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

 

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars – 1997)

In a moment of ghoulish prescience, Hole pulled ‘Rock Star’, a song which had been the intended closer to their 1994 album ‘Live Through This’ at very short notice; indeed such short notice that the album sleeves had already been printed. The album, which was released four days after the death of Hole singer’s husband Kurt Cobain, had originally been intended to close with a bitter rant against media intrusion and the startling lyrics ‘How’d you like to be in Nirvana/ So much fun to be in Nirvana/ Fucking barrel of laughs in Nirvana/ Say you’d die’. Chilling stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. The song which replaced it, which was for many years was known as ‘Rock Star’, was ‘Olympia’, another acerbic Love bite which has been perceived by some to be a slur at some of the notable graduates of the very much liberal Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This one college inadvertently gave rise to the sometime maligned Riot Grrrl bands, such as the Love adversary Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill, and the scene which therefore produced the best all female rock and roll group of the last 20 years: Sleater-Kinney.

Formed in 1994 by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, they garnered critical support for the eponymous debut in 1995 and to a greater extent their sophomore effort ‘Call The Doctor’ the following year, but ‘Dig Me Out’ was their first classic. Joined by sometime Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, the formula of two serrated, tuned down guitars, edgily syncopated drums and vocals that went from abrasive, to recalling 50s girl groups in Sleater-Kinney’s more pop moments, was one that screamed out in the post-Britpop meltdown of what alternative radio existed in Britain in 1997. Tucker’s vocals, often a tremulous, yet melodic scream, bludgeoned their way into your consciousness and perhaps provide the most decisive point as to whether you take the band to your heart, are also are much of what make the band so thrillingly unique.

The album’s opener and title track is a study in the ragged two pronged attack sub-three minute pop that characterise the band, with the angularity of Sonic Youth captured and honed into an accessible burst. In contrast, the onomatopoeic motion of the ‘One More Hour’ which deals with jealousy and collapse of Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship, while no sordid ‘Rumours’ soul bearing, manages to be both intimate and fragile, while ‘Turn It On’ strikes at the same collapse with a chorus underpinned by handclaps sounding like a more emotionally honest Wire covering a Spector-produced girl band. But it’s songs like ‘The Drama You’ve Been Craving’ and the perhaps self-explanatory subject of ‘Words and Guitar’, where Tucker and Brownstein trade vocals and power chord flourishes at breakneck speed, are where they best flourish.

Perhaps the high point of the album is the single ‘Little Babies’ which combines a ludicrously infectious baby talk chorus matched to dissonant yet melodic hymn to clinging hopelessly to domestic bliss. For a band often on the margins, it was as insanely catchy as any pop act, yet just sufficiently discordant to stray away from being formulaic. There would be moments on their later albums, such as ‘You’re No Rock And Roll Fun’ from 2000’s ‘All Hands On The Bad One’, but rarely would they be able to nail pop perfection so well in under two and a half minutes. Of course it wasn’t all sweetness, harmonies and something for girls in hair-slides to self-consciously groove along to, as album closer ‘Jenny’ tonally evoked the slowly spiralling of desperation of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Want You’, with jealously and infidelity writ large over ratcheted-up guitar mangling.

Of their seven albums in ten years until they departed on indefinite hiatus after 2005’s ‘The Woods’, they consistently drew rave critical reviews, but never quite escaped that post-Riot Grrrl ghetto which allowed them to be conveniently pigeonholed under a feminist agenda, which while it existed, was never really overtly the point of Sleater-Kinney, even if it did dominate some of the other predominantly female bands from the Pacific Northwest. To call their musical output as ‘sexy’ could well be perceived as sexist shorthand, but only in the way that Led Zeppelin managed such urgent appeal. Few bands of that era churned out such consistently attractive rock and roll and ‘Dig Me Out’ is the perfect place to start a journey into the drama. There may have been bands capable of more spectacular headlines and disaster, but they will have the lasting musical legacy.

