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Friday, August 10, 2012

The B-52's: Whammy!

THE B-52'S: WHAMMY! (1983)

1) Legal Tender; 2) Whammy Kiss; 3) Song For A Future Generation; 4) Butterbean; 5) Trism; 6) Queen Of Las Vegas; 7) Moon 83; 8) Big Bird; 9) Work That Skirt.

Goodbye David Byrne, hello electronic age. The B-52's have tasted maturity and found it some­what unpalatable, so Whammy! is all about rolling back into nerdy adolescence, but with proper respect to changing musical tastes. The biggest technical change is that this time around, only two out of five members are credited for actually playing any instruments — Strickland and Wilson handle all the guitars, bass, keyboards, and percussion duties, with synthesizers and drum machi­nes being far more notable than anything else (there is also a small brass section guesting on ʽBig Birdʼ), whereas Schneider and the girls only contribute their vocal talents — that is, besides wri­ting most of the material.

The discrimination of guitars in favor of electronics was trendy at the time, but, like most of such decisions, turned out to be «artistically incorrect» in the long run. «Live» instrumentation was an essential part of the early B-52's, and their quirky guitar riffs were just as important in creating their nerd party atmosphere as the vocals. The electronic arrangements are not as good an alterna­tive to go along with that atmosphere, although, to be honest, there is still plenty of guitar parts scattered around, and the synth melodies try, as best they can, to generate the same cheesy mix of mystery and hilariousness as the earlier stuff, so my main beef is probably with the drum machi­nes — most of the drum machine parts do not offer us a good reason for being there. Peter Gab­riel could handle them meaningfully, but the B-52's just used them because everybody else did at the time, with hordes of angry hungry drummers in line for the soup kitchen.

On the good side of things, the B-52's had not yet traveled a sufficiently long way with Byrne so as to be unable to slip back into their old hooliganish skins. Four years deep into their recording career, they can still easily plunge you into the same old world of New Wave-processed pop culture — best illustrated on the album's two «shiniest» tracks, ʽSong For A Future Generationʼ and ʽButterbeanʼ. The former was released as a single and remains one of the band's most de­fining anthems — every member voices his or her Zodiac sign and all the band joins together in listing every pop cliché they can recollect ("wanna be the captain of the Enterprise / wanna be the king of the Zulus / let's meet and have a baby now!"). And everybody gets so involved that it is al­most tempting to forget the irony. Fortunately, tempting, but impossible.

The rest of the songs cling to more particular mini-subjects: the lyrics usually stick together in little storylines, such as a tale of successful counterfeiters in ʽLegal Tenderʼ, or an account of a successful gambling strategy in ʽQueen Of Las Vegasʼ, or an ode to sci-fi means of transportation in ʽTrismʼ, or ʽBig Birdʼ, which, as amazing as it is, is really a song about a big bird. These are all fairly straightforward subjects, and the real charm of all these songs is in how vehemently, with complete devotion and abandon, Fred and the girls launch into the respective deliveries — which is where it all turns from triviality into high-class absurd.

Mind you — not nearly as high-class as in the «old days», when the lyrics used to be more unde­cipherable and the guitar passages took active part in the formation of silly mysteries. Whammy!, from an overall part of view, is more straightforward and accessible. In addition, ʽMoon 83ʼ is a somewhat unnecessary electronic remake of the earlier ʽThere's A Moon In The Skyʼ (as it now stands — replacing the track on the original LP, which was a cover of Yoko Ono's ʽDon't Worry Kyokoʼ, later taken off for legal reasons), and the final instrumental ʽWork That Skirtʼ is a rather bland bit of «electronic boogie» that could really use some vocal hooks.

All of which makes Whammy! much less than perfect — yet it is still a bona fide B-52's album, capturing the band in a youthful, experimental (maybe a bit too experimental for their own good), and razor-sharp state of mind. Look past some of its dated aspects and who knows, you might be chanting "come on mammy, give me that whammy" in no time. Thumbs up.

Check "Whammy!" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Whammy!" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty fond of this record. I agree about the drum machines though, they really hold it back. Apparently Strickland wanted to be upfront in concerts so he ditched the drums. I don't see why he couldn't have played real drums on the album and just used the drum machines live though. Oh well, it's not a huge loss.

    Most everything on side one is a highlight for me, though of course "Song For A Future Generation" still easily takes the cake. Hilarious lyrics, great groove, fun vibe, catchy hooks, nearly everything the band did best.

    It's dumb that they had to cut "Don't Worry", the only thing it has in common with Yoko's song is that the only words in both are "don't" and "worry". Really a dick move on Yoko's part to force them to remove it. She lets everybody and their grandmother cover John's "Imagine" but make a song with exactly 1 feature in common with "Don't Worry Kyoko" and she threatens legal action. Anyway, "Don't Worry" isn't a big highlight or anything but I still prefer it to the unnecessary "Moon 83". It's kind of overlong but fun enough.
    "Work That Skirt" really does sound like a normal song from the album but with the vocals wiped, which means it's far less interesting than the rest.

    So Whammy! is a flawed record, but it nonetheless features some of their best ever material.