Everything you could ever want to know about the B-Sides compilation album

Peter Buck’s brief liner notes to REM’s album Dead Letter Office are better anything else you could find in decades of mainstream rock journalism.  The scale of Buck’s record collection is famous and he is a well-known supporter of independent shops.  I couldn’t get a good shot of the liner notes so I have added the test here:

I’ve always liked singles much more than albums.  A single has to be short, concise and catchy, all values that seem to go out the window as far as albums are concerned.  But the thing that I like best about singles is their ultimate shoddiness.  No matter how lavish that packaging, no matter what attention to detail, a ’45 is still essentially a piece of crap usually purchased by teenagers.  This is why musicians feel free to put just about anything on the b-side; nobody will listen to it anyway, so why not have some fun.  You can clear the closed of failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes, and occasionally, a worthwhile song that doesn’t fit the feel of an album.

In spite of Buck’s self-depreciation and the reasonable assumption that it was released for reasons related to the group’s transition from IRS records to Warner Brothers, Dead Letter Office has achieved a lofty status.  REM fans love it for the very reasons described in Buck’s liner notes – Here is a variety of “failed songs” and “worthwhile songs” that offer a unique perspective of the group. The first track below is “Ages of You” from Dead Letter Office. The second is “Bandwagon”.

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A lot of records are nothing more than a clumsy, poorly sequenced selection of singles, as Beatles fans know.  The compilation of B-Sides is unique in that it contains previously released material.  This warning is prominent on one of the earliest such records – Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties.

Like Dead Letter Office, the Elvis Costello collection covers a short period and includes a handful of new tracks not issued on singles at all.  Each is essential to fans but probably only vaguely interesting to the casual listener. Here are a couple favorites from Taking Liberties – Costello’s earliest country music effort, “Radio Sweetheart” and an alternate version of “Black and White World” from the Get Happy!!! album:

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Taking Liberties may be the earliest such album, but I can’t say for sure (Hymie’s regulars: Surly one of you knows who made the first collection of B-Sides – Let us know).  The Clash put out Black Market Clash the same year (It was a 9 track, 10″ album as opposed to Costello’s 20 track epic).  The Clash record is possibly the earliest recording to set a certain standard for B-Side compilations which stood for decades.  Look at the tracklisting:  It contains all the essential types of B-Sides.  There’s the under-appreciated track that never fit on an LP (“City of the Dead”), the cover songs (“Pressure Drop” and “Time is Tight”) and the band-jammin’ instrumental (Again, “Time is Tight”).  Black Market Clash also has a couple of good extended mixes of album tracks. Included here is “Justice Tonight / Kick it Out” and “Time is Tight”:

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We sure have listened to a lot of records by the Clash here together – But gosh, they’re all so good!

The formula becomes pretty well established, although other groups do some aspects of it better.  REM’s Dead Letter Office contains six covers, including three Velvet Underground songs and a rockin’ “Toys in the Attic”.  Taking Liberties also includes several covers but from more varied sources (the best being Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded”).  The best singles collection of the 90s – J Church’s Camels, Spilled Corona and the Sound of Mariachi Bands, has a great cover of REM’s “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” which suggests a certain sort of continuity to it all.

Camels, Spilled Corona and the Sound of Mariachi Bands is actually a singles collection which compiles both A- and B-Sides.  Unlike nearly every other collection of singles, B-Sides, EPs or compilation tracks, the tracks are well sequenced so as to feel like an album.  Its such a great album I have been forced into an exemption from my personal ban on picture discs (Making this the only one in my collection).  J Church was notorious for frequently releasing singles and EPs that quickly disappeared, making their second singles collection, Nostalgic for Nothing, also a keeper.

“Bomb/Sacrifice”, heard below, was the first side of the first J Church single, and probably a lot less crazy in the pre-9/11 era. I used to love these songs and I never really thought about the lyrics, let alone the extent to which Lance Hahn is out of key.

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A lot of mid-90s independent groups put together great collections like this.  Superchunk’s first release on their own Merge Records was a singles collection called Tossing Seeds, but it was their second singles collection, Incidental Music, that really rocked.  It has all the essential features of a B-Sides compilation: Cover songs (“I’ll be your Sister” by Motorhead!), alternate versions (An acoustic “Throwing Things”, heard below) and totally underrated gems that deserved wider release (“Home at Dawn” which originally came out on a flexi-disc. A flexi-disc!).

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Morphine’s B-Sides and Otherwise is actually some of their best stuff, but doesn’t include a cover song.  What kind of B-Sides compilation doesn’t have a cover song by your favorite band’s favorite band?  Lambchop’s Tools in the Dryer has a great cover of “Love TKO” and some bizarre remixes.  Tools in the Dryer also gives us a couple tracks from their early demo tapes as the Poster Children – What a deal!

One more artist deserves mention, and then I think we’ve looked at B-Side compilations for far, far too long, and that’s Bruce Springsteen.  His 1998 collection Tracks compiles four discs of studio outtakes and demos – Including the albums worth of good material the Boss has dropped on the backside going back as far as “Hungry Heart” (Which carried the rapid-fire “Held Up Without a Gun” as its flip).

Born in the USA alone produced nearly an album worth of great B-Sides, including the classic “Pink Cadillac”, the long-shelved River outtake “Roulette” and this track originally written for Nebraska. Here’s Springsteen singing “Shut Out the Light”.

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Coming next week: A few B-Sides that never made it onto LP.

1 comment

  1. Steve’s avatar

    A good article. I like how you work in the multimedia (music and photographs); that takes some time. To suggest another, similar, topic sometime: what about releasing demo recordings? I imagine that some of the earliest examples are labels trying to squeeze another record out of either a deceased artist or one who has moved to another label. Townshend’s “Scoop” is the earliest I know of on which an artist wanted to release his own demos; but I’m not an expert.

    Just a thought.

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