ART DESIGN: Tony Wright
The B-52’s – The B-52’s
I feel 1979 was a transformative and odd time for music…
IN THIS PHOTO: The B-52’s (circa 1979)/PHOTO CREDIT: The B-52’s/Getty Images
when albums from all genres were flying together. Think about the albums that arrived in 1979 and you have Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, The Clash’s London Calling and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk; Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Pink Floyd’s The Wall! I guess every year has a fair mix of sounds but, at a time when Punk was making a burst through but we had legendary bands like Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd doing their thing, who is to say what is unusual or normal? Despite the extremes of 1979 I do not think the world was quite prepared for the likes of The B-52’s! They were, in essence, from another world. In terms of their music, it did not really fit in with the Punk ethos (obviously) and there was nothing as giddy, colourful and eye-opening as their debut. Released on 6th July, 1979, The B-52’s is a record that deserves vinyl attention. It is hard to get a copy but, if you look around you can get hold of one. In the eponymous debut, The B-52’s mixed Garage-Rock, Pop with Dance and Soul. There was, of course, a sense of kitsch and playfulness that sat alongside the seriousness – the album would not have resonated and endured has it only been surface-deep. Although they formed in 1979, the band looked like they had arrived from the 1950s – big hair, colourful suits and that blend of the suave and fantastical.
IMAGE CREDIT: The B-52’s/Getty Images
The band are celebrating forty years together right now – as I shall come onto – but it is good to see they have not exactly cooled it on the dress and hair front since 1979! The B-52’s would go on to create some pretty decent albums (such as Wild Planet and Cosmic Thing) but did they shine as brightly as they did on their debut? It is one of those interesting arguments around artists and their work – did they peak right from the off and lay down something supreme without warning? A lot of critics at the time might have been sniffy regarding this band from Athens, Georgia. Unlike their city-mates, R.E.M., these guys were unafraid to let them their hair down and provide something silly – although one of The B-52’s’ vocalists, Katie Pierson, did sing on R.E.M.’s (although R.E.M. went on to disown the song!) track, Shiny Happy People. With an album cover designed by Tony Wright, many picking up the vinyl for the first time would not have known what to make of things. The B-52’s was released only a few days after the introduction of the Sony Walkman (the device started in Japan but made its way to the rest of the world). I can imagine few greater joys than carrying The B-52’s with you as you ran or went about your business! Whilst some write The B-52’s off as a kitsch and gimmicky band, I think they are a lot deeper and more worthy than that dismissal.
Consider songs like Planet Claire (the opening track that was released the same day as the album) and how it builds like a film score. It is sort of Sci-Fi but it trips like a thief in the night; there are intergalactic moments and it is a song that seduces with ease. I know John Lennon, shortly before his death, name-checked The B-52’s and there was a lot of love for the band from Kurt Cobain too. In this Pitchfork celebration of The B-52’s, they mention the connection to Kurt Cobain (and Dave Grohl):
“On opposite sides of the country, pre-adolescents Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain both watched the band play “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around.” They would later refer to the B-52’s as formative music and style influences, and point to the debut as an example of a great album on a major label, since, in 1991, the ability of a major label to release a good record was actually a subject broached in interviews”.
Few albums rock and party as hard as The B52’s. Maybe there was this perception that they would be buried in a 1979 that was fostering other styles and movements. Maybe it was the quality of the hooks and melodies or the quirkiness of the songs: whatever it was, the band were taken to heart and they offered a fun and frivolous option to a lot of the more angered, depressive and po-faced music that was around that year.
IN THIS PHOTO: The B-52’s at an early gig/PHOTO CREDIT: The B-52’s/Getty Images
I want to return to that Pitchfork article because they give information regarding The B-52’s’ formation and how they sort of defied the odds in a way:
“In old interviews, the band says they’d only played a couple of ad-hoc house shows in Athens before trying their luck in Manhattan, driving up and back to play gigs for a few bucks and exposure. They were a live hit almost immediately, drawing fans to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB and getting the dourest post-punk scenesters to at least bob their heads along. Live videos and recordings from those first couple of years convey a wild energy propelled along with precise rhythms and an astounding amount of confidence. When the B-52’s showed up, it was a great party that could go way off the rails.
In 1979, they signed to Warner Brothers in the U.S. and Island in the UK, and went to the Bahamas to record their debut at Compass Point Studios with Chris Blackwell. Armed already with a monster single, the band consciously held back a few live hits for their second album, the more slickly produced Wild Planet in 1980. The B-52’scame out sounding raw and live because Blackwell wanted to accurately capture their electric sound in the rock clubs, which had won rabid fans with its danceability and maximal minimalism. It got them mentioned in the same breath as post-punk heavyweights Devo and Wire as art-punk on its release. That rawness worried the band at first, who found it “sterile,” Strickland said much later, but it served the songs well.
