THE B-52’S DROP THE BIG ONE
By Milo Miles
In 1979, the B-52’s were one of rock ‘n’ roll’s better ideas for merging art and dance schools. Just when Talking Heads seemed exhausted (Fear of Music), this band – from Athens, Georgia, by way of New York – started leading with the good foot and following through with wiggy wit. Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson made ‘50s kitsch cool again with their beehive hairdos and toreador pants [the beehive actually was introduced in 1960], and the band’s folk-tech boogie was perfect background for shopping at such new-wave trend-spots as Goods or High Society. By now the first album, The B-52’s, has built up sales to near-gold status (440,000 copies; 20,000 per week), and the new album, Wild Planet (Warner Bros.), is tearing the roof off the sucker, entering the Record World charts at No. 38 and outselling the nearest competitor three-to-one in Boston. You’d think the B-52’s were picking up the slack for the Cars (the aforementioned nearest competitor), the Red Sox, and Governor [Ed] King [who ended a run by Michael Dukakis] all at once. Nevertheless, their trajectory to the upper reaches has left a few of their down-home strengths choking in the dust. [Yeah, what follows is a knee-jerk homage to unencumbered indie-punk singles.]
Their first single, “Rock Lobster”/”52 Girls,” sounded punchier and plainer in its original pre-[record-label]contract form than in the re-recorded version on The B-52’s. Pierson and Wilson treated their voices as one of many sound effects on “52 Girls,” whereas LP producer Chris Blackwell mixed the words upfront and tightened up the rockers-in-dreamland rhythm shifts, exposing the song as a slight meditation on the fleeting names of famous dames. Worse, “Rock Lobster” on the album was only a shell of its former self. [The new live-in-Boston version straightens that all out. There’s now two raw treatments to enjoy.] Fred Schneider’s hallucinatory send-up of beach parties was drawn out and italicized and the threatening edge of his voice was smoothed. Most of The B-52’s comes off as diffuse and sober, probably the result of its being rushed into the studio. [I’m dead wrong here. The debut album is better than this follow-up. Kid tryin’ to blow his horn, ya know.] But two songs, “Dance This Mess Around” and “Planet Claire” testify that the B-52’s are hardly charmless [producer] patsies. The “Peter Gunn” bass line that Ricky Wilson plays on guitar for “Planet Claire” first jogs the memory, then locks into the song so firmly that no other beat would seem as right. Besides, Schneider is sly enough to create an alien world that is curiously like our own: “Planet Claire has pink air/All the trees are red/No one dies there/No one has a head.”
The most recurrent complaint about the B-52’s is that for a dance band they show no awareness of syncopated rhythms or soul-era singing styles – and they don’t even have a bass player for Christ’s sake. Schneider and Cindy Wilson, the principle voices, do tend to accent on the beat and just raise and lower the volume for inflection. But “Dance This Mess Around” shows how the band operates by springing little surprises out of a near void; Wilson’s panache carries the action for so long that when Schneider begins singing, his voice breaks the trance; and when, the whole band goes into a double-time chatter of “yeahyeahyeahyeahyeahyeah” it’s hysterically flamboyant. By mellowing the speed and melding punk and Eurodisco, Mad magazine caricature and B-girl nostalgia, the B-52’s have made dance-oriented funny and safe for the middle class. [This is not quite the complaint it might seem coming from me.] At least there’s no bad reggae on their records. And who says all effective dance music must make reference to R&B roots? Plastics, a DOR band from Tokyo and the opening act for the B-52’s at 15 Landsdowne Street last week, are a case in point. Songs like “Copy” and “Comples” were two-chord extravaganzas; the last eve had an Orient Express doo-wop chorus that was no parody. The climax of the Plastics’ set was a percussive ensemble break that combined cowbells, a kalimba, a ceremonial Japanese tambourine, a wooden resonator box, and numerous other noisemakers. The near-cacophony was absolutely danceable and just as absolutely Japanese.
When the B-52’s came on stage, there was near-pandemonium from the crowd, and the band was equal to it – well-paced and in control without sacrificing fun. A couple of band members were reportedly sick, and Kate Pierson sang weakly enough to be laboring with the flu, but Ricky Wilson, Cindy Wilson and Schneider turned in a command performance on “Rock Lobster,” the audience favorite. Not that anybody was waiting to see what the band would do with its hit – people were merely excited that it was being performed. The B-52’s did enough just reproducing the album cut – no more were they expected to rearrange the parts or reinterpret the feeling of “Rock Lobster” than a disco DJ is expected to rewrite the playlist hits. [It was a ground rule at the time that the finest rock bands transformed studio recordings on stage. Eeeh. Kinda goofy demand.] The crowd was unified because it recognized the song, not because it agreed on the message. [No, I’m not quite sure what this sentence means, either.] Beyond this, it was hard to define the concert’s emotional content, but suspended feelings and ideas may be the price of fun right now. [Of course I can’t go back and revisit the show, but I certainly find ideas and feelings in the songs on the album, so I donno what I was driving at, quite. This was a very early live-concert review from me.]
Wild Planet is another partially realized record. [I am trying to hold them to very high standards as an expression of love. Hope that’s clear.] The band is so cautious about messing with its image that the album’s cover is a near-duplicate of the debut. In addition, the first three cuts recall earlier songs: the turgid “Party Out of Control” reworks “Dance This Mess Around” “Dirty Back Road” is this year’s “52 Girls” and “Runnin’ Around” is blatantly derivative of “Rock Lobster.” [I would only agree about the third tune now.] The B-52’s don’t lift off the runway until Cindy Wilson makes her Debbie [sure hope I didn’t do the typo “Debby” in the original text] Harry move with “Give Me Back My Man.” For a less tongue-in-cheek group, this song would be a mindless return to female love-pleaders, but Wilson’s chorus – “I’ll give you fish/I’ll give you candy/I’ll give you everything I have in my hand” – has straight sexuality that comes from ironically debased R&B code words. Still, it’s hard to say “Give Me Back My Man” has the timeless savvy of “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” [Yeah, but lighten up, dude.]
Schneider is the man with the message, regardless of whether anyone listens right now. [Writing about gender identity in pop was a lot trickier in 1980 than it is now. And the Phoenix was a bit to the right of the Voice on the issue. Jus’ sayin’.] His stage presence is elliptic – he dodges the question of male roles by not having any – and as with disco, the cartoon emotionalisms are given to the women. But Schneider drops an occasional depth-charge into his lyrics. He understands, I suspect, that most punks reserve innocence and incorruptibility for people far away, those in Britain or perhaps the South, and that they enjoy city tensions most when these are reflected through a distant mirror. The strange, stereotyped gay overtones of “Quiche Lorraine” [this was still the Old Stone Age of American cuisine, kidz] would be rejected if they came with more clichéd cues. Schneider’s masterpiece on Wild Planet is its single, “Private Idaho.” This draws together all the positive currents of the band and sucks you right under: sensitive nonsense (“You’re livin’ in your own private Idaho/Underground like a wild potato/Don’t go on the patio”) and the recurrent and disturbing images of bottomless pools and drowning. In fact, for a fun-time dance number, “Private Idaho” is creepy and about something besides its own cleverness. The Me Decade, the cult of self, has become rotten as an old spud, Schneider seems to be saying, and right in the middle of “Private Idaho,” as the synthesizer beings to spiral eerily downward, he sings a lullaby for all the too-mortal kiddies: “Don’t be blind/To the big surprise/Swimming around/Like the deadly hands/Of a radium clock/At the bottom of the poo-o-l,” It’s an apt blending of images and echoes of images (the B-52’s dancing the funky death), one moment that suggests the B-52’s have a future beyond being the winners of this year’s party-band contest. FIN