10 Essential Rock B-Sides

Welcome to the Cutting Room: 10 Essential Rock B-Sides

Nobody likes the cutting room floor! Here we list ten rock B-sides, bonus tracks, and alternative takes that never belonged there in the first place.

Nobody likes the cutting room floor, whether it be filmmakers, musicians, or online magazines. But when pressed, most artists and writers will grudgingly admit that what lands in editorial limbo usually belongs there. In music circles, we call this The Vault: B-sides, flip sides, bonus tracks, posthumous singles, alternative takes, hard-to-find releases, and even an accidental smash hit or two judged “not good enough” for the proper album. In some cases, these decisions were arbitrary, based on a producer’s whim or perceived tastes of the era. Back in the day, it often came down to physical time constraints for the media involved – sometimes, those five extra minutes just wouldn’t fit on a standard LP.

Compact discs and digital music blew up this creaky business model. Suddenly labels could raid their archives and unleash everything they had, vomiting forth demos, afterthoughts, rejects, and other unfinished works never meant to see the light of day. Thus did the music universe discover ‘Box Sets’ and ‘Bonus Tracks’ – extraneous material aimed at nerds, freaks, and other self-described completists, much of it redundant and all in search of a buck.

Fortunately, like any endeavor, there are always a few diamonds in the haystack somewhere. Here we list ten B-sides that never belonged on any chopping block and, in some cases, eclipsed the album tracks they lost out to. A couple even clawed their way to the top of the charts in one guise or another. What is the moral of the story? Trust your editor… most of the time.

So let’s crack that vault and start digging.

10. Modern English – “Breaking Away” (1984)

While Modern English will be forever remembered for their eternal MTV jewel “I Melt With You”, true New Wave fans prefer their subsequent full-length, 1984’s Ricochet Days. The 1992 CD release appended four bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased “Breaking Away” demo. Ricochet Days may be excellent, but it can also wax Colchester-moody at times, making this lush, bouncy romp sound more lively than the rest of the album put together. Perhaps this explains why some well-meaning label drone thought it wouldn’t fit. Whoever s/he was, fire them now.

9. Suede – “Modern Boys” (1994)

Suede definitely seized their early 1990s glam/Britpop moment, even if some Stateside critics tired of their mopey theatrics rather quickly (ahem). But this gorgeous hidden track, off the 1994 bonus CD release of Dog Man Star, plays like a lost Stone Roses rock epic. Brett Anderson’s David Bowie-esque vocals flex perfectly here, but it’s the ending that makes the song. “Modern Boys'” crashing guitar coda resurrects a venerable AC/DC studio trick, inhabiting one stereo channel before exploding from both speakers like roaring thunder – a sonic punch to the gut that never fails to thrill. “It’s so easy in the concrete night,” indeed.

8. The Chameleons – “Nostalgia” (1981/1985)

Chameleons fans are a rabid and dedicated bunch (myself included), and Lord knows 1985’s echoey post-punk bombshell What Does Anything Mean? It holds up just fine on its own. But this shredding 1981 single, tacked on to subsequent CD releases, is an unremitting blast of early 1980s college rock muscle spiced with guitarist Reg Smithies’ chiming, sophisticated touch. The Chameleons’ prime-era Pete Townshend licks and firework rhythm section sound as punishing as ever, a synthesis frontman Mark Burgess forged together like few of his contemporaries.

7. Carl Douglas – “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974)

Go ahead, laugh if you must. But for any music-history nut, the story behind this unlikely worldwide smash is just too delicious to pass up. Originally intended as the B-side for a tedious Barry White ripoff called “I Want to Give You My Everything”, “Kung Fu Fighting” only saw daylight because Carl Douglas had ten minutes left in his three-hour recording session. Rather than waste it, he and producer Biddu cut this irresistible chop-socky single in two takes flat. As Biddu recalls in Metro Magazine, “I went over the top on the ‘huhs’ and the ‘hahs’ and the chopping sounds. It was a B-side! Who was going to listen?” Labeling this song ‘disco’ is an insult, and it nails the Bruce Lee/martial arts zeitgeist of its era. Although reluctant to admit as much today, everybody back then loved “Kung Fu Fighting” – kids, rockers, and mortified critics alike. Trust me,; Iwas there.

