My husband and I share a long L-shaped desk. It isn’t the perfect situation, particularly when I’m trying to concentrate and he’s exploring new musical artists by playing 90-second blips of songs. A woman warbles. A man wails. A guitar riff. After 15 minutes I’m ready to confess government secrets.
“What are you doing?” I scream.
“I like this artist,” he’ll say. “I’m seeing if I like any of her other stuff. Or stuff by artists like her.”
And that’s when I think about Devo.
My first 45 record was Devo’s “Whip It.” The first 78 I ever owned was Donny & Marie, followed by Barry Manilow’s Live, followed by Sean Cassidy’s Born Late. But we don’t need to dwell on what a dork I was. The point is, I had progressed from wavy hair to New Wave with Devo.
After listening to “Whip It” a few hundred times, I flipped the record over and tried the B-side, “Turnaround.” I didn’t love “Turnaround” as much as “Whip It.” How could I? “Whip It” was on the radio every 10 minutes. Boys in school teased their friends by screaming “I say whip it!” and pantomiming cracking a whip. Nobody was screaming “Turnaround!” except the teachers.
But after listening to “Turnaround” a few hundred times, it became my favorite. Was it because “Turnaround” was so damn catchy? That its lyrics appealed to a preteen on a visceral level?
It’s pretty scary
It’s so revolting
It’s pretty scary
It’s so revolting
The word “revolting” was hilarious to me. And yes, I might have grown tired of “Whip It.” I know my parents had.
As 45s gave way to cassette tapes, I bought whole albums whether I wanted to or not. If I only loved two Duran Duran songs, it didn’t matter; 45s didn’t play in the car. Well, Duran Duran is a bad example. When it came to Duran Duran I had to have all the songs. The idea of only buying the two I heard on the radio was tantamount to blasphemy. But I bought XTC’s Skylarking just to get “Dear God,” only to find out it wasn’t on the damn album. They added it later. I’m still bitter about that. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be an early adapter.
But the point is, when I bought a cassette I had to listen to all the other songs. Even when I switched to CDs, it was a pain to skip from favorite to favorite. And because I couldn’t just download one song, I grew to appreciate the tunes that didn’t make it to the radio. Tracks which, in my opinion, were sometimes better than the singles.
The Cure understood. They even released a whole boxed set, Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities 1978–2001 so people could catch up on the odd songs they may have missed.
Yes, my husband now has access to music he never would have heard without new technology suggesting similar artists and pushing song clips. But would I have downloaded “Turnaround” if I could have walked away with just “Whip It?” Probably not. Partially, because I’d spent most of my money playing skee-ball at the boardwalk arcade, but mostly, because I didn’t know any better without a beckoning B-side.
So, when I heard my husband listening to blips of songs on his computer, a wave of sadness washed over me. The level of sadness was somewhat greater than when I heard that younger people thought 45 rpm spindle adapters must be “some kind of Chinese throwing star,” and somewhat less than discovering my nieces tried to push the numbers of a rotary dial phone at a museum.
Maybe I’m so offended because I’m a B-side person. I’m a little backwards around strangers, so if you only heard my “sound clip” you might not like me. I don’t know that I impressed my husband the first time we met, but like a B-side I hung around. Stalked him, really, until he flipped me over and play — You know, I think I’m going to just stop that metaphor right there. You get it.
Who killed the B-side? Was it technology? Corporate America? The relentless march of time?
I blame Sesame Street.
Sesame Street was rife with short bits to hold the attentions of toddlers. Then my generation moved on to MTV, which peppered us with 3-7 minute songs 24 hours a day (it used to be a music video channel!), and finally, the Internet put the nails in our attention spans’ coffins.
So when you’re looking for someone to blame for the rise of sound bite journalism and the death of B-side music, look no farther than Bert and Ernie.
Damn. I probably should have revealed the identity of the B-side killer earlier.
You probably didn’t make it to the end of this essay.
In other news…