This is the first in a series exploring my favorite music acts and what it means to be a fan.
Hi, I’m Bear and I’m a cancer from The Bay Area, California, I like bloody Mary’s, poetry, and The B-52’s!
Others Like You
Those hip big dipper beehives and bouffants
descended from that bright red wild planet
landing like Mesopotamia, a whammy!
Bouncing off satellites, they shook
their alien cosmic things to that
down right dang good stuff.
Meet me by the 3rd pyramid,
there’s glitter on the front porch,
on the hallway, on the essence from
within. Come on dance this mess around,
and party out of bounds -Who ordered pizza?!-
in wigs and hot pants underneath the strobe light
with others like you.
That is a poem I wrote honoring what is supposedly my favorite band but it took a while before they acquired that supposed throne. I came to The B-52’s backwards, which really for a band as outside any lanes as they are seems fitting to a degree. A high school friend’s father, would regularly play their 90’s album Good Stuff. And from there I went back to Cosmic Thing then Bouncing Off The Satellites then Whammy!… and it only got weirder the further back you went.
Good Stuff is well, good. But it never wowed me. The initial listens in many ways perplexed me because here was a band that didn’t follow regular pop song formats and structures, track length or really anything else, including singing styles. To say nothing of the fact they were singing about hot pants and topaz and an astral projector named Mo-Dean. And the further back I went in the catalog in those teen years the less it made sense. A theme for a nude beach? A song about butterbeans? 52 Girls was a song where Kate and Cyndi mostly just shouted girl’s names.
Heck, I didn’t even really know what a, “Love Shack” was or was about. But me and my peers all danced to it. So I can’t really say when the switch hit and they became my favorite band of all time knocking such legacy acts in my pantheon as The Police and a-ha from the top spot. Maybe it was at the time I wrote that poem above. But the first two albums were so quirky and goofy I almost didn’t like them and yet I knew there was SOMETHING there speaking to me.
If I had discovered the band in today’s technological world and I was a young person I probably would’ve pressed “next” on spotify on every song except “Roam” simply because it was the one song I would know how to dance and clap too as young person.
Of their entire catalog it is difficult to pick a favorite album. I know it is not Cosmic Thing. But I sway between Bouncing Off The Satellites and the first two albums, which I see as a double LP, honestly. The first two albums are so similar and go so well together I can’t really separate them as both have absolute gems and no filler. And they were released in 1979 and 1980 so I wonder if Wild Planet was made up of leftovers that didn’t fit on the debut.
But really the first four studio albums all sound both ahead of their time and of no time at all. They are just THAT different. Listen to songs like, “Private Idaho” or “Quiche Lorraine” or “Detour Thru Your Mind”, and “Song For A Future Generation”… they sound like NOTHING else going at that time on radio, alternative or mainstream. And they sound like nothing else now. So of course they were not going be landing a slew of major Hot 100 hits.
When you put The B-52’s name in a “bands that sound like” generator or ask for similar acts on a reddit thread, the two most common names that come up are Talking Heads and Devo, which they sound NOTHING like. Not even close. Not even when Byrne was producing for them for a brief moment.
If the work sounded totally foreign to me early on it sounds perfectly of another dimension today. There is no sonic time stamp on the music for me. It speaks of no one time or era to me either in music or in my life. Now, it speaks of other realities and dimensions. An alternate lens to see one’s world and explore one’s existence in it. The perfect kind of musical language for a queer like me who never felt like he fit the mainstream GBTQ. Also it is a template for eschewing formula and a staying authentic to the self and still having success and paying the bills.
Many times people gravitate towards an artist for the, “don’t give a fuck” aspect to the music or the musician. For The B-52’s, it is not that they did or did not care. When you listen to the music it is clear that was not even a stance or question on the radar. As the ultimate “party band” it was about fun, silliness, and the absurdities of reality. And on occasion messaging about the environment on songs like, “Juicy Jungle” or “Junebug”. Or the culture “Channel Z”, “Funplex”. But I really think their ideology is best summed up, not in rave ups like “Love Shack” or “Rock Lobster”. But in the mellower album cut “Dry County”, off Cosimic Thing, which has the chorus:
When the blues whomp you up on the side of the head
Throw ’em to the floor and kick ’em out the door
When the blues kick you in the head
And you roll out of bed in the morning
Just sit on the porch and swing
Sit on the porch and swing
The way they conducted business was in an “actions speaker louder than words” fashion. Lead by example, not by pointing fingers or proselytizing. They were queer but that wasn’t tied to the band like so many queer artists today where it is part of brand marketing. They were a band that just happened to be queer, not a queer band. They also happened to have GIANT wigs and a lead singer that could not sing. The whole thing is so off road from the “normal” ways of doing music even in the new wave and punk genres of the 70s that I am surprised they managed acquire as many fans as they did over the years.
