A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In the record business, what do "b/w" and "c/w" mean?

October 15, 1999

Dear Cecil:

What's the deal with the abbreviation "b/w" on an old 45 record to indicate the B side? I was told a long time ago that it stood for beside/with, but I've also seen it as "c/w"--contained/with? Can you shed any light on this burning issue?

Dear Worth:

B/w stands for "backed with," and I'm told c/w stands for "combined with," "coupled with," or some similar wording. Who would have guessed, eh? But at least now I have an excuse to tell a few stories about life before CDs, back when record companies issued "singles" on small black plastic disks known as "45s," the speed (in revolutions per minute) at which the disk was to be played on a "typewriter." Sorry, on a "phonograph"--with all the newly obsolete technology we've got these days, it's easy to get mixed up.

The term single actually is a misnomer--couple is more like it, since a 45 has two sides. The side the record company felt had the most commercial potential was referred to as the A side, and the flip side was the B side. In the trade press, and on the picture sleeve in which the single was often packaged, the A side was listed as being "b/w" (or occasionally "c/w") the B side, as in this 1958 Billboard ad: "Thanks DJs for All Those Spins / Connie Francis / Current Best Seller / 'Who's Sorry Now' c/w 'You Were Only Fooling.'"

A few musical geniuses were incapable of writing a second-rate song, and both sides of their singles became hits. For example, the Beatles made the top ten with both sides of "I Want to Hold Your Hand"/"I Saw Her Standing There," "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper," and "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever." Likewise, Aretha Franklin had top-ten hits with both sides of "The House That Jack Built"/"I Say a Little Prayer," the Coasters did the same with "Young Blood"/"Searchin'," and the Everly Brothers managed it with "Bird Dog"/"Devoted to You." The champ, however, is Elvis Presley, who had the only single in the history of rock 'n' roll with two number-one sides--"Don't Be Cruel" and (time's up!) "Hound Dog." So it's probably best we refer to these not as A and B sides, but rather A and A prime.

Even more interesting are single releases for which the A side sank like a stone while the B side went to the top of the charts. One classic example is "Surfer Joe" b/w "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris. "Wipe Out" was a throwaway song recorded in two takes, but the opening "witch laugh" by Surfaris manager/producer Dale Smallin made the tune unforgettable. "Surfer Joe" peaked at number 62, while "Wipe Out" rose to number 2.

Bob Shannon and John Javna's book Behind the Hits tells a slightly different tale about "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam. Gary DeCarlo, then working as a solo artist, recorded four songs for Mercury, all of which were deemed potential A sides. But some B sides were needed too, so DeCarlo went back to the studio. He and buddies Dale Frashuer and Paul Leka decided to rework a tune they'd written years earlier called "Kiss Him Goodbye." Figuring it needed a chorus, Leka began noodling at the piano, singing na na na na, na na na na in the time-honored manner of all songsmiths waiting for lyrical inspiration to strike. But no better words were forthcoming, and the trio turned the song over to the record company with the na na's intact. To their amazement, Mercury decided to release the tune as an A side on its Fontana label. DeCarlo and friends considered the song an embarrassment and didn't want their names associated with it, so the nonexistent group Steam was invented to take the blame. DeCarlo's four original A sides, including the flip side of "Na Na," "It's the Magic in You Girl," went nowhere. But "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" reached number one, sold more than a million copies, and years later became the unofficial theme song of the Chicago White Sox, whose fans sing it whenever an opposing pitcher or team has been dispatched.

In case you're wondering, vinyl singles are still issued, although in greatly reduced quantities, mainly for the benefit of jukebox operators, record collectors, and indie music fans. It may be a while before they disappear completely. For all today's digital technology, the recording industry has yet to come up with a single-song format to equal the 45.

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