The B-side is every music geek/fan’s favourite thing to debate over. It’s the one place where an artist is allowed to record whatever they see fit, and the one place where a fan can expect the unexpected and be surprised, or wonder how long it took to throw that piece of junk down and never play it again. Many a great B-side should’ve been an A-side, and vice versa, but what makes a great B-side and what are the best B-sides ever?
An obvious disclaimer here is that these are my (check the name at the bottom of this post) favourite B-sides. This is not a list of the 10 greatest B-sides ever (despite what the paragraph above may suggest), nor have they been voted on by the Webcuts community. Far from it. The definitive over-argued lists are out there if you really want to find out and you’re more than welcome to list your own favourite B-sides in the comments box below. Be my guest. No, really.
There are certain rules about what counts as a B-side. In my world (and it ain’t everybody’s world), a B-side is the opposite of the A-side, also known as “the flipside”. This entails turning/flipping the record over. So goodbye CD singles, you sucked the fun out of the B-side forever and don’t even get me started on download only tracks. There’s no 12” singles or EP tracks included either. This list is based purely on the 7” single and the 7” single only, which coincidentally just celebrated its 60th birthday this year. Happy birthday, the all-magnificent 7″ single. Also, no remixes or live tracks. It has to be something that the band recorded in the studio. Okay?
Just to stress what I said above, this is not a list of the greatest B-sides ever. They’ve already been discussed and there’s no mystery to be found in evaluating old Beatles or Smiths B-sides. I never bought those records at the time, so they never had any impact, and to me “How Soon Is Now“ was just track 5, side 1 of Hatful of Hollow. No moment of “oh wow, they put this on the B-side?” to be found there. This is purely a quick round-up of singles that I once bought and had that exact described “oh wow” moment, which is really what all great B-sides should be judged upon.
With that said (and of which I‘ve meandered far too long already), here, in no particular order, is my rather 80s-centric selection…
1. Duran Duran – “Khanada” (B-side to “Careless Memories”)
The first album Duran Duran album is solid New Wave/New Romantic gold and it’s hard to believe that “Khanada” got relegated to the bench. It’s not without its flaws, as Simon Le Bon does have a touch of the vocal warbles, but it’s a moody, shifting little piece, noticeable for Andy Taylor’s glam-like guitar figure on the intro and chorus and Nick Rhodes’ overly-dominant synth — even bassist John Taylor can only manage the odd bass hiccup. While “Careless Memories” is worthy for the Roger Taylor drum solo, I always felt “Khanada” trumped it hands down. Nothing to do with Canada, either, apparently.
2. Pet Shop Boys – “A New Life” (B-side to “What Have I Done to Deserve This”)
Notorious for stashing away decent tracks on the B-side, “A New Life” stood out for several reasons, one of which is the synth intro reminding me of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and another is the subtle mood shift into the pre-chorus verse at 53 seconds. At this stage in their career, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had the pop song craft down to a fine art and despite the mid-tempo beat and “demo” feel, it was an emotionally driven song about one woman’s desire to extract herself from a dead relationship. The last verse is particularly special. Everybody needs their own feel-good song when they feel-down.
3. New Order – “Hurt” (B-side to “Temptation”)
New Order were on an unarguably creative roll once they began to distance themselves from the post-Joy Division mire of Movement. Even with an A-side as great as “Temptation“, “Hurt” was this ominous groove-laden floor-shaker, with Steve Morris’s idiosyncratic hi-hat heavy beat that propels the song at double speed and Bernard Sumner’s vague vocoder-tinged vocals suggesting “I am for you can enjoy I will make you”. If you listen close to the rhythm backing, you can feel the skeleton of what would become “Blue Monday” here, and even with Peter Hook’s bass rumble playing second fiddle to that of a melodica the song still succeeds.
4. Madder Rose – “Baby Gets High” (B-side to “Beautiful John”)
Manhattan’s Madder Rose barely made waves at the time, but they left some decent tunes in their wake and this particular 7” packed an incredibly potent punch. The A-side “Beautiful John” burns some fierce guitar rubber and is a delight on its own, but the B-side here written by guitarist Billy Cote, and with swoony vocals by Mary Lorson is the perfect shoegaze lullaby that would later be covered by the Blake Babies on their reunion album, which only goes to show I wasn’t the only one who noticed. If you were to play any of these tunes, this is the one I’d go for first.
