Mind your B-sides

Why we should mourn the decline of the B-side.

Why we should mourn the decline of the B-side.

What does "How Soon Is Now?" by the Smiths, Madonna's "Into the Groove" and Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" have in common? They are all examples of classic songs that began life as B-sides or as "bonus" tracks on the artists' singles. That I feel compelled to define "B-side" (the term originally referred to the flip side of the seven-inch vinyl records on which singles were released from the 1950s) is indicative of the slow decline of the form. As I write, just two of the singles in the UK top ten feature a B-side (pale imitations such as the "radio edit" or the "acoustic version" don't count).

In the age of iTunes, when tracks can be downloaded individually and CD singles represent a fraction of sales, most bands have consigned the B-side to the dustbin of history. In doing so, they have lost more than they realise.

The B-side offered artists a chance to surprise, to collaborate and to experiment, free from the commercial pressure to deliver a hit. The results were often stunning. As a 12-year-old in 1998, I would rush to my local record store (the now defunct Strawberry Fields in Rickmansworth, where, decades before, a young Martin Amis worked shifts alongside his step-uncle) to buy the latest Radiohead or Oasis single, purely in anticipation of the accompanying B-sides (I would invariably own the parent album already).

Empire records

For a young band, great B-sides were a declaration of superiority. In Oasis's imperial phase, Noel Gallagher would produce B-sides - "Acquiesce", "Rockin' Chair", "Half the World Away" - better than most bands' A-sides (how he must wish he had saved some of them for the years of famine). Indeed, Oasis's 1998 B-sides collection The Masterplan is rightly remembered as the last great album they made. Similarly, I return to B-sides compilations by Suede (Sci-Fi Lullabies), Nirvana (Incesticide) and the Manic Street Preachers (Lipstick Traces) at least as often as I do to their studio albums.

In time, B-sides can become more celebrated than the A-sides they accompany. "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" by the Smiths, a cover version of which recently appeared on the John Lewis Christmas advert, began life as the B-side to "William, It Was Really Nothing". The Rolling Stones's "Ruby Tuesday" became a hit after radio stations deemed its A-side, "Let's Spend the Night Together", too risqué. Elvis's "Hound Dog" was the B-side to "Don't Be Cruel".

With some notable exceptions (Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines), few bands now produce B-sides and, on the occasions that they do, the results are rarely worth listening to. We are left with a diminished music scene. B-sides established a kind of hierarchy among a band's followers; a casual fan might know the words to the single but a true fan would know the words to the B-side. Some hold out hope for a renaissance. After all, the internet allows bands to share extra tracks more easily than ever. But if this is the death of the B-side, it should not be an unmourned one.