Saturday, April 20, 2013

The B-52's: One Very Long Party, Definitely Out Of Bounds

Not many bands could name Chic, the Mamas & the Papas, Esquivel, Captain Beefheart, Petula Clark, and Yoko Ono among their influences, but then again, the B-52's were not like many bands. You think your band was weird? The B-52's were weirder. Mostly, the B-52's were campy.

The B-52's were so campy that they went all the way past campy, into serious territory, and then back to campy again. At times, the B-52's were so ridiculous, they were almost a novelty band. Although Fred Schneider was arguably the B-52's' lead singer (if "singing" is indeed what you would call it), it was Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson who dominated the band's sound and image; beneath all the garish wigs and make-up, they both possessed surprisingly strong and versatile voices.

Like most people my age, I knew the B-52's through "Love Shack" and "Roam." When I checked out a copy of their 1979 debut album from the library in college, I expected it to sound like "Love Shack." Right. The early B-52's were significantly more primitive and atonal - almost as much post-punk as New Wave. Early B-52's songs were more like jam sessions than proper compositions, with Schneider going on and on about God knows what, attempting to out-non-sequitur himself, sounding like a very gay parody of a funk singer. "Rock Lobster" was about as polished and melodic as that album got - and "Rock Lobster" was plenty weird in its own right.

If the group's early material isn't exactly near and dear to my heart, it's provided a nice chuckle now and then. Take this random sprinkling of early B-52's lyrics, and call me in the morning. From "Lava":
I'm gonna let it go
Let it flow like Pompeii or Herculaneum
Let it sizzle, let it rise
Don't let your lava love flow turn to stone
Keep it burnin'
Keep it burnin' here at home

I'm gonna jump in a crater
See ya later
From "Devil In My Car":
He's pointing his pitchfork at me
He's in the front seat of my car!
He's taking over!
Ooh, he ripped my upholstry
He's at the wheel,
HELP! The devil's in my car
HELP! He's drivin' too far

I can't lock the door
I can't put on my safety belt
There's nothing for me to do but yell HELP!
Devil's in my car!
I'm goin' to Hell in my old Chevrolet
I don't know which way
He's got his cloven hoof on the clutch
Oh! Ow! I'm sitting on his tail
From "Private Idaho":
You're out of control, the rivers that roll
You fell into the water and down to Idaho
Get out of that state
Get out of that state you're in
You better beware
You're living in your own Private Idaho
Keep off the patio
Keep off the path
The lawn may be green
But you better not be seen
Walkin' through the gate that leads you down
Down to a pool fraught with danger
Is a pool full of strangers
From "Party Out of Bounds":
Surprise! Party!
Yeah, we just thought we'd drop in!
Where's your icebox?
Where's the punch?
Ew, house-a-tosis!
Who's to blame when parties really get out of hand?
Who's to blame when they get poorly planned?

Crashers get bombed, slobs make a mess
Ya know sometimes they'll even ruin your wife's dress
Crashers getttin' bombed (Who's to blame?)
Can you pull it back in line?
Can you salvage it in time?
What can you do to save a party?
Parcheesi? Charades? A spur-of-the-moment
Scavenger hunt, or Queen of the Nile?
Who turned out the lights?
In 1982, secretly prolific producer David Byrne attempted to take the band in a slightly different direction with the Mesopotamia EP, but according to sources, the The B-52's mostly resisted. I have to wonder what direction that could have possibly been. Ambient music? Nonetheless, the title track has to be the most swinging number about the Cradle of Civilization ever recorded:

Turn your watch, turn your watch back
About a hundred thousand years
A hundred thousand years
I'll meet you by the third pyramid
I'll meet you by the third pyramid
Ah come on, that's what I want, we'll meet
In Mesopotamia, oh oh oh
(We're goin' down to meet) I ain't no student
(Feel those vibrations) of ancient culture
(I know a neat excavation) Before I talk
I should read a book
But there's one thing I do know
There's a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia
Six or eight thousand years ago
They laid down the law
They sure did. Once in a while, though, the band managed to almost write something resembling an actual pop song. "Give Me Back My Man," as Tom Maginnis puts it in his AMG song review, "reveals a slice of sentimentality that hadn’t been heard before (or even thought possible) from these campy kings of New Wave party rock." Unsurprisingly, Fred Schneider sits this one out and Cindy Wilson takes over, nearly generating what her peers might have called "emotion." Then again, the chorus is "I'll give you fish/I'll give you candy." It also sounds as though someone is banging an aluminum sheet against a bathtub for percussion. Well, the B-52's certainly gave us fish, candy, and a whole lot of other goodies in between.

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