Pop Obscurities : B-Sides

If you ask me, the b-side has become somewhat of a lost art in modern music, and that’s a shame. Of course, as the market for tangible forms of music becomes more obscure, the sale of singles and their accompanying b-sides proves to be fodder for only the most devote music enthusiasts. I would argue, however, that anyone who fails to at least make themselves aware of these songs would really be cheating themselves. Aside from the fact that there is an abundant amount of remarkable songs to find in this category, there’s also somewhat of an indefinable satisfaction that comes from investigating this material. There’s a certain allure and romanticism surrounding the songs in a band’s catalogue that haven’t been talked or written about; songs that most fans of a band may not even be aware of.

It would be easy enough to continuously discuss the appeal of b-sides, but why not let the music speak for itself? It would also be nearly impossible (not to mention pretentious) to call my following choices a “top five list” of b-sides as this implies that they are the best in the category. Well… they probably aren’t. But, they are certainly fascinating pieces of music in this uncharted terrain. So, perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a list of my top picks, but I would go so far as to say that they are the songs that immediately occur to me as the most obvious in the criteria.

  1. Someone
    Red Hot Chili Peppers
    B-side of The Zephyr SongI suppose I understand why this song wasn’t released on the By The Wayalbum in 2002. They probably considered that the song wasn’t saying anything substantially different from the other songs on the record, and I would agree. It wouldn’t really work in the context of that record. However, on its own, it may be one of my favorites from the band. It may not be the most complex song in the Chili Peppers cannon, but I think that may be part of its appeal. The sonic and lyrical simplicity, fantastic melody, and the Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals from John Frusciante combine to create a mesmerizing piece that stands perfectly well on its own. If you happen to be a fan of the Chili Peppers when they venture into more subdued and mellow sounds, give this track a listen.
  2. Jack the Ripper
    Morrissey
    B-side of Certain People I KnowFans of Morrissey will probably not be very surprised to see this song on such a list as it has become one of Mozza’s more familiar b-sides and has been released on various live albums and compilations over the years. What I find to be the most fascinating aspect of this particular song is the way that each theme is a direct juxtaposition of the other. Since the title tells us who the song is about straight away, the music takes a grim tone from the start. Appropriately, the instrumentation and vocals expound on this mood through out the verses with lines like “Oh, you look so tired” “I know a place where no one is likely to pass”. It’s hard not to imagine the dark alleyways in which the story in the song is set. What is interesting and the most effective is how these bleak passages are coupled with the following chorus which is unmistakably… um… romantic. “Crash into my arms, I want you” Morrissey sings over the lush guitars “You don’t agree, but you don’t refuse. I know you”.
    Morrissey has frequently talked about his interest in crime in both his songs and in interviews. As he says in “Sister, I’m A Poet”: “I love the romance of crime” and in “Jack the Ripper”, he illustrates this concept beautifully. And morbidly. I’m sure he would take that as a compliment.
  3. On The Wagon
    Green Day
    B-Side of Longview, also found on the Shenanigans compilation albumGreen Day is undoubtedly a very polarizing sort of band; but whether you love them or hate them, it must be said that they have certainly made a huge impact on pop music today. However, when one considers the type of music that the band has become known for over the years, no one would immediately expect them to have written anything that comes close to resembling a …um… country song.
    No, your eyes don’t deceive you; there is such a song in existence. Of course, when I say “country”, I’m referring to a modified version of country music. That is to say that the song does still immediately sound like Green Day; but it’s perhaps a facet to the band that most people wouldn’t normally expect to hear.
    If you happen to be someone who isn’t typically very impressed with Green Day’s more abrasive material, you might be pleasantly surprised by this rarity.
  4. Always
    Weezer
    B-Side of Island in the SunIf you identify yourself as being part of Weezer’s fanatic cult following (I’m a card-carrying member myself), you might be surprised to see that I chose a song that did not come from the Blue Album or Pinkerton eras, but rather, a song that came from the time of the Green Album’s reign. To be fair, the earlier b-sides like Jamie, Suzanne, Devotion, Waiting on You, etc. all deserve to be on this list as well. But on the other hand, all of those songs (great though they are) have all been talked about to death. I don’t say this as a bad thing, especially since I share in the opinion that they are distinctly fascinating pieces of music, but there are songs that came in the following years that; arguably, do not receive the recognition they deserve.
    I, for one, have always had a certain fondness for the b-sides that came from the Green Album singles. In particular, the song “Always” has stayed with me as one of Weezer’s most effective and surprisingly stripped-down selections from this period of time. A common complaint among the band’s following when it comes to their second self-titled album is that the songs are seemingly less-potent because of certain detachment in their delivery. While I don’t think I wholly agree with this stance, I can see why many people would hold to that opinion. Especially when one considers that the Green Album followed in the footsteps of the cathartic release of Pinkerton, it’s not hard to see why the newer songs would be seen as a little tame in comparison. Regardless, if I were to present a song that defies any of the misgivings some may have from this era; it would be “Always”.
    It occurs to me that the crux of the song deals with fate and destiny. But, what is interesting is that within the scope of the song, the narrator is merely speculating about such a thing. He knows that there’s something waiting for him somewhere; he just doesn’t know what or where it may be. The tone of hopeful confusion is entirely compelling and it makes this selection one of Mr. Cuomo’s most romantic sentiments put into song.
    I’m sure that a good number of Weezer fans will not necessarily agree with me here. I’m sure they might point out that the earlier b-sides still kick this one’s proverbial ass and that somehow the song’s worth is diminished because the opening riff sounds too much like the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”; and if some hold to those opinions, that’s fine by me. But if you happen to be looking for an unsung gem in the band’s catalogue, maybe you’ll like this song too.
  5. Conversation Piece
    David Bowie
    B-Side of The Prettiest Star, also found on a number of reissues of the Space OddityalbumIt would be a bit of a stretch to call David Bowie an “underrated” artist since many of his albums and singles have garnered fairly prestigious status in shared conscious of popular music. However, I would go so far as to say that there still are periods within Mr. Bowie’s career that are often overlooked. If you were to ask me, one such era lies in the late 60s and very early 70s when Bowie ventured into realm of folk music. “Conversation Piece” comes from the end of this period.
    Undoubtedly one of the most morose songs in the singer’s catalogue, “Conversation Piece” follows the story of a character that has focused his efforts towards bettering himself as a scholar, only to find himself alone and hopelessly at-odds with the world around him. The beauty in this piece resides in how the simplicity in the message and instrumentation still manages to portray an endlessly tragic story of the subject’s inability to find his place in his surroundings. This is marvelously illustrated in the passage about the man’s Austrian next-door neighbor who attempts to befriend him. “He jokes about his broken English, tries to be a friend to me” Bowie sings “But for all my years of reading conversation, I stand without a word to say”.
    Admittedly, this song’s tone couldn’t well be described as anything but bleak, but I would say that this is how the song (ironically) finds its vitality. While it would be fairly simple to compose a song that is simply depressing, it’s an entirely different matter to find a song that conveys such a sad tale and yet is so engaging, charming, and beautiful.
    As with the rest of my choices, it’s difficult to say why these songs have not won a larger audience, but it may be better that they haven’t. Perhaps these sorts of songs work best on the fringes of popularity. But for anyone who is looking for a new perspective on their favorite band’s material, turn the singles over once in a while. You may be surprised with what you find.

    ~Stephen

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