[…continued from last post]
“Lava” was a fantastic deep cut with all three vocalists trading lines off of each other, while the only organ line in the song was the monophonic rhythmic pulse at various points in the song. I loved hearing Keith Strickland’s drum fills inserted sparingly at just the right moments to advance the song. And this little exchange was priceless.
“I’m gonna jump in a crater”Fred Schneider
“See you later” [deadpan, in unison]Kate Pierson + Cindy Wilson
The neat trick of Kate Pierson harmonizing along with her organ line that added oomph to “Planet Claire” was used again for the intro to “There’s A Moon in The Sky [Called The Moon.” The spartan, southern funk of the jaunty track made for some angular bop with a great return of Kate singing with her organ in the coda. Again, the band’s penchant for off-kilter minor key tension made for some refreshing dance music.
“Hero Worship” was an odd one out here with just Cindy Wilson singing and as much as I enjoy the whole band, at the end of the day Cindy’s vocals just speak to me strongest. Her delivery of the song was replete with squeals in the middle eight instead of singing and throughout the song, her range of expression was as wide as I’m used to ever hearing in a song. She covers so much ground embodying the various states of excitation and devotion held in the lyrics that it manages to make even as idiosyncratic a vocalist as Fred Schneider seem staid by comparison.
While many B-52’s songs were more than a little abstract, “6060-842” was a rare attempt at constructing a narrative, with the tale of Tina who saw a number written on a bathroom wall and tried to ring it up. Here, you could made out the keyboard bass [there were no bass guitars on this album] more easily in the spartan mix of the music. The unresolved jangling guitar licks and bongos subverted expectations yet again as this band loved to mine awkward, minor key arrangements and make of them their own. The exchange between Fred asking “hello?” while the operator replied “sorry!” was a funny bit of anxiety for the song to fade out on.
The album ended with a cover that wasn’t. There was party ambiance on the fade up and while it was nominally Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” the actual lyrics delivered had more than a little “I Know A Place” mashed up into the results. Cindy took lead vocals with a wild fake British accent in homage to Pet Clark imposed over her Southern drawl for maximum mutant appeal. There was no guitar here until the climax as the organ wove a loopy two-chord path through the drums. Then the song and album ended with the party ambience continuing for a few seconds. An inversion of the first moments of the debut Roxy Music album and “Re-Make/Re-Model.”
Like all of the best debut albums, this one really built a new world for the listener to explore. There was such a minimal sound at work here; multi-part vocals, with drums, a little percussion and bongos, with minimal organ lines vamping through it all. The twangy guitar as pictured on the famous inner sleeve only had four of its six strings, but reveled in retro twang/surf kicks from a generation earlier. The resulting album was a seminal influence on party records henceforth.
Generations of musicians learned that having fun and bringing humor to the work didn’t mean that they were a joke. Their kitsch aesthetics were so necessary and subsequently became widespread, that it seems hard to believe that there was ever a time when the blend of Post-Modern attitude that the album represented was not thick on the ground. The band were clearly sending up the girl group and party rock tropes present in these songs, yet in their poses which were clearly over the top, there was also a passionate sincerity if one scratched beneath the surface appearance. In particular, Cindy Wilson was pouring her heart and essence into her performances here.
It’s amazing to think that this album was recorded in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell producing! Island had signed the band for territories outside the US so that sort of made sense, but in terms of production, The B-52’s were a far cry from the Classic Rick and Reggae that Blackwell was known for, but if we dig further back, there were some commonalities to the Jamaican Ska that Blackwell cut his teeth on as well as a Dub influence in the abundant space in the arrangements and mix of the album.
For me, it’s the classic B-52’s album and listening 42 years later, I can cherish the total lack of quantization as there was no programming back then or a way to make the timing uniform, and the repetitive musical structures were played by hand [and sounded it]. And sounded wonderful for it as the tyranny of machine-like music has long since worn out its welcome with me. I breathe sighs of relief when the attack of each note played varies by a millisecond here and there and wish we could let that genie back into the bottle. The B-52’s lost a lot for me when they began to take on synthesizers and drum machines and became a precision unit. Then when Ricky died, Keith switching to guitar was a different ball game.
Gone were the days of playing rough and loose and doing things for the fun of it. It became a job for the band and records past the first two have a lot less of the playfulness and joy that erupts from these grooves. Their next album got a lot more polish but one could still recognize the party band from Athens in the results.