The terms A-side and B-side refer to the two sides of 78, 45, and 33 1/3 rpm phonograph records, whether singles, extended plays (EPs), or long-playing (LP) records. The A-side usually featured the recording that the artist, record producer, or the record company intended to receive the initial promotional effort and then receive radio airplay, hopefully, to become a "hit" record. The B-side (or "flip-side") is a secondary recording that has a history of its own: some artists, notably Elvis Presley, Little Richard, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, released B-sides that were considered as strong as the A-side and became hits in their own right. Creedence Clearwater Revival had hits with both A-side and B-side releases. Others took the opposite approach: producer Phil Spector was in the habit of filling B-sides with on-the-spot instrumentals that no one would confuse with the A-side. With this practice, Spector was assured that airplay was focused on the side he wanted to be the hit side.
Music recordings have moved away from records onto other formats such as CDs and digital downloads, which do not have "sides", but the terms are still used to describe the type of content, with B-side sometimes standing for "bonus" track.
The earliest 10-inch, 78 rpm, shellac records were single sided. Double-sided recordings, with one song on each side, were introduced in Europe by Columbia Records and by the late 1910s they had become the norm in both Europe and the United States. There were no record charts until the 1930s, and radio stations (by and large) did not play recorded music until the 1950s (when top 40 radio overtook full-service network radio). In this time, A-sides and B-sides existed, but neither side was considered more important; the "side" did not convey anything about the content of the record.
In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the 7, 10 and 12 inch 33 1/3 rpm long-playing (LP) vinyl record for commercial sales, and its rival RCA-Victor, in cooperation of the Radio Corporation of America, responded the next year with the seven-inch 45 rpm vinyl record, which would come to replace the 78 as the home of the single. The term "single" came into popular use with the advent of vinyl records in the early 1950s. At first, most record labels would randomly assign which song would be an A-side and which would be a B-side. (All records have specific identifiers for each side in addition to the catalog number for the record itself; the "A" side would typically be assigned a sequentially lower number.) Under this random system, many artists had so-called "double-sided hits", where both songs on a record made one of the national sales charts (in Billboard, Cashbox, or other magazines), or would be featured on jukeboxes in public places.
As time wore on, however, the convention for assigning songs to sides of the record changed. By the early sixties, the song on the A-side was the song that the record company wanted radio stations to play, as 45 records (or '45s') dominated the market in terms of cash sales. It was not until 1968, for instance, that the total production of albums on a unit basis finally surpassed that of singles in the United Kingdom. In the late 1960s that stereo versions of pop and rock songs began to regularly appear on 45s. The majority of the 45s were played on AM radio stations, which were not equipped for stereo broadcast at the time, so stereo was not a priority. However, the FM rock stations did not like to play monaural content, so the record companies adopted a protocol for DJ versions with the mono version of the song on one side, and stereo version of the same song on the other.
By the early 1970s, double-sided hits had become rare. Album sales had increased, and B-sides had become the side of the record where non-album, non-radio-friendly, instrumental versions or simply inferior recordings were placed. In order to further ensure that radio stations played the side that the record companies had chosen, it was common for the promotional copies (DJ version) of a single to have the "plug side" on both sides of the disc.
With the advent of cassette and compact disc singles in the late 1980s, the A-side/B-side differentiation became much less meaningful. At first, cassette singles would often have one song on each side of the cassette, matching the arrangement of vinyl records, but eventually, cassette maxi-singles, containing more than two songs, became more popular. With the decline of cassette singles in the 1990s, the A-side/B-side dichotomy became virtually extinct, as the remaining dominant medium, the compact disc, lacked an equivalent physical distinction. However, the term "B-side" is still used to refer to the "bonus" tracks or "coupling" tracks on a CD single.
With the advent of downloading music via the Internet, sales of CD singles and other physical media have declined, and the term "B-side" is now less commonly used. Songs that were not part of an artist's collection of albums are made available through the same downloadable catalogs as tracks from their albums, and are usually referred to as "unreleased", "bonus", "non-album", "rare", "outtakes" or "exclusive" tracks, the latter in the case of a song being available solely from a certain provider of music.
B-side songs may be released on the same record as a single to provide extra "value for money". There are several types of material commonly released in this way, including a different version (e.g., instrumental, a cappella, live, acoustic, remixed version or in another language), or, in a concept record, a song that does not fit into the story line.
Additionally, it was common in the 1960s and 1970s for longer songs, especially by soul, funk or R&B acts, to be broken into two parts for single release. Examples of this include Ray Charles's "What'd I Say", the Isley Brothers' "Shout", and a number of records by James Brown, including "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud". Typically, "part one" would be the chart hit, while "part two" would be a continuation of the same performance. A notable example of a non-R&B hit with two parts was the single release of Don McLean's "American Pie". With the advent of the 12in single in the late 1970s, the part one/part two method of recording was largely abandoned.
Since both sides of a single received equal royalties, some composers deliberately arranged for their songs to be used as the B-sides of singles by popular artists. This became known as the "flipside racket". Similarly, it has also been alleged that owners of pirate radio stations operating off the British coast in the 1960s would buy the publishing rights to the B-sides of records they expected to be hits, and then plug the A-sides in the hope of driving up sales and increasing their share of the royalties.
On a few occasions, the B-side became the more popular song. This was usually because a DJ preferred the B-side to its A-side and played it instead. Examples include "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor (originally the B-side of "Substitute"), "I'll Be Around" by the Spinners (originally the B-side of "How Could I Let You Get Away") and "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart (originally the B-side of "Reason to Believe").
The song "How Soon Is Now?" by the Smiths started out as the extra track on the 12in of William, It Was Really Nothing but later gained a separate release as an A-side in its own right, as did Oasis's "Acquiesce", which originally appeared as a B-side to "Some Might Say" in 1995, but gained subsequent release in 2006 as part of an EP to promote their forthcoming compilation album, Stop the Clocks. Feeder in 2001 and 2005 had the B-sides "Just a Day" from "Seven Days in the Sun", and "Shatter" from "Tumble and Fall" released as A-sides after fan petitions and official website and fansite message board hype, and both charted at No. 12 and No. 11 in the UK. In 1986, the first single from XTC's record Skylarking, "Grass", was eclipsed in the United States by its B-side, "Dear God" – so much so that the record was almost immediately re-released with one song ("Mermaid Smiled") removed and "Dear God" put in its place, becoming one of the band's better-known hits.
On some reissued singles the A- and B-sides are by completely different artists, or two songs from different albums that would not normally have been released together. These were sometimes made for the jukebox, as one record with two popular songs on it would make more money, or to promote an artist to the fans of another. For example, in 1981 Kraftwerk released their new single "Computer Love" coupled with the B-side "The Model", from their 1978 LP The Man-Machine. With synthpop increasingly dominating the UK charts, the single was re-released with the sides reversed. In early 1982 "The Model" reached number one.
A "double A-side" is a single where both sides are designated the A-side; there is no B-side on such a single. The double A-sided single was invented in December 1965 by the Beatles for their single of "Day Tripper" and "We Can Work It Out", where both were designated A-sides. Other groups followed suit, notably the Rolling Stones in early 1967 with "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday" as a double-A single.
A double A-sided single is often confused with a single where both sides, the A and the B, became hits. Although many artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s like Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, the Beach Boys, Brenda Lee, and Pat Boone, routinely had hit singles where both sides of the 45 received airplay, these were not double A-sides. The charts below tally the instances for artist's singles where both sides were hits, not where both sides were designated an A-side upon manufacture and release. For instance "Hound Dog," the B-side of "Don't Be Cruel" by Elvis Presley, became as big a hit as its A-side even though "Hound Dog" was indeed not an A-side when released in 1956. Reissues later in the 1960s (and after the Beatles' "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out") listed the single with both songs as the A-side. Also, for Cliff Richard's 1962 "The Next Time"/"Bachelor Boy", both sides were marketed as songs with chart potential, albeit with "Bachelor Boy" pressed as the B-side.
In the UK, before the advent of digital downloads, both A-sides were accredited with the same chart position, as the singles' chart was compiled entirely from physical sales. In the UK, the biggest-selling non-charity single of all time was a double A-side, Wings' 1977 release "Mull of Kintyre"/"Girls' School", which sold over two million copies. It was also the UK Christmas No. 1 that year, one of only two occasions on which a double A-side has topped that chart, the other being Queen's 1991 re-release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" with "These Are the Days of Our Lives". Nirvana released "All Apologies" and "Rape Me" as a double A-side in 1993, and both songs are accredited as a hit on both the UK Singles Chart, and the Irish Singles Chart.
Queen released their first double-A single, "Killer Queen"/"Flick of the Wrist", in 1974. "Killer Queen" became a hit, while "Flick of the Wrist" was all but ignored for lack of promotion. Three years later, they released "We Are the Champions" with "We Will Rock You" as a B-side. Both sides of the single received much radio airplay (often one after the other), which led to them sometimes being referred to as double A-side. In 1978 they released "Fat Bottomed Girls"/"Bicycle Race" as a double A-side; that time both sides of the single became hits.
