B-sides – lost classics or throwaways?

Happy HawaiiThe single B-side has had a long chequered history. Until the introduction of the long-playing album in 1948, the “single”, whether it be a 10 inch 78 rpm or 7 inch 45 rpm record, was the dominant format for recorded music.

With the introduction of the “hit parade” in the late 1930s (later the top 40), one or both sides could become a “hit single”, with radio airplay, sheet music and record sales charting the most popular songs. Sometimes the B-side would become the radio and sales hit, the A-side ignored. Often the B-side would be an inferior track just to fill the other side of the record.

By the 1970s the single had essentially become a marketing tool for the bigger selling, and more profitable, album. More often than not both sides would be lifted from an album.

ABBA’s history with B-sides is a mixed bag. In the group’s earliest days, as they sought international recognition, B-sides were obviously lesser tracks not to distract from the intended hit – why else would distinctly non-ABBA-sounding tracks such as ‘Rock’n Roll Band’, ‘Watch Out’ and ‘Man In The Middle’ be placed on the B-sides of breakthrough singles ‘Ring Ring’, ‘Waterloo’ and ‘SOS’?

A few B-sides became hits in their own right, with songs as diverse as ‘Hasta Mañana’, ‘Rock Me’, ‘Happy Hawaii’, ‘Thank You For The Music’ and ‘Angeleyes’ appearing on top 40 charts in some countries.

For most of ABBA’s career, B-sides would be tracks from the same album as the A-side. But in a handful of cases, the B-side featured a song that was not on an album. Some of these songs fall into the category of throwaway tracks that don’t fit in with an album’s feel, while others are lost classics, easily of the same quality of the A-sides and album tracks.

The two earliest ABBA singles, ‘People Need Love’ and ‘He Is Your Brother’ (bearing the group name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid), featured tracks that weren’t included on the Ring Ring album that featured the two A-sides, ‘Merry-Go-Round’ and ‘Santa Rosa’. Both songs were in the schlager style that had dominated Benny and Björn’s musical output over the previous few years.

The Swedish version of ‘Ring Ring’ featured another schlager, ‘Åh vilka tider’ on its B-side. This song holds the unique distinction of being the only song in ABBA’s catalogue not recorded in English. The following year, the Swedish version of ‘Waterloo’ featured a Swedish recording of ‘Honey, Honey’ on the flip, while the English version was on the Waterloo album.

ABBA’s next non-album B-side came in 1976, on the flip of ‘Money, Money, Money’. ‘Crazy World’ was a reject from the ABBA album sessions in 1974. A strangely dismal song that if not for this single appearance two years after it was recorded would have remained in the vault.

The following single, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ featured ‘Happy Hawaii’, a song recorded for Arrival, but restyled for the album as ‘Why Did It Have To Be Me’. A press release at the time said that ABBA had decided to release this “working version” to show fans how a song can be given different treatment, and also because many people had been given preview listenings during the Arrival sessions, and wondered what had happened to the song.

ABBA’s non-album single of 1978, ‘Summer Night City’, featured a medley of songs on its B-side that had been recorded for a West German charity album in 1975, and is the only ABBA recording not written by the group. The songs, ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’, ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ and ‘Midnight Special’ were all public domain standards.

The next single, 1979’s ‘Chiquitita’, featured another track that wasn’t up to album standard, ‘Lovelight’. Like some other non-album singles, production values are not quite of the usual ABBA standard, and as Benny has said, “the verse doesn’t really match the chorus”.

‘The Winner Takes It All’ in 1980 was the next single with a non-album B-side, ‘Elaine’. This synth-dominated song points towards ABBA’s future moreso than it’s popular, acoustic A-side and would not have been out of place on that year’s album Super Trouper.

A year later ‘Should I Laugh Or Cry’ appeared on the B-side of ‘One Of Us’ from The Visitors. Though it features a similar arrangement to the songs on that album, somehow its production values seem much lower.

ABBA’s final two singles appeared on the compilation ABBA – The Singles – The First Ten Years, but neither B-side had an album home. The B-side of ‘The Day Before You Came’, ‘Cassandra’, is certainly worthy of inclusion on a studio album, and many feel it could have been a single in its own right.

On the other hand, ‘You Owe Me One’, the B-side of ‘Under Attack’, has the hallmarks of a throwaway track, and if not for the fact that a single B-side was required, it may have ended up unreleased.

Two live concert recordings also made it onto ABBA B-sides: ‘I Wonder (Departure)’, recorded in Sydney, Australia in March 1977 appeared on the flip of ‘The Name Of The Game’ later that year, while ‘Take A Chance On Me’ recorded at Wembley Arena in London in November 1979 appeared on the B-side of ‘I Have A Dream’ a month later.

With the introduction of the CD single in the late 1980s the B-side became a thing of the past. If a single had more than just several mixes of the featured song, it was usually billed as a “non-album bonus track”. And today with digital downloads of single tracks, even that is now gone. Which is a shame, because there was often some great music hidden away on the other side of those million-selling singles.

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