B-Sides We Flipped For

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If you’re inclined to pine for days when music was purchased in the more tangible form of slabs of vinyl instead of the “invisible” format of encoded, downloaded “files”, I’ll remind you of one more thing to miss: The B-side.

The B-side or “flipside” had a significance to artist, fan and DJ alike. To a music consumer buying a “45” back in the day, the B-side was basically a freebie, a second helping from an artist, included for the price you paid for the hit song. For the artist, since songwriting royalties were paid equally for the A- and B-sides of a record, the B-side often represented the chance to cash in on the popularity of the hit, which they may not have written, by backing it with a composition of their own. And to a radio DJ worth his salt, the B-side was something else: an occasional opportunity to turn things upside-down.

Hence, the phenomenon of the Unintended B-side Hit.

Records were “flipped” by DJs for various reasons. Sometimes it was the lyric content of the A-side that made them look for another place to put the needle. The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was deemed too suggestive by some, so in the U.S. the song never did crack the top 50, while its B-side, “Ruby Tuesday” went as high as number one. For similar reasons Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” was only released as a B-side–and in a live version at that–but it still didn’t stop the studio version from becoming an FM radio staple. (And now I’ve used “needle”, “crack”, “high”, and “cocaine” in a single paragraph that wasn’t about drugs. Thank you.)

The Doobie Brothers’ 1974 single “Another Park, Another Sunday” contained the lyric “…the radio just seems to bring me down…” which (go figure) wasn’t a favorite among radio programmers. The song was pulled from many stations’ playlists in favor of its flipside. But for this set of circumstances, Classic Rock canon would probably never today encompass something of such stylistic subversion as the bluegrass-flavored “Black Water”. By popular demand the song was re-released as an A-side and rose to number one, a peak never reached by “China Grove”, “Listen To The Music”, or any other of the Doobies’ pre-Michael McDonald hits. Talk about dumb luck.

Lyric content aside, Pop music history is full of the stories of the unintended hits, especially from the vinyl era, and usually occuring as the result of a DJ taking matters into his own hands and checking out the backside (so to speak).

Take a listen to Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 1”

http://www.amazon.com/Rock-n-Roll-Part-1/dp/B0061YUS7Y/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1329249987&sr=1-3

It was actually the A-side, the flip being eventual ubiquitous stadium anthem “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2”

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B006IL6M1Q/ref=dm_dp_trk2

Mostly-instrumental “Part 2” was an afterthought, never intended for regular airplay, much less Sports-Fans’-Call-To-Arms status. I don’t happen to know why DJs flipped the record in this instance, but I like to think it was just to hear less of Gary Glitter singing.

Speaking of sports anthems, not only was Steam’s 1969 hit “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)”intended as a B-side, but its writer tried to ensure DJs focused on its A-Side by giving “Na Na…” a final repeating chorus which extended the song to over four minutes–at the time an unpalatable length for airplay. Still, DJs managed to find the hidden gem (its A-side is long-forgotten) compelling the record label to release a slightly shorter version which listeners made a number one hit. And once the song caught on at sports stadiums (beginning with the Chicago White Sox adopting it as their theme song in 1976) “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” became an unlikely perennial.

Rod Stewart claimed that he’d “still be digging graves in the cemetery” if some DJ in Cleveland hadn’t flipped “Reason To Believe” over to play what became Rod’s breakout hit, “Maggie May” in 1971. (Seventeen volumes of The Great American Songbook later, there’d be sharp disagreement on whether Rod would have better served the world with the shovel or the mic. But there’s no doubt that DJ’s fateful flip helped, um, vault Rod to stardom.)

Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” became, in 1955, Rock and Roll’s first certifiable anthem and number-one record. But its first release was as a flipside to a certifiable non-anthem called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)” in 1954. One might wonder if Rock and Roll would have charted a different path had the movie Blackboard Jungle not featured “Rock Around The Clock” in its opening credits, giving the song a wider audience and a second chance. Interesting to ponder that Rock and Roll began not with a Big Bang but with a false start.

