A few weeks ago, I bought "We're Gonna Rise", the new single from the Breeders. I cannot actually remember the last time I bought a new single, which is a surprising state of affairs. Once I had a vague philosphy about singles; which was buy them instead of albums. The thinking was that singles were much more collectible than albums, and over time were priced up, rather than albums, which crop up in second-hand shops at cheapo prices. They were collectible in the sense that they were released in varying formats, and there was the thrill of discovering that only one shop in your city had copies of the seven inch, or the enhanced digipak, or that you got a poster with this one, or a bonus disc of other artists on the same label with that one.
Whereas the album was available everywhere, and if you waited a year, would be half-price, nice-price, or dirt cheap and second hand. Singles were thus sketchpads and sandboxes; the improving proving grounds for experiments and nonsense, always far more fruitful than the album track that sounds like an album track. Who cannot love the fact that Cocteau Twins twelve-inches were played on the radio at the wrong speed and John Peel never noticed? That Sneeze released a seven-inch with 20 songs on it? That the Breeders have released their first B-side since 2001, and it is ninety seconds of melodic nonsense German chanting in the middest and Westernest of Midwestern accents?
A truly stupid B-side wins over a considered one any time. Surely it is no coincidence that the Breeders' cover of "Lord of the Thighs", and the Pixies' cover of "Winterlong" are seen by some as the best things ever performed by those bands. They take you where you did not expect to be taken, because the bands allow themselves to be hijacked by an idea that seems not to spring from any concept of what their own band is all about.
There seems to be a bit less of this messing around now, given that the vinyl revival has meant records have to work in the market. Manic bedroom tinkerers like Jesus Couldn't Drum were once able to blart out a sugar rush of gleeful nonsense that would get reviewed locally and then disappear. Now, if a band in Brazil put out a fun song, they get released in major markets immediately and their second single gets reviewed in every zine in the world. A band like They Might Be Giants, once your reliable go-to source for B-side experimentation, doesn't even release singles any more.
As I type today, I am listening to the "Jesus Christ Super Star" single by Kazmi With Rickies. Track 4 is a spoken-word exhortation for listeners to remix the track for future release. Track 5 is the vocal track with a click track. Behold and lo, the next year a five-track EP of the best remixes appeared. And this was on EMI, twelve years ago. Yet today we have editorials lambasting EMI for not adapting to change, and praising Radiohead's brave experiments with releasing the "Nude" multitracks and inviting listeners to remix them...