13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s. You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was certainly never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years. Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.

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4 thoughts on “13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

  1. Brilliant selection, Matt. I particularly enjoyed Danny Wilson, It Bites, Sylvian, Level 42, China Crisis. Oh, and Prince. Sheila E is superb. And I see what you mean about Phil Gould’s drumming… Nice to hear Willy Findlayson again. Thanks.

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  2. Yes, it was always exciting to play. B side on a 45 – a little extra thrill or disappointment. BJH’s Shades of B Hill was a beautiful little short creation – yearning and resignation cotton-wooled in a big soft cloud of sad longing

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  3. 🎼”…..Time to play B-sides…!!”
    — Blue Oyster Cult
    Going crazy here again pretty much beautifully wasting time with stuff like this but that’s why were all here in’it? One piece that always struck me was Tears for Fears “Pharoahs” on the back of everybody wants to rule the world 12 inch at least over here in America. I don’t think it was on the back of my British 12 inch ….too much time has passed…. to recall.

    Here’s the scenario: Roland is rolling tape apparently doing roughly a half tempo version of the keyboards to everybody wants to rule the world. A major storm is approaching the British coast and he has the weather radio on.

    He said later that he was always struck by the calmness of the British in the face of impending danger I guess also harkening back to the steadfast hand of Winston Churchill…. you hear the announcer giving apparently barometric readings from different locales. If you listen carefully you will hear him mention Pharoahs.

    At one point a helicopter flies overhead and Roland decides to leave that 0n the tape.. it’s a simple beautiful inspired peace and if you listen carefully to the Outro…. you will hear a gentle rendering of the guitar line from everybody wants to rule the world and then you see how these pieces work together.

    When I DJed it and I wanted to change pace on the floor a bit or during an appropriate break at weddings etc. I would put this piece on and then fade into one of several versions of “everybody wants to rule the world” and build the energy level back up… As you might say it was smashing and I got a lot of queries about the piece. So many b-sides falling out of my mind right now but this was huge..!

    Meanwhile one small bone to pick… The live version of level 42’s “love games” on the back of one of the singles over here maybe 12″Starchild….
    Is incredibly fierce so that’s the kind of B-side I’m not about to rule out LOL

    Just found this site recently and I love it well-maintained and the descriptions are fantastic and all your comments bring A tear back to the eyes…..

    Now anybody have any news background or refreshers on the fantastic funk band from Scotland APB? I got to chat with Ian very briefly on the show they did in New York City in the mid-80s at the Ritz. About the same age we were at the time, he was very affable chowing down on a hotdog or something with a beer right after the show as he was crisscrossing the dance floor…. they were a major staple on WLIR from Long Island just outside of Manhattan. Every 12 inch was absolutely killer… “What kind of girl are you?” Always had people running over to the booth when it was over it would get their blood flowing on the dance floor. Everyone would say “who the hell was that?” My reply… “You didn’t know they had funk in Scotland did you? …and I’m not talking about the stuff that grows on the north side of their trees…”
    Some kinda Northern Soul…. indeed

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