— Blue Oyster Cult, “Burnin’ For You”
Fundamentally, not much has changed over the last 60 years with regard to what a popular musician does: record a single, release it a few months in advance of an album, release the album, maybe another single or two, tour in support, take a break, repeat.
Elvis did it. Taylor Swift does it.
Aside from the medium by which we receive those sweet, sweet sounds, only one thing has drastically changed —
Gone are the days when you would shell out your hard-earned pennies for the latest radio hit and the mystery contained on the flip. For decades, the B-side was used as a clearing house for weaker songs, or experiments, or songs which didn’t fit the tone of the album, or a bit of silly fun. Like a Whitman’s sampler, you never knew what you might get. In the 90s, with the advent of the CD single, you started seeing up to four exclusive tracks, with live versions, alternate takes, and acoustic versions thrown in with the usual B-side fare.
One of the most common type of songs used for B-sides — especially in the 50s and early 60s when singles were the focal point and studio time a luxury — was the “We’ve got one hour and no material so let’s improvise and hope for the best” song. All the time, money, and effort went into the A-side, the side expected to receive all the play on radio and jukeboxes, so more often than not the B-side was simply thought of as a throwaway, a little extra value for the buyer (it took British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Kinks to start raising the quality level). But back in those days, DJ’s (actual humans!) had free will (and good ears), and sometimes they heard something on the throwaway side that nobody else heard … which brings us, finally, to The Champs, a band who didn’t exist when they recorded their biggest hit.
After spending hours working on a pleasant, mid-tempo rocker called “Train To Nowhere,” the A-side of a projected single, Dave Burgess and the musicians he’d brought in for a session began packing up their equipment for the night. A couple of the guys had already left when someone realized they needed a B-side. So the strays were rounded up, and with only a little time left, the band worked up a recording of a riff written by sax player, Danny Flores. He sometimes used it as a time filler at concerts so the group quickly concocted a full band arrangement.
The track needed a title, and Flores, who liked his tequila, recited the word with gusto every time the band dropped out. Knowing the track was merely a B-side, the guys cut loose and rocked out and put it to bed.
In early 1958, either Burgess or the record label decided to release the single under the name The Champs, and “Train To Nowhere” was on track to reach its stated destination until a DJ in Cleveland turned the record over and began playing “Tequila.” By the spring, it was the #1 song in the US and The Champs officially became a group (later members included Glen Campbell, and both Seals and Crofts, but none of them appeared on the band’s biggest hit).
And what of B-sides? They mostly don’t exist anymore. Singles are released as standalone tracks now. Artists tack on “bonus tracks” at the end of albums, but they might as well be part of the album proper. And there’s certainly no way one of those would suddenly become an unexpected #1.
So here’s the sound of urgency plus pressure equaling magic. You can dance if you want to.