Career In A Nutshell: The B-52's

B-52's - B-52's

With the release of their self-titled album, the B-52's launched a musical missile. the affects of which the musical world would not immediately feel, but, by the time the band made their network television debut on Saturday Night Live, it was more delayed gratification than detonation. That's because, in those pre-MTV days, all most of us had to go on was the music. Sure, the album cover gave us some indication of a band's look and attitude, but it wasn't until our teenage eyes saw the B-52's in action that the full impact of this band would be felt.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to have caught the band playing the party circuit in Athens, GA or a dive bar in NYC, but it must have been a visual experience forever burned into one's retinas; the bee-hive hair-do's of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, the John Waters-ian carnival barker that is Fred Schneider, and the skin-tight rhythms of drummer Keith Strickland and guitarist Ricky Wilson. Even in a music scene that seemed so packed with bands that had their own look and sound, the B-52's must have surely stood out from the crowd.

Of course, we're still trying to work out how Island Records president Chris Blackwell came to produce their debut album, but not release it on his own label in the US. Instead, the album came out on the big brother of record labels, Warner Brothers, which, at the time was a bit of a conundrum. Sure, there were executives at the label who signed acts on the basis of their artistic vision, but there was always an underlying pressure to make hits and sell more records. Those who didn't tended to not stick around long. For every Tom Waits, whose albums garnered much more critical acclaim than actual sales, there were twenty acts who got dropped for turning in the same sales numbers. Would the B-52's be given a second chance, my young mind thought, or would they be a brief experiment quickly abandoned by a huge media conglomerate for not moving enough units.

Enough about the business-side of music, for now at least. What struck us about the band's first album was that it seemed so confident in its own greatness that it didn't even need to offer its best song first. Instead, the mostly-instrumental "Planet Claire" seemed to act as a sort of palette cleanser, allowing you to clear your ears of whatever you'd been listening to before. "52 Girls" followed, delivering its own blitzkrieg of jittery surf guitars and infectious girl-group harmonies. The entire song is one king-size hook headed straight for your subconscious. Whether you chose to dance or not, this song would still be doing the boogaloo in your brain hours, if not days, later.

What followed was the roundhouse one-two punch of "Dance This Mess Around" and "Rock Lobster", which raised the stakes considerably and proved that this band knew exactly how to throw a dance party and raise the level of anticipation and gratification with expert precision so as to achieve the desired affect. After all, you don't just go for the throat on the first song and then keep hammering at the audience. No, no, no, you create an ebb and flow that pushes and pulls at the senses, leaves them guessing, slyly enveloping them and enticing them to let you do with them what you will. This isn't a rock album, this is a seduction, baby.

B-52's - Wild Planet

Arriving less than a year after the release of their riveting debut effort, there were many who wondered if there was any way the B-52's could top themselves. After all, few bands arrive so fully formed on their first album, and even fewer are able to repeat the feat on their second album.

Where their first album began with the shy wave hello that was "Planet Claire", by comparison, Wild Planet jumps out from behind the curtains, yells, "Surprise!", and offers you a drink of unknown origin and alcohol content. "Party Out Of Bounds", indeed.

With producer Rhett Davies at the controls, the sound is just as no-frills as the debut, but the bottom end is just a little thicker, and the edges, while plentiful, aren't quite as jagged. With as little studio trickery as possible, what you heard was the band as they were meant to be heard. If any song seems to benefit from Davies’ production style, it would be "Dirty Back Road", which might have sounded like a throwaway track if produced as dryly as their first album. Here, with proper emphasis on the more atmospheric elements, the song packs a deceptively seductive punch.

The downside, however small, might be that songs like "Runnin' Around" and "Devil In My Car" don't pack the same primal punch under Davies’ command. It's songs like "Private Idaho" and "Give Me Back My Man" that show the band moving into Version 2.0 of their artistic progression. In fact, in many ways, the former seems to be an obvious updating of "Rock Lobster", while the latter integrates subtle instrumental elements, such as counter-harmonies, layered guitars, and electronic percussion, to heighten the song's impact.

While this is a different B-52's, for sure, it isn't so much a band being forced into change by an overbearing producer as a band simply progressing naturally and finding the right producer to help them reach the next plateau.

B-52’s – Party Mix!

While the idea of this EP was innovative for the time – three songs on each side, mixed so that each track segued into the other, hence the title Party Mix! – one couldn’t help feel that the label was trying to milk the fans rather than give us something new. After all, the material featured on this EP was taken from the band’s first two albums.

B-52’s – Mesopotamia

The appearance of yet another EP less than half a year after the release of Party Mix! left many B-52’s fans scratching their heads. Sure, it was produced by David Byrne and showed the band moving into a slightly darker, more experimental territory, but it was still only an EP. Considering that it had been eighteen months since they’d given the world a proper full-length album, the release of an EP seemed to signal either a serious bout of writer’s block on the band’s part, or a reluctance on the part of Warner Brothers to give fans a new LP. Considering the fact that Wild Planet had gone gold, it was incredibly odd to get the feeling that Warner hadn’t enough faith in the band to sign-off on a full-length. Only in recent years, did it become known that the tensions between Byrne and the band had led to the halt of recording sessions halfway through the album. Thus, the band released only those tracks that they’d managed to complete.

B-52's - Whammy!

For those used to the organic live-in-the-studio sound of their past work, hearing those trademark girl group harmonies soaring atop a bed of pre-programmed synthesizers and drum machines came as quite a shock. Granted, this was the Eighties and every band's drummer suddenly had a lot of time on their hands, it seemed.

