Saturday, July 30, 2011

The B-52's - The B-52's

Welcome to another edition of Seventies Saturday.

On July 6th of 1979, as the fires of disco were burning out, the rising tide of new wave was ready to wash over the music scene. And one of the bands ready to throw a big beach bash was the Athens, Georgia-based rock band the B-52’s.

Their self-titled debut The B-52’s was welcomed by music fans looking for something a bit different. The album went all the way to number 59 on the Billboard 200 charts and number 22 on the UK charts, was certified Gold in a little more than a year’s time and was certified Platinum before the summer of 1986. Decades after its release, the album still garners favor. It was ranked number 99 on VH-1’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003; Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number 152 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time.

The first track on side one takes us to “Planet Claire”. This second single has a catchy riff that is similar to the theme song of the late 1950’s TV show Peter Gunn. It also brings to mind of another 1950’s show, the oddly quirky Twilight Zone. Fred Schneider provides the lead vocals via a walkie-talkie to give the song an even stranger sound.

“52 Girls” has a nice surf-rock sound to it, thanks to Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Ricky Wilson on guitars and the driving drumbeats by Keith Strickland. The lyrics are sung by the two gals, who name drop themselves in the list of girls mentioned.

The third single from the album was “Dance This Mess Around”. The track is a little slower than the first two but no less unique sounding. The band really knew how to combine interesting sounds, including the use of a toy piano and organ.

Perennial party favorite “Rock Lobster” closes out the side. This first single went to number 56 on the US Billboard chart, number 24 on the US Dance chart, number 37 in the UK and number 1 on Canada‘s RPM singles chart. Rolling Stone ranked it at number 146 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time. The lyrics tell of a wild beach party and include a very memorable list of sea creatures. When I was attending college, four years after the debut, this song was still a huge dance hit that was guaranteed to get everyone bopping about for seven minutes. And the song transcends the generations. After hearing the song in Rock Band 3, my teenaged son wanted it for his iPod; he ends up playing the song at least once a week.

“Lava” flows from the start of side two. The song starts with a slow but steady beat, building as the five minute track goes along. The lyrics compare the growing love between a couple to a volcano under pressure, ready to erupt into a hot, spurting mess.

Next up is “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”. This track continues the spacey theme started by the first track on the album. As a comic book fan, I love how the lyrics make reference to “red kryptonite”, a piece of a lesser known (by non-comic fans) item from Superman comic books.

“Hero Worship” holds the center place on the side. While an enjoyable song, it isn’t so much a stand out for me as most of the other tracks. I put it into the filler bucket.

“6060-842” is one of those famous phone number songs. However the band changes it up a bit by breaking up the usual rhythm on the digits (going four-three rather than three-four). I really like the bongos on this one, played by Cindy.

In 1965, Petula Clark had a number 1 hit single with “Downtown”. The B-52’s close out the album with a decent cover on this classic by adding their own unique “voice” to it. Kate puts on a faux British accent with attitude, while the rhythm is slightly askew from the original.

As I mentioned in my review the B-52’s second album Wild Planet back in March of this year, some of my earliest exposures to this album too were my older brother and the local college radio station. Combined with that second album from 1980, the pair of disks really helped create a solid fandom for the band that would continue to grow as the decade progressed. I’m definitely a fan of a number of tracks from this one, with “Rock Lobster” being a five-star favorite on my iPod.


Empoprises said...

Since you share your memories of when you first heard these songs, I'll share one of mine. It was August 1979 and I had gone across country to attend Reed College for my freshman year. As I neared my dorm, in a then 60+ year old building known as the Old Dorm Block, I heard "Rock Lobster" blasting out of one of the dorm windows.

Oddly enough, I'm not all that enthused about "Rock Lobster" today. The first part of the song is good, but the latter half seems like a punk version of progressive musical excess - it just goes on too long for my tastes.

However, I agree with you that the first two albums formed solid foundation for the band's later work, marked with some experimentation in the "Mesopotamia" period, coupled with some uncharacteristic (but truly beautiful) introspection after Ricky Wilson's death...and then a love shack!

Martin Maenza said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. That's what I love about music - how a song can bring back a specific moment from our past, whatever it is.