The rise of the digital download has killed the B Side stone dead. That’s a fact and it’s a crying shame because in the great history of pop, B Sides deserve their own chapter at the very least. A good B side used to be an art form in itself; a song recorded quickly and cheaply, a bit of a throwaway not deemed worthy of a place on an album or alternatively a chance to experiment. And if it turned out shit so what, because no-one listened to B Sides right? Wrong pop star twats, everyone listened to B Sides.
Here’s 20 of my own favourites but they don’t even start to scrape the surface. A bit like Secret Pleasures or Buried Treasures, when you really put your mind to it and start thinking of all the B Sides you loved, or the tunes on a CD double pack that came after CD one, track one, there’s thousands of them, and actually, quite a few were better and have lasted longer than the main feature.
01. DAVID BOWIE ‘Holy Holy’ (‘Diamond Dogs’ June 1974)
Bowie released his first drippy hippy version of ‘Holy Holy’ in January 1971. Like most of his early, pre-glam singles it totally stiffed but as single minded as ever, he recorded this frantic, wham bam, Spiders version for Ziggy Stardust. In the end, with so many brilliant new songs available, it was replaced by ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ and left on the shelf to gather dust for the next three years.
02. BUZZCOCKS ‘Autonomy’ (‘I Don't Mind’ April 1978)
Buzzcocks influential brand of buzzsaw pop still doesn’t get the credit it deserves which is shameful considering how their B Sides were better than most group’s main titles. Featuring one of his most insistent and memorable riffs, Steve Diggle’s ‘Autonomy’ is a beautifully constructed, gem of a tune that effortlessly matches the pop sensibility of the A Side.
03. WIRE ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ (‘Outdoor Miner’ January 1979)
Wire always thought of themselves as a pop group which sounds ridiculous now although in the chaos of punk it's invariably forgotten that brilliant, simply structured songs often lay at the core of all that bluster and dissident noise. And there were none simpler than Wire’s. ‘Practice Makes Perfect’s mood of paranoia, off kilter vocals and the occasional cackle of a madman may not be pop in the traditional sense, but it certainly worms its way into your brain as all great pop should.
04. TUBEWAY ARMY ‘We Are So Fragile’ (‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ May 1979)
It’s impossible to understand how epoch defining ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ and Gary Numan were unless you were there and I wasn’t. And yet, even at that early stage of his career, ‘We Are So Fragile’ allowed a tiny peek into the lonely androids delicate state of mind. Over a one finger synth hook and what sounds suspiciously like a bunch of old rockers, lines such as ‘we are really so shy’ and ‘we could always go home’ hint at the crippling personal problems to come.
05. DEPECHE MODE ‘Ice Machine’ (‘Dreaming Of Me’ February 1981)
Whereas three quarters of Depeche Mode spent much of their time down the local new romantic disco supping pints and comparing nail varnish with their girlfriends, the obsessive Vince Clarke was in his bedroom writing play in a day synth tunes like ‘Ice Machine’. Electronically raw and lyrically nonsensical, for some reason in my mind this phenomenal if forgotten song is the epitome of early eighties, electro pop Britain.
06. CAN ‘One More Night’ (‘Moonshake’ June 1983)
In their early seventies prime, Can really were something. Reckoned to be at least a decade ahead of their time, in 1983 Swell Map’s Epic Soundtracks compiled this rare, three track 12 inch EP in a vain attempt to prove it. Featuring Future Days ‘Moonshake’ and the 1971 single ‘Turtles Have Short Legs’ on the A Side and Tago Mago’s insanely addictive rhythm piece ‘One More Night’ on the reverse, it was a dismal failure, Can remaining far too subtle and sophisticated, even for a generation raised on Kraftwerk and post punk.
07. SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES ‘Tattoo’ (‘Dear Prudence’ September 1983)
The Banshee’s always relished the chance to try something new on their B Sides, which was just as well given how their choice of ‘Dear Prudence’ smelt so badly of artistic corruption and desperation. Luckily, the atypical ‘Tattoo’ more than compensated, the droning bass, tom tom rhythm and creeping dread of Siouxsie’s hushed vocal said to be a major influence on nineties trip hop.
08. ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN ‘Over Your Shoulder’ (‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ October 1985)
I love the sheer visceral rush and anxious energy the Echo & The Bunnymen offered throughout the eighties. The rousing ‘Over Your Shoulder’ is no exception, an immaculate, propulsive roar built on the backs of Les Pattinson and Pete De Freitas, a rhythm section whose skill, power and imagination is easily overlooked alongside Ian McCulloch's grandiose vision.
09. TALK TALK ‘It's Getting Late In The Evening’ (‘Life's What You Make It’ January 1986)
What a strange boy Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis turned out to be? I for one would love to know exactly what it took to turn a fairly normal poppy hit maker into a reclusive Syd Barrett type over the course of two of the most impenetrable, uncommercial albums your ever likely to hear. Yet ironically, the signs were already there on the B Side of Talk Talk’s last big hit ‘Life's What You Make It’, the solemn, jazzy minimalism of ‘It's Getting Late In The Evening’ pinpointing the exact moment the avant-garde kicked in.