For a band that had always gloriously oozed personality, it was hard to tell this album from the new Book Of Love record. While the musical decade that was "The '80s" is looked back upon with such fondness, the production sound that was so de rigueur by 1983 was perfect for some artists, but "the great homogenizer" to others. Bands like the B-52's, whose first two albums had bristled with such intensity, were rendered almost unrecognizable.

The main problem is that, for all of the bombastic bells and whistles, whether there's an actual song to be found beneath the metronomic iron-fist production is anyone's guess. As hooky as album-opener "Legal Tender" may be, one can't help but wonder if it would have passed the muster during sessions for their first two albums.

"Whammy Kiss", by comparison, sounds like an outtake from Devo's Freedom Of Choice and sees the band finally yanking Fred Schneider out of storage. "Song For A Future Generation", while a fan favorite and worthy of inclusion on their greatest hits album despite not actually being "a hit", has always rubbed me the wrong way. The B-52's singing a song, however tongue-in-cheek, about two shallow freaks deciding to have a baby is a serious thematic misstep in the B-52's canon. Such themes are better left to ‘80s-era Peter, Paul & Mary comeback albums. "Butterbean", while being the second tune in a row on the album to see the band name-check their hometown of "Athens, GA", it is the most dreadful B-52's tune to ever come down the pike. It's like "Song For A Future Generation" had been trying to warn me of the impending musical doom that is "Butterbean".

B-52’s – Bouncing Off The Satellites

With a two-year gap between albums – something that was almost unheard of back in those days – the B-52’s returned with their fourth full-length album and tried to right the ship after the critical and commercial failure of Whammy! Working with Tony Mansfield (formerly of British synth-pop band New Musik), the band seemed intent on straddling the line between synth-pop and live performance. The end result was campy, no doubt, but it just didn’t feel like the band’s heart was in it. Before the album was released, guitarist Ricky Wilson died of complication from HIV/AIDS, throwing the band into a tailspin. The album was released in late 1986, but the band refused to tour to promote it. Thus, the album only barely dented the Top 100. At this point, one could hardly blame the press and fans for writing the band off. The B-52’s were, after all, a party band and Wilson’s death seemed to stop the band members in their tracks.

B-52’s – Cosmic Thing

Coming three years after their most disappointing record, and the death of founding member Ricky Wilson, Cosmic Thing makes quick work of introductions and gets right down to rocking. Never before has a once-great band so rejuvenated, bouncing from one energetic groove to the next over the course of the album’s ten jubilantly celebratory tracks. Not only were longtime fans of the band back in the fold, an entire new generation of fans were drawn into the band’s wicked web by the constant radio and MTV rotation of hits “Love Shack”, “Roam” and “Deadbeat Club”. The album reached a peak position of #4 in the US and would go on to outsell their entire back catalog.

B-52’s – Good Stuff

If this was a Genesis album it would be called And Then There Were Three. Hoping to continue their success by utilizing much the same formula employed on Cosmic Thing, the B-52’s were missing two very important ingredients; Cindy Wilson (who’d decided to leave the band and retire from the music business) and good songs. Thus, this follow-up effort fell far short of Cosmic Thing, both critically and commercially. It isn’t so much that the song are bad, per se, but that the band seems in such a serious mood, as if all the good times they’ve had over the years have finally caught up with them. If Cosmic Thing was a pitcher of margaritas, Good Stuff was the hangover and nobody wanted to buy a hangover. Sadly, the band slowed the pace considerably at this point, touring occasionally, but no longer releasing new material. Two different compilations, Songs For A Future Generation and Nude On The Moon were released in 1998 and 2002, respectively.

B-52’s – Funplex

Sixteen years after their last proper album, the four surviving members of the B-52’s reunited to record Funplex and, in doing so, proved that you’re never too old to have a good time. With members all in their 50’s by now, it’s refreshing to see the B-52’s still capable of raising the roof, albeit in Y2K fashion. What that means, of course, is that most of the instruments are programmed and the vocals are auto-tuned here and there. At times, it seems the band is fighting to inject their personality into the faceless, over-the-top electronic production, but, thankfully, the songs themselves are solid pulse-pounders. “Funplex” and “Juliet Of The Spirits” went on to be huge dance floor hits all over the world, giving us hope that this is not the last we hear from this band.

B-52’s – With The Wild Crowd: Live In Athens, GA

Anyone who thinks the idea of a B-52’s live album is absurd has never seen the band live. The truth is, as great as their first two albums may have been, the concert stage has always been where their material has truly jumped off the vinyl, grabbed you by the hand, and seduced you into dancing your ass off.

Once you hear the band’s brand-new live album, your first thought will be “Damn, these songs are TIGHT!” Your next will be, “Why did these guys wait so damn long to release a live album?!” The 18 songs that comprise this Flaming Volcano of a live album are spread quite evenly over the band’s career, but even if you’re a fan of the early stuff, or the “Love Shack” days, you’ll find a lot to like here. The band’s energy and buoyant attitude keeps the whole thing in high gear and the party just doesn’t let up until every last person’s heart joyfully explodes. That a band whose first album came out almost 34 years ago can still manage to blow the roof off the dump is a testament to “clean living”, wink, wink, and we can only hope that there is more to come from this legendary band. Are they in the Hall of Fame yet? Well, they should be!

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