Sunday, May 31, 2009

Whither the B-side compilation?

I threw on Dead Letter Office on the iPod today. Wow, that one still holds up well (and is only EIGHT dollars on Amazon.) When I first bought it (back in 87 or so) I thought it was a new album, but no, it was a B-side compilation, the first I ever bought. Collecting true B-sides (the song that got tacked onto a single, back when there were singles), alternate takes, live tracks, international releases, and studio throwaways, the B-side compilation brings all sorts of musical goodies together in one place. Dead Letter Office is one of the best ever made, or I suppose, compiled.

I don't know if it was the fact that it covers REM's incredibly fertile early period, but the quality on this one is high. The covers are great, exceeding both Aerosmith and Velvet Underground (not the biggest challenge...) but also serving up Crazy, a classic by the still little known Pylon. Then there is the amazing Voice of Harold, where Stipe reads the text from the back of a gospel album over the musical track of Seven Chinese Brothers. Then there is the loopy Bandwagon, at times my favorite REM song. I always like it when the southern accent creeps into his vocals as it does here. Who can forget Walter's BBQ, a little ditty written for GA BBQ joint.

This one is so good that it is worth more than many a REM studio album. Why don't we see more of these sorts of things? The Killers put one out a few years back. Pearl Jam has Lost Dogs, which suffers from the Sandinista! and Use Your Illusions problem of insufficient editing. Too long to recommend unreservedly, it does have No Lip, a rocker only surpassed by Courdoroy. It also has the oddly creepy Strangest Tribe, which is well worth a listen. Does Louder than Bombs count?

So that is some, but where the hell are the rest? Yes, I am aware that there are no more actual B-sides as there are no more 45 singles, but there are plenty of soundtrack cuts, one-offs, piss-takes, Japan-only tracks, Peel Sessions, ITunes exclusives, and Australian tour EPs out there for bands to fill up a nice compilation. Sure, we can probably dig these things up ourselves, but more likely than not, you won't find them on your own.

I suspect Pavement could have put out a humdinger of a compilation, but they took an alternate route. They are re-releasing each of their albums with another disc containing B-sides, concerts, radio shows and EPs. Of course, now the fan has to get all of them. Clever! One odd note on that. The version of Painted Soliders on one of the re-releases sounds a bit different than the one in this classic video.

Could it be that bands are not keeping the music? Or is the strategy to hold on for a post-breakup release?


Curtis said...

Oasis - Masterplan. The band fought its release and then once their fans embraced it, began playing cuts from it in concert. Possibly a better collection of songs than any of their albums.

Tripp said...

Thanks Curtis, I will check it out. I generally don't listen to them deeply, so this might be a revelation.

HLK said...

No more vinyl, no more b-sides.

And recall the horrifying "Cassette Singles"? WHY?

Seriously, I suspect most brand-new bands need not trouble themselves with such things, since they just upload everything to Facebook/MySpace/ITunes. The magic of finding the obscure b-side has all but disappeared in an era where every last bit of information about everyone and everything is immediately available at your fingertips.

This, however, doesn't explain the dearth of material from established bands. I seem to recall hearing that a B-Side compilation was a great way for a band to satisfy, in order to more hastily exit, an oppressive record contract. perhaps the studios are now building in a "no b-side" rule?

Also, I wonder whether the ease of storing material has had a negative effect. Imagine the difference in excitement between "the lost negatives of a forgotten photograph sessions of Marilyn Monroe" showing up, versus now when everything can be stored on a card. My guess is no recording studios are preserving archives of the stuff like they do on tape. Bandmates probably just download stuff to their ipods to listen to at home as they work on the album, and the stuff is backed up on some gigantic hard drive somewhere. Not the same as discovering a dusty canister of the forgotten "Let it Be" sessions, and/or having a single location for all b-side/outtake/etc material.

Tripp said...

Your point is taken HLK, although if the last bit is true, might we expect to see some of those massive archival releases that we now see from Dylan, the Dead and Neil Young? You need a whole lot of career for that to make sense of course, but I could see one from the likes of U2 or REM for that matter.

While I do think that bands find ways, such as MySpace in particular, to get things out, I am taking the fan's view. How are we supposed to know about this? I guess we have to become obsessives.

I agree that the magic is gone, but I wish that bands would take Frank Black's approach. He web released an album of B-sides a few years back. Low cost and it got the stuff more visibility.