The B-52’s feel unfairly sidelined in the history of pop music.
It’s strange that we don’t hear more about the B-52’s. While most are familiar with the band’s mega-hits, like “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack,” the critical discourse surrounding their full-lengths remains sparse. Especially when compared to their endlessly-written-about new-wave contemporaries—Talking Heads, Devo, etc.—the B-52’s feel unfairly sidelined in the history of pop music. To their credit, the band unabashedly dressed themselves in colorful outfits copped from resale shops, blew the ironies of a previous generation’s popular styles up to absurd proportions and tried their best to make a party out of the whole mess.
While the results vary throughout their discography, there’s no better place to find the band’s defining elements working in near-perfect cohesion than on their first two albums, a self-titled debut in 1979 and 1980’s follow up, Wild Planet. On these, the carcass of punk music is met with a love for the camp of ’50s party music, a sound that’s equal parts deft musicianship and free-wheeling chaos, a personality that’s a unique distillation of studiousness and youthful energy.
The most recognizable aspect of the groups sound is found in the vocal duties shared by Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. Schneider’s voice is dry and dead-pan, lacking any hint of genuine emotion, even as he’s performing a self-exorcism on Wild Planet’s “Devil in My Car.” Pierson and Wilson are ever-versatile, moving between goofy vocal effects that mock doo-wop vamps and explosive punk deliveries. Their almost-unison leads on “52 Girls” reach a perfect mix of shrillness and melody, and Wilson’s vocal performance at the front-end of “Dance This Mess Around” is one of the best moments on The B-52’s. Atop an uncomfortably sparse musical backdrop, she moves from a disaffected, Patti Smith-laced snarl to a shudder-inducing scream that begs a nameless subject to show some affection.
The defining conceptual element of The B-52’s is their humor and it plays a huge role in their debut. Most of the time, it feels like the band is smirking and winking throughout all of their performances: the whole album opens with a swiped spy movie riff placed into a song about aliens. Reckoning with this can be a double-edged sword, as sometimes the music can feel like a joke being perpetually beaten into the ground. For all of its ubiquity, “Rock Lobster” is a patience-testing seven minutes, and there’s an extended section where Schneider’s roll-calling of a group of aquatic animals is met with overly goofy mouth sounds from Pierson and Wilson.
The absurdity falters too on “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon),” which is exactly as blunt as its title suggests despite its attempts at an inclusive message. The music can sometimes feel a bit underdeveloped as well, with The B-52s still trying to find the right mix of their litany of influences on “Lava” and “Downtown.” Thankfully, Wild Planet, released just a year later, is an update and improvement on everything that made up the best parts of the debut record. The sound is slicker, the hooks punchier and the jokes funnier, and here the group finds a way to turn their kitsch into something more than irony.
The first side’s highlight, “Give Me Back My Man,” is one of the most sincere tracks on the two albums, with its lyrics leveling their standard tropes with a real sense of devotion and desire. The music backing the chorus, as well, foregoes the band’s angular dissonance and repetition and replaces it with an urgent chord progression and pulsing eighth notes. “Quiche Lorraine” is typical B-52s silliness, but its more developed performance moves it past simple humor. While Schneider laments his lost pet—a one-of a kind green-and-strawberry blonde dog—the start-stop feeling of the music adds enough disorder to give the music a welcome creepy edge.
Overall, Wild Planet is The B-52’s with a little more restraint, cohesion and nuance. It upped the substance without sacrificing the style, and tracks like the jittery “Private Idaho” or the bleakly cosmic “53 Miles West of Venus” are a perfect entry point for those looking to move beyond the singles. Throughout, The B-52’s show a knack for pushing their skeletal sound to its bursting limits. They were still almost a decade away from “Love Shack,” “Deadbeat Club” and “Roam” on Cosmic Thing, and there’s a chunk of music in the intervening years that could reach middling blandness. They’d never be as much of a gleeful mess as on their debut, and their sophomore effort is the most concise declaration of the greatness the group strived for.