In Ten Tracks: The B-52’s

A selection of B-52’s songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.

In Ten Tracks: The B-52’s

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Planet Claire  The first mistake anyone can make is not to take the B-52’s seriously as a group, as a band, however you want to look at it. They have defined their stance and they have maintained the group’s defining characteristics while allowing their sound to be fluid as circumstances dictated. ‘Planet Claire’ opens with a Cramps-worthy minor-key surf guitar line with cheesy Farfisa organ, all so reminiscent of the blue glow of late-night television. As a matter of fact, guitarist Ricky Wilson interpolated the guitar line from the Peter Gunn Theme, earning Henri Mancini a songwriting co-credit along with all the band members. The long instrumental introduction takes you somewhere else, somewhere far from the mundane struggle of your daily life. There is a sinister edge, but you know that you’ll be OK in their company. Then there’s Kate Pierson’s otherworldy, wordless warble that will mesmerize you right into Fred Schneider’s poet/barker/game show host narrative. The opening track was a lot for the group to live up to, but over the course of their debut, they delivered with power to spare.

Dance This Mess Around  This track is at the heart of the band’s debut, and it introduces us to the group’s other female singer, Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson. To say that Cindy has an incredible voice is an understatement. She’s got all the yearning of Dusty Springfield, the bad girl nerves of Ronnie Spector, and a wide-open wail that can recall exotic vocalists like Yma Sumac and Yoko Ono. The back and forth between Kate and Fred, the naming of the ‘sixteen dances’ that everyone knows–they don’t name sixteen, but then, there aren’t ’52 Girls’ either. But no one cares, it’s part of the mythology that the group establishes immediately. Cindy’s cry of ‘why won’t you dance with me/I ain’t no Limburger’ is every teen’s cry of isolation, anger, and shame. It’s the demand of every outsider to be treated as a human being. Then there’s her hand on hip Southern charm when she exhorts “Doesn’t that make you feel a lot better?” 

Give Me Back My Man  Cindy Wilson can also give a straightforward rendering of a modern love song with lyrics like ‘I’ll give you fish/I’ll give you candy’ and it doesn’t seem the least bit odd. That’s because she is possibly this generation’s greatest female rock singer. If at all possible Wild Planet, the band’s second album was even stronger than their debut with more somber tracks like “Dirty Back Road” and “Devil In My Car.” With no bass, Ricky Wilson and drummer Keith Strickland became a locked-down rhythm section that drove the songs home. Ricky was one of the most distinctive post-punk guitarists, right up there with other innovators such as Keith Levene of PiL and Andy Gill of Gang of Four. 

Private Idaho The metaphor that ate Athens! ‘Private Idaho’ became a cultural catch phrase and the title of a Gus Van Sant movie. The Urban Dictionary states “It means “living inside an Idaho potato”, or a very small space. Metaphorically, it refers to someone who is not paying attention because he is daydreaming, or under the influence, or otherwise wrapped up within his own very narrow sphere of interest or frame of reference,” while acknowledging this song as the phrase’s origin. It’s also a strong feature for Fred, who tears into the song’s lyrics with relish. He told the Idaho Statesman: “Idaho is pretty mysterious to all of us. I know it’s a beautiful state, but then I know there’s also a lot of crazy right-wingers and all that stuff.” Also, when you listen to a track like this with attention to the music rather than the vocalists, there is a lot going on and you realize how fiercely they are playing with only three instrumentalists, one of whom is also singing. Kate’s Farfisa organ work is under-recognized as well.

Mesopotamia  After two successful albums and a couple of years living on the road the band took some time off at the start of 1981 in order to write material for a new album. They went into the studio in October to begin recording with Talking Heads’ David Byrne as producer. Byrne played on the tracks as well as drummer Yogi Horton and percussionist Steve Scales, who was also working with Talking Heads. Bryne layered up the band’s sound, adding fretless bass and supporting Ricky Wilson’s guitar with very active rhythm guitar as had been used on Talking Heads albums ’77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. The result was very danceable and provided a wider scope of sounds to the band than the first two albums. Unfortunately, there was also friction between band members and Byrne regarding some of this new sound. Warner was pressuring the band for new product to be released as quickly as possible so the group took six of the ten tracks and released Mesopotamia as an EP. While it was moderately successful it didn’t live up to the standards of the first two albums. Of the four ditched songs, three were re-recorded and turned up on the band’s next album Whammy. But “Mesopotamia” is a solid B-52’s song with Fred declaiming “Before I speak/I should read a book.”