Occasionally double-A-sided singles were released with each side targeting a different market. During the late 1970s, for example, Dolly Parton released a number of double-A-sided singles, in which one side was released to pop radio, and the other side to country, including "Two Doors Down"/"It's All Wrong, But It's All Right" and "Baby I'm Burning"/"I Really Got the Feeling". In 1978, the Bee Gees also used this method when they released "Too Much Heaven" for the pop market and the flip side, "Rest Your Love on Me", which was aimed toward country stations.
Many artists continue to release double A-sided singles outside of the US where it is seen as more popular. Examples of this include Oasis's "Little by Little"/"She Is Love" (2002), Bloc Party's "So Here We Are"/"Positive Tension" (2005) and Gorillaz's "El Mañana"/"Kids with Guns" (2006).
Artists having the most US double-sided singles on which each side charted in the US Hot 100, according to Billboard:
Artists having the most US double-sided singles on which each side reached the Billboard Top 40, according to Billboard:
On vinyl, double A-sided singles had one song on either side of the record, while double B-sides contained two songs on the same side (on the B-side, making three songs in all). When such singles were introduced in the 1970s, the popular term for them was "maxi single", though this term is now used more ambiguously for a variety of formats. These would not quite qualify as EPs – as that is generally four songs on a 45. The term is also sometimes used in a derogatory fashion for a release with no A-side at all, suggesting neither side is of high quality.
Examples include "Styrafoam"/"Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie" by Tyla Gang (1976), and "Jack Rabbit"/"Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)" by Elton John (1973).
Genesis's 1978 7in single "Many Too Many" featured two B-sides "The Day The Light Went Out" and "Vancouver", which were And Then There Were Three outtakes. There was no 12in equivalent. The band released two 7in singles with three tracks apiece, "Spot The Pigeon" and "3X3" (aka "Paperlate"), which were explicitly marked as EPs. "Spot The Pigeon" was also released on a 12in. "Spot The Pigeon" also subverted this format a bit, by having two tracks on the A-side and one track on the B-side. The B-side, "Inside And Out", was also considered the selling point of the EP, being Steve Hackett's last contribution to the band, and remains a favorite of many fans.
Paul McCartney's 1980 single "Coming Up" had a studio version of the song on the A-side, while the B-side contained two songs, a live version of "Coming Up" and a studio instrumental called "Lunchbox/Odd Sox".
Iron Maiden's 1980 7in single "Sanctuary" was a rerecording of a song that had been given to the Metal For Muthas compilation the previous year. The recording was made during the Iron Maiden sessions but was left off the UK album and then put out as a single. To make up for this for fans who had bought Metal For Muthas for the track, the "Sanctuary" single had two live B-sides which were deliberately selected to be non-album tracks. "Drifter" and "I've Got The Fire" (Montrose cover). A studio recording of "Drifter" (with Adrian Smith instead of Dennis Stratton) would appear on their next album Killers, and a studio version of "I've Got The Fire" with Bruce Dickinson appeared on the B-side of "Flight of Icarus" a few years later. At the time this single was released they were the first live Iron Maiden tracks released (though more would follow), and it remains the only officially released recording of "I've Got The Fire" with Paul Di'Anno on vocals.
The singles from U2's album The Joshua Tree were released with two B-side songs each, which were pressed at 33 1⁄3 rpm. Versions for jukeboxes included only one of those songs, which played at 45.
The B-52's UK 7in single of "Love Shack" was released with live versions of "Planet Claire" and "Rock Lobster" on the B-side, the B-side playing at 33 1/3rpm. The follow-up "Roam" followed suit, including live versions of "Whammy Kiss" and "Dance This Mess Around" on the B-side playing at 33 1/3rpm.
The Rolling Stones released "Brown Sugar" from their album Sticky Fingers in May 1971. While the American single featured only "Bitch" as the B-side, the British single added a third track, a live rendition of "Let It Rock", the Chuck Berry classic, recorded at the University of Leeds during the 1971 tour of the UK.
The concept of the B-side has become so well known that many performers have released parody versions, including:
Additionally, Shonen Knife released an album called The Birds & the B-Sides in 1996. Later, Relient K released The Bird and the Bee Sides in 2008. They are not related to one another. Both recordings include many B-sides, as their names suggest.
In April 1998 Talk Talk released their compilation album called Asides Besides.
The term "b/w", an abbreviation of "backed with" is often used to introduce the B-side of a record. The term "c/w", for "coupled with", is used similarly.