The wonderful world of The B-52s
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.
He 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?