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  • B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to Popular in Music, 1960 to the Present
  • Shelley L. Smith
B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to Popular in Music, 1960 to the Present. By George Plasketes. (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. [xii, 209 p. ISBN 9780754665618. $99.95.] Bibliography, index.

Remember 45 rpm records? You bought a record because you liked the A-side; it was the hit single, the catchy tune from the full-length album by the artist. Occasionally you lucked out and discovered a treasure on the B-side, but you didn't expect it. The B-side had a track that didn't make the album, or an instrumental version of the song, or something experimental. It generally just wasn't as commercially viable as the A-side. As George Plasketes notes in this book:

Symbolically, and perhaps idealistically, the B-side offered a metaphor for musicians, a place of possibility. The 'flip side' was an outlet for conceiving and dividing their work, a line of demarcation, a detachment or diversion from the commercially viable art, airplay and industry expectations that accompanied the A-side. There was little to lose and much to gain from the grooves of least resistance that were the B-side.

(pp. 1–2)

Plasketes continues and expands this metaphor of the B-side in his new book. If the title referred only to the B-side of 45s, the introduction of this book would have served the purpose, properly presented as a scholarly article instead of a book. But Plasketes uses the metaphor of the B-side to examine popular music in general from 1960 to the present through the media of music, film, video, and television. The chapters beyond the introduction explore the undercurrents and overtones in popular music, not the mainstream; the B-side, rather than the A-side.

Plasketes begins with the career of producer Terry Melcher. Melcher's credits include the familiar "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds and "Kokomo" by The Beach Boys, but Plasketes is persuasive in arguing that Melcher's contributions are destined to be B-sides. Plasketes follows with a chapter about seven groups in the suburbs of Chicago during the 1960s (The Ides of March, New Colony Six, The Buckinghams, The Cryan' Shames, The American Breed, The Shadows of Knight, and The Mauds). Much of the information in this chapter is from Plasketes' personal experience growing up in the western suburbs of Chicago during this time. It is particularly in this chapter that the author's knowledge of the subject is undeniably evident. Plasketes concludes this chapter with a helpful discography of the seven groups' singles and albums. [End Page 101]

The third chapter, about Hans Fenger and the Langley Schools Music Project, is a beautiful example of the B-side metaphor, even if it temporarily approaches popular, A-side status. Schoolchildren in 1970s Canada singing pop/rock music were recorded and forgotten. Twenty-five years later the recordings were discovered by New Jersey radio station personality and musicologist Irwin Chusid. He pushed for their release, and they eventually sold about 100,000 units. This chapter is one of the more enjoyable and readable sections of the book.

Neil Young is, of course, an A-side artist, but his conflict with David Geffen about branding provides B-side fodder for chapter 4. As Plasketes points out, it was "a peripheral case that never ascended to a landmark lawsuit in the rock annals" (p. 67). The career of Ry Cooder follows in chapter 5. This is a natural progression, as the B-side theme expands beyond popular music albums to encompass film music using Cooder's musical life as an example. Plasketes thoughtfully provides an annotated discography of Cooder's work to assist the reader. The next chapter, about world music and cross-cultural contributions to popular music, is a logical next step after Cooder's blues and multicultural emphases; in fact, Cooder is examined again in the world music context. Plasketes concludes the chapter with a brief but helpful selected discography of the artists discussed. The next chapter follows the experience of John Fortenberry as the videotape...


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