B-sides: From secret history to selling point

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One of my favourite music writing blogs/Tumblrs/whatever-we’re-calling-these-things-now is “One Week, One Band” (OWOB), which features a single writer covering a particular band over the course of seven days. As you might expect, it can be a bit spotty — better artists and/or writers lead to better features — but there’s something special in its collision between criticism and fandom, and in the depth of its analysis.

Since last Monday, a team of writers has been diving really deep into Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue.

Two parts of that sentence — “last Monday” and “team of writers” — should be hints that this is no ordinary OWOB. Also making it exceptional: aside from a couple opening notes, there’s been no hits discussed, or even notable album tracks. When Dave Bloom opened the series by saying it would cover the “footnotes and apocrypha of the Book of Springsteen,” he wasn’t kidding. Examining songs from Tracks, The Promise and many others that were never properly released, the feature is all about the loose ends (and “Loose Ends”) of the Bruce discography.

Springsteen is an obvious choice for such a treatment: he’s tossed aside more great songs than most artists write in a lifetime. In the film The Promise, a documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt expresses a sort of disbelief at his Boss’ discipline: “Basically, the first good 10 songs you write, you put ‘em out. That’s your record. Well, that process would end, forever, and never came back.” (Fun fact: Little Steven says that The Promise and disc two of Tracks — covering cast-offs from 1979-83 — are his favourite Springsteen albums.)

“Discipline” is probably how Bruce himself would explain away the amount of top-notch material he didn’t use between 1977 and 1984: despite a scattershot approach to recording, he had a razor-sharp vision for what his albums would be and songs that didn’t fit were cut. A closer reading of his behaviour during this era suggests another reason for some of it: an aversion to popular success, dismissing poppier tracks that would have dramatically expanded his audience. And yet, even after acquiescing to his manager/producer’s wishes and including “Hungry Heart” on The River — his first top-10 hit — he continued to write and set aside dozens of incredible songs: “Take ‘em as They Come,” “Roulette,” “Restless Nights,” “Frankie,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Some of these struggled to compete with live renditions, sure, but they’re miraculous compositions nonetheless.

The River, in particular, invites some pretty intense fan revisionism: its sprawling diversity — soda-shop pop and soul-crushing ballads side-by-side — makes it easy to imagine other songs in the place of the 20 that were chosen, and Springsteen himself had a single-record version of the album, The Ties That Bind, all mastered and ready for release but went back to the studio feeling it needed more depth and ended up with a double album. Nearly every Bruce die-hard has an alternate version of The River bouncing through their skull (on their hard drive): some more fun, some more serious, each offering a window into Springsteen’s secret history.

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Do today’s artists have any such secrets to share?

I ask not in the interest of playing into some clichéd, “golden age of rock and roll” mystique bullshit. But one can’t help but feel that the non-album track has gone back to its roots as a commercial accessory, a quick add-on to entice fans to buy more stuff.

Instead of the b-side — a track for die-hards located on the flip side of the single — we now have the iTunes bonus tracks. Nearly every major release now has anywhere from one to five extra songs added at a premium markup as a “deluxe” or “expanded” edition. I do a good amount of my music listening through Rdio now and, there too, you’ll find these “enhanced” albums. Many times, those versions of the records have much greater listenership/purchases than the standard edition, which means many listeners probably don’t even see the extra songs as “bonus”; they’re just part of the experience.

The other major development in deep-cut sharing: non-album tracks as shameless blog bait. With a digital music press constantly looking for traffic (and musicians seeking the same), many artists will release their cast-offs even before the album as a way to keep attention on them leading up to a release (or, in some cases, afterwards).

All of this means that non-album tracks are probably getting out to more people, more quickly, than ever before. But rarely are these songs transcendent, or suggestive of exciting alternate routes for these bands. They feel like what they actually are: musical almost-rans, songs that woudla-coulda-didn’t. And even when they are something a bit more special, the artists often take the first step and give them a prominent release. (Think Sufjan Stevens’ The Avalanche, or Belle and Sebastian’s Push Barman to Open Old Wounds — and yeah, I know these are two super-twee examples, just roll with me here.)

It seems particularly glaring compared to the 1990s which, despite the lack of commercial singles in America, was a pretty incredible era for non-album songs. Steve Hyden suggested this week that a collection of Pearl Jam’s b-sides might rank among the band’s top albums, and he’s not wrong. Over across the pond, bands like Oasis and the Manic Street Preachers released some of their best material as b-sides on their singles.

Then there’s Radiohead, who kept some truly great material off The Bends and OK Computer (collected on the My Iron Lung and Airbag EPs) but since then have become rather underwhelming in the b-sides department. What happened? Well, they decided to release two records from the Kid A sessions, for one, and the scattered b-sides that followed on subsequent records never really matched up to the songs they did include. (And when they were better — like with “The Daily Mail” and “Staircase” from The King of Limbs — they became separate singles, hardly hidden from view.)

And maybe that’s what’s happening here: bands are simply becoming better curators of their own material. Watching The Promise, you realize that post-Born to Run, Springsteen and the E-Street Band seem spoiled by today’s standards: they were able to spend months in a recording studio laying down dozens and dozens of songs, many of which would never amount to anything commercially. With declining budgets in a declining industry (at least, when it comes to recordings), that sort of exercise is incredibly indulgent and fiscally irresponsible today. You have to know your record, know the songs that fit, and know how to make them happen before, not after, you get into the studio. You get time for a couple cast-offs, sure — gotta have those iTunes bonus tracks — but that’s it.

But — and oh god, here’s the clichéd “golden age of rock” shit, somebody stop me — I do miss the mystery, that sense of discovery I got once I started digging into the back catalogues of Springsteen, Neil Young, or even Radiohead and realizing that some of the best-kept secrets were lying one level below the official story. Most bands of the here-and-now don’t have secret histories, and not just because the Internet has no secrets. It’s that they’re sticking sharply to the official narrative.

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