Monday, 10 March 2014

Top Ten AAA Singles ('A' and 'B' Sides) (News, Views and Music 236)

We've rather lost sight of things in the past twenty years, now that we appendage them to the back of obscure album re-issues without a glance, but once upon a time the single was king. Two whole blasts of three-minute pop we knew wouldn't be popping up on an album any time soon and so much cheaper to buy you had half a chance of purchasing them with your pocket money or wage packets back in the days when albums were things you got as presents for Christmas (if you were lucky). We've talked a lot on this site about 'B' sides and my belief that it's on flipsides that you can hear the 'real' artist at work - especially in the 1960s when the single was at its peak - without the pressure of scoring a hit 'A' side or the slog of recording 12 album tracks in a day. What we've done this week, though, is study the 'A' and 'B' sides together, to see which singles were positively crackling with everything that was good and great about a band and a point in time and which singles in effect represent the best 'values for money'. Some 'A' sides have been given short shrift because the flipsides weren't much cop. Some of our 'B' sides are missing too because they were put out on the back of singles that for whatever reason weren't quite first rate. But here, limited to one representative per release, are what we consider ten releases of pure gold, listed in chronological order.

1) The Beach Boys: 'I Get Around' b/w 'Don't Worry Baby' 11/5/1964

So many people know 'Don't Worry Baby', that sweet Beach Boys song of worry and regret, that they assume it must have been a hit in its own right, especially given the ridiculous six-singles-a-year contract Capitol had given the band across the 1960s. It wasn't: amazingly this song was beaten to the 'A' side by one of the very few Beach Boys tracks that are even better known, 'I Get Around'. With a fast-paced 'A' side full of guts and confidence and a few references to surfing plus a 'B' side ballad worrying about letting other people down with a few references to cars, the Beach Boys really do show off all the sides of their 1964 arsenal on this track.

2) The Searchers: 'Goodbye, My Love' b/w 'Til' I Met You' ?/3/1965

The 'A' side is one last gasp masterpiece of crafted pop so un-missably good that even the dying trend of Merseybeat in 1965 got reversed by this magical song. 'Goodbye My Love' should have launched a whole new career for The Searchers as a 'thinking' band, with real gutsy emotion, a production to die for and harmonies that dazzle even by the band's high standards. Couple that with one of the band's greatest original compositions, though - a classy ballad that's warm and romantic with a hook to die for - and you have even more value for money. The fact that the 'A' side is a 'goobye' song and the 'B' side a 'hello' song only helps with the symmetry.

3) The Beatles: 'Ticket To Ride' b/w 'Yes It Is' 9/4/1965

There are many great Beatles pairings out there and most fans would probably plump for either 'Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out' or 'Hey Jude/Revolution', two releases often held up as being everything a single should be. For my money, though, this earlier one from 1965 is even better. Both songs have a mournful, claustrophobic, 'heavy' sound that's unique for the times but both achieve it in very different ways. 'Ticket To Ride' might be the most musically gifted song about being dumped ever, turning misery into an I'll-show-them powerhouse of pop perfection, full of hooks you can sing along to and enough something 'else' to make it interesting. The 'B' side is just as sad and just as revolutionary but in a quieter, reflective way. Only George's pedal steel gets in the way of hearing those Beatles harmonies in full flight on a song that manages to address the sadness that's in a good half of the Beatles' earlier catalogue but in darker, more adult tones. In turns denying and then wallowing in sadness, these two songs sound like they were made for each other.

4) The Hollies 'Look Through Any Window' b/w 'So Lonely' 27/8/1965

Even The Beatles were second to The Hollies in crafting a pop song into a production showcase and energising it into something exciting and vibrant. The Hollies do this lots of times during their career but their material is particularly strong on this single. 'Window' is a Graham Gouldmann song that sounds like it was born for the band: from the opening guitar lick to the last magical swirl of harmonies, this reflection on how other people live never lets up for a minute. The original 'B' side should have been an 'A' side too and is a real lost gem of the 1960s, filled with a real sadness and self-indulgent wail over a boy-girl split that's so intense it's almost painful to hear. The 'flipside' to 'Window' in more ways than one, together this is a glorious single made up of opposite subjects that are both subjected to the same shining sheen of guitars, harmonies and drums. Hollies fans might also want to check out the 1970 single 'Gasoline Alley Bred' b/w 'Mad Professor Blyth', which would have made this list too hads we not restricted it to one entry per band.

5) The Who: 'Substitute' b/w 'Circles' 4/3/1966

By the standards of their peers, The Who never cared much for 'B' sides: these tended to be either album tracks, cover versions or - on one memorable occasion - an instrumental named 'Waltz For A Pig' when copyright problems means the band weren't able to release one of their own songs. The band's fourth 45rpm release, though, is essential on both sides. 'Substitute' is the follow-up to 'My Generation' and just as groundbreaking in its own way. The band might have written it as a spoof after being fed up of newspaper reports calling them a 'substitute Rolling Stones' but the song cleverly straddles the line between earnestness and being mocking. Few songs are funnier, actually, with the narrator wishing he could substitute his new girlfriend for being back home with his mum ('at least I'll get my washing done!') and - in a line censored at the time - finding himself of mixed race even though his parents are both the same colour. No wonder this kid is mixed up. One possible reason for it is the character on the glorious 'B' side though with 'Circles' our candidate for the 'second ever psychedelic song ever written' during an earlier top ten (in as much as you can ever define a word like 'psychedelic'). This narrator is confused, a recent heartbreak leaving him so emotionally wrought he can't work out which way is up anymore. So there we have it - a clever twist on the 'sound' The Who are already becoming established for and a hint at what's to come the following year, but both - like quite a high percentage of Pete Townshend songs when you study them - are songs about being lost and hopelessly out of your depth, but being too afraid to let anyone find that fact out.

