Wednesday, February 17, 2010

B-Side Dominance

It's easy to find things that were intended to be clever and great that just end up being totally stupid. But while they are rare, here and there you can also find something that was intended to be very stupid that, contrary to expectation, turned out splendid. I was put in mind of this because something or other as I was walking back from the grocery store put me into mind of one of pop music's most famous cases -- a song quite literally written never to be listened to.

In the days of vinyl, singles were generally sold in pairs -- there was an A-side single and B-side single. Because the record actually had to be physically flipped over to hear the song, one side would always be listened to more. Thus one tried to pair songs in such a way that took this into account. What is more, if you were really trying to put focus on a song, you wanted its B-side counterpart to be a throwaway song that didn't require much and that you wouldn't mind if people never listened to. So when Leka, and DeCarlo were told that the record company, Mercury Records, wanted to use all their suggested singles as A-sides, they had to scramble to find B-sides. One of the ones they chose was an old one they had done in a previous band, The Chateaus, with another person, Freshuer; but it was too short. So when Leka, DeCarlo, and Freshuer re-recorded it (they basically just threw it together, using a drum track instead of drummer), they put in the easiest and stupidest chorus they could think of, "na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na," which they used when they were composing lyrics and couldn't think of anything at the moment.

None of the three wanted to be associated with such a stupid song, so they made up a band, "Steam," on whom it could be blamed. Mercury Records was so horrified by the song that they decided not to release it under their Mercury label -- they passed it down to Fontana, a subsidiary, and it got put on a record as B-side trash, a song made never to be listened to.

One day a radio DJ in Georgia turned the promo record over, however. People who heard it began to call in to request it; it became one of that radio station's most commonly requested songs. Other radio stations began to play it, and soon it was heard all over the South. Wind got back to Mercury Records; they were startled, but being record company executives in 1969 they were not stupid. They did what record companies do with songs they think are going to make them money: they bought up enough copies to guarantee them a place on the Billboard magazine lists. Radio stations that watched Billboard listings began to play it. And it became one of the best-selling songs of 1969. It started being used as change-over music in baseball; in the late 70s, the fans started singing along, and they have been singing along ever since. From baseball it spread to other sports.

It was far from high art. So far, in fact, that nobody bothers to judge it by the standards of high art -- they just judge it by how catchy and fun it is.

There are bound to be examples of similar things elsewhere -- things designed to be just plain stupid, not even for comic effect, that turned out to be just plain fun instead. But they're rare enough I can't think of any; can you?

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