They are a band that do not hide their influences, it is kitschy and spacey right up front on songs like “Planet Claire”, “53 Miles West of Venus”, and the off brand queer anthem, “There’s a Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon)” which features the lyrics
If you’re in outer space, don’t feel out of place
Cause there are thousands of others like you
Others like you, others like you
I definitely missed those words the first time I was playing out the first couple albums.
Fun Fact: Off all people, John Lennon was inspired to return to making music after hearing “Rock Lobster”. A seven minute horror beach party epic that was partly inspired by Yoko Ono’s wild vocal flourishes.
But let’s go back to the beginning with the guitar, bongos, and Farfisa organ that open the first track of the entire discography, “Planet Claire”. They basically tell you exactly what they are about right there and do not diverge from that lane until the late 80s after the passing of Ricky, which seemed to bring the band ever so slightly more down to earth in theme and sound.
Again, if we took teenage me, who wanted to dance to pop and house songs, forward to modern day and forced him to listen to it… He’d skip it and likely never come back because you don’t have to stick around with streaming. Owning physical formats when you didn’t like something meant you either sold them off/gave them away or they sat in your house staring at you from the shelf and eventually you try them out again. And again. And again. This will be a reoccurring them in this series.
And eventually you start to understand the new musical language and maybe even come to love it and find yourself shouting one of my favorite lines of punk/new wave ever, “Well she isn’t!”. A line that until recently I thought was just fun to shout along with Fred Schneider. But it is a line, in context of the band and the era it was released, that I interpret as slyly being about assumptions and prejudices. And it takes almost the entire song, which has sparse lyrics to begin with to get to that declaration.
Some say she’s from Mars
Or one of the seven stars that shine after three-thirty in the morning
Well, she isn’t!
But when we do get there it is delivered like an angry defiant Muppet in an exhausted fit. You’re wrong about planet Claire and whole bunch of other stuff too like maybe; the band or the music or yourself or even living in this dimension. Now get it together!
Aside from the music sounding foreign I just didn’t know how to dance to songs like, “52 Girls” or “Dance This Mess Around”. There is no four to the floor I was used to in most dance music. But now I twitch and jerk and pogo all over the floor. Like the music itself, the dancing required is also not really of this dimension.
Fred Schneider’s sprechgesang is so iconic to the band people often forget how great the harmonies of Kate and Cindy are. And how much personality both bring to the lyrics and the band. There is real angst in songs like, “Dance This Mess Around” or “Give Me Back My Man”. And then there are all the vocal ticks on the near 7 minute magnum opus, “Rock Lobster”. These quirky phrasings and noises define a huge part of the bands sound and occur on every album up to Good Stuff.
Going through those first two albums you really hear all the stuff thrown into their blender; surf rock, garage rock, exotica, Yma Sumac, TV spy themes, Lalo Schfrin, Bernard Hermann, Kate impersonating a theremin… By Whammy! released in 1983, the rough edges of the first two LPs had been filed off. And while they didn’t sound garage grindhouse as much they still sounded outer space. The music had gone from The Flintstones to The Jestons. Always, sounding like nobody else going.
And so unfortunately this is the band that gets whittled down to a few quirky iconic singles. When in fact the album cuts are just as fun and wild as anything single sent out for chart consideration. I think this is why nailing down a favorite album is so hard for me. There is just so much I enjoy on every album. I don’t even know what to recommend to people as a starting point. A greatest hits package is so all over the map that for anyone looking for a specific sound and not just, “Love Shack” or “Rock Lobster” will be confused and perplexed and it won’t have my favorite songs!
After the death of Ricky due to AIDS something was lost for sure. But oddly it was also a total triumph in the end because Cosmic Thing is an insane giddy, bouncy, cathartic, release of energy. It is as if all those aliens from the previous outer space adventures had landed on Earth and said, “Take me to your leader”. And that leader turned out to be not a person but really hopping go-go party that was in charge. When Cindy Wilson took a break during Good Stuff you definitely notice a difference because the harmonies of people who had been together since the 70s are not there. People who had been through the AIDS crisis and lost somebody together was not there. And you lost a lot of of the quirky vocal additions. Just imagine what the instrumental, “The World’s Green Laughter” would have sounded like with Cindy harmonies on all those vocal sounds.
