The B-52s - The B-52’s (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The B-52s

The B-52’s (1979)

Warner Brothers

It always amazes me how quickly punk rock started to produce spin-off genres. In 1979, with punk only three years old and still trying to find itself, post-punk and new wave, which were offshoots of punk, were already starting to take off. As I’ve written about before, post-punk, new wave, alternative, and indie rock all have the same vague definition: music inspired by punk that isn’t really punk. The fact that all four genres are defined in the same vague ways mean that the differences between them are somewhat nuanced and not necessarily easily described in words. The B-52’s (now known as The B-52s, because apparently they think dropping an apostrophe is an important distinction now) embodied some of the nuances that came to be associated most prominently with the new wave genre, particularly their kitschy pop style. Later in their career they would become more defined by heavy, slick synthesizers which would become a very big element in new wave, and while there are some keyboards on their debut self-titled album back in 1979, they weren’t as pronounced as they would become by the time they hit their breakout hit “Loveshack” in 1989. For their first album, they were largely a throwback to 50’s and 60’s pop with elements of punk all strung together by Ricky Wilson’s very unusual guitar style.

The B-52’s have always been known for having multiple vocalists, often in the same song, usually with contrasting male and female vocals between Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, and my birthday twin Kate Pierson. While Wilson and Pierson’s vocals are pretty conventional, Schneider’s voice has always been as distinctive as Ricky Wilson’s bizarre guitar style. Schneider’s singing voice is somehow deep and nasally at the same time, and puts strange emphasis on the words. His peculiar, almost robotic style of singing works particularly well when paired with The B-52’s sci-fi and dadaist style of lyrics, particularly on this album’s standout track, “Rock Lobster,” which we’ll get to later.

The album opens with a combination of morse code signals and surf rock bassline in “Planet Claire.” On later reissues of the album, film and television composer Henry Mancini is listed as a co-writer because of the bassline’s similarity to the theme Mancini wrote for 1960’s crime drama Peter Gunn. If you actually bother to read the lyrics to “Planet Claire” you’ll notice that, for a four and a half minute song, it has surprisingly few lyrics and no traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. And when I describe The B-52’s lyrics as sci-fi and dadaist, that shines through particularly in “Planet Claire”: “Planet Claire has pink air/All the trees are red/Noone ever dies there/No one has a head.” Next up is “52 Girls,” which has a very 1960’s beach party vibe to it, which is helped by Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s giant 60’s style hairdos on the album cover. Again, the lyrics are pretty much nonsensical, being mostly just a list of women’s names and the word “name” repeated over and over again (including the names of both of the song’s singers, Kate and Cindy). “Dance This Mess Around,” the band’s third single, is most notable for borrowing lyrics from the 1965 Supremes hit “Stop! In the Name of Love,” a type of reappropriation that has been common in punk rock since its earliest days.

Okay, now let’s talk about “Rock Lobster.” When people think about The B-52’s, there’s generally two signature songs that they associate with the band: 1989’s “Loveshack,” and 1978’s “Rock Lobster.” “Rock Lobster” was the first released as a single prior to the release of the album, and the album’s version of the track is actually a longer version than the single version. While all three of the band’s singers appear on the song, Schneider is really on lead vocals while Wilson and Pierson fill in backing vocals and literally just start making noises of real and fictional sea creatures that get listed by Schneider at the end of the song. Besides the strange list of sea creatures, the song is mostly about a beach party, with the chorus being mainly just Schneider repeating the words “rock lobster” over and over again with his usual strange inflections. The song also features some of the band’s earliest synthesizer experiments which would become more prominent with the band as their career went on.

I’d be remiss when talking about the dadaist nature of this album if I didn’t point out the presence on the album of the bizarrely titled song “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon).” But the next thing I really want to talk about is the album’s closing track, the wildly off-kilter cover of Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown” which intentionally ruins the popular melody of the original, contorting it into something truly more bizarre and experimental than the original’s simple pop melody.

Today The B-52’s aren’t actively writing new music, but continue to tour very frequently with their hits from the 70’s through to 2008’s Funplex. The band retains most of the original lineup, missing only guitarist Ricky Wilson who tragically died from AIDS related illness in 1985, reducing the band to a four piece. Following Ricky Wilson’s passing, drummer Keith Strickland switched to lead guitar and adopted Wilson’s unique guitar style, leaving the band with no official drummer for the rest of their career. Strickland remains a member of the band, but has decided in recent years to retire from touring. Still, Schneider, Pierson, and Cindy Wilson remain the longtime staples of the band and are happy to relive the band’s glory days for anyone who’s still interested. While it’s true that The B-52’s are often looked at as a novelty band, their career deserves a lot more appreciation than that, as the band were really a post-modern pastiche of retro rock and dadaist absurdism, which makes for a very unique artistic statement in the history of punk and related genres. Their brilliant debut album remains a testament to why the band should be taken much more seriously than they often are.