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Question of the Week: What’s the best B-side in music history?

“B-sides” are anachronistic in these days where everything is available digitally, but they used to be an odd vestigial thing in the music industry, as singles needed something on the other side of the record, so companies and bands had to put something on there, right? I was never a big purchaser of singles – by the time I was buying music, they had become a bit passé, and I stuck to buying albums – but they hung on for a while into even the 1990s. Now that singles seem to be back and albums aren’t quite the thing anymore, I think B-sides should make a comeback. Unless they already have, in which case I’m behind the times again. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last!

The point is that I don’t know much about B-sides, so I want to know what you think is the best one. I should clarify that I’m looking for songs that don’t appear on any of the band’s albums (unless it’s on a compilation from years later). It’s easy enough to release a single and put a song from the album on the back side, but some bands just put songs they don’t think are good enough to make it on the album as a B-side, but sometimes those songs turn out to be pretty great. A few examples from my favorite band are “Charting the Single,” which Marillion put on the B-side of “He Knows You Know” in 1983, and “Cinderella Search” on the B-side of “Assassing” in 1984. “Charting the Single” is full of dazzling word play – “Schnapping my fingers on an alcoholiday / Sniff round a Fraulein when I’m scent to Cologne” and other fun lines, and “Cinderella Search” is a poignant quasi-love song that leads to the terrific lyric “And was that love in your eye I saw, or a reflection of mine? / I’ll never really know for sure, you never really gave me time”. Both of these songs are terrific, but neither made it onto the albums that the singles came from. “Charting the Single” doesn’t really fit the aesthetic of Marillion’s first album, so I can buy that, but “Cinderella Search” feels like it would fit on their second. Such is life, I guess.

The best B-side I can think of, though, is “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do,” the B-side of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” from 1970. I used to hear this all the time on classic rock stations when I was growing up (93.3 WMMR FTMFW!!!!), and when I started buying Zeppelin albums, I was grumpy because I couldn’t find it on any of them. I didn’t know it was a B-side until years later – Pierre Robert just liked playing it, I guess, so he didn’t care that it was a B-side! It’s a terrific song – yes, it’s Plant singing about why the hooker he digs doesn’t love him back, but Plant is so danged charming when he sings about hookers who don’t love him that the lyrics work, and of course, Jimmy’s guitar is superb. I’m not sure why this didn’t get onto Led Zeppelin III (because Plant sings about wanting to “ball all day” and the record execs couldn’t handle that level of overtness from the dude who sang about getting his lemon squeezed?), but it’s got to be the best B-side in music history, right? If it’s not, what are your choices? Let me have it in the comments!

22 Comments

  1. Eric van Schaik

    Beth – Kiss / b-side of Detroit Rock City
    (yeah, yeah, it’s an album track, but so is God Only Knows, which is a really great song.)

    Tame – Blur / b-side of Stereotypes

    Bischop’s Robe – Radiohead / b-side of Street Spirit (Fade out)

    The last 2 may not be the greatest songs for a lot of people but after I heared them on a sampler I purchased all album of both bands. Because of that they belong in the list. Check them out Greg! 😉

  2. Jazzbo

    I agree with your choice of Hey Hey What Can I Do. My experience with that song was almost the same. Heard it on the radio all the time and loved it. Started getting into Led Zeppelin more and buying the tapes, and got annoyed that I couldn’t find that song until eventually finding out it was a B-Side. Luckily it was on the Led Zeppelin box set that came out while I was in high school, so I was able to listen to it that way.

  3. Slam Bradley

    I’ll stick to pre-album days.

    Hound Dog was originally the B-side to Don’t Be Cruel.

    Rock Around the Clock was the B-side to the largely forgotten Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town). It is one of the seminal songs in rock & roll history.

    I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry was the B to My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It. The latter is fine, but the former is a stone cold country classic.

  4. Peter

    Trying to only look at B-sides that weren’t album tracks –

    “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” is a great pick. Just an instantly cool song every time you hear it.

    Depending on whether you count “double A-sides” as a thing, “Penny Lane” could be the greatest flip side of a record ever. A clearer couple of B-sides from the Beatles are “Revolution” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” I also love “Baby You’re a Rich Man” with an irrational passion.

    The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is another favorite. I like the A-side (“Sunny Afternoon”), but the b-side is where the real action is.

    “Find the Cost of Freedom” (back of “Ohio”) is not better than the A-side, but it is a great tune on its own.

    Speaking of CSNY (specifically the Y in that group) – “Sugar Mountain” was the b-side of not 1 but 2 seminal Young singles (“The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl”) and is just about as good as either one. It’s not fair that he was able to write that the night he turned 20… just incredible.

    Lastly – gotta plug my boys XTC, for whom single-only B-sides is practically the business model. “I Need Protection” (credited to Colin Moulding only as “The Colonel”) is probably the best of the bunch.

  5. The Beatles are difficult because 1) were those B-sides or Double A-sides (Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields) and 2) do you count Magical Mystery Tour and Hey Jude/Beatles Again as compilation albums?

    Surely Side 2 of MMT is since that first pairing predates Sgt Pepper. And surely Hey Jude is. There are a couple of Beatles b-sides tracks (I’m Down, The Inner Light) that were NEVER on an album until Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rarities, respectively, at least not n the US or UK. (Apparently, The Inner Light was on a Spanish compilation, and that was in 1971 after the band dissolved.).

  6. John King

    I like “One-Eyed Hound” the B-side of Genesis’ Second Single “a Winter’s Tale” (included as a bonus track in some rereleases of their first album)

    Quick aside
    George Harrison, while trying to come up with a B-side to one of his singles (This is Love) got a few friends together for a song, however, the record company insisted “Handle with Care” was too good for a ‘B’ side so instead it got turned into an album or two and so is not valid for this feature.

  7. Edo Bosnar

    Late to this conversation. Anyway, the best B-side is one of the first I’d ever encountered:
    “Burn on the Flame” by Sweet, the B-side to their mega-hit, “Fox on the Run.” It often got airplay on AOR stations, and to this day it’s my favorite song by Sweet.

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