The Lost Art of the B-side

So, kids, when artists of old released what we called singles – individual hits – they would release a record, and that record would have the hit on one side – called the A-side, but then they would be left with the problem of what to put on the other side of the record. That seems an easy one now – just put the second hit there, right? But no: the reality of record release windows meant that you would have to release records and hits at a certain pace and packing two hits into one record would just not do.

So you were left with what we here will term the “B-side”-opportunity.

The B-side was the opposite side of the hit that everyone would listen to anyway so it offered an incredible opportunity of trying something zany and really exploring who you were as an artist. Take my favorite band, Depeche Mode – and yes, I am that old – and you will see exactly how this works. Depeche Mode had, especially starting from their second studio albums, an extraordinarily strong B-side game.

They would take songs that were not on the album, and expressed a very different side of who they were and then publish those on the B-side of record, enjoying, fully, the artistic freedom offered by this weird artifactual reality. Here are a few of their B-sides that speak to how brilliantly they used that freedom.

Now this is fun – a brilliant exploration of the expressions in synth music, toying with the strict form and the dead-pan lyrics suggesting that “this is fun” in a flat voice.

Oberkorn it is a small town – a simply impossible piece to release in any other way! This is brilliant, but their fans would not have accepted that as a hit! But as a B-side this ended up being a song that Depeche-fans will still speak knowingly about, nodding and recognizing both the daring and the insanity of the work.

Fools – a song that works with all the new sounds the band had collected and a slightly more quirky, but still deeply melodic, expression of the new found social and political consciousness they were exploring. “Fools don’t run away”. It then dissolves into sweet harmonies and bell-sounds.

Work hard – here they developed the political theme more, still playing with tropes and terms, but seeking to find some kind of critical angle on the modern capitalist society. The expression here is rawer, much more direct than the songs included on Construction Time Again. It almost ends up sounding like a destillation of all the self-help literature that has drowned the modern individual in the last three or four decades – ironically!

In your memory – this is for me the ultimate B-side. A brutal, industrial rendition of Alan Wilder’s. It captures the introvert’s crash into modern society, and seeks some point of strength in the tension between the outer and the inner – “we are the hunters, we are the hunted” – and then the ominous “place it in your memory, leave it in your past, but don’t forget”. The seed of a revenge narrative if ever there was one! I remember treasuring this B-side as if it was written for me alone.

But not tonight – oh, I mean, I don’t know if there is any song that carries more hope than this one! It is a contrast to the darkness of Black Celebration, and it opens up a path forward for anyone who was stuck in the downward spiral of that album – even if “just for a day”. For me this was the song that brought me back from a bad breakup – set me on a path not towards healing, but the sense of freedom – with the dizzying feeling that brings – that is the only real way out of a bad break up. “Here on my own, all on my own, how good it feels to be alone tonight. And I haven’t felt so alive in years. The moon is shining in the sky, reminding me of so many other nights, when my eyes have been so red, I have been mistaken for dead – but not tonight”. I still remember walking the wet asphalt bikeways of the suburbs I grew up in singing and dancing out loud to this song, late, late at night.

And there is more, so much more. But we will end here – just noting that as the B-sides went away we lost something important, an essential mode of artistic expression.

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