Thursday, March 22, 2012


For some reason, as long as I have owned music, I've fetishized the rare. Here, "rare"is a relative term, for the quality of being "rare" (let's call it "rarity") is a slippery term, often carefully constructed by corporations and faceless musical conglomerates. But conceding that the whole edifice of the music industry is built around interventions designed to create consumer demand for useless things, I'll argue that there was something oddly attractive about rare musical artifacts: b-sides, alternate versions released specially for the Belgian market, extra tracks on Japanese releases, EPs that had been deleted and never included on a proper album, singles released on 45s that never made it onto CDs, etc.

In the late 1980s, as I grew to be a collector (or maybe a Collector), these sorts of stray songs, the ones left behind, assumed a sort of mystical quality in my imagination. I had to track them all down, even if I had to make friends in Belgium. I'm thinking of bands like the Smiths who not only released albums but also numerous singles which had songs that were never included (at least originally) on the proper albums. How did bands make these choices, what to keep on the album and what to leave off? I was recently listening to one of my favorite Smiths songs "William, It Was Really Nothing" which was originally released as a single in August 1984. The song was not originally featured on any album, i.e., the only way to get it and listen to it was to buy the 45 rpm single. And if you bought the 12" version of the single, you got a special treat, two songs on the b-side: "How Soon Is Now?" and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." What kind of a band would relegate such fantastic songs as forgotten b-sides?

Soon enough, of course, all three of these songs appeared on various Smiths compilations (and believe me, there are far too many to recount), but every band, however famous, always had a few tracks, lost to the world, lost to the general public. You had to be a bit industrious to track these songs down. If you lived in Texas, you might go to Sound Exchange or that big store in Austin. Because these "rare" purchases were rather expensive, you felt that you had to invest some time and attention to the songs you bought, even if they were mediocre (which they were, half the time). I remember buying Love and Rockets' "So Alive" as a 45 in 1989, and listening excitedly to the b-side, "Dreamtime" an absurdly bizarre (and let's face it, bad song). If you paid a lot of money for it, you forced yourself to appreciate the b-side.

But some bands in the 1980s took a lot of care and effort into these stray tracks. The Smiths of course, whose "Jeane" (the b-side of "This Charming Man") has been lost forever but was undoubtedly one of the best songs they ever recorded. And there was a certain kind of fetishistic joy I got simply from listening to these experiments in sound from bands like the Smiths, U2, the Cure, Flaming Lips, My Bloody Valentine, and so on.

Today I present five randomly chosen b-sides from the 1980s. The first is from a classic middlebrow easy listening band (and now firmly in the playing-in-the-doctors-office-waiting-room category), Tears for Fears. In March 1985, the band released "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (which I still love); but if you bought the 45 and flipped it over and played the b-side, what you got was a strange sound collage called "Pharoahs," a truly mesmerizing piece of 1980s-period experimental pop. If you listen to it carefully (at about 2:20), the band plays the exact guitar solo (one of my all time favorite guitar solos, actually) that is featured on the a-side. Play it. You'll recognize it. Simply fantastic:

The next one is from U2's single "When Love Comes to Town" (a frankly terrible song) released in April 1989. The b-side, however, is a song called "Dancing Barefoot," originally written and performed by Patti Smith on her album Wave from 1979. I had never heard the Patti Smith version when I heard U2 do it, and it's an understatement to say that it blew my mind. It's rare that U2 performs as a rock band--they're usually so overproduced (which I think, is the point of latter day U2)--but here they sound raw and just a band jamming, trying to find new spaces out of old chords.

The third one is a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees, originally released on the b-side of the 12" of "This Wheel's On Fire" in January 1987. The a-side was a (Bob Dylan) cover but the b-side had two originals, both of which were stellar. Here is "Sleepwalking (On The High Wire)," a strangely evocative song about God knows what. The production is dated, of course, but the mood is still powerful, emotionally taut.

The fourth one is "Erotic City," the b-side to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" from July 1984. I couldn't find the 7" version on youtube so here is the extended version in all its seven-and-a-half minute glory. This may be the best dance song Prince ever released; it's certainly in my list of the top 10 best dance songs of all time. Unbelievable genius.

Finally, we have, as (implicitly) promised, "Jeane."

We tried and we failed
We tried and we failed
We tried and we failed

Originally released in October 1983, somehow the song got lost in the shuffle, missing a spot on various compilations. The song is ostensibly a subtle but powerful comment on Thatcherite England and the ways in which money (or lack of money) can tear even the best relationships apart. But you know, even if you know nothing about Thatcher or early 1980s England, it doesn't matter. The song just summarizes a lost cause relationship with economic precision. Here is the original version:

Here is a cover by Sandie Shaw (from April 1984) backed by Morrissey and Marr, who were big fans of Shaw and who invited her to do a cover.

1 comment:

Patrick McCray said...

I can recall many many afternoons spent at Jim's Records in Bloomfield, scoping out all the rarities and B-sides. It's a wonder I managed to graduate.