James Tiernan

Urusei Yatsura – Slain By Urusei Yatsura (Ché – 1998)

Your teenage years are about wanting something of your own, something to hold onto, something that defines. Urusei Yatsura were my band. Known by a handful, and perhaps loved by even less, their defiantly difficult, yet gloriously poppy sound, which spoke of Japanese youth culture and struck a form of artful rebellion through mangled Fender Jaguars, drum sticks rammed under guitar strings and a set of tunings straight out of the Sonic Youth school of everything in F#. Barrelling out of Glasgow with buzz saw tunefulness, skinny fit t-shirts and a genuine DIY ethic which meant that when their debut appeared in 1996, my 15 year old self felt like I had found a calling, as ‘Siamese’, the opener of their debut album, 1996’s ‘We Are Urusei Yatsura’ demanded ‘take a stand, make a plan, form a gang, a lo-fi band.’ Blissful abandonment and what’s more, it was mine and only a select few other’s alone.

While all three albums released are works of brilliance in their own right, with 2000’s much delayed ‘Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura’ completing the trio of proper album releases, it was their second album which I lived in and took solace from, knowing there was little danger of being discovered. ‘Glo Starz’ blasted through with thrilling mangling, as dual singers and principal songwriters Fergus Lawrie and Graham Kemp chanted ‘Atari’ over and over again; both ludicrous, wilfully niche and magnificently joyous. They managed to record a song about gradually losing your grip called ‘No.1 Cheesecake’ and not appear like ridiculous. They unleashed furious noise which maintained its pop sensibility on ‘Exidor’, without disappearing into pretentious Sonic Youth noodling or preposterous Dinosaur Jr soloing self-indulgence. It was everything that those bands reached at their accessible peaks, but compacted and immediate.

For a band named after a Japanese Anime series, they were lyrically indebted and forever focused across the other side of the world, with a wistful longing for an alien culture that provided stark, neon and almost futuristic contrast to the mundanity of these shores. ‘No No Girl’ looked across the Pacific at tales of unobtainable romance, while the gloriously drawling ‘Slain By Elf’ spat out with outsider vengeance, and the melancholic ‘Fake Fur’ sang of ‘transfer tattoos’ and of daring failed romance. In retrospect, it may not seem to be glamorous but that a group of outsiders from Glasgow, not outsiders in a trite or contrived punk sense of the word, had managed to evoke both an exotic alternate life across in Japan, as well as the manic thrills of your bands, your own chosen obscurity, your own wonderful desire to be different, will forever keep them as the best band you’ve never heard of.

Rather inexplicably, the album also spawned commercial success when the Peel and Lamacq championed ‘Hello Tiger’, a noisy burst celebrating a tiger fur clad startlet, reached the dizzying heights of number 40 in the proper UK hit parade after the band had completed, of all things, a tour of Virgin Megastores in broad daylight. The ‘gigs’ consisted of playing to 30 people a time while hopeless geeks, freaks and girls with hairslides and Hello Kitty bags nodded devotedly along, while the lunchtime shoppers looked baffled in their quest for whichever album of music made for people who don’t like music was currently topping the charts. It felt like a small victory; a victory against what I still couldn’t tell you, but a victory nonetheless; like seeing a school friend make a fleeting substitute appearance for a local lower league football team, there was a part of your small town in the Sunday papers.

There will be no great retrospective for Urusei Yatsura. There will be no great stream of bands plastered across the NME proclaiming that without their influence, they would never have headlined festivals, won awards or simply been feted by critics everywhere. They are not their generation’s Velvet Underground and everyone who saw them didn’t go on to form a band. But at the end of decade which limped to a bloated post-Britpop close, while many of the great early 90s US bands made a mess of their legacy, there were a few glorious years of fun from Urusei Yatsura. I inadvertently saw what turned out to be their final gig at the Camden Underworld in 2001 when in town for something entirely different. Burned in my memory is Fergus in the crowd thrashing away as Graham stormed through ‘Our Shining Path’. The end of a teenage era, but one never forgotten by the few who were there.

James Tiernan