No.4 The B52's • The B52's
(Island Records, 1979)
In the harsh winter of 1978, I was obsessively taping records and sessions from John Peel's radio show, every night, 10pm to midnight. One night I managed to capture a very interesting item indeed: an import single from Athens, Georgia, deep in the American South. Initially I thought Peel was playing an old track from the late fifties or early sixties, so authentic was the sound. But no, this was not a selection from any of the Pebbles albums, this was a fresh new record by a band calling themselves The B52s, and it took my breath away. And not just me either. Many called Peel asking about this bloody record. Where could they get it? Did The B52s have any albums out? No, they didnt have any albums out, not yet anyway.
That attention-grabbing 45 was Rock Lobster, an exemplary attempt to record a zany, swinging-sixties classic, but slightly updated with kooky lyrics and a twangy guitar. The surreal tale of a beach party getting out of hand, Fred Schneider's cornball voice guides us through who's doing what and what happens as a result. With melodramatic refrains, girls screaming at the top of their lungs (but in a kind of sexy way) and a tune to die for, this announced the arrival of powerpop, cartoon-style. "His earlobe fell in the deep! Motion in the ocean! Twistin round the fire, havin fun, bakin potatoes, bakin in the sun! " The Beach Boys never sounded like this.
Here is the first mention that I can recall, of the phrase tanning butter, an Americanism for sun-tan lotion.
Well, soon we are "down, down, underneath the waves, he was in a jam, he's in a giant clam!" These B-Movie images gain in tension as the hapless twat is approached by various sea-creatures, each imitated in their own unique manner by the two girls, Kate Pierson and the gorgeous Cindy Wilson, whose brother Ricky provided the cranky guitars and co-wrote most of the material. Whoops, ear-shattering screams, banzai siren-noises, well, sound does travel underwater!
I sent off for a copy as soon as I could, and was thrilled when it arrived. What a band. The buzz went around the music business, and Rock Lobster sold by the bucketful. The B52s signed to Island Records and their debut long-player, simply titled The B52s, was issued in the summer of 1979, some six or seven months after that intriguing 45. Presented in a day-glo yellow cover with a colourful photo of the band, it was clear from the outset that the emphasis was to be on FUN. From their stretch ski-pants, beehive hair-dos, and beatnik shades, here was the original crazy beat group, man!
The album began with strange, outer-space radio bleeps and crackles, fading in, then spidery, tinny guitar and morse-code sounds lead to some high organ notes accompanied by the girls wailing away to flesh out the riff.
Bongos and a full drumkit enter the mix and off we go to Planet Claire, where no-one dies, the air is pink, the trees are red, nobody has a head and where they drive ancient American cars faster than the speed of light. Fun place! The production is very big, and clearly the budget is up a bit from their little DIY single of the previous winter. "Some say she's from Mars" says Fred, bent on informing the world of this epoch-making event. Zany, but not irritating, pop music of top-notch quality, Planet Claire could have been a gigantic global hit single.
52 Girls, the b-side to the Rock Lobster single, follows, and like the A-side of that single it gets completely re-recorded here. At the time this pissed me off a bit. I had gotten used to those versions, but with time I've grown to appreciate the bigger sound involved here, and now definitley prefer these versions to the old 45. Basically a list, 52 Girls is a stop-start bubblegum classic. "See them on the beach, or in New York City" they sing, can you name them? Reluctantly leaving Effie, Madge, Reba, Candy and the others, we are led straight into the sublime Dance This Messaround, Kate Pierson's finest hour. I hated this when I got the album back in 79. I liked my pop with big guitars and was too callow and ignorant to appreciate great soul, R & B etc.
Breathlessly, Kate sings this terrific song with utter abandon. There's an in-joke to tell us all exactly where their heart lies: "Remember when you held my hand", she croons, the phrasing and chords the clone of the Shangri-Las legendary Remember, Walkin In The Sand hit from the sixties. By turns pleading, then almost in tears, she wrings the heartache out bit-by-bit. Another list appears, a selection of wacky dances: The Shy Tuna, The Shu-ga-loo, The Camel Walk, and of course the Hip-o-crit!
The re-make of Rock Lobster follows, now supermassive in an extended structure, the girls screams truly bizarre and exciting, the guitars BIGGER. Lava is R & B presented in a theatrical, very hip way, with sexual symbolism to the fore: "my loves eruptin like a red-hot volcano", and the girls gasp, grunt and grind in a pornographic manner that was to be such a feature on Prince's recordings later, in the 80s.
Back to fifties sci-fi now, with Theres A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon). This is almost a studio jam, consisting of a strong riff that carries the tune, those now trademark B52 wireless noises chime in and out as Fred announces an intergalactic roll-call: "everybody is there, including Saturn, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter. "But dont feel lonely! if you're in outer space, don't feel out of place, cause there are thousands of others like you!" Well, thats nice to know isnt it? But where the hell are they then? Like the rest of the album, it is unforgettable fun.
Hero Worship is the least of my favourites on the album, but it's still a fine track: Kate sounding like a contemporary Brenda Lee. Guitars growl in the best New Wave style, "as she tries to please his idol eyes", proving that peppering your lyrics with puns was not a purely British tactic.
6060842 is the number to ring, it was discovered on the wall of the ladies loo! Honest! Would you try the mystery number? Fred Schneider's zany voice rigidly yelps out the story of Tina, who found a phone number in a ladies room "if you'd like a very nice time, just give this number a call, so Tina rings the number! No answer! Dimes in the slot, ready to trot!" Now we have the operator: "your number's been disconnected".
Pattering bongoes, grinding guitars and their intermittent keyboard sounds make this one of the more powerful things they ever did. The album finishes with its one cover, a highly camp rendition of Downtown, complete with some in-character lyric additions; "maybe I'll see you there, if I can do my hair", sings Cindy, the first of their many hairstyle related moments which would crop up quite a bit throughout albums to come.
For me, The B52s is their greatest achievement, although Bouncing Off The Satellites (1986) comes close.