The wonderful world of The B-52s

Last updated 08:50 02/07/2012

Last week Lenny Henry was in town doing a show where he talked about his love of music (see my review here); it was a strange show, well-meaning, and it walked the line from sublime to ridiculous. At one point, in full ham-mode, Henry talked about how white people wait for black people to dance first - and he was relatively amusing (and accurate) in both this assessment and in the way he demonstrated a range of dance-moves. He said the one exception is Love Shack by The B-52s.

ThenHe had a point - which was not always the case throughout his show. And he had a lot of fun talking about how this absurd song was the quintessential white-people-dancing tune.

I don't feel this is any sort of guilty-pleasure confession to be making but I've always thought Love Shack was pretty good. But I'm annoyed by it, absolutely. And for many reasons. Chiefly because, like perhaps any runaway pop-single that threatens to ruin the magic of a band's truly amazing work through its ubiquity - and the fact that fraudster tourist-fans that just happen to be passing by will totally climb on board, Love Shack has threatened to ruin the magic of The B-52s' truly amazing work through its ubiquity - and the fact that fraudster tourist-fans that just happen to be passing by totally climbed on board.

I was young when Love Shack was a hit - and I was swept up by it, for a bit. But I was hooked on the parent album, Cosmic Thing. My mum bought the cassette tape. It went round and round in the wee MX5 she drove at the time. If we were lucky the roof was down. And just about every song on Cosmic Thing meant more to me than Love Shack - but I wasn't going to begrudge the band a mainstream hit. From what I understood (and at that time I only knew a couple of the earlier songs) here was a fringe-act and this was their chance!

Cosmic Thing was also a big "comeback" record - and it worked. The band had lost its guitarist, founding member Ricky Wilson (the brother of one of the band's singers, Cindy). New fans flocked and though I'm sure it had some of the older fans slightly put out - in that way that almost always happens, the chance for music snobbery to shine, when you feel that your band has (unfortunately) been discovered by everyone else.

I forgot about The B-52s for a while. Love Shack was a popular dance song for a time - and then it was kitsch, meaning that it was a popular dance song once again. And the band's first single, Rock Lobster, was (and still is) an enduring dance-floor classic.

The B52sThere were other - lasting - gems too: Planet Claire, Private Idaho.

Perhaps the thing I have always admired most about B-52s - something that is worth admiring in any band that offers this trait and shows talent - is that they exist in and of themselves, whether blazing a trail or meandering down a path. This mad, beautiful, weird but so-utterly-accessible music doesn't sound like anything else and no one has really quite cottoned on to sounding quite like The B-52s.

Sure it all got a little bit too cartoony (appearing in that Flintstones flop didn't help) but I even heard enough decent stuff on 2008's Funplex, the band's first studio album in 16 years. A bit of a trace-around of the earlier ideas, sure. But that happens. It wasn't in any way a disgrace.

The past couple of years particularly I've gone back to the earliest B-52s material - the self-titled debut and especially Whammy! which was something of a new discovery for me. It had passed me by until recently.

So, sure, it's entirely likely and absolutely acceptable for geeky-white-dancers to enjoy the three-minute spunk of Love Shack if and when they hear it (and provided there's enough in the bank account to keep the babysitter happy) but there's just so much more to this band.

That song probably kept them in beehive hairdos and rainbow colours. It probably bought them all Chryslers that can seat about 20. But what about the surf-guitar shenanigans and rubber-punk madness on Whammy and Wild Planet, on Mesopotamia and Bouncing off the Satellites.

And don't forget Cosmic Thing. So many amazing songs there above and beyond Love Shack; for a start try Dry County and Deadbeat Club and Junebug.

Cosmic Thing, for me, was (and is) like the final Talking Heads album, Naked. Easy to pretend to be a purist and dismiss - but to listen to it in and of its own accord (the way we should listen to any album) a whole world opens up, one that is both faithful to the band's earlier work and seeks and searches forward, away from the obvious as well as toward it.

