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Exploiting the singles

April 11, 2015

Let’s start the way we mean to go on:

In the days when there were B-sides to singles – when you actually had to take the record off the turntable and flip it over to play the other side – the B side was often the reason that you bought the single.

The standard formula –  artist records album, a strong track from the album is released as a single, then maybe another, then the album is released – meant that you could guarantee that the single would be included on the album. A true afficionado knew that the unique musical aspect of the single would be the B-side, which usually consisted of a track not released elsewhere.

This was such an important point that a B-side which included another album track would have collectors foaming at the mouth with outrage. (I know – I’m one of them.) Artists with conscience were careful to observe that, and the Stranglers were among them. Hence Poisonality was only ever a B-side.

But even the Stranglers were not immune from the (some would say) cynical exploitation of their fans’ pockets, by releasing different versions of the single, with different B-sides, different cover designs.

Their early 90s single Heaven or Hellwhich is brilliant – was released as a CD single, a 12” vinyl single and a cassette single (as well as in promotional form not available to buy). The CD single was actually 2 CDs in two stages: you bought the first one in a smart little case which had a space for the second. To a collector, that space was not an invitation but a command. The point is that if you wanted all the music – which added up to 5 additional tracks and a slightly extended version of the main song – you had to buy at least three formats of the same song.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that artists would have recognised the value of keeping the fanbase happy? But hang on: No.

When I worked in a pub (back in the day when you had to add up the price of a round in your head before opening the till), the regulars understood that their value to the pub was not in simply turning up every night, but in parting with their money. Regulars didn’t get freebies: a regular who went away having drunk more than he or she had spent was costing the pub money, not making it. It wasn’t as if they were attracting other custom, either. Quite the opposite: there is something forbidding, and sometimes deliberately proprietorial, about the cabal of pals who congregate at the bar, demonstrating their chumminess with the landlord and looking with disdain at the innocent visitor who is almost certainly going to spend more per hour than the regulars nursing their drinks.

Demonstrating the connectio between "singles" and "round". We don't just throw this together.

Demonstrating the connection between “singles” and “round”. We don’t just throw this together.

If they break into song – yes, I’ve seen that happen – it’s even more like they have been round the pub marking their territory. And rarely is such singing worth the hearing: somehow, impromptu musical merriment in real life never quite matches fiction, does it? If there were a bar where the casual drinkers suddenly launched into something as co-ordinated and rousing as Old Joe has gone fishing, I’d be back like a shot. That’s a round (see what I did there) from Britten’s Peter Grimes, which he characteristically uses to disperse the tension in the narrative of what is a bleak and desolate tale. Mrs simonsometimessays, who is not, as we have had previous occasion to observe, a lover of Britten, is inclined to think that his attempts at musical joviality and camaraderie do no more than rise from despair to misery. Judge for yourself.

How did I get here? Oh yes – as with the pub regular, so with the music fan. If they want to feed their passion, they must expect to pay. And in these days of free downloads, the pendulum has swung so much in the opposite direction that it is the artist who is the more easily exploited.

Now then, I’ve used the word Exploited twice, which more or less obliges me to offer you something from the band of that name. Don’t expect a tune, just a couple of minutes’ thrash from a hard early British punk band. and don’t adjust your PC’s audio settings – Computers Don’t Blunder.

Shall we return to singles? Well here’s a little gem by Peggy Seeger – When I was Single. Peggy Seeger is the subject of what is surely one of the most beautiful love songs ever – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – written by her then lover, and later husband, Ewan MacColl (that’s right, Kirsty’s Father). Peggy’s own recorded version of the song is, I have to say, disappointing; but perhaps I wouldn’t think so if I had not been weaned on Roberta Flack. It will be no surprise to see how many times the song has been covered – sometimes ruined with extra rhythm (Elvis), sometimes treated merely as a vehicle for the voice (any talent show performer), sometimes in the mistaken belief that the song would make them better, rather than catch them out (Johnny Cash), and occasionally with surprising cross-genre success (Jose Carreras). Personally, I think that this version – by the Stereophonics and Jools Holland – is hard to beat. The natural hoarse sadness in Kelly Jones’s voice, his range, and the slow, nostalgic beat bring something out that others don’t quite reach.

Right then: time’s up. Oh, all right, you twisted my arm. Here’s the fantastic Single Girl by Sandy Posey.


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  1. Funny you. 🙂

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