That album has GREAT material but now that I am older and know that album was not the complete foursome I keep wishing Cindy was on it. I keep wishing they would go back and add her vocals to the master tapes. Her lead vocals were such a huge part of the other world space sound. Kate’s vocals (when she sang lyrics) were always much more grounded as a glue to tether the interstellar activities of Cindy on lead.
After Good Stuff there would be no new album until Funplex in 2007. And that album sounded more electronic and in many moments straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll. But it still had it’s spacey moments like on the club hit, “Juliet Of The Spirits”.
But overall the album sounds as if the former aliens were masking themselves as humans by going to shopping malls and fast food taco huts. And while they may have adapted they still did not quite totally fit in. Like The Coneheads, they came from, “France”. “Keep This Party Going” is rock song that is just as fun and party ready as, “Love Shack”. And “Funplex” is like the sequel to “Channel Z” except it has all gotten worse. And having played all the albums straight through today Funplex is damn solid. But it has to battle those first four space jewels and that is not easy.
The other oddity in their catalog is the EP Mesopotamia, in which they enlisted David Byrne to produce the album. It lands between Wild Planet and Whammy! and was intended as a full LP. The label and Byrne were pushing them to release songs that were largely leftovers or half songs. And Byrne was also busy with Talking Heads and solo work. So the whole affair petered out. Also, oddly, Byrne separated Cindy and Kate for most of the adventure instead of utilizing their harmonies. To say nothing of the loss of spontaneity you heard on the first two albums. After Byrne left the project it got remastered and released as an EP.
You can find Byrne’s original productions on-line and in rare collector’s circles. The songs are longer and seem slightly more sparse (and definitely more controlled and polished) as opposed to the usual jungle cacophony of the B-52’s sound. The EP as it stands today is quirky and messy and tripped out just like the first two LPs. “Deep Sleep” is the one album cut that most screams David Byrne. It contains that world music vibe Byrne had used on Remain In Light. But hearing the EP again it is quite fabulous and really should have more attention and cuts played out at clubs. And even though there is only six songs, like the previous albums they run the gamut. “Mesopotamia” is a fan favorite but I also really like “Cake” a song the steadily chugs along as you stomp the floor and features Cindy and Kate letting loose in full vocal shouts. The David Byrne mix of “Cake” sound less hectic and has even more hallmarks of sounds you find on Remain In Light. I like both, they give different moods. But forced to a desert Island the album version wins.
Another aspect to these songs is that most are 4 minutes or longer. They are built for the long ride. And really go places that you can’t go in standard pop fare cut down to, as Billy Joel sang, “three-o-five”. Like, Roy Orbison they refused to be held to traditional pop song and lyrical structures. But this likely also hindered their mainstream chart success.
Side note: It is amusing when I DJ a gig and play the album version of a song like, “Love Shack” everybody is singing along until they get thrown and look around as more lyrics than they remember come out of the speakers. Yes that’s right it is almost a 6 minute song but most people have been fed the radio edit over the years. And to paraphrase film critic Robert Ebert – No bad song is too short. No good song is too long.
I saw The B-52’s live in 1999 with Pretenders a double bill that to this day makes ZERO sense to me. Pretenders were the openers. It was perfectly fun but those two acts are nothing alike. The B-52’s were not in my pantheon then like they are now and I was not the crazy concert goer back then, willing to jump ropes to find dance space or get closer. So it doesn’t stick in my memory like other shows have. Another reoccurring theme is I always seem to catch most of my favorite acts when they are past their mainstream era prime and doing co-headlining spots.
But thanks to videos on YouTube I can see old concert footage and I definitely missed out being too young to see them in the early 80s in their full wigged out energetic glory.
So- I say they are my favorite band but what does that mean and why do I say it? I guess I say it because it is true but also because I have to have a favorite don’t I? You can’t like everything equally otherwise you have no “taste”. Somebody has to be on top, right? I guess so… and the take away here is you don’t have to follow formulas to be on top and create good stuff.
Album Order Preference:
Wild Planet/The B-52’s
Bouncing Off The Satellites
10 Favorite Songs (In No Order):
She Breaks For Rainbows
Dance This Mess Around
Give Me Back My Man
Follow Your Bliss
Detour Thru Your Mind