There are plenty of other reasons to love The B-52s: that three vocalists shared the leads, that the band was so equal-opportunity and all-inclusive; that the group did so much for Aids awareness and to promote unity, love, happiness and peace. Raising money for charity and raising joy through wonderful music. Drummer Keith Strickland even switched to guitar and keys, picked up on the writing duties and ensure the band would/could continue on.

Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider play off each other so well - so much colour in their voices.

And of course there's that music. And the band's approach - art for the sake of art, but also for the sake of sanity, for humour, for larks.Now

Every time I hear The B-52s I hear one of the music world's unique joys and one of the great singular acts from (in) my lifetime.

So what do you think? A B-52s fan? Or couldn't think of anything worse? What's your favourite B-52s album? And do you agree that for all the sass of the singles there are album tracks just waiting to be heard, deserving to be heard?

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Jim   #1   08:39 am Jul 02 2012

Spot on chap. 30 years of subversive Pop.

morgan mckinley   #2   09:06 am Jul 02 2012

Loved the original album, and still well remember listening to the radio late one Friday night and hearing the opening bars of Give Me Back My Man booming out. Loved that song straightaway and bought Wild Planet as soon as I could. Never got into later stuff for some reason, but still go back to those first two albums. Went to the Mission concert in the mud one year just to see the B52s. Loved it, even Love Shack. Great vibe on the hill!

Malky   #3   09:18 am Jul 02 2012

Why was I hoping to see a story on an eight engined bomber? I did actually see the B-52's in concert in Wellington in the early 90's. A person near us did the biggest and smelliest vomit ever. The band was probably wondering why there was a big gap of no one in the crowd.

Mark   #4   09:20 am Jul 02 2012

Love their first two albums (self titled and Wild Planet). Even saw them on the Wild Planet tour at the Wellington Show Buildings in the early 80's and they were great. That was back in the day when Wgtn was firmly on the tour schedule. Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, XTC, Ultravox, The Clash etc... they all came here in the 80's.

m.s.p   #5   09:32 am Jul 02 2012

Love them. You didn't mention their song 'Roam' which polarised older fans even more. It's a beautiful song, but many complained it "didn't sound like the B52's" (I think it's woefully short-sighted to complain when a band doesn't sound like 'themselves') and was a huge hit at the time.

'Roam' has been rather discoloured in recent times by its use in a tv ad, but still a top tune.

Dr Zoidberg   #6   09:32 am Jul 02 2012

B52s are one of my hate bands. Could never get past Love Shack and Shiny Happy People. The singers really irk me.

Paul   #7   09:41 am Jul 02 2012

I seen many live performances in my time, some with amazing glitz, light shows, pyrotechics,inflatable bouncy things to distract the crowd and numerous backing artists; The B-52's had none of this at the Wellington Town Hall concert I saw about 18 years ago.

However I still rate them the best live act I have ever witnessed; effervescent, zany, raw talent on display. The capacity crowd (of albeit B-52 fans) were on their feet, singing, dancing and enjoying the groove); Favourite Album: The (original) B-52's.

iscariot   #8   09:44 am Jul 02 2012

I loathe Love Shack with all all-encompassing hatred that is almost holy in its intensity ... but that is balanced by the joys of Planet Claire and Private Idaho and, somewhat strangely, Channel Z, which I thought was hugely underrated.

I find Love Shack to be a total fail largely because, IMHO, it lacks the melody and harmonisation of pretty much all the other B-52s work; it's shrill, it's slick and it's little wonder that it was a hit.

...and I still find the various animal noises on Rock Lobster ever so faintly disturbing :)

linda   #9   09:49 am Jul 02 2012

LOVE the B-52's. I remember buying the yellow album, a cassette and sitting down the back of the school bus with my tape deck blaring!

linda   #10   09:49 am Jul 02 2012

LOVE the B-52's. I remember buying the yellow album, a cassette and sitting down the back of the school bus with my tape deck blaring!

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