Only 50p, in fact, when I first bought them. ↩︎
We were schoolboys. ↩︎
The B-side of “Clash City Rockers,” of course. ↩︎
B-side of “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” What, you think I’m not going to talk about Clash singles? ↩︎
But how you should give the date for reissues is a whole nother conversation ↩︎
You’ve probably heard a song off an album – you’ve heard the album, maybe a few times, but it’s just kind of washed over you, not really made much of an impression – you hear a song, maybe on the radio, maybe some random or curated playlist, and you go. ‘Wow! What a great song!’ And then you realise it’s from that album, the one that washed over you.
That’s what singles were for. Still are for, since they’re still released, though it’s not quite the same.
I just had that experience with Radiohead. Kid A never made much of an impact on me, but when I turned BBC 6 Music on tonight, a killer track was playing. Steve Lamacq back-announced it. He was playing the whole album, and the track was ‘The National Anthem.’ I knew Kid A had a track of that name, but it had never really got to me. But there, now, tonight, it was just amazing.
A similar, if inverted, effect is when the album is so good that it kind of drowns out a brillant single. I can only think of one example of that at the moment. If you cast your mind back (assuming it goes that far) to when The Jam released ‘The Eton Rifles,’ it was an incredible song.
But Setting Sons is such a good album that I hardly notice ‘The Eton Rifles’ on it.
Anyway. Singles. Yes.
I was thinking about the loss of singles. Not individual tracks released individually: that still happens, of course; perhaps more than ever. But back in the days of actual, physical singles — 45 rpm records, or even CD singles later — you didn’t just get an individual track.
I’m here to celebrate — and maybe mourn the loss of — the B-side.
When you bought a single you usually knew what the main song was going to be, because you had heard it on the radio, or at least read a review. Or you might just know and trust the artist’s work, and believe that the chosen track would be worth your 75p.1
But there was always the promise that there would be something good on the other side, too.
Often, of course, the B-side track was really “B” quality, or lower. It was genuinely just filler. Which was always a shame. I remember flipping Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” to find out what “My Funny Valentine” was like. I hated it, and never listened to it again. Though as (in other versions) it’s something of a jazz classic, it’s possible that I’d like it more now.
The Members’ classic “The Sound of the Suburbs” was backed by something called “Handling the Big Jets,” which always sounded slightly rude to us2 and I think was an instrumental.
Then there were double A-sides, wherein both sides were supposed to be worthy of being playlisted. They always felt like slightly better value for your hard-earned pocket money.
And when CD singles came along they usually had three tracks, raising them arguably into the EP category.
But now, tracks are realised for streaming or download, completely on their own. It’s very sad, and I’m sure they must feel lonely. Plus if you’re buying the download and you want what would have been the B-side, you have to pay for each individual track.
I was going to say, as well, that if you search for single on your streaming service of choice, you only get one track. But I found out the other day that’s not quite true. I wanted to listen to “Elephant Stone,” by the Stone Roses; and in fact the B-side, “The Hardest Thing In the World” was listed too. Its “Album” tag was given as “Elephant Stone — Single (2009)”.
Which apart from the wrong date (and ok, it could’ve been a reissue 5) is not a bad example of misused metadata. Or maybe just misnamed: not every gathering or carrier of a group of songs or musical pieces is an “album”.
Or maybe that’s just a change of meaning: what we used to call a single or an EP is now just a very short album.