hits. Music is not a passion to them, it is a product. AOR has been replaced by ROI.

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  4. Bithead says:

    James;

    “Poems” of course was a hit in it’s own right. B side hits weren’t that uncommon. Consider The Doobies’ “Black Water” which was in fact a B-side of their first single… “Another Park Another Sunday”. There are a number of Beatles singles as well, (You won’t see me) Beach boys singles, (Surfin’ Safari/409) and so on.

    The selection of a B sides seemed to me to be always a haphazard process at best. There were times when it was used with great effect. Capitol Records in the day, seemed to me to be the best at this.

    Other times the B sides seem to be chosen so as not to get airplay. The sound of the B side was dramatically different in many occasions. This was particularly true for example of country in the late seventies / early eighties, to my memory. One of the weirdest examples of the B side I can think of is the Warner Brothers release of Napoleon the 14th’s “They’re coming to take me away ha ha”, which had on its B side a copy of the a side recording played backwards. Somehow, they also managed to print the label on the record backwards. A true collector’s item, that. (If I remember correctly, that was also on the same Warner brothers label that the Alice Cooper single James pictures is on. )

    I seem to recall, and certainly Bithead can clarify this, that radio stations only play what’s been released on a single, which means that adding experimental tracks to a full album doesn’t accomplish the same thing.

    Keep in mind it’s been nearly twenty years since I was behind a broadcast mike.

    That said, the digital world has changed all of this to a great degree.

    Time was, that the guy on the air was the one that made their choice. That’s how “Black Water” became a hit for example. In all likelihood, that wasn’t nearly as much an individual choices it was a screw up. He simply played the wrong side of the record. It became a turntable hit, and the rest is history. Interestingly, “Another Park” is now considered a deep album cut.

    My perception from people that are still in the business is that the majority of those decisions are made at the corporate level these days, as opposed to the individual program directors or God forbid, the actual radio personality. At least, that’s true of the larger stations. Some of the smaller markets still allow the DJ to actually do his job. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. To boot, of course, it’s all computer driven, anymore, thus eliminating any choice at all.

    One thing I’ve noticed about this new environment; time was when you could have an album that we used to call “a needle dropper”. Translation; you could pick any song on the album and be happy with it. Unfortunately, those days of long past. I suspect that one of the reasons that we don’t have besides on singles anymore is that albums lack that quality of “pick any song”. Most of the cuts on CDs these days particularly in the pop world are absolute crap. You wouldn’t want one of those on the air; it would turn off record sales in a heartbeat, to say nothing of listenership.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to listen to a relatively new album all the way through without wanting to toss it out the window. At least, outside the jazz or classical world. That’s not so much a function of my tastes having changed, given that I still listen to the music I did 30 and 40 years ago. It’s a function of the music itself having changed for the worse. All these things we’ve been discussing, are indications of that, I think.

    Ironically, all this business about removing choice was designed to increase sales and lower operational costs. It has done precisely the opposite. And I wonder, if there isn’t a lesson in there, somewhere, for those of us outside the music business.

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  5. […] #2: New post from Joyner on whether the Death of The B-Side contributed to the death of rock and roll. Possibly related […]

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  6. anjin-san says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to listen to a relatively new album all the way through without wanting to toss it out the window

    Rober Plant/Alison Krauss “Raising Sand” reaches the quality of records we grew up with. Steve Earl (check out 1996’s “I feel Allright”) has been making amazing records in the modern era, as has Tori Amos. But records of this quality used to be everywhere, and now they seem like a rarity indeed.

    Glad to hear the Doobies come up (the real Doobles, not the ersatz Michael McDonald version). Used to work for those guys, though it was in in a non music biz business they owned… Every track on Captain & Me was at least a minor classic, and Vices was nearly as good…

    As for radio, with the rise of Clear Channel, the number of people who decide what gets on the airwaves is small indeed. I was lucky enough to grow up listening to Richard Gosset, Norm Winer and Beverly Wilshire on KSAN in San Francisco. Post 1980 radio pretty much just depresses me.

