Before music streaming, even before CDs, there was vinyl. Vinyl records came in albums and singles. The singles, in a 45 rpm format, had an A-side and a B-side. It was the song on the record’s front, the A-side, which was intended to be the hit. The A-side got the record label marketing. The B-side was just the flip side, typically a throwaway song. But some B-side songs—often through luck, good and bad—still managed to become far more successful than their A-side “hits.”
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10 “Rock Around the Clock”—Bill Haley and His Comets (1954)
This might just be the song that started it all. Before “Rock Around the Clock,” the term “rock and roll” was so unknown that the tune was labeled a “novelty foxtrot.”
Expectations for “Rock around the Clock’s” success were so minimal that it was the B-side to a song called “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man).” “Thirteen Women” was about a nuclear bomb leaving fourteen survivors, only one of them male. Not surprisingly, that song went nowhere. The B-side of the record, “Rock Around the Clock,” also seemed destined for obscurity.
But then the rock era started when “Rock Around the Clock” found its way into the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle. Bill Haley and His Comets laid claim to the first-ever rock #1 song in the United States.
9 “Green Onions”—Booker T. and the MGs (1962)
Booker T. and the MG’s were the house band for the Memphis, Tennessee, soul label Stax Records. They had never released an album when they recorded “Green Onions.”
The only reason “Green Onions” happened was that the group was waiting in the studio for a rockabilly singer one night. The singer was late for the recording session. The group filled the time fooling around with the instrumental that became “Green Onions.”
The next morning, guitarist Steve Cropper brought a copy of the song to a Memphis radio station. The DJ liked the song so much that he played it four or five times in a row. The response from listeners was so enthusiastic the A-side song “Behave Yourself” was forgotten.
“Green Onions” has been part of the soundtrack in movies like American Graffiti and television shows like The Sopranos and Miami Vice. It was even in a commercial for adult diapers.
8 “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”—Green Day (1997)
This has to be the most paradoxical song on our list. The title “Good Riddance” is a kiss-off; the subtitle, “time of your life,” sounds so very encouraging.
Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong wrote this song after his girlfriend moved to Ecuador. To show his anger and his appreciation, he called the song both “Good Riddance” and “Time of Your Life.”
The group had no expectations of popular success with the song. It initially appeared as the B-side to a song that was not even sung in English. Then fate intervened in the form of the television show Seinfeld. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” was used on the second to last Seinfeld episode. In this episode, the cast takes a nostalgic look back at all the laughs they enjoyed over the years of the show. “The Good Riddance” part of the song has been forgotten.
7 “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”—Steam (1969)
This song’s place in American pop culture is secure. It’s often sung by the crowd at sporting events. When the home team is about to win, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” often rings out. But the song’s path to a stadium-pleasing anthem was anything but ordinary.
The song was started but not finished in the early ’60s. At the time, the song’s title was “Kiss Him Goodbye.” Eight years later, the group, then known as the Glenwoods, recorded a ballad called “Sweet Laura Lee.”
Needing a B-side, they resurrected their old song. That song didn’t have a chorus, so one musician in the group improvised the “na na na na, goodbye” part. His bandmate added the “hey hey hey,” which they repeated over and over. An executive at Fontana Records heard the song and preferred it to the A-side. The group had a hit.
What they didn’t have was a new name for the group. One of the musicians got the name Steam from watching steam rising from a manhole cover in the street outside the studio.
6 “Maggie May”—Rod Stewart (1971)
The A-side of “Maggie May” was “Reason to Believe.” That song enjoyed some success, reaching #62 on the charts. But the B-side became an international #1 song.
There are competing claims about who was the first to play “Maggie May” on the radio. Rod Stewart has said it was a Cleveland DJ; the music director of a Chicago radio station says he was the one. Either way, radio stations flipped the record over and played “Maggie May.”
The song was inspired by the woman who deflowered Stewart at 16 at a jazz festival. Oddly enough, the name “Maggie May” does not appear in the song. Rod Stewart borrowed the title from “Maggie Mae,” a folk song about a prostitute.
5 “Gloria”—Them (1964)
Gloria was written by Van Morrison, lead singer of Them, an Irish garage band. The song is about a girl who stops by his house for sex. The record label for “Gloria” thought so little of the song that it was relegated to the flip side of the band’s cover of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” a blues song from the 1930s.
The song got little airplay in England but found a following in America. Today, Rolling Stone magazine considers “Gloria” to be one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
4 “Beth”—Kiss (1976)
Typically, it’s the record company that selects a song as the B-side of a record. Here’s a hit that the band wanted to be buried on the B-side. The band preferred the high-octane “Detroit Rock City.”
“Beth” is a piano ballad. The song was wildly out of character for Kiss, one of the hardest-rocking bands of the 1970s. But then Rosalie Trombley’s daughter fell in love with the ballad. Rosalie Trombley was the music director at a rock station in Ontario, Canada. At her daughter’s urging, she gave “Beth” heavy airplay at the station.
The song eventually became Kiss’s highest-charting single ever. Today—perhaps to the dismay of the band’s hard-rocking band members—the song is played on adult contemporary radio stations.
3 “La Bamba”—Ritchie Valens (1958)
“La Bamba” has the most tragic story of any song on our list. “La Bamba” started out as a Mexican folk song. It was originally released as the B-side to Ritchie Valens’s (born Richard Valenzuela) single “Donna.” This was a hit in its own right.
Then Ritchie Valens was killed at 17 in a plane crash. He died, along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, on February 3, 1959. “La Bamba” became hugely popular when the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba was released nearly thirty years later in 1987.
The movie was the first mainstream Hollywood film with a Hispanic subject. It starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie. Musician and songwriter Marshall Crenshaw played Buddy Holly.
2 “Into the Groove”—Madonna (1985)
Here’s another B-side hit caused by a movie. This club favorite by Madonna became popular because of its inclusion in the comedy-drama Desperately Seeking Susan.
“Into the Groove” was the B-side to the release of Madonna’s forgettable “Angel.” Strangely, despite its success in America, the song was never released elsewhere as a single. “Into the Groove” was voted Song of the 1980s by Billboard readers.
1 “Ruby Tuesday”—Rolling Stones (1967)
This is the only song on our list—maybe the only song in rock history—to give its name to a string of restaurants. Yes, the Ruby Tuesday restaurants are named after this Rolling Stones B-side hit.
The hit only happened because radio stations preferred “Ruby Tuesday” to its then scandalous A-side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Because of its sexual implications, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was censored on the Ed Sullivan television show. Mick Jagger was required to sing the less provocative “let’s spend some time together” instead. From there, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” stalled at #55 in the U.S.
But the B-side, “Ruby Tuesday,” became the fourth #1 hit for the Rolling Stones. Ironically, for all the concern about the suggestive nature of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Ruby Tuesday” is about a groupie.