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The B-Side Spirit

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I’m a B-Side guy. Always have been.

Back in the day, when vinyl disks called “records” would deliver our music, one would have to actually get up out of one’s seat and walk over to the turntable to flip an album over from one side to the other. Remember that? Well, it turns out that over time, record producers would editorially arrange the music on a particular album to take advantage of the two-sided format. The most common prescription would be to put all the pop hits and songs that were destined to become singles on the A-Side of the album, while the deeper, experimental or quirky songs were relegated to the B-Side of the album. I suppose the thought process was that some listeners are too lazy to get up and flip the record, so the producers would place all the popular music and the more commercial songs on one side to make it easy for those folks to access.

The marketing worked like a charm, too. When you went to a music store (yes, they had special places back then where one would go to purchase records!), you would select a record based on the few songs that you heard and liked on the radio. Then, only once you got the record home and spun it on your turntable would you be privy to all the funky stuff on the B-Side of the record. Sometimes it was good funky, other times it was just plain funky. Sometimes it started out funky and slowly grew on you until you one day decided that you were going to dig it.

But some people would buy a record and go immediately to the eclectic B-Side. Maybe it’s because I like to get my money’s worth, but I am one of those. A B-Side guy. I am curious, a little geeky, and I like to examine the range of the band. I like to hear the stuff that the band likes to play but the producers think will not generate any ching. I like to dig deeper than just the commercial experience. I take time to stop and smell the roses. I am into the aesthetics of the experience. I like to feel that I am more familiar with the band than many of the commercial fans. Where typical consumers can be fair-weather fans, I take time to develop an understanding of what the band is really trying to accomplish and I become a loyalist. For a band to win me over, though, it must lay down some groovy B-Side tracks, and not just what the industry shill radio stations are serving up. That’s why my favorite band is The Back Street Boys. [Just seeing if you’re still paying attention!]

Many of the whisky enthusiasts that I know are B-Side guys, whether they know it or not. Some are mildly aware B-side geeks, while others are proud, unrepentant B-Side nerds by choice. But they seem to have a couple things in common: a strong sense of curiosity and the capacity to become passionate or inspired about stuff that others might find mundane.

More than any other spirit, whisky seems to spark that passion. It has history. It has range. It has depth. One can trace a dram’s complex flavors to certain ingredients, processes or woods utilized during production. Whisky trade has influenced history. Likewise, the whisky trade has been influenced greatly by events and market forces throughout history. Whisky is produced completely on speculation and nobody knows if a particular cask will be a bust or a boom some twenty years hence, and that is neat to think about. The people who make whisky are interesting folks (and a varied lot). There is much to ponder whilst whittling away at any particular tipple.

Vodka, Rum and Gin are fine for mixing, and some of the better ones have some interesting qualities worth discussing. But different parts of your brain are activated when you reach for a neat dram of whisky. The very same nerve synapses fire away when you listen to the second album in Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

The Doors play a fun little ditty called The Alabama Song (Whisky Bar). It would be a perfect way to illustrate my point about whisky if that song were on the B-Side of The Doors’ debut album. Alas, The Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) is song #5; a decidedly A-Side position. Oh well. But it is definitely a B-Side song. Maybe that’s why The Doors are my (real) favorite band (not The Back Street Boys). In thumbing their collective nose at the typical record sales formula, The Doors showed moxy. And that debut album hit the top of the charts despite this interesting editorial decision.

The next time you settle in for a dram session, put your favorite B-Side on in the background. You may have to arrange a special “play list” on your fancy iPod gadget to capture the eclectic, noncommercial songs all in one place to simulate a B-Side, but it will be worth the effort. Then sit back and let your thoughts be guided by the interesting minutia of the music and the whisky. You’ll thank me for it.

L’chaim & slainte!
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