5. The Specials – “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” (B-side to “Ghost Town”)
Two great B-sides on one 7”. It’s almost unfathomable. The haunting and violent “Ghost Town” is matched with the cold light aftermath of “Why?” with Lynval Golding taking further issue with right-wing violence and racism. It sits less than comfortably next to the light-hearted singalong “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning”, but with the all-encompassing bleakness of the previous songs, Terry Hall’s wry deconstruction of the weekend drunk is a welcome antidote and lyrics like “I’ll eat in the taxi queue/Sitting in someone else’s spew/Wish I had lipstick on my shirt/Instead of piss-stains on my shoes” carries a special poignancy if you’ve ever had to wait for a night bus on Essex Road in Islington on a Friday night.
6. Pixies – “Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)” (B-Side to “Here Comes Your Man”)
This bends the rules a little as “Wave of Mutilation” first appeared on Doolittle, prior to the release of “Here Comes Your Man”, so the song itself wasn’t so much a surprise at the time, but in my opinion, this is the definitive version of “Wave of Mutilation”. Slowed down the song has a greater resonance, the words ring with extra gravity, Black Francis’ voice a strange mix of despondence and hope, as if he were sailing off into his own oblivion but secretly hoping he’ll enjoy the ride. The slow pace combined with Joey Santiago playing a reverbed rhythm part behind Black Francis’ listless acoustic strum is just perfection. Whereas the original seemed resolute in its path, this version is more considered, a final “Where is my mind? Oh there it is” before pushing off into the unknown.
7. The Slits – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (B-side to “Typical Girls”)
I’ve a feeling I knew the cover (the Creedence version via the thrills of AM radio) before I knew the band, or maybe I knew the record cover before I knew the band. Otherwise I can’t explain how this 7” wound up in my collection, but it did, and while I thought the A-side was junk this B-side was honestly the best thing I’d ever heard, being wholly unaware of dub-reggae at that point in my musical evolution. Eventually reissued as an extra track on the CD version of Cut and given a new life on the dance floor in hip London clubs during the beginning of the decade (and probably still played now) it was punk reggae meets a Motown classic head on. The lovely Ari Up making her way into the song with a pause between each “I bet” as if she starting a game of jump rope with the beat. I still prefer the Creedence version (jukebox value for money, yo), but that’s just me.
8. The Cult – “Zap City” (B-side to “L’il Devil”)
There are some that would argue that The Cult jumped the shark with Electric and would’ve preferred them to meander in a hippie/goth-like state in perpetuity. It’s hard not to question the evolution of a band who went from the outspoken punk of The Southern Death Cult to the heavy metal posturing of Electric without laughing. But while they were putting down the beads and incense and picking up the studs and torn denim, The Cult recorded and ditched the follow-up to Love, an album that (am stifling the giggles here) was going to be called Peace. “Zap City” was one of those tracks recorded and is by no means a buried classic, but definitely an up-tempo rocker with promise. Something that The Cult must’ve realised when they came to record the follow-up to Electric, as with a quick title and lyric change, the reconfigured “Zap City” would go on to be their biggest hit to date, “Fire Woman”.
9. The Go-Betweens – “When People Are Dead” (B-side to “Right Here”)
It has to be one of Robert Forster’s finest moments, and it literally walks all over the saccharine sing-song of McLennan’s “Right Here”. Of all the songs here, this is the one most worthy of that oft-repeated phrase of “what is this doing on the B-side?” Such a dour, reflective moment would never be A-worthy, but at the time it’s easy to see it would not have sat comfortably on the Tallulah album either. What to do with a slow song about death? The B-side it is. Robert takes hold of the vocal here and imbues it with such raw emotion, especially in his phrasing on the chorus that you’re almost moved with his sincerity as he asks the question (from the point of view of a child), “what do you do when people are dead?”. All in all, its place opposite “Right Here” seems apt. Love on the A-side and Death on the B-side. I did get it, you know.
10. Blur – Young & Lovely (B-side to “Chemical World”)
It’s a loada old toss about Blur writing great B-sides, and while Oasis definitely had the upper hand on the flipside stakes, they played to a formula which Noel Gallagher knew inside out — write an upbeat song with a soaring chorus, or write a downbeat song with a soaring chorus. Blur were far more haphazard about it. I think they took the whole idea of the B-side as a piece of blank canvas than any other band I know. This does account for a lot of shit B-sides, but occasionally something as grand as “Young & Lovely” will come along and you‘ll go “woah…”. What the hell was “Chemical World” doing on A-side? I don’t think it even got played.