In the age of the download, the B-side has become a bit of a lost art form. Talk Me Down From 20,000ft, Swimmer One’s first B-side, was released just as that shift was happening. I’m very happy it exists, but it might not have done had our debut single come out a few years later.
I grew up buying vinyl singles, and was introduced to the art of the B-side by the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab Sprout. The Pet Shop Boys, in particular, took them very seriously – this was the place where they cut loose, indulged themselves, and sometimes ended up writing their best songs, like Jack the Lad or In the Night (and also a series of funny, strange songs in which Chris Lowe read out lists of things, like Paninaro and I Want a Dog). If I had to pick a favourite, it’d probably be Your Funny Uncle, a poignant song about the funeral of a gay man who died too young (one of the missing friends in Being Boring, I think), and the awkwardness that ensues when his social circle have to mingle with relatives who were in complete denial about the life he was living. But I loved all of the Pet Shop Boys’ B-sides, often more than their album tracks, and always got incredibly excited when a new single came out, often playing the B-side first. Unlike a lot of people’s B-sides they almost never felt like leftovers, songs not quite good enough to make it onto an album. In fact I think there’s a case to be made that Alternative, the B-sides collection they put out in 1995, is one of their best albums (disc one, anyway).
Prefab Sprout wrote brilliant B-sides too, particularly in their early days, although I discovered most of these after the fact, when I’d already played Swoon, Steve Mcqueen and Protest Songs to death and was looking for something new. In particular I remember the joy of discovering a 12 inch single of When Love Breaks Down which had four great B-sides – The Yearning Loins, Spinning Belinda, He’ll Have to Go and Donna Summer. After all this it made me quite cross when a musician I loved released a single whose B-side was just an instrumental or demo version of the A-side, or a song they’d already released years ago (I’m looking at you, Madonna). How dare they be so careless?
And so when it came to releasing our first single, in 2002, it was important to me that the B-side was just as good as the A-side. In the end we possibly took that a bit too far, in that Talk Me Down From 20,000ft actually took longer to record than We Just Make Music For Ourselves.
This was mainly my fault. After years of making music with an old reel to reel four track machine, I had suddenly been introduced (thanks to Hamish) to Cubase and the dizzying possibility of having as many tracks going on in a song as you wanted, and I got carried away. At the time I was a bit obsessed with Steve Reich, so wanted to find out what happened if you layered the same Reich-like piano phrase on top of itself multiple times. The answer is that you end up with an unholy mess and spend more time editing parts out as you did inserting them in the first place.
I’m glad we took the time though, because it’s a song I’m still very proud of. The lyric is about having a panic attack, something that used to happen to me a lot. The main reason I used a plane journey as a metaphor was that I’d recently been to Mexico, had recorded the sound of a flight attendant in Mexico City, and wanted to use it on something. Which we did.
We never spent this long on a B-side again. By the time we released our first album in 2007, downloading was already becoming the norm and we couldn’t afford to put out singles on CD or vinyl anyway so didn’t bother.
That said, I actually think my biggest regret about never having got to be a pop star might not be that I never got to be on Top of the Pops or the cover of Smash Hits (the benchmarks of success when I was growing up), but that I wasn’t successsful enough to be able to spend huge amounts of time recording B-sides when I didn’t have to.