Van Morrison’s classic “Gloria”, recorded by his band Them, was a B-side (to “Baby Please Don’t Go”) as was The Champs’ “Tequila” (“Train To Nowhere”). Thank you, DJs.

In the Eighties the phenomenon continued with Madonna’s “Into The Groove” (originally the B-side of the 12″ mix of “Angel”) and Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” (the flipside of “Dancing In The Dark”). U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” was supposedly written by Bono as an apology to his wife for having to work on her birthday (sweet) then interred as the B-side of “Where The Streets Have No Name” (not so sweet).

Gloria Gaynor’s Disco anthem “I Will Survive” was originally released as a B-side. More oddly, perhaps, the A-side was a cover of a Righteous Brothers song.

Which brings us to “Unchained Melody”, perhaps King Of All Flipsides. This now-hallowed recording did not appear destined for iconic status when first released. If I may digress about the song’s history: it first appeared in the 1955 film Unchained, which explains why its title and lyrics really have nothing to do with one another (haven’t you always wondered?). The first “hit” version was an instrumental by Les Baxter that went to number one that same year. Al Hibbler took a vocal version to #3, also in ’55. By the time the Righteous Brothers recorded it, the song had already charted six times by as many artists including, incredibly, Vito & The Salutations

http://www.amazon.com/Unchained-Melody/dp/B004U843XI/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1329254552&sr=1-2

…whose version today sounds like a Doo-Wop novelty cover of the Righteous Brothers–but only to those of us not old enough to have heard each version upon its release. All this backstory to explain that Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield (or perhaps more accurately their record label) had no idea in 1965 they’d be releasing what would become the definitive version of a standard. From their perspective the song probably already seemed done to death. Still, it seems hard to believe they pegged it as a B-Side to the nice-but-forgettable “Hung On You” (See–you’ve forgotten it, haven’t you?). By now, “Unchained Melody” is said to have been recorded over 500 times in hundreds of languages. And while Baxter’s instrumental and Hibbler’s vocal version both actually charted higher, the Righteous Brothers’ treatment of “Unchained Melody” set the standard, going from B-side to All-Time Classic.

The vinyl “45” could be like your favorite shop having an unexpected buy-one-get-one sale. If you picked up the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”, you now owned B-side “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. If you bought “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” you got “God Only Knows” in the bargain and if you dug “I Get Around” you’d flip when you heard “Don’t Worry Baby”. And if you bought a Beatles record? Sweet hook-ups abounded. I couldn’t resist citing a few of what were actually known as “Double A-sides”:

  • Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever
  • We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper
  • Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby
  • Hello Goodbye/I Am The Walrus
  • Hey Jude/Revolution
  • Come Together/Something

Elvis could pull that sort of thing off too, of course. How about “Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog”?

Try getting iTunes to do that for you.

Double A-sides aside, if the story of the Unintended B-side Hit has a salient point, it’s this: How many hit songs only became hit songs because we were buying them in twos, and not track by track as we do now? And also: the artist isn’t always the best judge of his work. Elton John notoriously had no intention of releasing “Bennie And The Jets” as a single until a Detroit DJ started playing it on an R&B station (yep, number one again). Record labels have uneven track records in terms of “hearing the hit”. Radio disc jockeys have seemed historically to be more, ahem, “in tune” to their listeners’ tastes.

But DJs have blind spots too, and I’m certain many records were flipped with no resulting hit song to tell the story of. Because ultimately flipside hits, like all hit songs, are a phenomenon of the People. Pop=Popular=Of the People. There are no stars without starmakers. Despite many factors which may have skewed music sales over the decades (payola, big label marketing, MTV…) it’s encouraging to know the ears of the DJ and most importantly the music fan have played their part in determining what are the “classics”, overriding at times even the judgment of the music’s creators. Pretty cool.

And this article recounts only a small number of Pop’s “unexpected hits”…there are many more be-sides!

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