Major label or no, it’s still one of the most outright bizarre albums to sell over a million copies. From the opening Morse-code beeps of “Planet Claire,” the band’s interstellar obsession is foregrounded. Its “Peter Gunn” riff, Pierson’s keyboards, and wordless vocals make up the first two and a half minutes of the song before Schneider starts singing. It’s about their willingness to let tension build to the edges of discomfort, to startle a listener who might have thought this was going to be an instrumental only to start yelling at them about a planet where all the trees are red and no one ever dies or has a head.
With the exception of perhaps the Fall, there’s not another post-punk band that can claim such a consistently positive track record in terms of who they’ve inspired. Steve Albini and Madonna claim them as an influence. “Hero Worship” is all over Sleater-Kinney, who also forego bass guitar and have complementary vocalists, and who recorded a song with Fred Schneider for a 2003 Hedwig and the Angry Inch tribute record and covered “Rock Lobster” (with Fred Armisen) in their live shows”.
All of the songs on The B-52’s is great but one cannot ignore the sheer weirdness and wonderfulness of Rock Lobster! What the f*ck is the song even about?! It seems to fit right in with the album but, taken on its own, and it remains a unique and curious thing. I am not surprised The B-52’s gained kudos when it was released because, right throughout, you have a hell of a time. This retrospective review from AllMusic seems to wrap everything up rather nicely:
“Even in the weird, quirky world of new wave and post-punk in the late '70s, the B-52's' eponymous debut stood out as an original. Unabashed kitsch mavens at a time when their peers were either vulgar or stylish, the Athens quintet celebrated all the silliest aspects of pre-Beatles pop culture -- bad hairdos, sci-fi nightmares, dance crazes, pastels, and anything else that sprung into their minds -- to a skewed fusion of pop, surf, avant-garde, amateurish punk, and white funk. On paper, it sounds like a cerebral exercise, but it played like a party…
The jerky, angular funk was irresistibly danceable, winning over listeners dubious of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's high-pitched, shrill close harmonies and Fred Schneider's campy, flamboyant vocalizing, pitched halfway between singing and speaking. It's all great fun, but it wouldn't have resonated throughout the years if the group hadn't written such incredibly infectious, memorable tunes as "Planet Claire," "Dance This Mess Around," and, of course, their signature tune, "Rock Lobster." These songs illustrated that the B-52's' adoration of camp culture wasn't simply affectation -- it was a world view capable of turning out brilliant pop singles and, in turn, influencing mainstream pop culture. It's difficult to imagine the endless kitschy retro fads of the '80s and '90s without the B-52's pointing the way, but The B-52's isn't simply an historic artifact -- it's a hell of a good time”.
IN THIS PHOTO: The B-52’s as they are today/PHOTO CREDIT: The B-52’s/Getty Images
The band are actually in the U.K. right now – they play Gateshead Sage tonight and are down in London tomorrow - and, as this Rolling Stone article explains, The B-52’s are celebrating forty years together:
“The B-52s have announced a world tour commemorating the band’s 40th anniversary. The 43-date trek includes a headlining North American summer run along with European dates and festival appearances. Tickets for the 43-date trek go on sale on Friday. OMD and Berlin will serve as support on select dates.
The tour kicks off on May 4th in West Palm Beach, Florida at Sunfest. Following a string of dates throughout Europe in June and July, the band heads stateside, beginning in the West Coast on August 1st at Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, CA. The North American leg wraps on September 24th in New York, New York at Summerstage in Central Park”.
One cannot easily categorise The B-52’s as one genre/thing or another. There is the more Punk-driven sound of Hero Worship and the Pop touches of Planet Claire; the New-Wave/Surf of Rock Lobster and the utterly beguiling swing of Downtown. I hope people listen to the album again and, as it is forty in a matter of days, it is a perfect opportunity to spin this wonderful work. I am not sure whether The B-52’s have another album planned and what is happening but they continue to tour and love what they do. The B-52’s has campness and fun but there are the more serious songs that rely more on strings and drive as opposed angular words and catchy melodies.
In that sense, the band satisfied every taste in 1979. They spoke to those embracing Punk and Pink Floyd’s experimentation; those who loved what Fleetwood Mac were doing on Tusk and those who were spellbound by the Disco of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls – not to mention the fact that The B-52’s threw in a bit of David Bowie (glamour, camp and genre-hop) and The Jam (Punk and a definite, youthful spit!) in a year when both artists released big albums (Lodger and Setting Sons respectively). The Knack and Blondie were flying high in 1979 (the latter released the exceptional Eat to the Beat) so The B-52’s were not quite so out in the open – they sort of brought everything together and added in their own sugars, spices and cocktails! Forty years after its release, The B-52’s still sounds fresh and magnificent! There are new things coming from songs you might have overlooked and big hits like Rock Lobster have not lost their charm! If you want a record that that is perfect to lose yourself in then you can’t go wrong with The B-52’s. It is a magnificent beauty that was pretty radical in 1979 but sounds even more so in 2019! It started the U.S. band on a wonderful career – some say they never flew as high and wild! Wherever you put The B-52’s in the discography of the eponymous band, one cannot deny the album is…
PHOTO CREDIT: The B-52’s/Getty Images