Be my A-side baby. Be B-side me. – Pete Wingfield
That’s from his 1975 Top 20 hit, Eighteen With A Bullet. The play on words and it’s meaning may be lost on folks more common with Mp3s. But Pete’s punny tune juxtaposing his relationship with 45 jargon still feels poignant to me because of a forgotten time in a music collector’s life. The 45, but more importantly, the role of the B-side.
Until albums became more of a bands artistic statement (Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds), a band had one way to break through: have a great single. Write a good song, record it and get it on the radio and jukeboxes. Of course there’s 2 sides to a 45, so you needed to have something to record for the flipside as well. What a bonus for record buyers! Some bands took it forgranted and used it as a trash bin to get mediocre songs released. But most artists used it as another spot for a great song or a rare demo or a fun cover. Hey DJ, you choose. Strawberry Fields Forever, Day Tripper, Something & Eleanor Rigby were all released as Beatles B-sides. In My Room (Beach Boys), Let’s Spend The Night Together (Rolling Stones) and Candy Man (Roy Orbison), bridesmaid all, considered good enough to be recorded but not good enough to push as singles at the time.
The 70s are perfectly bookended by two singles that were originally B-sides which ended up going to #1: Steam’s Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye & Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Steam was named by producer Paul Leka, who gathered a bunch of studio musicians to record a couple of his pal Gary DeCarlo’s tunes, especially one he though would be a sure-fire smash, It’s The Magic In You Girl. Ever heard of it? Probably not. But they needed a B-side. So they threw together a song that Paul wrote on the piano. It was barely finished and didn’t have any words for the chorus, hence the na-na-na parts. He spliced the drums together from different recordings and knocked it all out in one recording session. The A-side bombed but curious DJs flipped it over, started playing the B-side and the next thing you know, the song hits #1 for 2 weeks in December of 1969. I mean, what would a sporting event be without Na-na-na hey-hey gooooodbye? The power and presence of the B-side!
And then there’s Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, relegated to second fiddle to a cover of an obscure Righteous Brothers song, Substitute. No one thought the song had any hit potential, so they didn’t spend much time recording or producing it. Which is probably why it sounds so clean and why it became a hit. It spent 3 weeks at #1, won a Grammy, is a disco classic and became an anthem for the gay & feminist movements. Also a standard play in my household. Not bad for an afterthought.
You see no one can predict what will be a hit. It takes luck & timing on top of talent and a good song as well as good promotion, airplay and all sorts of mitigating factors. Nowadays you have one shot with a shot. But with the 45, you had 2 chances per shot. It could break or boost your career as a recording artist (Black Water by the Doobie Brothers, original B-side to Another Park, Another Sunday) if the ‘can’t miss’ single actually missed. And when that artist and producer relaxed about the non-stress of the second side, some amazing results could be recorded.
I strongly suggest going to a record or thrift store this weekend or digging through your collections, buying/playing some 45s of your favorite songs and then play the B-sides. I’ll do the same.
By the way Louie Louie by the Kingsmen – an absolute classic and an original B-side. Now tell me that recording wouldn’t be different had they thought it would be a hit.