No novelty, the B-52s may be the most subversive band America ever gave us

Campy? Yes. Colorful? Yes. Fun? Very much so. But none of this should take away from their value as vanguards


Annie Zaleski
July 14, 2017 10:59PM (UTC)

In recent weeks, the B-52s bubbled up to the forefront of the internet's milestone-birthday-remembrance complex. Not only did the Athens, Georgia, band's 1992 LP "Good Stuff" turn 25 years old, but the landmark LP "Cosmic Thing" also hit the ripe old age of 28.

The latter record remains beloved by fans, for good reason. With production from both Nile Rodgers and Don Was, "Cosmic Thing" streamlines and amplifies the band's characteristics: rainbow-hued synths, multi-part harmonies, unabashedly danceable rhythms. The funky "Channel Z" is a pointed political statement ("Waste dumps, toxic fog, irradiate and keep it fresh forever/Good old boys tellin' lies/'Bout time I got wise"), while the punkish shimmy "Bushfire" wields the B-52s' trademark abstract phrasing and imagery ("Fire in a field of molten flowers") for effect.

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Yet the album still resonates because it has a vein of melancholy snaking underneath. "Deadbeat Club" — a song that loosely chronicles the band members' idle younger days — especially captures the wistful, unforced glumness that comes with feeling like a misfit in your own skin.

"Cosmic Thing" was the B-52s' biggest commercial hit: The album went quadruple platinum, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart and spawned three top 40 singles. And "Love Shack" continues to permeate pop culture: Most recently, two contestants on "RuPaul's Drag Race" performed to the song in front of guest judges the B-52s themselves.

However, the subversive genius of the B-52s isn't quite acknowledged as much as it could be — even though the band invented new wave-wacky and was mindful about keeping ahead of the stylistic curve. For example, in 1981, the band released the "Party Mix!" EP, which culled a selection of early songs and remixed them into a vinyl-side-long groove fest.

This lack of recognition is partially due to decreased mainstream saturation; according to radio stations monitored by Nielsen BDSradio, the only B-52s songs to get more than 10 spins in a recent seven-day span include "Love Shack," "Roam," "Rock Lobster" and "Private Idaho." But unfortunately, being underestimated is nothing new for the band. "Now maybe people won't be saying we're a novelty band," co-founder Keith Strickland told Rolling Stone in 1990, after "Love Shack" hit it big. "It's nice that we're finally being recognized as actually having something."

But you can also chalk up a lack of respect to the group's kitschy veneer (and, more specifically, its penchant for making kitsch cool) unfairly superseding the music itself. That's perhaps most galling: After all, the B-52s' early LPs are gloriously weird without sounding forced or self-conscious.

The band's 1979 self-titled debut and 1980's "Wild Planet" contain a heady mix of perforated organ, slanted punk guitars and dance grooves inclusive of surf licks and beach-blanket pogoing. Later, contemporary-sounding tracks — the bustling synth-pop of "Whammy Kiss" and the mid-'80s pop confection "Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland" — are slightly askew, as if the mirror is tilted a bit when refracting any modern influence.

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The records sound completely from another planet, which was absolutely the point: Vocalist Fred Schneider told Rolling Stone in 1990 that the band wanted to craft "positive, surreal dance music," while producer Was characterizes the B-52s' music in the same interview as "a folk music indigenous to an exotic land." Appropriately, the band members' voices intersect at odd angles, as if they were inventing their own language or communication style. The band's singers — Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson — favor hiccuping rhythmic patterns, and they treat their voices like a palette of sound effects.

The animal imitations of "Rock Lobster" are famous, of course — raise your hand if you learned about the existence of narwhals from the lyrics — but the song also incorporates dramatic falsetto and vibrato, and frantic yelps. "Dance this Mess Around" also veers between spoken-word exhortations and playful vocal disfigurement. Even the band's multi-part harmonies, as heard on the goofy "Wig," are slightly off-kilter.

In a wonderful Pitchfork Review piece, "53 Miles West of Venus: The Enduringly Queer Legacy of the The B-52s," author T. Cole Rachel singles out the band's "kaleidoscopic grasp of all things camp" and how it is "part of a unique lineage that has its roots in the histrionic, outré performance style first made popular by the likes of Screamin' Jay Hawkins or fellow Georgian Little Richard."

