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.
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