10. SISTERS OF MERCY ‘Colours’ (‘This Corrosion’ September 1987)
1987 was Andrew Eldrich’s big year. Having resurrected the Sisters as a solo project, the heavenly choirs and bombast of Jim Steinman’s ‘This Corrosion’ may have built him a future, but hidden away on side two, track two of the 12 inch was a song reconstructed from his troubled past. More like a brooding battle hymn from the Holy Church Of Armageddon than an epic rock colossus with bells on, ‘Colours’ was far closer to the classic Sisters of old, therefore infinitely preferable.
11. THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN ‘Kill Surf City’ (‘April Skies’ April 1987)
As quiet, arty students of rock’n’roll’s myths and legends, The Jesus And Mary Chain loved to feed the standard sixties influences of The Beach Boy’s, Phil Spector, The Shangri-La’s and The Velvets through the punk grinder before they emerged on the other side as riotous heathens peddling a glorious, feedback drenched, noise pop din. Of course, they weren’t the first to fuck with Brian Wilson’s sunshine formula, but their twisted, side splittingly funny mangling of ‘Surf City’ was by far the best.
12. MY BLOODY VALENTINE ‘I Believe’ (‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ October 1988)
After a shaky start as would be indie poppers, by the autumn of 1988 My Bloody Valentine were just about ready to reveal themselves as guitar pop innovators. Released two months after ‘You Made Me Realise’ had forced everyone to sit up and take notice, ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ and the wonderful, dreamy, druggy morass of ‘I Believe’ were even noisier and even more melodic, setting them up nicely for the brilliance of Isn’t Anything just three weeks later.
13. PET SHOP BOYS ‘Miserablism’ (‘Was It Worth It?’ December 1991)
The Pet Shop Boys were everything the post punk new pop dream ever wanted to be and a lot cleverer with it. ‘Was It Worth It?’ really wasn’t but ‘Miserablism’, Neil Tennant’s satirical, humourful dissection of Morrissey’s persona and the seriousness of the shoegazing scene, definitely was.
14. U2 ‘Lady With The Spinning Head (UV1)’ (‘One’ February 1992)
U2 completely reinvented themselves for ‘One’s parent album Achtung Baby but there’s still something about it that makes me feel queasy. ‘Lady With The Spinning Head’ is only of interest because originally it was scrapped and the various spare parts used for ‘Zoo Station’, ‘The Fly’ and ‘Ultraviolet’. Hearing it now is like listening to some bizarre mash up of all three.
15. SUEDE ‘Killing Of A Flash Boy’ (‘We Are The Pigs’ September 1994)
There are plenty of groups here who could claim to be masters of the B Side but none can match Suede for sheer quality. From ‘My Insatiable One’ to ‘The Sounds Of The Streets’ to ‘Killing Of A Flashboy’, the most thrillingly brutal song Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler ever wrote, Suede B Sides were precious secrets that mattered just as much as the hits or hallowed albums.
16. BLUR ‘All Your Life’ (‘Beetlebum’ January 1997)
As far as B Sides go, they don’t come much more essential than ‘All Your Life’. A four minute summation of Blur’s 1996 annus horribilis and a nod to Hunky Dory era Bowie, this fabulous song details Damon Albarn’s disillusionment with his beloved England and the hollowness of the fame he had dreamed of for so long.
17. BECK ‘Electric Music And The Summer People’ (‘The New Pollution’ February 1997)
I have no idea what Beck’s on about most of the time but it matters not. As a piss taking, folk hop, cult legend he’s my man, particularly on a bash it down, modern age rock’n’roll retread like ‘Electric Music And The Summer People’ with it’s surrealistic lyrics, great harmonies and minute of arcade game blips and bleeps thrown in at the end just for good measure. Fantastic!
18. RADIOHEAD ‘Polyethylene (Part 1 & 2)’ (‘Paranoid Android’ May 1997)
The first in a fistful of great Radiohead B Sides produced during the recording of OK Computer that for one reason or another failed to make the final cut. Long considered a kind of halfway house between that albums art rock excellence and Kid A’s wanton experimentalism, ‘Polyethylene (Part 1 & 2)’ is a lot more straightforward than either of them, and if anything, more a reminder of The Bends.
19. MASSIVE ATTACK ‘Euro Zero Zero’ (‘Teardrop’ April 1998)
‘Euro Zero Zero’ is an alternative version of a track called ‘Eurochild’ that first appeared on The Beautiful Game album compiled for Euro ’96. By the time it reappeared on the ‘Teardrop’ single, not only had the name changed, but with the addition of some beefed up guitar and Horace Andy’s vocals it had been transformed to reflect Massive Attack’s heavier, moodier live version.
20. APHEX TWIN ‘Nannou’ (‘Windowlicker’ March 1999)
Ignoring ‘Windowlicker’s noisy, gravity defying leap into a future of samplers and machines, ‘Nannou’ offered a far sweeter alternative. Dedicated to Richard D James then girlfriend, by manipulating layer upon layer of music box melodies with the sound of a wind up, clockwork mechanism, it revealed the gentler, warmer, dare I say it, human side of his genius.