They were the last band that John Lennon claimed as one of his current favorites before his passing and put Athens, Georgia on the music map a couple of years before R.E.M. graced the throes of the college music scene. Formed in the mid-70s after a drunken night at a Chinese restaurant, the members of the B-52’s had no musical experience prior to their inception. Their sound was crisp and their instruments came straight from the thrift store. But when they cut their self titled, hook-laden, debut album in the summer of 1979, with campy dance-pop sounds that were ahead of their time, it was like the whole world had a window into what was to come for all the campy and kitschy fads of the ’80s, now considered “retro.” The album went gold with virtually no radio play. Some even say it was the definitive moment as to when the New Wave sound had landed on America’s shores.
The B-52’s weren’t ashamed to flaunt their their love of sci-fi on their debut, self-titled album. Opener “Planet Claire” gave everybody a clear definition of who and what the B-52’s were all about with its two-and-a-half minute instrumental intro that blended into Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme as Fred Schneider flamboyantly sputtered about his quirky rants. Onstage they even dressed in outrageous retro-futuristic outfits and getups at a time when their peers were trying to emulate a look of being fashionable or vulgar. I never got a chance to see the B-52’s in their heyday because I wasn’t born yet but I can imagine that their onstage getups would have sat well when they performed “There’s a Moon in the Sky(Called the Moon)” that perfectly sets the mood of a 1950s alien invasion B-movie.
One of the things that made The B-52’s so irresistible was guitarist Ricky Wilson’s chicken scratch guitar riffs, which mixed well into the surf mode on “52 Girls.” The high pitched and shrill vocal stylings of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson set the mood for what could be considered the first official anthem that the B-52’s released. “Dance this Mess Around” is true material for the Beach Blanket Bingo era as the tick-tock rhythms and organ squelch sound like a test siren for an A-bomb as Cindy Wilson’s bratty screams are redolent of a spoiled ten year old girl as she and Fred Schneider describe throwaway dance moves such as the “Shy Tuna,” “Camel Walk,” “Hip-o-crit,” and “Aqua-Velva.” One thing that you can be sure of, however, is that Annette Funicello never gyrated her hips to songs that were this crafty.
Before “Love Shack” got the B-52’s ready to jump into the nineties and revitalized their careers with the success of their in 1989, their first and most memorable hit came in the form of “Rock Lobster,” which will go down as one of the most joyously goofy songs ever written. Wilson’s guitar licks are like a half-assed James Bond theme, along with the single note organ chime, and Fred Schneider’s all around giddy conversation lyrics fit well as Kate Pierson squawking like “sea urchins.” But does a jellyfish really go “uuuuuuuuuugggggggghhhhhhhhhh!”?
The blips and bleeps of “Lava” sound like someone had taken a pair of binoculars and could see tens years down the road to the acid-house tinged scene of the Madchester craze. Schneider’s whimsical blustering along with the dance beats makes one think of how the unstable Shaun Ryder used to do so with the Happy Mondays. Equally catchy is the dialogue in the song as Schneider cynically says “I’m gonna jump in a crater,” while Pierson snottily replies “See ya later.”
Before Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” became the most memorable pop song based around a phone number, the B-52’s “6060-842” would technically be the first one. While both songs were about dimes and girls whose numbers were written on bathroom walls, the prize for most craftiness goes to the B-52’s for using a squealing Farfisa organ to represent a dial tone after the bands members are screaming “Your number’s been disconnected!”
What makes this album superior is that in 1979, it was the only alternative to disco that wasn’t disco. After one full spin of both sides on the turntable, it would be easy to convince most listeners that Fred Schneider was a bouncy cartoon character and that Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson were snobbish Valley Girls. The B-52’s would cross into the ’80s with relative success, but sadly, in 1985, Ricky Wilson died from AIDS. The B-52’s still managed to ride the wave of the MTV generation with the success of their 1989 album Cosmic Thing. But the true essence of who they were would never again be captured as vividly as it was on this album.
Similar Albums /Albums Influenced:
Romeo Void – Warm, In Your Coat
The B-52’s – Wild Planet
The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat