40 years ago this month, The B-52’s formed in Athens, Georgia. There’s not many bands you could call unique in the same way as The B-52’s. Their strange mix of jagged guitars, b-movie organs and surf rock influences were out of step with musical trends of the late 70s. They came across as an anomaly in a eclectic new wave scene that featured bands as varied as Television, Devo and Talking Heads. The B-52s developed a new style taking older music formulas and reworking them to suit their ambitious pop vision. Not only did their music have abstract qualities, they had Fred Schneider who is one the most divisive and unique singers in music. The group also had the talents of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson. Most bands would be lucky to have just one of these amazing vocalists and multi instrumentalists. The line-up was completed by Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson, two extremely gifted musicians.
After touring for three years, the group perfected their sound and released their self titled record in 1979. It’s still one of the most thrilling and original albums in alternative music. It’s a record that made being an outsider seem cool and a whole lot of fun. In the following decade they continued to make records with mixed results. Ten years after the debut they released their second masterpiece, Cosmic Thing. The B-52’s achieved the biggest commercial success of their career thanks to the huge candy pop rush of ‘Love Shack’. They had taken their quirks and creative ideas and turned into the perfect pop group.
Since Cosmic Thing, The B-52’s continue to be a successful touring band and have released just two more albums. You can hear hints of their influence on Sleater-Kinney, Junior Senior and CSS, but nobody quite managed to replicate their take on new wave dance sound. ‘Love Shack’ is The B-52’s song you’ll hear on the radio and ‘Rock Lobster’ is the one often played played in clubs, but there’s so much more to this misunderstood group. Here are 11 of their finest songs.
Planet Claire (1979)
The cover of The B-52’s debut album shows the group’s iconic sense of fashion mixing kitsch and retro styles. The music contained within suits the technicolour artwork. The record begins with the slow burning, ‘Planet Claire’ which has a spy themed guitar hook from Ricky Wilson who was an incredible guitar player. Pierson’s erie organ playing, high pitched vocals and Wilson’s tight bongo rhythm all create a foreboding atmosphere that eventually explodes into life when Schneider appears. It’s perhaps the definitive Schneider vocal as he excitedly shouts, “some say she’s from Mars or one of the seven stars that shine after three-thirty in the morning, well, she isn’t!” only the way he can. ‘Planet Claire’ brilliantly encapsulates their unconventional technical abilities and shows how much energy the band had. It’s the perfect opener to a perfect record.
Dance This Mess Around (1979)
As well as demonstrating their take on classic rock ‘n’ roll, you can also hear the group’s love of 60s girl groups and Motown on their early work. The gorgeous, ‘Dance This Mess Around’ combines all these influences to great effect. The interplay between Wilson, Pierson and Schneider is one of the key ingredients that make The B-52’s such a compelling group. Wilson effortlessly switches from playful to assertive as she pleads, “why you won’t dance with me” which leads into an exciting call and response with Schneider. The second half of the song takes off when Pierson joins in helping to list all the dance styles she can think of. Their spontaneous spirit and raw energy is all over this wonderful song.
Give Me Back My Man (1980)
Most of the songs on their second record, Wild Planet were written around the time they recorded their first record. They split the songs equally so they had enough strong material for their second record. There’s no feeling that these songs are leftovers as Wild Planet is almost as powerful as the debut. ‘Give Me Back My Man’ is a highlight with a slightly smoother sound thanks to Pierson’s fast throbbing bass line and sleek synthesizer effects. Wilson delivers a great vocal as her brother shines again on guitar. It’s the kind of deceptively simple pop song that B-52’s excel in. It’s Wild Planet’s most commercial moment and shows that the debut wasn’t a fluke.
53 Miles West of Venus (1980)
Wild Planet ends with one of the strangest songs in The B-52’s back catalogue. It’s mainly instrumental apart from Wilson and Pierson repeating the title which becomes more layered as the song goes on with weird sci-fi effects that wouldn’t sound out of place on those early Human League records. ‘53 Miles West of Venus’ could work as a soundtrack a low budget sci-fi movie about alien invasion. It’s atmospheric jam like feel is a curious end to Wild Planet which up until that point has been on a mission to keep the good times of the debut going. It shows that they’re able to surprise even when Schneider takes a back seat.
The group worked with David Byrne from Talking Heads for their third album. Sadly this dream partnership fell apart as Byrne and the group clashed over over differences in how the record should sound. The results of the aborted sessions were released as the mini album, Mesopotamia. It’s a hugely enjoyable release with the addictive title track being one of their very best songs. Musically the song is similar in feel to Talking Heads side project, Tom Tom Club. There’s a heavy 70s funk and disco influence with a wandering bassline leading the song in various directions. ‘Mesopotamia’ is another example of the unique way the three vocalists work together. Schneider at one point sings, “before I talk, I should read a book” as Wilson and Pierson sing and harmonise around and over him.
Legal Tender (1983)
1983’s Whammy was a slight step down from their first three records. Ricky Wilson’s distinctive guitars are often swamped by dated synths and drum machines are heavily featured which makes the songs have a faceless quality (Devo would go on to have similar problems). Despite these flaws, there are moments of brilliance on Whammy such as opener, ‘Legal Tender’. The element of humour from their earlier work is still apparent on this tale of making counterfeit banknotes as Wilson and Pierson sing, “10 20 30 million ready to be spent, we’re stacking them against the wall, those gangster presidents”.
Ain’t it a Shame (1986)
After the tragic death of Ricky Wilson, the band barely promoted their most underrated record, Bouncing Off The Satellites. Cindy Wilson provides her most heartbreaking vocal on the stunning, ‘Ain’t it a Shame’. It’s an incredibly sad song about a neglected woman in a loveless relationship with her singing, “I like your colour TV, but you look at that colour TV more than me”. It’s the sound of a sleeker and more mature sounding B-52’s. They’re often called the ultimate party band, but they also had moments of reflectiveness and melancholy. This beautiful song would be the one to listen to if you’ve ever thought of The B-52’s as any kind of novelty act.
Deadbeat Club (1989)
After a dark time for the group, amazingly they picked themselves back up for the release of 1989’s Cosmic Thing. They sounded re-energised and just as creative as they did on their early records. Fourth single, ‘Deadbeat Club’ wasn’t as successful as ‘Love Shack’ or the stunning, ‘Roam’ but it’s equally fantastic. Keith Strickland initiated the sessions for Cosmic Thing and switched from drums to lead guitar. Strickland had a different style to Wilson’s nervy guitar playing but he did a fine job leading the polished pop direction on songs like this. This laid back tale of being part of a club who just likes to waste away their days is one of the more understated moments on this very colourful record.
The group hired Don Was from Was Not Was and Chic’s Nile Rodgers to produce Cosmic Thing, who turned out to be inspired choices. Rodgers produced the delicate, ‘Topaz’ which is the secret highlight of The B-52’s whole career. Over an infectious guitar lick and an achingly beautiful melody, Pierson and Wilson as they use beautiful imagery to paint a picture about a drug influenced trip. Their harmonies have never sounded better as they sing, “we’re gazing out to sea, blue dolphins are singing”. The lush textures of the dream-like music blend with the hazy lyrics. Schneider appears in the chorus, singing “our hearts are traveling faster, faster than the speed of love” but he stands back and lets this remarkable song belong to the women.
Is That You Mo-Dean? (1992)
Good Stuff failed to recreate the success of Cosmic Thing and wasn’t as consistent. Wilson left the band and her absence was greatly felt on the album. There are still moments where the group hit the highs of their previous work. ‘Is That You Mo-Dean?’ Is the story of a man coming back from many years in space to find himself all alone. It features one of Schneider’s finest performances showing off his quirky sense of humour and his gift at turning strange scenarios into compelling stories. The use of twinkling keyboards and harps are spine tingling as the repeated chorus of the words, “astro projector” builds and builds leading the song to a hypnotising and emotional end.
Juliet of the Spirits (2008)
The group reunited with Cindy Wilson for 2008’s Funplex which is the group’s last release to date. They wanted a sound similar to New Order’s 2001 release, Get Ready so they hired Steve Osborne to produce the record. He gave the band more a rock based and streamlined sound. There’s still plenty of the group’s character over the record despite the heavier production stylings. Funplex peaks with the second single, ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ which finds Pierson and Wilson vocally on great form. Their distinctive styles belong together. This is a song that fits well with their fascinating career and proves this brilliant group really were one of a kind.