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Friday, July 20, 2012

The B-52's: The B-52's


THE B-52'S: THE B-52'S (1979)

1) Planet Claire; 2) 52 Girls; 3) Dance This Mess Around; 4) Rock Lobster; 5) Lava; 6) There's A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon); 7) Hero Worship; 8) 6060-842; 9) Downtown.

For all of punk and New Wave's pretense to «alleviating» the heavy, stuffy atmosphere in which prog-rock and arena-rock acts had plunged popular music in the first half of the 1970s, most punk and New Wave acts were fairly stuffy themselves. The songs were either too rabid and angry or too intellectualized, the sound was too quirkily non-traditional, the whole «new school» approach required some getting used to (and many never really got used to it anyway). The Ramones could claim a serious teen pop influence, but they were still punks first and foremost. Only Blondie could be seen as a «fluffy» act, perhaps, but one might question whether Blondie had much to do with «New Wave» at all — mainly in appearance, much less in the music itself.

So when the B-52's came along, and they stuck around for two years at least before landing a se­rious recording contract, the niche they decided to occupy was practically empty — even if, of all the available niches, it was one of the most glaring: combine all these quirky New Wave influen­ces with kitsch, bubblegum, pop culture fetishism, and see what happens. The album cover alone, with its flashy colors, oversize wigs, and fashions that seem stuck somewhere in between the 1960s and 1970s, speaks volumes about what this record might turn out to be: lots of vapor-hea­ded fun with a healthy dose of self-irony, annoying «serious» music lovers, but delighting nerdy college students all over the college world.

Or it could be just a dumb, unmemorable, chaotic load of cretinous kitsch. Fortunately, already the opening track, ʽPlanet Claireʼ, confirms the positive impression. Riding on a grim, but seduc­tive surf-rock / James-Bond riff (they eventually had to co-credit the song to Henry Mancini because of its similarity to the Peter Gunn theme) combined with a robotic organ part that the band might have just as well picked up from Kraftwerk, it's a stylish, thrilling, and completely meaningless dance ride. But by combining the word "planet", invoking psychedelic associations, with the French name Claire, invoking Eric Rohmer and stylish European retro-modern à la 1960s, the B-52's create an illusion that the song is about something — maybe about the seduc­tive magic of fads? — and the guitar/organ duet on the tune still remains one of the most memo­rable flashes of the decade's end.

However, the first time that the B-52's had really caught the public eye was with ʽRock Lobsterʼ, a track that has all the same ingredients as ʽPlanet Claireʼ but keeps them going for a longer peri­od of time, and, more importantly, makes better use of all the vocal talent aboard — Fred Schnei­der sings the absurd lyrics about catching rock lobsters in his best stern Krautrock impersonation, while the band's ladies, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, surround him with single and double harmonies, calls-and-responses that tremble, bleat, wheeze, and bounce off each other like a set of pop harmony clichés that, all of a sudden, felt itself bad in the head and had to be straightjacke­ted. Here is the song that killed John Lennon — according to his own words, ʽRock Lobsterʼ was one of the main reasons he returned to an active music career, since it reminded him of what he and Yoko were doing in the early days of Plastic Ono Band. (And, it is true, some of the girls' vocalizing does owe a good deal to Yoko's brand of avantgarde «Nip-pop»).

The formula mostly stays the same throughout the album — sparkling surf-pop or power-pop riffs dressed in New Wave organs, B-movie-influenced lyrics, and inventive vocal arrangements that pin Schneider's overzealous nerdiness against the ladies' «pseudo-bimbo» lines that want to be Yoko Ono one minute and the Shangri-Las the next one. And this is not mentioning that most of the songs are crazily catchy — ʽThere's A Moon In The Skyʼ and ʽ52 Girlsʼ are de­licious swin­ging vignettes; ʽLavaʼ rocks as hard as its relatively wimpy arrangement allows a song whose ly­rics involve lines like "My heart's cracking like a Krakatoa"; ʽ6060-842ʼ is an obvious throwback to young and innocent days when sympathetic, sexy R&B performers could turn phone numbers into hits (ʽBeechwood 4-5789ʼ) — hey, what's a bona fide pop album without a good phone call song?; and the cover of Petula Clark's ʽDowntownʼ dissipates any final doubts about the record's major influences, if you still had any by the time the last track comes along.

In short, thirty years before the Pipettes, there were the B-52's, who showed the world what it really means to preserve the bubblegum legacy without falling into the trap of generic nostalgia — the best way to preserve old stuff is to carefully mix it with the new stuff. And this mix, al­most completely unique for 1979, is really what raises The B-52's status of «dumb catchy pop» to «landmark recording» — and also what makes it so timeless, because it still sounds just as lo­vingly bizarre, and endearing, today as it did back in the age of leisure suits and walrus mous­taches. Thumbs up, of course.

Check "The B-52's" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The B-52's" (MP3) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. Eight-six-seven-five-three-oh-niiiii-ee-ii-ene. I see what you mean there.

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  2. Quick, someone call Rich Bunnell.

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  3. A few months ago I explored the whole B-52's discography, so I'll likely be commenting plenty along the way with these reviews. This album is great, and while I don't feel it's their best (the last three tracks don't come close to giving me the same thrills as the rest which knocks it to second place for me) it's still the most important album they've ever done, if they never put out another album their legacy would still be secure. This is one of the most eerie sounding pop albums ever. Ricky Wilson and Kieth Strickland made for a killer rhythm section (which is made even more interesting by the band's lack of a bass player). "Planet Claire" may be my favourite track, that intro (which takes up half of the running length) might just be the best thing the band ever did. It kinda reminds me of "Astronomy Domine" a little.

    The Pipettes comparison is a little unfair. The only things that have in common is that they're both retro-inspired and have female singers. Everything else about them is completely different. The Pipettes were calculated to be as retro and 'perfect' as humanly possible with nothing new whatsoever, and while their formula was initially highly successful (IMO) it ultimately consumed the band whole. The B-52s were much more willing to go with the flow which resulted in plenty of longevity (but also plenty of change, sometimes for the worse).
    Anyway I'm looking forward to following you along with the rest of their discography. Curious as to how you'll feel on some of their mid-period records.

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