B-52’s: B-52’s – US – CD – 
- Planet Claire
- 52 Girls
- Dance This Mess Around
- Rock Lobster
- There’s A Moon In The Sky [Called The Moon]
- Hero Worship
For months it stared at me. Daring me to buy it, but I was more yellow than the sleeve was. It remained until I saw the band play on Saturday Night Live on January 26th, 1980 that I finally got to hear this band that was so obviously unafraid of garish “bad taste.” Once I actually heard their sound I was right on this. In retrospect, I wish I had been brave enough to have bought the LP as soon as it hit my local K-Mart®. It’s not like that Screaming Yellow Zonker® of a cover didn’t immediately catch my attention.
Because albums this bracing and paradigm-shaking don’t come around on a regular basis! It began with Morse Code over an ominous organ drone. Then a hypnotic, slinking Spy-Fi surf riff of impeccable pedigree [stolen from “Peter Gunn Theme”] shot through with bongos, and the piercing beep of a …walkie talkie code key! Then the eerie, insinuating minor key organ riffs grabbed me by the lapels and made sure I was paying strict attention. Then, after what was 2:30 of a gripping instrumental track, Fred Schneider began delivering the lyric in his deadpan sprechgesang style. Except for the line “well she isn’t!” where Mr. Schneider went deep into the red to make his point.
Had I ever heard music this angular before? I daresay not! And did I say that it make you want to dance? Oh yeah. In fact, it made dancing to it seem like the coolest thing that you could ever be doing right now! The minimal, deliberately eccentric music was short on overkill but long on groove and coolly ironic attitude. And in hearing it, you were more than halfway to a party. Here’s proof!
The next song was perhaps the most conventional “rock” music to be found on the first side. “52 Girls” played like the mutant cousin to “My Generation” with its two chord, two vamp at the heart of the song. But The Who would never have allowed Kate Pierson’s cheesy organ riff to ride their song like the B-52’s did here. Philistines.
I’d seen the band perform “Dance This Mess Around” on Saturday Night Live and it’s still my favorite B-52’s song to this day. It all came down to Cindy Wilson’s commanding performance. The naked beat with the pulsating organ riff on the beat was illuminated with her heartfelt delivery. I love how she stared the song out in rapturous love and gradually became unhinged as her paramour would not dance with her. Moving from lovestruck ingenue to a woman screaming ferociously that she’s “not no limburger!”
And then at that peak of impact, the song abruptly sidestepped into a call-and response “new dance” song with complex harmonies and interactions by all three singers. Schneider being his usual deadpan self, and Kate Pierson’s strident vocals functioning like horns in the music. But it’s the sassy vocals of Cindy Wilson that cut through the busy arrangement with her pushing the southern drawl she has ready access to into the red, and that wins me over every time.
The first side closed with a perennial New Wave dance floor filler par excellence. “Rock Lobster” was played at every party you probably attended from 1979 to 1983 at least. Though it was a heck of a calling card for the album and band, I see that it reached only as high as #56 in the Billboard Hot 100®, which was higher than I would have guessed. But in Canada, the tune topped the charts! The Duane Eddy guitar twang over the relentless beat didn’t waste any time in making a big first impression. Kate and Cindy contributed an abstract vibrato vocal hook that came out of left field as the electric organ added that mid 60s trash aesthetic in spades.
Like many of the songs here, the band preferred minor keys to stake their claim in. Even the middle eight stayed in a minor key where others might have given in and switched to a major key. I love how the band used a smoke alarm buzzer for rhythmic sounds there and the disturbing ululating vocal interjections by the ladies were ripped screaming from the Yoko Ono playbook in a way that had never happened before.
The nearly seven minute track had plenty of structure to keep dancers grooving that long. The call and response section where Fred counted through various real and imaginary sea creatures was where Kate and Cindy made grotesque animal noises; allowing the song to build in frenzy. Finally, Kate let out a blood curdling scream as the track peaked after Fred shouted “here comes a bikini whale!” Does Rock & Roll get and more exciting than that?
Next: …Lava Love
This album has been a crucial touchstone for me for over 40 years. I can still recall being a college sophomore in upstate New York and seeing that day-glo album in someone’s dorm room, mind blown by the day-glo tunes contained within. This was weird wacky music I could enjoy (being a weird wacky misfit myself). Didn’t get to see them in the earliest days, but attending two shows of the Whammy tour was an utter joy. These folks were definitely my peeps!
Taffy – And it pays to remember that there was almost NO weird, wacky music of this caliber back then! The sense of playful experimentation had not yet come of age. Maybe only DEVO had similar juxtapositional DNA in their music writing, but their ends were far more serious as they came from an embittered formational experience in the Kent State Massacre. This album had a catalytic effect on Pop Music itself via their synthesizing of wildly disparate musical elements and a Pop Art ethos filtered through their queerness. Not to mention forming the foundation of the Athens, GA “scene” that had strong legs afterward.
