The B-52’s – The B-52’s (Warner Bros – 1979)

November 2004, I’m stood backstage in an LA venue after McLusky have finished their set.  I’m wearing a New Kids on the Block t-shirt and combat pants eating a giant slice of cake which was somehow on the rider.  During a pretty open conversation in the room about music Jack tells me as an aside that I should “get the B-52’s first album”, I immediately recall Jack telling me of his academic study on the drumming in a single Dream Theater song and think that this B-52’s claim must be false.  Days later, while eating burgers after our final show together in Seattle he mentions again, now in more serious tones, that I should “get the first B-52’s first album”.  Again I did nothing as I already knew everything (and you thought the description of my outfit was extraneous).  Following numerous other instances of this same insistence from unconnected others in the intervening years, I started to think that this opinion must be more than just coincidence.  I finally relented in early 2011.  It is shame, this record revealed itself to be a joyous installment of the post-punk period, one whose simplicity in playing, melody and harmony is at first disarming but over repeated listens is revealed to be much knowing than it first appeared.

Coming out in 1979 means the B-52’s must certainly have heard Talking Heads: 77, First Edition, Q: Are We not Men? A: We Are Devo, the last in particular striking as the album’s opener, Planet Claire is partly credited to Henry Mancini, composer of the Peter Gunn theme to which the first 120 seconds bear such a resemblance to, particularly Devo’s adaptation, though this is coupled with the type of intensity that would rear its willfully ugly face on Metal Box.  The motorik drumming matched to riffs so simple they at first appear untalented, nervy keys stab inconsistently, bass Jah Wobble steady, a stark opening from the band who would go on to release that song and that Flintstones song too.  The pop sensibility of the aforementioned is already present in Fred Schneider’s vocal delivery, though here it is interspersed with the occassional bratty shout.  As the song shifts the surf guitar sound pulls into focus, adding 50s/60s optimism, a pleasing foil to post-punk’s pretensions of grandeur.

Tracks such as ’52 Girls’ and ‘There’s a Moon in the Sky (it’s called the Moon)’ try hard to be throwaway pop songs but fail gloriously, being the epitome of cool simplicity The Strokes are still trying to distill today.  By ‘Rock Lobster’ and ‘Dance This Miss Around’ their charm is to the point that this listener is little more than their plaything, not only am I trying to crack the secret to their casual efficiency but I’m also rooting for them, I want them to do well.  This isn’t normal for an album but the interplay between the instruments and the naivety in playing (again reminiscent of what Lydon and co. would seek on Metal Box) is such that they all sound as if they expect the other to make a mistake, and when it happens they would stop as one immediately in an embarrassed silence.  You don’t want this to happen as what is being played is so enthralling, charismatic, shambling and simply told, like Ed Wood had he been in on the joke.

With ‘Lava’ not only do we hear the album’s first and only use of distorted guitar but the some of the least concealed sexual imagery with ‘Turn on your love lava, turn on your lava lamp (volcano!)’, it’s all very tongue (possibly more) in cheek. ‘6060-842’ continues this more risque theme with a story of frustration at the number found on a toilet stall wall doesn’t pick up, finding out with great disappointment that ‘This number’s been disconnected’.  Whether anyone from the US would understand the term ‘end of the pier’ I don’t know, but this would be a prime example of a more Vegas version, lacking any sense of the more tawdry Carry On Blackpool associations, but instead more sleek and with a glint in its eye that maybe these double entardres are born of experience rather than urban myth.

The album ends with a cover of ‘Downtown’.  As a cover it’s more an approximation, half hearted and enthusiastic, the 60s glee of vocals work in counter point to PiL-like return of the repetitive groove, key board cutting, dragging, seemingly ever slower, as if this sunshine is difficult to maintain, hard to stay so madcap and tuneful, it has the sorrow of ‘Sure-Flo’ from A Mighty Wind and the futility in any Flight of the Conchords performance.  As an album the dynamic rarely changes; the desk might have been set once and then left for the whole record and the tones hastily chosen but this adds yet more the charm, if this had been too shiny, too right it could have been a hollow aside in new wave instead of being non-find it is.  In future I will certainly take record recommendations given to me by my countrymen when in foreign lands more seriously, instead of not and thinking that because of the surprising nature of the advice and the way it was imparted, maybe it was some kind of code or clue.

Adam Hiles

 

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