PHOTO CREDIT: © Apple Corps Ltd; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reaches Number One in the U.K.’s Record Retailer chart.
The Art of the Double A-Side
I will keep this one short…
PHOTO CREDIT: © Apple Corps Ltd (1968)
but I have been, over the last few months, interested in the rise of the double A-side. The cover stars (the photo that appears top and bottom) is a band that created, arguably, the greatest example of them all: the legendary Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane in 1967. These songs were recorded and planned to appear in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the fact they did not make the album shows the absolute quality on that record. The Beatles are a rare exception but not the only example of artists creating phenomenal double-sided singles. I shall come to that in a minute but wanted to mention Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. I will put together a small playlist of the best out there but feel none come close to the 1967 Beatles landmark. Strawberry Fields Forever is John Lennon’s masterpiece: that trippy, hazy dreamscape that has backwards-samples and that fade-out: it fades in with that galloping, fairground-like whirl. Lennon’s vocal is contemplative and fatigued; it is drugged and drunken – a wonderful performance from The Beatles’ most fertile creative period. On the other side is Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane. That Liverpool-set tableau takes us through the streets and banker in his mac – the barber and clean fire engines. It is a charming and vivid tale from one of the world’s greatest-living songwriters. Few have dared cover either song because they are so definitively Beatle-esque. Each song is very different but when fused together, they make a masterful, unstoppable double A-side.
Consider David Bowie’s 1972 gems Suffragette City and Starman; Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 release, Purple Haze/The Wind Cries Mary (TWO brilliant double A-sides from that same year) and Rod Stewart’s Maggie May/Reason to Believe. Throw into the mix Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and Treat Me Nice – 1957’s finest moment, many would argue. Many would argue the Beach Boys’ 1966-double Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God Only Knows matches The Beatles’ watermark. The fact they were released a year apart shows what a huge amount of talent and songwriting excellent was around in the period. The Beatles came out with Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out; Sam Cooke’s Shake/A Change Is Gonna Come is a sensational release; The Clash’s Train In Vain and London Calling is a twin-headed Punk assault. The Stooges 1969/I Wanna be Your Dog is a classic whilst The Velvet Underground & Nico’s All Tomorrow’s Parties/I’ll Be Your Mirror is a double from their eponymous debut. Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love/Living Loving Maid is favourite of mine but the Ramone’s Rock & Roll High School/Do You Wanna Dance? isn’t all that shabby. True, a lot of those releases were in the 1960s and ‘70s – it was a lot more common back then. I know there have been a lot of great double A-sides in the 1980s and 1990s but, for some reason, it started to dry up as we headed into the twenty-first-century.
One of the reasons behind this might be the digitisation of music. Many artists are not putting out singles or are finding different ways to promote. Now, singles are released ahead of albums: there is a strict release schedule that means most new artists have a rigorous diary of what they release and when. In a competitive market, it is all about economy and business. Most of the acts I review come to me with a single or E.P. and have a very particular time they need it promoted. Sometimes, you get a single, stand-alone release or a cover version. The fact a lot of newer artists are not releasing cover versions or including them on albums is a sign of shifts and tastes. In the mainstream, there are similar patterns in regards promotion. For instance, someone like Kendrick Lamar might, as we are seeing, release a single (HUMBLE). That, in turn, comes with an announcement: the album is out in the coming days. We will see other singles from the as-yet-untitled/unannounced record and that will see a sales entropy and decline. Before long, he will plan a new album and the promotion will start all over again. It is a pattern many follow and seems to work. Every single requires a video (most do) so a double A-side, one assumes, would need two videos. Also, many acts are reluctant to introduce two awesome songs at the same time. They need to spread it out over a few weeks/months and build new waves of attention.
That said, and the reason I wanted to write this, is because a lot of new acts are starting to release double A-sides. My last few interviews or so have been promoting acts who have two songs out. I ask why this is coming back into fashion for new/unsigned acts and get the same response: an E.P. is expensive to release. Many find a four/five-track record cost a lot and may be a bit of a stretch – they are inspired to record two songs but not much past that. The double A-side is a great way of getting new material out but not having to commit to an E.P. or album. I am glad it is back and hope it is something the mainstream will adhere to. I would love to see a meaty two-track single release from the titans at the top. It would be nice to see bands and artists confident enough to buck trends and inspire the underground. New artists, stifled by costs or keen to release a couple of tracks, are bringing back an old form that has, as you can see, produced some legendary releases. Inspired by the fiftieth anniversary or Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is getting its fiftieth birthday lined up – you do not need to have an album out in order to release songs. So many of today’s acts seem programmed and moulded to act a certain way. It is all about release scheduled and timed runs of P.R. What the double A-side does is gets new music out there but does not force artists to go for an album or E.P. I love hearing the new double A-sides out and the reason behind it. In the mainstream, it is still happening but far fewer than decades ago. The digital revolution does not mean we have to lose those customs and completely abandon certain sides of music. Now that Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane is being re-released for Record Store Day; it should give motivation and guidance to new artists and the big boys/girls. Maybe they will not hit the giddy heights of The Beatles’ masterpieces but would shake-up music and be a welcomed changed. In a rather sterile, pre-planned and calculated scene; the double A-side is just…
WHAT music needs.