Oh yeah…my own emerging appreciation of kitsch and bygone styles (not to mention my own emerging queerness) got a huge boost from these weirdos. I couldn’t believe these misfits were doing exactly what I’d have chosen to do, had I any talent and the nurturing community to do so! The 80s got a lot more day-glo as they went on, but the B’s got there first and did it best. And the music just killed…no dorm party *I* attended was complete without hearing all of side one of this record. Pass the tanning butter!!!
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Just finding your blog – WOW – I have been so nostalgic lately about my 80’s high school and college and post college experiences lately and the music from that era, especially the Brit-Pop and American B-52 style answer or cousins, features so prominently in my memories. I’ve been buying CDs and downloading like crazy.
This album and Rock Lobster are prominent and remind me of parties – I went to school in Arizona, so proximity to SoCal, KROQ and 91X provided the music influence for the alternative scene. Going to clubs with my boyfriends then and dancing the night away – such fun…so many great bands and music which in retrospect is truly unique and reflect a specific time/era. I always call it ‘my music’ in that it’s the music of my generation.
Duran Duran, B-52s, Missing Persons, Flock of Seagulls, OMD, The Police, UB40, Siouxhie and the Banshees, Blondie, New Order, The English Beat, Joy Division, Yaz, Erasure, Adam Ant, Frankie goes to Hollywood, on and on and on…..
Thanks for reminders/memories….
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Bridget – Welcome to the comments! Glad I can be of some help in your musical nostalgia. I went to school in Central Florida which was mostly overlooked by bands I was into when they toured. It wasn’t until after college that I began seeing bands I liked, and by the time they eventually put Florida on their itineraries, they were usually in decline. Making the experience bittersweet. To put it in perspective, my first rock concert was when I was half finished with college!
Speaking of Duran Duran…their new opus is being prepared while we type. I’m guessing they will hold back until they have some chance of touring again. Hope it’s better than their recent DL Bowie cover, but with those guys it’s like a spin of the wheel each time out. Could be teeth gnashing. Could be great. Or in between.
We’ve got over a decade of posts here @ PPM. Almost 2200, so if you get bored, hit the RANDOM POST button and maybe you’ll get a neat memory jog.
Well, I didn’t go to many concerts. The few I did were The Cars, Police, Go-gos, Queen, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac…..I did see Flock of Seagulls in a small bar venue in Los Angeles. They were not kitted out in their make up, etc. You would not recognize them, but the music was recognizable and it was an intimate setting. I could kick myself because I could have gone to see the famous Depeche Mode concert at the Rose Bowl in 1989, but didn’t….I did see Oingo Boingo at the Greek Theater.. lots of fun. I’m in Europe now and have tix to OMD in Germany-it got postponed to next year, but I just saw they are going to have done concerts in UK this fall…I am going to try to get there for that….
Thanks again for this blog. I know it’s a lot of work to write and write consistently….I’ll definitely stop by to read about your experiences of our shared times/memories with regard to music.
The years 76-81 were quite tumultuous for me, but the relevant part was when I first lived with my mom just outside Atlanta (a place I would return to later on). Old enough to drive but not old enough to legally drink, I heard about the wild parties up in Athens and starting making routine trips up there, getting into house and other “concerts” and clubs that featured many of the early Athens bands right on the cusp of making it big in some cases. By far my faves were Pylon and the B-52s because they really sounded like nothing else this side of Devo. I saw them quite a few times in those days, in sweatbox clubs and (like everyone else there) in a dance frenzy. I kept a low profile because of the whole “underage drinking” thing, but occasionally got to chat a bit with Cindy (in particular, soooo cute!!), Ricky (also quite good-looking), and Fred (who was and is hilarious).
I was all over that debut album from the B’s when it came out in the glorious (especially musically) summer of ’79 — finally I could play the amazing dance frenzy of “Rock Lobster” et al to others, because describing this kind of music to disco (or even punk) fans in 78-79 was an exercise in futility. It was certainly considered an “extremely weird” record by most at the time, at least where I was living (which varied greatly in those years).
I know the Monk and I played them on our high school radio station, quite possibly the first people to do so in “Bore-lando,” a town which was furiously determined to ignore as much of the changing styles of music as possible! All these years later it is still one of the great dance albums of the era and still much beloved by us both.
chasinvictoria – Naturally, the LP was in our legendary “pre-football game” after school DJ sets at our high school radio station. I remember that when I did finally get that album, that Mr. Valentine sought to immediately borrow it from me and take it to Parliament House to enlighten the DJs there, who might have still been playing “disco disco” even that late in the game.
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Planet Claire is one of the greatest album openers of all time. With it, the band set the tone, set the scene, and set your body in motion. Brilliance from another galaxy.
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Echorich – You nailed it there! “Planet Claire” built a whole new universe that said “This is The B-52’s!” They threw Duane Eddy, 60s Garage Rock, Nino Rota, and Yoko Ono into a blender and pressed frappé with a boldness that was startling.
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