The Historian: Masters Of The B-Side

PicCollageBy Spencer. In today’s day of single-song iTunes downloads, the B-side is something of an archaic institution. Strictly speaking, “B-side” once referred to the extra tracks that would be packaged onto a single, and distinguished such songs from the “A-sides” that comprised the single itself. Today, we don’t really package singles that way, so the closest analog is an EP track—but we’re going to start running out of letters if this keeps up. So when I refer to B-sides, I’m going to depart with the conventional nomenclature a bit and loosely include any of an artist’s songs that did not appear on a proper album—so pure singles, along with tracks appearing on EPs, soundtracks, and compilations, and even unreleased or bootleg rarities that make their way onto the internet. These are the songs that, for whatever reason, the artist holds back from the album; maybe they just aren’t as good, maybe they were recorded at a standalone studio session, or maybe they just didn’t fit in with the rest of the album’s aesthetic. There’s an automatic tendency to assume that these songs are inferior to the rest of an artist’s output. And that’s what I’m here to dispel. Because there have always been a few artists who take the B-side a little more seriously, and a deeper look at their B-sides will reveal some of their most rewarding or unique work.

B-sides obviously date back to the advent of records, but I might point to The Beatles as an early example of a band who maximized their value in releasing great songs to the public outside of the (by then) traditional album format. So you might be surprised to know that songs like “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Day Tripper,” “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Hey Jude” never appeared on a full Beatles album. Most of these were A-sides, properly speaking, but they still represented songs which you had to track down if you really wanted to be sure you were enjoying the full Beatles catalog. And of course, some of these songs now rank among their greatest works.

Pearl_Jam_JeremyBut the high point of the B-side era might have come in the late 80s to late 90s—that period before the internet where music commercialization had reached its peak, such that many artists were recording more material than they could fit onto proper releases, and the record label had the financial incentive to package these extra songs in a way that the most rabid fans would be willing to buy. An early example of this paying dividends came with Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” single. The B-sides to that release included the fan favorite acoustic ballad, “Footsteps,” and more importantly, “Yellow Ledbetter”—a song that would become one of Pearl Jam’s most played radio tracks, despite never appearing on an album.

U2 also made good on releasing some of their most beloved songs as B-sides during this era. Often, it was a way of releasing covers in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the band’s original music. And make no mistake, U2’s recordings of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love,” The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” or John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” are essential listening for any true U2 fan. But it wasn’t limited to just covers either. U2’s B-sides catalog includes favorite songs such as “Sweetest Thing” (recorded during the Joshua Tree sessions but released a decade later as part of a greatest hits compilation), “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from the Batman Forever soundtrack), “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” (from the soundtrack of an obscure film called The Million Dollar Hotel), “Miss Sarajevo” (recorded under the pseudonym, Passengers), and “The Hands That Built America” (from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York).

Nine_Inch_NailsWith so much potential material to look for, it could be difficult in those pre-internet days to know whether you had everything. Nine Inch Nails made that job easier by packaging all of their releases under the “Halo” numbering system. Each single or EP would be numbered “Halo 1,” Halo 2,” and so on, so that it would be easier to fill in the holes in your collection. And NIN recorded some fine B-sides, helped along by Trent Reznor’s love of a particular kind of B-side: the remix. Never content to record just one version of a song, Reznor would release completely reinvented takes on fan favorites like “Closer,” “Wish,” and “The Perfect Drug.” Taking it a step further, NIN would go on to release remixed versions of entire albums, including Broken (Fixed); The Downward Spiral (Further Down The Spiral); The Fragile (Things Falling Apart); and Year Zero (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D). Depending on how loosely you want to stretch the term, any of these releases might be considered B-sides.

Oasis was another great B-sides band, compiling some of their best onto 1998’s The Masterplan, which included favorites like “Talk Tonight,” “Acquiesce,” “(It’s Good) To Be Free,” and the song, “The Masterplan,” which was criminally excluded from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and just might be one of their best songs.

And then of course there’s Smashing Pumpkins, who took it to another level entirely. Pisces Iscariot, typically included in the band’s official discography, was composed entirely of tracks that had previously been B-sides. Then, using all of the leftover material from the Mellon Collie sessions, the band released a five-disc box set of B-sides called The Aeroplane Flies High. Still taking the B-side just as seriously these days, Billy Corgan has released in the past few years deluxe versions of each of the band’s albums, packaged with literally hundreds of B-sides, rarities, and live recordings.

PicCollage2Many other classic artists, most notably Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, have long embraced bootleg recordings as part of their work—Dylan with his long-running Bootleg Series (now in its eleventh edition with the recent release of The Basement Tapes Complete), and Springsteen with the Tracks box set and 2010’s The Promise, which released two discs of leftover material from the recording sessions for 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town. These bootlegs are in many way a precursor (or at least a cousin) to the modern B-side. While the difference isn’t always clear cut, Dylan and Springsteen have tended to release this kind of material years or even decades after they were originally recorded. Packaged as a treat to fans, they offer a window back into the glory days for a classic artist.

The B-side has faded a bit in the internet age, as the line between official and unofficial releases blurs. But a few of my favorite artists still manage to put out great material outside the album format, including Radiohead, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Josh Ritter, Glen Hansard, Elliott Smith, and Ryan Adams.

In highlighting some of these masters of the B-side, I hope I’ve hit home the notion that the quality of a piece of music does not necessarily correlate with the method of its release. The fact that these gems are overlooked, in many ways, is what makes them so beloved. In hearing them, you’re hearing a secret: something that wasn’t originally intended to be heard. You’re looking behind the curtain into the creative process and the way the artist perceives their own music. And you’re earning your badge as a true fan.

Enjoy S&N Mix 13: Masters Of The B-Side, for tracks from these and other artists who appreciate the value of releasing the unreleased.

  1. The Beatles – Rain
  2. Bob Dylan – Pretty Saro
  3. Bruce Springsteen – Racing In The Streets (The Promise Version)
  4. Pearl Jam – Yellow Ledbetter
  5. U2 – Dancing Barefoot
  6. Nine Inch Nails – Closer (Precursor Mix)
  7. Nirvana – Happy Hour
  8. Smashing Pumpkins – Landslide
  9. Oasis – The Masterplan
  10. Radiohead – Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong
  11. Coldplay – Careful Where You Stand
  12. The White Stripes – Jolene
  13. Ryan Adams – The Fools We Are As Men
  14. Nada Surf – If You Leave
  15. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Mercy

6 thoughts on “The Historian: Masters Of The B-Side

  1. Why would you provoke a twee-lover? Their so mopey and likely to flame you…it’s like bad-mouthing One Direction or something.

    Seriously though Spencer, this is where your inexplicable dislike of The Smiths causes you real problems. They functioned a lot like The Beatles…many of their best tracks were singles that were later compiled together.

  2. Great post! I’d like to see more artists release B-sides. It seems the closest thing we have to them nowadays are digital-only EPs that some artists release between albums. As a Pearl Jam fan, I’d like to add that a huge part of Pearl Jam’s catalog now are the official bootlegs from their live shows.

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