Even if you’ve never owned a copy of Cosmic Thing by The B-52s, odds are good that you’ve heard it.
When the freaky-deaky Athens, Georgia, group dropped their fifth album in 1989, the bubbly day-glo pop singles “Roam” and “Channel Z” spread across the country like a jitterbugging virus. As good as those songs were, it was Cosmic Thing’s fourth track, “Love Shack,” that went supernova and elevated the band into the pantheon of wedding DJ go-tos.
The B-52s were already underground icons when they dropped their self-titled debut in 1979. Named after a certain style of beehive hairdo, the band (Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson, and Keith Strickland) emerged from the same college rock Athens scene that produced R.E.M. and Pylon. On that debut, you can already hear the heady cocktail of campiness, high energy, B-movie surrealism, and sheer joy that makes the band such a delight. Look no further than “Rock Lobster” (also a fourth-track wonder) off The B-52's to hear their deranged magic at work — part beach party jam, part marine biologist's psychotic breakdown. It's a one-of-a-kind oddball masterpiece.
The band were a John Waters movie come to life — gleeful retro-freaks that were proudly out of step with the times. While classified as a New Wave band, the group's sound is a grab-bag of old thrift store sounds: surf rock, girl-group pop, exotica, and old school rock 'n' roll blended together with weird guitar tunings and off-kilter rhythms. It was their unique vocal interplay that set them apart. Fred Schneider's uber-campy barking often bounced off Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's gorgeous voices.
In honor of Cosmic Thing’s 30th anniversary and the band’s upcoming 40th Anniversary World Tour show at Comerica Theatre on Wednesday, August 14, we’ve put together an introduction to the wonderful and wild world of The B-52s. Each track is a selection from one of their studio albums (and no, "Love Shack" isn’t on here: You can go listen to it the next time one of your cousins gets married).
"Dance This Mess Around" (The B-52's, 1979)
Picking a representative track for this album is almost an impossible task. Their self-titled album is lightning in a bottle — one of those rare debuts when a band emerges in their perfect form. It sounds unlike anything else out there in the world. The B-52s didn't need to find their sound. They were completely and utterly themselves from the first note of "Planet Claire." All of the ingredients are here: the warped girl group vocals, Fred Schneider's campy exhortations, the beach party guitars, and the sock-hop-on-acid rhythms.
While "Rock Lobster" and "52 Girls" are peak-batshit B-52s, "Dance This Mess Around" may very well be their best "first" song. Its skeletal and nervy sound connects the band to the experimental scenes blowing up across the U.S. at the time (add some synths and nasal vocals, and this is basically a Devo song) while also throwing plenty of nods to the old rock 'n' roll music they love. The song is a swinging rope bridge linking the past and future together, and The B-52s are doing the watusi on top of it for dear life.
"Give Me Back My Man" (Wild Planet, 1980)
Wild Planet had the misfortune of following a nearly flawless, iconic debut. But it deserves to be considered in the same class of greatness as the group's self-titled record. It takes the band's signature sound and tightens it up. They vamp faster and harder. While nothing on Wild Planet is as transcendentally weird as "Rock Lobster," The B-52s still kick out one tasty jam after another: "Private Idaho," "Devil in My Car," "Quiche Lorraine," and "Party Out of Bounds." "Give Me Back My Man" gets the nod as Wild Planet's top tune, thanks to one of Cindy Wilson's finest vocal performances. She purrs, moans, sneers, and delights in the high stakes of the song — begging and bargaining for her man with fistfuls of fish and candy as the band back her up with caffeine-jitters rhythms. Like all the best B-52s songs, it's goofy, yet the band commit to it with 100 percent sincerity.
"Butterbean" (Whammy!, 1983)
Whammy! might be The B-52s' most underrated album. The crew apply an extra layer of sci-fi movie kitsch to their delirious party sound. While Whammy! has its share of highlights (the catchy-as-sin instrumental "Work That Skirt" and the springy New Wave of "Legal Tender"), "Butterbean" is the album's dance-your-face-off peak. It works in "Rock Lobster" level screams, metronome-on-speed drumming, electronic noises that sound like frogs being dropped off a three-story building, and a recipe for preparing the titular beans in the lyrics. It's not every day that a song can do double-duty as party-starter and meal-muse.
"Wig" (Bouncing Off the Satellites, 1986)
This is the band's "heart of darkness" album. Two years after dropping Whammy!, the band lost one of their own — guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Wilson died while they were in the middle of recording Bouncing Off the Satellites. Regrouping to finish the record after laying him to rest, the band sound haunted by his absence on the album. Despite being assisted by session men and adorned with even more electronic instruments and New Wave sonics, the record still manages to sound ... sparse and half-finished.
But even when The B-52s are down, you can never count them out: Any record with a song called "Theme for a Nude Beach" isn't going to be beyond redemption. One of the record's most joyous sounding cuts is "Wig." It kicks off with an all-time great call and response between Fred and the girl ("What's that on your head?" "A WIIIG"). It's propelled by an infectious guitar strum and the girls' weird seal noises. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson sing "neon neon" like they're two tiny island princesses trying to summon Mothra from its slumber.
"Topaz" (Cosmic Thing, 1989)
This is The B-52s comeback classic. Everybody knows this album for "Love Shack", but the real reason to own a copy of Cosmic Thing is so you can listen to "Topaz" whenever you want. It's the greatest song The B-52s ever recorded. It's the song that makes good on the cosmic in the album's title. Singing "the universe is expaaaandiiiiiing," the girls sound like they're expanding themselves. This tune is the Big Bang for an entire B-52s musical universe. The saxophones, the guitars, the gentle interjections from Fred, and the way the song builds to a climax and breaks apart only to levitate back up to the heavens on that divine chorus again — sheer perfection. "Topaz" is the sound of this gorgeous band of misfits peaking on ecstasy and acid at the same time.
"Is That You Mo-Dean?" (Good Stuff, 1992)
Much like Wild Planet, Good Stuff had to follow a tough act. Good Stuff definitely feels like a naked attempt to make another "Love Shack," but even a half-assed "Love Shack" is worth visiting (and revisiting). The best cut on Good Stuff? The interstellar pop song "Is That You Mo-Dean?" If I ever get abducted by aliens and someone asks me where I was after the fact, I hope I can say "ON A UFO" exactly the way Fred says it on this song.
"Pump" (Funplex, 2008)
How does a party band from the '80s enter the new millennium? By hooking up with the producer of New Order's Get Ready. Funplex is the group's glossiest pop album. The shiny textures and immaculate production are an odd fit for their music: Tracks like "Eyes Wide Open" sound like them trying (and failing) to pull off an LCD Soundsystem impersonation. But other Funplex songs show the band pulling some new tricks out of their magic bags. "Pump" is a latter-day career high. It vamps like Peter Gunn while having a driving motorik sound. Who could have imagined that sounding like Stereolab would turn out to be such good luck for Georgia's greatest cultural export?
The B-52s are scheduled to perform Wednesday, August 14, at Comerica Theatre. Tickets are $39.50 to $205 and can be purchased via LiveNation.
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