Girl From Impanema Goes To Greenland  Bouncing off the Satellites was to be the last featuring the original band. Following the death of Ricky Wilson of AIDS shortly after the album was finished, it looked very much as though it would be the band’s last album ever. It was all the more devastating because the only member of the band to know of Wilson’s diagnosis was Keith Strickland. Rick felt he would shield the other band members from his illness and any negative publicity that might ensue. This was 1985, when the first celebrity announcement of an AIDS diagnosis–Rock Hudson–was made. The band was devastated and withdrew, refusing to tour or otherwise promote the album besides the making of the video for ‘Girl From Impanema Goes to Greenland.’ The album was released to relative indifference on the part of the record-buying public. Where was their party band? And yet, I really feel that Bouncing Off the Satellites, for all of the issues encountered in making it, is a really good B-52’s album in a way that Whammy really never quite was. Through the years Whammy has gained a cult following, and it admittedly does provide a certain blueprint for the sound of many a new wave band at the time it was made. But I never thought the songs were as good overall, despite the fact that critics and the public regarded the album as a return to form following the disappointment of the Mesopotamia EP. Bouncing Off the Satellites is a bit calmer, perhaps, but it has so many charming twists and turns that I just have personally always liked it better. 

She Brakes For Rainbows The music, folks. If you listen to the B-52’s records back to back, I guarantee that you will find that the music on these records is better than you remember. Ricky Wilson was a large part of that. This track is all synths and drum machine, with the exception of Strickland’s bass. There’s a strong vocal by Cindy as well. The last track on the album, it reads as a memorial to Ricky in its hushed tone, but in fact, the actual story behind the song, according to Keith, is that “(the) song was inspired by a woman Ricky and I met in Santa Fe, New Mexico who was selling vegetarian tacos from a food cart decorated with wind chimes, prisms and flowers, and a sticker that read, ‘I brake for rainbows’.” He also points out that it was the only song that was completely written by him and Rick (lyrics included). It’s a beauty. Not only that, but I think that on Bouncing Off the Satellites Rick and Keith found musical inspiration that pointed the way towards the sound the group would eventually pursue when they returned after a couple of years. 

Dry County  I said earlier that Ricky Wilson was a large part of the reason that the band is so good. The other half of that is that Keith Strickland is also a big part of the reason that the music on B-52’s records is so good. He worked with Ricky on the composing and recording of all of the records. Even though he was only seen as the drummer on stage, he played guitar and keyboards on the group’s recordings as well. After Ricky’s death and the release of Bouncing Off The Satellites Keith left NYC for the more relaxing vibe of Woodstock, where he rented a place and slowly began making music again. He would share that with the others, who were in various locales, and they would improvise and jam as they always had until the songs began to emerge. This one has always been a favorite of mine, the way it evokes the heat of summer and the way that it kind of lopes along in its own little dance. Best line ever: “Just sit on the porch and swing.”

Deadbeat Club There were two things that made Cosmic Thing the B-52’s biggest and best-selling record ever. First, the music was designed to bring in additional musicians from the start. This was the band’s idea and not the influence of an outside producer, although two major producers–Nile Rogers and Don Was–were involved with the production. They used four drummers on the album, all veteran session aces, and they brought Sara Lee in to play bass on the album. Lee was hired following her stint playing with Robert Fripp’s dance band League of Gentlemen, and I feel as though she provided a needed element and freed Strickland and Kate Pierson up a little onstage. The second thing was the songs that they wrote. Strickland’s music and the lyrics penned by Kate, Cindy, and Fred were more introspective and flecked with the bittersweet feeling of looking back at earlier times in their lives. “Deadbeat Club” is about nothing more than the fun of the group’s salad days, but it’s neither maudlin nor bitter. Instead, it considers how the carefree group of friends who began to plot their way to stardom at a local Chinese restaurant have continued to live their lives by the same guiding principles: “Any way we can/We’re gonna find something…” That’s the essence, really. Wherever we go we’ll have fun, we’ll find something to do.

Follow Your Bliss  The B-52’s didn’t record many instrumentals. The closest was the final track on Wild Planet, ’53 Miles West of Venus’ and a couple of B-sides. Cosmic Thing vibrates with the joy of getting closer to nature, and the track before ‘Bliss’, which closes the record, is “Topaz,” a description of the beauty of Earth from outer space. “Bliss” is credited to Keith Strickland; Sara Lee, who plays bass and piano on the track, receives a songwriting credit as well. It must have been very healing and gratifying for Strickland, who Fred once described quite accurately as a highly underrated musician, to compose and pull together, musically, the group’s most successful album. He was able to move further in the direction that he and Ricky Wilson had envisioned and the rest of the band rose to the occasion as well, showing up to write great songs and to perform with everything they had. Cosmic Thing is the happy ending that it had looked like the band would never reach. It wasn’t the end, of course. They recorded a couple of additional albums, both of which have some good moments, and Cindy undertook a new solo career–very different from her work with B-52’s–in 2017. Meantime, “Follow Your Bliss” is one of those tracks you couldn’t resist putting on a mixtape. 

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