On some level, this style comes from the notion that the band was figuring it out on the fly. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2012 about the B-52s' first show — an auspicious Valentine's Day 1977 house party in Athens with a keg and 25 people in attendance — Strickland said "we weren't really a band at the time. But Fred [Schneider] said we were, so then we had to be one, and we had to shore up some songs. I think we [ended up] with about six, which were 'Rock Lobster,' 'Planet Claire,' '[Hot] Lava,' 'Killer Bees' and 'Strobe Light.'"

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For the B-52s, this outré lineage also manifests itself in the form of unorthodox sonic quirks, and a de-emphasis of conventional hooks and song arrangements. This had much to do with the band's late co-founder, Ricky Wilson, who died of AIDS-related cancer in 1985. In fact, Wilson's approach to the guitar has spawned numerous, lengthy message board threads full of players attempting to puzzle through his parts and tuning.

On a broader level, however, the group's music prioritizes clever moments: the horoscope mad libs of "Song for a Future Generation" ("Hey, my name is Keith and I'm a Scorpio from Athens, G-A, and I like to find the essence from within"), gently brilliant wordplay ("Baking potatoes, baking in the sun!") and gleeful absurdity ("Quiche La Poodle is her name"). The band excels even more at memorable turns of phrase, from the early gem "Everybody had matching towels!" to the tongue-twisting "I'm your daytime waitress at the taco tiki hut" lyric from 2008's "Funplex."

Yet from a societal standpoint, the B-52s' spin is more substantial than the band receives credit for. Writes Cole, "Even though their aesthetic remains singular, The B-52s' general sensibility — a kind of mannered quirkiness mixed with subject matter often either obliquely or specifically queer — is something that would influence the next several generations of rock bands trailing out of the American South."

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Chief among them is R.E.M., of course, whose members have praised the B-52s as an influence and champion for years. (In one of the more notable nods to the bands' connections, Kate Pierson appeared on R.E.M.'s 1991 album "Out of Time.") In fact, the way R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe addressed (or, rather, didn't address) his sexuality back in the '80s and early '90s also very much owes a debt to the B-52s' approach.

"Not until 1992 did someone ask us about being gay," Strickland told Cole. “It was almost more subversive that we didn’t talk about it. We were just trying to be ourselves. Being gay was just a part of it. That’s really how we wanted the world to be, you know? You just do your thing and your sexual orientation is just a part of it. I think it was kind of more revolutionary because of that. People either related to us on that level or they didn’t. Some people got it, some people didn’t, but we certainly never tried to hide it at all.

"Our music and our image kind of stood for itself — that was the statement — and we weren’t really self-aware enough to think that we needed to say anything else about it," Strickland continues. "We were saying it was OK to be different by just living it."

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Today, the latter sentiment still feels profound and radical. Openly and nonchalantly being 100 percent yourself, especially when you identify as being different, remains fraught with potential minefields, including discrimination, oppression and even personal violence. And even though there are more out, visible queer musicians today than when the B-52s began, the band's continued status as a bold but casual trailblazer can't be understated.

In recent years, there have been overtures toward elevating the B-52s' pop culture presence. Record Store Day's Black Friday 2015 releases included a live B-52s album recorded in August 1979, while principal members Pierson, Wilson and Schneider have released solo work in recent times. And, in late 2015, Sleater-Kinney brought out Fred Armisen during New York City shows for a raucous version of "Rock Lobster," a cover the trio had done even back in the '90s.

I recently interviewed Schneider, who revealed that he and the other band members are in the early stages of planning a book to commemorate their career. In equally exciting news, he also noted that a vinyl reissue campaign is also in the works. Getting the B-52s' records back in circulation is crucial from a commercial visibility standpoint, and should also lead to an overdue critical revaluation. In fact, in a nod to the band's era-transcendent timelessness, its catalog feels more undefinable now than it did several decades ago. All of the B-52s' talk about being from other solar systems was perhaps more true — and profound — than we realized at the time.

 

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Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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