Beside the hit


Another reason to mourn the passing of vinyl is the death of the B-side as we knew and loved it. A once-noble, if slightly eccentric, institution, it put its hands in the air and said "fair cop, guv" in the face of the CD's laser-driven capabilities. It's a rotten ol' shame - not least for the fact that when bands only had two songs with which to impress (as opposed to today's four or five on yer average CD single) they put a bit more work into it and didn't resort to endless, mindless re-mixes of the lead-off track.

It's probably not a good idea to take the Beatles as an example, but songs such as We Can Work It Out, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am The Walrus were all B-sides and rightly cherished as such. With the advent of prog-type rock in the 1970s and the idea of "albums bands" who didn't release singles at all, the B-side went into a decline, not helped by the fact that glam rock couldn't throw up one decent B-side during its years of existence - and punk didn't fare much better.

Curiously enough, the retro-tinged Oasis are single-handedly trying to rehabilitate the status of the B-side in the 1990s - a good few of their efforts like Acquiesce and Slide Away are better than many of their Britpop competitors' Asides. They remain, though, the exception that proves the rule. Taking one new CD single at random, The Brand New Heavies' You've Got A Friend (the mawky Carole King song with the greeting card lyrics) you'll find that the five (yes, five) B-sides are all re-mixes of the A-side and are as follows: The Brooklyn Funk R&B Mix, The Ballistic Brothers Mix, The Brooklyn Funk Club Mix Featuring Jemini, The Tee's Club Mix and The Original Mix. Charming.

This is such a sloppy approach - more so when you consider that the song is a cover version in the first place. It's now somewhat of a Spinal Tap-level cliche for a band to merely re-work the A-side under the guise of techno, dub and ambient remixes on the B-side. Which could be all well and good: but not when, invariably, the techno re-mix just features an irritating Roland synthesiser added on to the basic track, the dub version just puts a lot of reverb on the original bass line and the ambient version just slows things down a bit and adds in some swirly "ethereal" sound effects. It's a rock'n'roll swindle.

While it would be simplistic to describe a band as only as good as their B-sides, it should be that the quality, not the quantity, of a band's B-sides should enter into the overall question of musical worth. One of the reasons why a band like The Jam are so fondly remembered was the "two for the price of one" quality of their singles: Jam B-sides include A Bomb In Wardour Street (nominally a double A-side), The Butterfly Collector, So Sad About Us and Smithers Jones. Then you get a band like The Sex Pistols, whose A-sides were sublime but whose B-sides were ridiculous: Satellite, I Wanna Be Me and Did You No Wrong being cases in point.

It takes a brave band to commercially release an album of only their B-sides and, in this respect, Suede's Sci Fi Lullabies is a valiant gesture, more so when you consider that it's a sprawling 27-track affair. Consider: in the old days of vinyl this would almost have been a triple album.

It is a good thing in itself that Suede adhere to a strict code of in-house rules when it comes to the B-side: they have always refused to use cover versions, instrumentals or re-mixes. The net result is that you don't get ripped off and every now and again one of their B-sides is as good as if not better than an A-side - but then again we're talking about a band who can boast that Morrissey did a cover version of one of their B-sides (My Insatiable One).

From the flip of the first single, The Drowners, to the last, Filmstar, these songs trace the band's progress from being the original of the Brit-pop species into near calamity when Bernard Butler walked out and their resurrection with Coming Up. Along the way you'll encounter songs like Europe Is Our Playground, The Big Time and To The Birds, all of which contribute in no small part to restoring the status of the B-side. It doesn't always work, though; sometimes you're forcibly reminded of why some of these songs didn't make it on to the A-side in the first place, and while the inclusion of 27 songs might please the completists, it does turn the recording into a bit of a marathon. However, if this was a single 12-track album, it would be pushing for inclusion in the album of the year lists - and how many bands can say that about their B-sides?