A-side and B-side
A-side and B-side originally referred to the two sides of 7 inch vinyl records on which singles were released beginning in the 1950s. The terms have come to refer to the types of song conventionally placed on each side of the record, with the A-side being the featured song (the one that the record producer hopes will receive radio airplay and become a "hit"), while the B-side, or flipside, is a secondary song that often does not appear on the artist's LP.
The earliest 10-inch, 78 rpm, shellac records were single sided. Double sided recordings, with one song on each side, were first introduced in Europe by Columbia Records and by the late 1910s they had become the norm in both Europe and the USA. There were no record charts until the 1930s; A-sides and B-sides existed, but neither side was considered more important, and for the most part, radio stations would play the song on either side of the record. The "side" did not convey anything about the content of the record.
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", "outtakes" or "exclusive" tracks, the latter in the case of a song being available solely from a certain provider of music.
B-side songs are released on the same record as a single to provide extra "value for money". There are several types of material commonly released in this way:
- a different version (e.g., instrumental, a cappella, live, acoustic, remixed version or in another language/text) of the A-side or another track
- another song from the same album, which the record company does not want to release on its own
- a song not considered good enough for the album
- a song that was stylistically unsuitable for the album
- a song that had not yet been completed at the time of the album's release
- a song that was intended to be [marketed as] a B-side in the first place
- a cover of another song
- in concept records: a song that does not fit into the story line.
Additionally, 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. Examples include "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor (originally the B-side of "Substitute"), "I'll Be Around" by The Spinners(originally the B-side of "How Could I Let You Get Away"), "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers (originally the B-side of "Another Park, Another Sunday"), Kiss' "Beth" (originally the B-Side to "Detroit Rock City"), "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart (originally the B-side of "Reason To Believe"), and "Tequila" by the Champs (originally the B-side of "Train to Nowhere"). Even more rarely, both sides of the single would become hits, such as Queen's "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You". This feat was achieved repeatedly by some artists, notably Ricky Nelson and later The Beach Boys and The Beatles.
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. 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.
Other types of non-primary sound recording
B-sides are different from unreleased material, outtakes and demos.
"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.
"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 known to have recorded large amounts of demos.
Occasionally, 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.
A "double A-side" is a single which has two featured songs. This practice was introduced by The Beatles in 1965 for their single "Day Tripper" which appeared on the same single with "We Can Work It Out," as the band and their label, Parlophone Records, found both songs to be equally marketable, and decided not to relegate one to B-side status. Following "We Can Work It Out" b/w "Day Tripper," the Beatles released a number of other double A-sided singles, namely "Yellow Submarine" b/w "Eleanor Rigby", "Strawberry Fields Forever" b/w "Penny Lane", and "Come Together" b/w "Something."
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 of one another. In fact, "Hound Dog" was the B-side of the single as originally released.
Queen released We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions as a double A-side in 1977 in the US (not in the UK) and then Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race in 1978. Their earlier double A-side, Killer Queen/Flick Of The Wrist, in 1974, saw Flick Of The Wrist fail to chart despite Killer Queen reaching #2 on the UK charts.
Occasionally double-A-sided singles are released with each side targeting a different market. During the late 1970s, for example, 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, including "Two Doors Down"/"It's All Wrong but It's All Right" and "Baby I'm Burning"/"I Really Got the Feeling".
Many artists continue to release double A-side singles outside of the US where it is seen as more popular.
Double B-Sides are released to give further value for money in the hope of enticing a record buyer. On vinyl, a double A-Side single has one song on either side of the record, while Double B-Sides contain two songs on the same side (on the B-Side - altogether giving 3 songs). When such singles were introduced in the 1970s, the popular term for them was "maxi single", though this term is now used more ambiguously for a variety of formats. These would not quite qualify as EP singles - as that is generally 4 songs on a single. The term is also sometimes used in a self-denigrating fashion for a release with no A-side at all, suggesting neither side is of high quality.
Paul McCartney's 1980 single "Coming Up" had a studio version of the song on the A-Side, while the B-Side contained two songs, a live version of "Coming Up" and a studio instrumental called "Lunchbox/Odd Sox." Ironically, in the United States, radio programmers made the live version of "Coming Up" the hit, although the other B-Side song, "Lunchbox/Odd Sox," was all but ignored.
"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).
The 1988 single "Stutter Rap (No Sleep 'Til Bedtime)" by parody band Morris Minor and the Majors featured a song on the B-side entitled "Another Boring 'B'-side". The lyric describes how the band is in the studio simply to record three minutes of music to fill the B-side with as little effort as possible and then get back home.
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). The lead singer complained how their iPod was not working and naming the bands 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."
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".
Chris Hill's 1976 hit Bionic Santa contained a B side entitled "Ride on". It contains heavy breathing noises to background music. The intimation is that we are listening to a man having sex. Then at the end of the record the music fades and the man's voice says "That's the last time I ride this bike up that hill".
The term "b/w", an abbreviation of "backed with", is often used to refer to the B-side of a record. The term "c/w", for "combined with" or "coupled with", is used similarly.
- MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties – ISBN 1-84413-828-3
- "A History of the 45rpm record" Martland, Peter. EMI: The First 100 Years – ISBN 0-7134-6207-8
- ↑ MacDonald, p. 296
- ↑ "The Straight Dope: In the record business, what do "b/w" and "c/w" mean?". http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1352/in-the-record-business-what-do-b-w-and-c-w-mean. Retrieved 2009-01-12.