In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the ten- and twelve-inch long-playing (LP) vinyl record for commercial sales, and its rival RCA-Victor responded the next year with the seven-inch 45 rpm vinyl record, which would come to replace the 78 as the home of the single. The term "single" came into popular use with the advent of vinyl records in the early 1950s. At first, most record labels would randomly assign which song would be an A-side and which would be a B-side. (All phonograph records have specific identifiers for each side in addition to the catalog number for the record itself; the "A" side would typically be assigned a sequentially lower number.) Under this random system, many artists had so-called "double-sided hits", where both songs on a record made one of the national sales charts (in Billboard, Cashbox, or other magazines), or would be featured on jukeboxes in public places.
As time wore on, however, the convention for assigning songs to sides of the record changed. Very early into the decade, the song on the A-side was the song that the record company wanted radio stations to play, as 45 records (or '45s') dominated the market in terms of cash sales. It was not until 1968, for instance, that the total production of albums on a unit basis finally surpassed that of singles in the United Kingdom. By the early 1970s, double-sided hits had become rare. Album sales had increased, and B-sides had become the side of the record where non-album, non-radio-friendly, instrumental versions or simply inferior recordings were placed.
With the advent of cassette and compact disc singles in the late 1980s, the A-side/B-side differentiation became much less meaningful. At first, cassette singles would often have one song on each side of the cassette, matching the arrangement of vinyl records, but eventually, cassette maxi-singles, containing more than two songs, became more popular. With the decline of cassette singles in the 1990s, the A-side/B-side dichotomy became virtually extinct, as the remaining dominant medium, the compact disc, lacked an equivalent physical distinction. However, the term "B-side" is still used to refer to the "bonus" tracks or "coupling" tracks on a CD single.
With the advent of legal methods of downloading music via the Internet, sales of CD singles and other physical media have declined, and the term "B-side" is now less commonly used. Songs that were not part of an artist's collection of albums are made available through the same downloadable catalogs as tracks from their albums, and are usually referred to as "unreleased", "bonus", "non-album", "rare", or "exclusive" tracks, the latter in the case of a song being available solely from a certain provider of music.
As well, it was common in the 1960s and 1970s for longer songs by soul, funk or R&B acts to be broken into two parts for single release. Examples of this include the Isley Brothers "Shout" (Parts 1 and 2), and a number of records by James Brown, including (amongst many others) "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (Parts 1 & 2); "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud (Parts 1 & 2); and "Mother Popcorn" (Parts 1 & 2). "Part 1" would be the chart hit, while "Part 2" would be a continuation of the same recording. A major example of a non-soul hit with parts 1 & 2 was the single release of Don McLean's "American Pie".
With the advent of the 12" single in the late 1970s, the Part 1/Part 2 method of recording was largely abandoned.
Since both sides of a single received equal royalties, some composers deliberately arranged for their songs to be used as the B-sides of singles by popular artists, thereby making a fortune literally off the back of the A-side. This became known as the "flipside racket".
On a few occasions, the B-side became the more popular song. This was usually because a DJ preferred the B-side to its A-side and played it instead. Then the B-side would in a sense become the A-side, by virtue of being the preferred side. One example is the Mason Williams single Long Time Blues, which became a hit on the strength of its B-side, Classical Gas. Even more rarely, both sides of the single would become hits. This feat was done repeatedly by some artists.
The song "How Soon Is Now?" by The Smiths started out as the extra track on the 12" of "William, It Was Really Nothing" but later gained a separate release as an A-side in its own right, as did Oasis's "Acquiesce", which originally appeared as a B-side to "Some Might Say" in 1995, but gained subsequent release in 2006 as part of an EP to promote their forthcoming compilation album, Stop the Clocks. Feeder in 2001 and 2005 had the B-sides "Just a Day" from "Seven Days In The Sun", and "Shatter" from "Tumble and Fall" released as A-sides after fan petitions and official website and fansite message board hype, and both charted at #12 and #11 in the UK.
On some reissued singles the A- and B-sides are by completely different artists, or two songs from different albums that would not normally have been released together. These were sometimes made for the jukebox, as one record with two popular songs on it would make more money, or to promote an artist to the fans of another. For example, in 1981, Kraftwerk released their new single "Computer Love", with the B side of "The Model" from their previous album. After "The Model" found popularity, the single was re-released with the sides reversed, and "The Model" hit the UK No1 spot, three years after its album release.
With the popularity of file sharing and mp3s it has now become common for fans to find all the released b-sides from album sessions to add them to the end of the album on mp3 players, largely expanding the album. Paramore are a good example for this as their recent album Riot! has been arranged with 9 extra tracks of b-sides, live versions, covers and alternative versions.