6) The Kinks: 'Dead End Street' b/w 'Big Black Smoke' 18/11/1966

These two songs are so similar they sounded like they belonged together even when spread 20 tracks apart across some Kinks Kompilation. 'Dead End Street' is my candidate for the single greatest Kinks single anyway (along with 'See My Friends' perhaps), a gloriously dark singalong about what it means to live on the poverty-line with no hope of escape that tells it exactly how it is. Had this been a film (it was in fact an early music video that few people saw because its 'carry on with coffins' humour was a bit risque for the age) it would have been a bleak noir classic. The 'B' side 'Big Black Smoke' is a song about a parent's fears for her child as she gets sucked up into the London underworld, a gloriously dark singalong about what it means to live on the poverty-line with no hope of escape. Both songs seem to be inspired by Ray Davies actually moving out of his home-area of Muswell Hill for the first time and acknowledging the influence on his writing of the 'ordinary' people who walked past his window there. Two songs very much coming from the same place and with the same hallmark of quality.

7) The Rolling Stones: 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' b/w 'Child Of The Moon' 24/5/1968

The Rolling Stones had been losing headway somewhat in 1967, with drug busts, commercial flop singles (although I still consider the band's releases of the year to be amongst their greatest ever work) and Brian Jones' decline rather getting in their way. 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' was very much intended as a 'comeback' single and boy did it deliver: it singlehandedly sounded straight and focussed and returned the band to the slightly subversive sound they'd made their own. The flip side, though, proved that they were just reaching their peak as a psychedelic unit too with a song as beautiful and other-worldly as any in their canon. As good a 'hello' and 'goodbye' as any in music, this single had everything.

8) Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Ohio" b/w "Find The Cost Of Freedom" ?/6/1970

We keep mentioning this classic single, but then we need to: the fight against 'Nixon and Tin Soldiers' might have changed over the years but fight it we still do. Can there ever have been a single more moving than this one, inspired by the Nixon-sanctioned shooting of a group of anti-Vietnam protestors at Ohio University? Written the day of the shootings, recorded the day after and in the shops just outside a fortnight, 'Ohio' wasn't just a single but a battle cry, almost as immediate as a newspaper but a hundred times as influential. Needing an appropriate B-side at short notice, Stephen Stills offered up an unfinished song that started with a ghostly acoustic intro, went into a single prophetic verse and ended in a golden climax of harmonic unison (the song was 'finished' as the title track of CSN's 1982 LP 'Daylight Again'). The two go together as if they were always meant that way, one a battle cry and one a requiem for those fallen, the 'A' side tied to a specific moment in time and a 'B' side that shows how timeless the fight is (Stills wrote it about the American Civil War). It was CSNY's peak moment - they even killed off sales for 'Teach Your Children' which would almost certainly have got to #1 - and shows how moving, courageous and intelligent music can be at its best.

9) Lindisfarne: 'Lady Eleanor' b/w 'Nothing But The Marvellous Is Beautiful' ?/1/1971

Most fans, if they bought 'Lady Eleanor' at all, bought it as a double 'A' side with 'Meet Me On The Corner' on the back of it (it was this 1971 re-issue, closely on the heels of 'Fog On The Tyne', that became a runaway hit). But this original release - Lindisfarne's debut in fact - is even better. The 'A' side is a flowing Elizabethan ballad that hypnotises and entrances almost as much as the mysterious lady at its core and is clearly about the heart ruling the head, for all the narrator's attempts to stop himself falling in love. The 'B' side is a stop-start prog rock epic before the genre properly existed, musing on how to make the most out of life (the answer 'if you shut your eyes you'll know without even knowing'). The 'head' to the 'A' song's heart it's another classic Alan Hull song and while clearly not as magical or unforgettable as the 'A' side makes for a fitting companion, figuring that regardless of outward consequences our hearts will always tell us what's 'beautiful' and tell us we're on the right path.

10) Oasis: 'Some Might Say' backed with 'Acquiesce' 'Headshrinker' and 'Talk Tonight' 24/4/1995

The single took a bit of a hit in the 1970s when album sales began to grow and singles tended to feature what songs were on a forthcoming album anyway. Gloriously bucking the trends and turning the clock back 30 years in so many ways were Oasis, whose love of a good 'B' side (releasing at least two, usually three, with every single across their career) has often been remarked on by this site. Had we stuck with simply the 'A' side and the 'lead' 'B' side then clearly 'Wonderwall' b/w 'Masterplan' (most fans' choice as their greatest flipside) deserves a mention. However just look at the sheer eclecticism and sizzling songs on this single: 'Acquiesce' is a concert favourite, a stunning song that features the Gallagher's contrasting 'voices' at their best on a song about 'brotherly love' that might apply to them or humans everywhere. 'Headshrinker' is the loudest, rawest, most raucous recording Oasis ever made and the song I always play people who moan to me that Oasis couldn't really play. 'Talk Tonight' is another of my all-time Oasis favourites, a reflective acoustic ballad sung by Noel written when oasis seemed to have broken up, about a fan who calmed him down and encouraged him all the pain and worrying were worth it (she's right, given exquisite songs like this one). And I haven't even mentioned the 'A' side yet, 'Some Might Say', a song that isn't the most obvious Oasis single then or now but was crucial in persuading the public that Oasis could 'do' complex and 'structured' as well as play across a wall of noise. Like many of the band's 1990 releases, it's infectiously enthusiastic and hopeful but brave enough to still paint life the way it really is. All in all not bad for a £1.99 single.

And that's that. Join us for a discussion of more album tracks and - ooh - all sorts of other good stuff same time, same place, next week!

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