B-sides: Why I hate my records
Rolling Stone recently published a list of the "100 greatest records of all time," as voted by their readers. "All time" is stretching it. In reality, it's the 100 greatest records the mostly white, mostly under 35 readership of Rolling Stone has heard.
Despite the number of pages the magazine devotes each issue to hip-hop artists, and except for a nod to white rapper Eminem at No. 24 and No. 37, the readers couldn't care less about hip-hop. And how does Eminem even rate two spots on an "all time" list anyway, when Frank Sinatra has zero? Elvis Presley has none. No one prior to 1960 makes the chart except Miles Davis' Kind of Blue from 1959.
Are there no other great albums before The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Revolver both 1965 releases that came in at No. 23 and No. 1?
My musical memory of great albums, granted, doesn't predate Rubber Soul by much. I bought Meet the Beatles in 1964, my first purchase for my first record player. The look and feel, even the smell, of that album still hold a curious magic.
But even I vaguely recall there was music before I met the Beatles. There were the Chipmunks and Ricky Nelson, Allan Sherman and Bobby Darin. Who throws out their Sinatra records? No one, I bet. I still have a vinyl Come Fly With Me, and Songs for Swinging Lovers. They never get old.
If No. 3 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and No. 11 Dark Side of the Moon (1973) are albums that define my generation, surely the generation before us has favorites they would list as "all time" greats, but I can't think of a pre-1955 album that became an icon of its time. Maybe the readers of Rolling Stone couldn't either.
Things were different back then. Instead of albums, individual songs defined a time because people bought sheet music and played them themselves. Then there was the long, glorious period of singles when you paid only for that one good song. Now you pay six times as much to get that one good song, along with a pile of boring ones you never listen to.
That's what bugs me about the record industry, the way they sparsely distribute the few good songs a band has over several albums in order to suck the maximum amount of sales. And when the band is washed up and you finally get the greatest hits album, even that has some losers on it. I recently bought the Lovin' Spoonful Encore Collection, and out of 10 songs, they still put four pieces of dreck on it.
We accepted this status rip-off for two decades, from the death of the 45 rpm record to the Napster revolution, when you could get that one good song again... for free! Post-Napster, it's hard to stomach what the record industry expects us to resume paying for.
Looking over the 100 greatest records of ... cough ... all time, I bought 13. And of those, only the Beatles and the Nirvana albums were keepers. More than half of the songs on those albums are good. That's probably why Kurt Cobain shot himself. He realized he couldn't write a bad song and thus would never be able to make a living putting out crap albums carried along by one radio hit.
I have a CD player in my car now, and for the last several weeks I've been going through my entire record collection, actually listening to every song. In my house, the albums are background noise while I do other things. When the radio hit queues up, I'll sing along, and then the background noise resumes. Like dogs who hear only their names and then meaningless mumble, I hear only the good song, and the rest is blubber.
In the car, I am a captive audience, being tortured by my own record collection, enduring every song and becoming more and more irritated. Why did I ever buy this CD when there are only two songs on it I can abide, and the rest I'll always fast-forward?
The obvious solution is to rip the two bearable tracks onto my computer and burn my own album, then sell the original CDs on eBay or at the local used record store and recoup at least some of my money.
So now my record collection is evolving from CDs of 80 percent crap to a few homemade mixes of all good songs. My homemade albums have 18 to 20 songs on them, compared to the 10 or 12 you get from the labels. Not only does the record industry sell me mostly crap, they sell me half-empty CDs.
Not surprisingly, the record industry hates me and defunct Napster, blank CDs, computers... anything that stands in the way of their making that $18.99 sale of 80 percent crap on a 50 percent empty sliver of metal. They sit up nights trying to devise ways to outlaw Internet sites that provide music. They want to tax blank CDs to cigarette pack levels and put copy-protection codes on releases, even if it makes it difficult to play the CD at all.
And they've always been this way. Even when they sold you a single on a little black piece of vinyl with a great big hole in the middle for $1.99, they couldn't bear to give you two good songs. There was the A side, and then some horrid worthless junk on the B side. Did you ever turn your stack over and play all the B sides? It's like the Bizarro World version of your record collection.
A good B side was so rare that I can remember the very few times I got one. Not surprisingly, both times it was the Beatles. Turn over "I Feel Fine" and you have "She's a Woman." Turn over "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and there's "I Saw Her Standing There," which actually should have been the A side.
But that was early in their career when the record industry wasn't hip to the realization that most of the Beatles' songs were going to be good. Eventually they made an effort to find a "Baby's in Black" to put on the back, or maybe the Beatles figured out they needed to write some B sides, or become total B side bands like Wings, Plastic Ono, Traveling Wilburys, or All-Stars.
The White Album, which is No. 5 on the Rolling Stone chart, is a greatest hits of B sides, and nearly a third of one side of the second album (when you bought the vinyl version, you got two platters) is "Revolution No. 9," which is where B sides go to die. It's a C side, as in Crap. I won't be buying it for my car stereo, but I do have a ripped copy of "Blackbird" on my mixed album, thank you.
Mariane Matera, whose essays appear in several publications, lives in Richmond with her husband and her turntable.