B-sides have become a lot more important over the years because they give fans a little extra material to keep them satisfied until new material is to be released. It has also become common for fans to have high expectations for B-sides to be good and worthy album tracks; disappointment should not be an issue. In recent times it has become a lot more common for some album versions to include b-sides as bonus tracks, most commonly on digital releases (such as on iTunes) but also on some physical releases.
Reggaeton artists have been known to release special editions of their albums with a few B-side tracks on them. These tracks are usually tracks that have been previously released on a producer's compilation album.
"Unreleased material" is work that usually isn't released to the general public. On rare occasions, particularly for reissues, these songs are in fact placed on albums, often with that description after it. In an extreme case, singer Moby's DVD titled "18 B-Sides and DVD" featured 21 of them.
"Outtakes" are songs recorded for an album but, either for technical or artistic purposes, not included in the released album. They occasionally appear on reissues of albums, billed as "bonus tracks". R.E.M.'s album Dead Letter Office, for example, is a collection of outtakes from previous albums that were later released as b-sides to various singles.
"Demos" are early versions of songs which, like "unreleased material", seldom see the light of day. Demos of songs often have additional or alternative verses. Often more demos than full songs are recorded, as an artist goes back and retools what is already present. Singers Moby, Prince, and Billy Corgan of the group The Smashing Pumpkins are rumored to have large personal collections of demos.
On occasion, artists release albums of compiled B-sides and rare tracks, making it easier for fans to listen to new and unheard material from discontinued singles. Examples:
Some singles have also been designated double A-sides in retrospect, such as Elvis Presley's 1956 "Don't Be Cruel" which appeared on the same single with "Hound Dog"; this was done in retrospect because both sides became chart hits independently. In fact, "Hound Dog" was the B-side of the single as originally released. During the late 1970s, Dolly Parton released a number of double A-sided singles, in which the A-side was released to pop radio, and the B side to country.
Many artists continue to release double A-side singles outside of the USA where it is seen as more popular.
A good example of a double A-side is the Pet Shop Boys' 1991 release of their cover/medley of U2's "Where the streets have no name" and Frankie Vialli's "Can't take my eyes off you". The Pet Shop Boys were planning to release "How can you expect to be taken seriously?" as their next single but decided they "needed a big hit" (quote: N.Tennant - Sleeve notes, Behaviour/Further listening). They therefore released the mentioned cover song and their own composition as a double a-side. Later on their "PopArt" hits collection (2003) they omitted "How can you expect to be taken seriously?" as it received little if any radio airplay with "Where the streets have no name/Can't take my eyes off you" receiving all the airplay and being placed on the album by itself.
Examples include "Styrafoam" / "Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie" by The Tyla Gang (1976), "Reasons To Be Miserable" / "Marvin I Love You" by Marvin, the Paranoid Android (1981), and "Jack Rabbit" / "Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)" by Elton John (1973).
"Everybodys Jesus" was a double B-Side released by Australian hip hop group Butterfingers (2005). The CD single featured the songs "Jesus I Was Evil" and "Everybody's Ugly", the latter being included in the album The Deeper You Dig (2006).
Similarly, parody band Bad News recorded a video b-side to the VHS version of their single "Bohemian Rhapsody". The B-side "Every Mistake Imaginable" features the band discussing the fact that they have to record an extra three minutes of footage for the single to be chart eligible.
Comedienne and singer Tracey Ullman's hit "They Don't Know" was backed by a song entitled "The B Side" and featured Ullman in a variety of comic monologues - many of which bemoaned the uselessness of B-Sides.
The single "O.K.?" based on the TV series "Rock Follies of '77" contained a song called "B-Side?". The song featured Charlotte Cornwell tunelessly singing about the fact that she is not considered good enough to sing an A-Side. The Fastest Group Alive's 1966 single "The Bears" was backed with a 35-second track called "Beside", whose lyric consisted of the repeated line "It's cotton picking time in the valley".
John Safran's 1997 single "(Not The) Sunscreen Song" featured two B-sides "Track Two" and "Track Three"; both were simply Safran "saying" the titles of the respective song.
The Rakes used their CD format B-side to "22 Grand Job" to have a go at Apple; this song was called "iProblem" (or one problem). They complained how their iPod was not working and naming the band he had on there (these included Babyshambles and Bloc Party). This was staged as a one-man phone call to a help line.
The B-side of the single "They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!" by Napoleon XIV was called "!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er'yehT" and the singer billed as "NOELOPAN VIX". It was the A-side played in reverse; in fact, most of the label affixed to that B-side was a mirror image of the front label (as opposed to being spelled backwards), including the letters in the "WB" shield logo. Inflatable Boy Clams copied this idea with a double single in 1981. Disc one had a track called "Skeletons," on the A-side, and the B-side was the same track backwards, labeled "Snoteleks," which is the word skeletons backwards.
Shel Silverstein's 1971 recording "A Front Row Seat To Hear Ole Johnny Sing" had a 26-second-long song on the B-side, unsurprisingly titled "26 Second Song".
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