Friday, January 30, 2009

Time to Play B-Sides

Speaking of cowbell...

Blue Öyster Cult has a lot to answer for (starting with that damn umlaut above the "O" and including enough heavy-metal black-magic imagery to embarrass even Spinal Tap). Still, it's hard to argue with an understated ode to doom and death that's as catchy as "Don't Fear the Reaper." It was impossible to escape this song in the 1970s (when every third FM DJ -- and every single overnight DJ) played it half to death (another 40,000 plays every day). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

But try to find a radio station that played the B-Side of "Don't Fear the Reaper" -- or a casual fan who even knows it was (for the record, it's "Tattoo Vampire").

Five years after not fearing the reaper for the first time, Blue Öyster Cult was back on the radio with "Burning for You," a song so slick and anonymous that it could have come from anyone. Naturally it was a huge hit and poured forth from every AM radio in America like a Vampire (tattooed or not) in search of a pre-dawn snack.

I didn't like the song much, but I loved exactly one of its lines:
Time to play B-Sides

See, I loved B-Sides. They're the vinyl equivalent of opening bands: You're there for something else (which you know you like), so you have zero expectations and anything good that comes out of it is just a lucky bonus.

Save the B-Side, save the world?

Blotto (aka the 34th Most Important Band in the World) clearly knew this. Their great 1981 single "When the Second Feature Starts" had a flip side called "The B-Side," which laments the lack of respect given to B-Sides:
The A side gets the attention
The B side? Barely a mention...

The A side has the hit
The B side ain't got...anything

My friend Eric and I once stood front and center at a Blotto concert yelling out "B-Side" until they relented and sang it. The look of confused irony on Broadway Blotto's face as he sang the chorus (including the line "And you're probably not even listening to this right now") is etched permanently on my brain.

And, of course, Buck Dharma, who wrote and sang "Don't Fear the Reaper" played the heavy-metal guitar solo on Blotto's anthemic "Metal Head." In a just world, Blotto would have been on the radio as much as Blue Öyster Cult.. and years later it would have been Blotto instead of BOC doing a cameo in the movie The Stoned Age.

Still, sometimes the B-Side was so great that it transcended B-Sidedness, like XTC's "Dear God," which started life as a non-album B-Side (on the single "Grass") until radio stations started playing it and Virgin Records made it a proper A-side (and reissued the album Skylarking, adding the song). This proves a lot of things (including that Virgin couldn't pick XTC singles to save its life), especially that it's worth taking the time to play B-Sides (link for Gmail subscribers):

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear God is one of the coolest songs ever. Thank you for giving it the spotlight. XTC rules!