Two different people, of a similar age but unaware of each other’s existence told me the same story about their musical experiences. Both good people so you have to take some notice. We were having that standard, stand-by fireside chat about the best gig you ever attended. With those I am unfortunate to have as friends you get the lucky ones (Gil Scott Heron in the back room of a pub), the intense ones (The Doors at the Round House 1968, tripping) & the downright liars (the Pistols at Screen On The Green, get out of here !). My brother & Steve, responsible adults in their 30s, both came over all misty & nostalgic about a tour they caught when they were 19 year old part-time punks. If you were at the Porterhouse Retford in July 1979 seeing the B-52’s supported by Def Leppard then you would be a mug not to have a great night. My brother is no mug.
The B-52’s are one of the great bands from Athens, Georgia. They showed the young R.E.M. that there was a road out of that college town for a group with ambition & some good songs. The B 52’s had got it going on from the first time you heard “Rock Lobster”. In 1979 there were a lot of new bands with quirky & energetic songs. “Lobster” is totally crazy with a persistent, insistent dancing beat. The head honcho of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, produced the debut LP at Compass Point in Nassau & he captured a salmagundi of kitsch, camp, retro influences salvaged from the junk heap of popular culture, reclaimed with wit & imagination. On that first UK tour this cool-looking 5 piece band were putting on the style from the opening notes, their energy & challenge that there was a fun night to be had proving to be infectious. I know this because separate people at separate gigs told me that the audience responded by becoming dancing fools for the duration of the B-52’s set. This effervescence & abandon made a lasting impression…& the rest of us missed it.
A 2nd LP brought “Give Me Back My Man”, the best pop record of 1980. Here, on a Dutch TV show, Cindy Wilson imagines Edie Sedgewick as a shoeless Shangri-La & charms us all. Her brother Ricky’s turbo-guitar powers the tune along while the others, Fred, Keith & Kate, are all doing the right thing to help the song. It’s not extreme it’s just as cool as it got in 1980. “Wild Planet”, using the rest of the band’s early songs, was a US Top 20 hit. A collection of dance mixes, 3 songs from each LP extended the shelf-life of material that could stand it. “Party Mix” was precisely that, an essential inclusion on any cassette mix of the early 80s (Grace Jones, Marvin Gaye, Heaven 17 &, absolutely, no Police). Robert Christgau, a fan, called the B-52’s “the world’s greatest new-wave kiddie-novelty disco-punk band”.
From the same LP as “Give Me…”, this clip of “Private Idaho” is so good it has spun the rest of this thing around. This time Fred & Kate get to sing & the minimal beatnik visuals have been replaced with a vibrant op-art, the song, the look has an exaggeration, a sense of the other. There is also a feeling of joy & how great is that ? “Get out of that state you’re in !”
Obviously I am a fan but for a while the band struggled to write songs as strong as those from their initial creative spurt. “Mesopotamia”, a mini-LP, employed David Byrne as producer. There is less vocal interplay, a little less of the artlessness that made the group so attractive. 1983’s “Whammy” still dances the mess around. It’s a more keyboard heavy sound, the squeaks & bleeps are a little clumsy but the B-movie concerns are still coming from Outer Space, None of the singles caught a wave but people who have listened to “Whammy” as much as I have bloody love it. The B-52’s were trying to grow up in front of a public which was not sure it wanted them too.
There was a gap before the next record. “Bouncing Off The Satellites” used Brit producer Tony Mansfield, a man who knew his way around a Fairlight CMI. If synthesizers were the way ahead then the B-52’s would do it properly. Unfortunately, even unbelievably, with the record needing just a final polish, Ricky Wilson died, aged 32, from complications relating to HIV/AIDS. . He had not told the rest of the band about his illness &, of course, they were devastated to lose a brother & friend. “Satellites” was eventually released, it’s a good record, there are 3 classy 45s of which “Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland” takes its place alongside the group’s best. In 1986 it seemed that the B-52’s had run their course.
But what can 2 poor boys & 2 poor girls do but play in a rock & roll band? In 1988 the group got back together for another shot. They were in their 30s , less likely to be singing about parties now. What they had was a resolution to do this thing right, the B-52’s brand had not got old & there was still an audience for some spirited dance/surf music. What they also had was Kate & Cindy, post-modern girl-group bouffant queens who sounded & looked better as they matured. With or without that on their heads they were wonderful. “Cosmic Thing” could have been all or nothing for the group but there were more than a few people involved who knew what they were doing.
The record is produced by 2 of the heavyweights of the day. Nile Rodgers & Don Was gave the group a sheen & a funk solidity which they had not had before. The songs too were the best set for a while, still writing about looking for the love getaway in a Chrysler as big as a whale. This was the B-52’s finding a way to grow up, to retain the fun without a forced naivety. It sold squillions of course because everybody loves some good B-52’s songs. “Love Shack” was relentless on the radio in 1989. It was Top 10 in every cool country in the world (that’ll be not France then). “Deadbeat Club” is a belter. To quote the great Groucho, ” I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”. I will make an exception for the Deadbeat Club, I’d show you the membership card but…ah, screw it.
Later records still sold, that Flintstones song was possibly on the wrong side of “Novelty” & they continue to tour. Neither the audience nor Fred, Kate & Cindy are as energetic as they were but there will be the B-52s, a lot of good songs & their will be a party. Be sure not to forget your jukebox money.