6. The Church – “The View” (1985)

The Church gave the world a million fantastic riffs, but this one is something special. Written and sung by guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, “The View” didn’t make 1985’s Heyday LP – only the CD and cassette, as one of three bonus tracks. Willson-Piper may have lacked lead singer Steve Kilbey’s vocal range or deceptively dreamy strength, but he layers his voice to a powerful reverberating effect here. Druggy lyrics like “whispers in a cream cake” are utterly impenetrable yet still loads of fun. In an ironic twist, Willson-Piper stormed off the stage mid-tour, forcing Kilbey to promise more group collaboration in the future. Some chords in rock are sublime enough to savor forever; if “The View” were 20 minutes long, it would still be too short.

5. The Stone Roses – “Mersey Paradise” (1989)

We’ve showered this personal favorite with praise many times before. But this marvelous burst of Madchester delight – not even considered good enough to make the Stone Roses‘ iconic debut – is still a one-in-a-million jangle-pop wonder. Imagine a world where chiming guitars become a carnival roller-coaster, rising and plunging every two seconds. That’s “Mersey Paradise”, plus singer Ian Brown’s creepy stories of drowning and dark black pits. Utterly irresistible.

4. John Lennon – “Nobody Told Me” (1984)

Our lone posthumous release, which somehow echoes far beyond the legacy of its already lionized creator. Unfinished at the time of John Lennon‘s death in 1980, “Nobody Told Me” was initially written for Ringo Starr, who ultimately decided not to record it. Yoko Ono completed the song in 1983, gifting the world one of its favorite workaday laments. Musically the track whirls like a calliope, while lyrically, it drips with Lennonesque cynicism for our sour, flawed civilization. “Nobody told me there’d be days like these / Strange days, indeed!” Staring at our zombified screens today – juggling life, family, and careers – who among us hasn’t wondered the same thing?

3. The Divine Comedy – “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” (live cover, 1996)

The only cover song on our list is sequestered on a bonus disc that was included with early versions of 1996’s Casanova. Originally recorded by Mark Eitzel’s American Music Club, “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” was a lackluster, somewhat dreary Pogues-ish curiosity until Divine Comedy‘s Neil Hannon got hold of it. Hannon turns Eitzel’s ambitious yet not-fully-realized studio composition into a sprawling rock and roll waltz – a Las Vegas anthem of stardom and aspiration, made all the more immediate for being live on stage. The audience’s generous applause indicates polite appreciation. They’d still be applauding three decades later if they truly grasped what they just heard.

2. Prince and the Revolution – “Let’s Go Crazy” (unedited dance version, 1984/1990)

Sure, everybody knows the edited hit single that topped the charts in 1984, and in retrospect, that face-melting middle bridge had to be cut for radio’s sake. But if you’ve seen the film Purple Rain, that’s Prince‘s original recording of “Let’s Go Crazy” over the opening credits. It’s a seven-and-a-half-minute mashup of funk, fist-pumping metal, and live-jam inspiration, transforming a beloved smash hit into a sonic mutant from another rock dimension. The initial single was wonderful. Thanks to this 12-inch Warner Brothers release, Prince’s proper intended vision has forever replaced it for discerning fans. Why on earth he ever disbanded the Revolution, yours truly will never understand.

1. Led Zeppelin – “Hey Hey What Can I Do” (1970)

“Hey Hey What Can I Do” isn’t Led Zeppelin‘s finest song. Honestly, it’s not even the best track on this list. But when it comes to B-sides, the song has represented the Holy Grail of lost singles for over 50 years. Originally the flip side of 1970’s “Immigrant Song” seven-inch, “Hey Hey” finally became widely available on 1990’s Led Zeppelin CD box set. Prior to that, pre-Spotify and pre-Internet, fans unable to locate the 45 were reduced to hunting for it on local radio dials like some musical Loch Ness Monster. The tune itself – a bawdy, subversive tale of hopeless love for a Street-Corner Girl on the make – is superior to much of the schizophrenic material on Led Zeppelin III, which this reviewer always considered the band’s most erratic and unsatisfying album. Belated sarcastic thanks to whichever label nitwit denied “Hey Hey” a spot on the record, elegantly proving our point.