    I am pretty sure Norm Winer is still programming VP at WXRT in Chicago. For a little more on KSAN:

    http://www.bayarearadio.org/audio/ksan_fm/index.shtml

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  7. sam says:

    For the love of Christ Bithead, please, please start a music blog…please.

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  8. Bithead says:

    As for radio, with the rise of Clear Channel, the number of people who decide what gets on the airwaves is small indeed.

    I think your dislike for CC to come from issues other than music. Limbaugh, for example. CC may well have those policies but they hardly pioneered it. Linn, Sinclair, and Midwestern Broadcasting Group, (Lou Dickie, Sr;) and so on, all had such policiies in place well before CC came along.

    As for XRQ, you do know they’re Infinity, right?

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  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    There was once a station in Milwaukee that played the whole b-sides of 2 albums every Sunday night, best fricking radio I have ever heard next too Rush L.

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  10. PD Shaw says:

    Bithead:

    I worked as a DJ and Asst. Program Director in the late 80s at an AOR/Classic Rock station. The best I can recall I never saw a 7 inch, 45 rpm single in the station.

    What we got sent from the record labels were either entire albums(mostly), or 12 inch eps, usually 33 1/3 rpm (so the DJ wouldn’t screw up) The flip-side could be the same song (so the DJ wouldn’t screw up), a shorter radio-friendly edit (ironic for AOR), or a version with/out swearing. Whatever it was, it wasn’t like anything I would see in the store.

    To the general topic, I believe radio is a fairly conservative medium. The programmer is well aware that the listener has the power and temperament to push the button at any moment. That’s not a formula for experimentation.

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  11. Considering the number of B sides that existed, the number of quality songs or hits that can be named isn’t all that impressive. Nominally, if they thought it could be a hit they weren’t going to put it out on a B side.

    I effectively got to program my college FM station’s playlist from 12 AM – 6 AM one night. I concur with the note about not a single 45 in the vault, it was all LPs and perusing the stacks was quite an experience. I picked all my not played too often favorites, such as back to back Steely Dan’s Turn That Heartbeat Over Again and Babylon Sisters (the last song on their first album and the first song on their last album at that time). The one call we got about 5:50 AM from somebody telling us he had really enjoyed the music selection made the sleepless night all worth it.

    FWIW, my music sensibilities were shaped primarily by WXRT in Chicago.

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  12. Bithead says:

    I worked as a DJ and Asst. Program Director in the late 80s at an AOR/Classic Rock station. The best I can recall I never saw a 7 inch, 45 rpm single in the station.

    Well, even at the top 40’s most didn’t run 45’s per se’… they mostly ran carts. And yes, smaller markets not so much. WAXC, back in the day of the Greaseman, still ran singles. Mostly because they were easier to file. I’ll tell you this, you’ll never understand the kind of radio the old hands were doing, until you’ve tried to slip cue a 45 on a 16in transcription table with a balky tonearm. (lol)

    To the general topic, I believe radio is a fairly conservative medium. The programmer is well aware that the listener has the power and temperament to push the button at any moment. That’s not a formula for experimentation.

    That sword cuts both ways. Bore the listener, and they’ll also disappear.

    Considering the number of B sides that existed, the number of quality songs or hits that can be named isn’t all that impressive. Nominally, if they thought it could be a hit they weren’t going to put it out on a B side.

    Which, given the number of times B sides ended up being hits, doesn’t speak well to the A&R folks being able to pick songs the public is going to like at any given time, does it?

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  13. superdestroyer says:

    Clear Channel has a logical business plan. Most people while in their cars will change the channel before listening to a song that they listen to something that they do not know.

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  14. anjin-san says:

    I think your dislike for CC to come from issues other than music. Limbaugh, for example.

    Well, on that you would be quite wrong, as the song goes, it never entered my mind. (And if you want to hear musical perfection, check our Miles Davis playing that very tune. From “Working with the Miles Davis Quartet” Beyond essential.)

    http://www.last.fm/music/Miles+Davis+Quintet/_/It+Never+Entered+My+Mind

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