Cool As the Other Side of the Record: The B-Sides...and Beyond

Like a Long Playing vinyl record — like the face of Prince’s Batman-inspired Gemini persona — a 7-inch 45 RPM “single” has two sides. Unlike an LP, Side Two of which has never been considered less artistically or commercially integral to an album than Side One, a 45’s flip side historically was treated as an afterthought to the would-be hit on the front. Record companies filled that space with album cuts considered uncommercial, and for the most part, fans ignored the result.

Prince transformed the B-side during the 1980’s. Starting with “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (on the reverse of 1982’s “1999”), he dedicated the space almost exclusively to non-album tracks. And as eccentric and explicit as Prince was on his LP’s, these B-sides went farther, deeper, weirder; to superfans and DJs, at least, they became objects of attention, fascination, and love. (They added up, too, eventually filling an entire, eponymous CD within Prince’s The Hits/The B-Sides anthology.) The flip sides of the singles released from Prince’s Batman sort-of-soundtrack marked a high point in this unique dynamic, not long before vinyl was banished from record stores and the 45, in effect, died. The Batman B-sides show Prince’s alternate Gemini face, a Joker to the album’s Dark Knight.

Adam Reid Sexton

Adam Reid Sexton teaches Writing About Music at Yale, where he is a Lecturer in the English Department and a Critic in the graduate School of Art. He has written about music for the Philadelphia City Paper, the New York Times, and the Village Voice. Sexton’s books include Rap on Rap, which was acquired by Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, and Desperately Seeking Madonna, which is in the Library and Archives of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His book Difficult Listening: A History of Art Rock is scheduled to be published by Routledge in 2021.