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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Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang – 1977)

Aged 17 I was listening to Underworld and Led Zeppelin.  I was in a band who wanted to cover ‘One’ by U2.  I heard U2 for the first time purposefully through some pirate best of which concentrated on their later career.  Numb and Lemon stood out.  I bought Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop.  I bought the Popmart video.  During Discotheque Bono added ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mud Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now’.  My eldest brother’s Sand in the Vaseline two CD best of Talking Heads.  Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, Cross-eyed and Painless stood out.  U2 and Talking Heads credits, Underworld interviews, all saying Eno.  I buy More Blank Than Frank, last track 1/1, I buy Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks.  I buy David Bowie’s Low and ‘Heroes’.  V-2 Schneider.  If I like this so much then I may like the thing they are paying reverence to.  Kraftwerk.  I would soon own every CD they had (and hadn’t) released.  I would be 28 before I saw them live, literally in 3D with my other brother, at Manchester Velodrome.  By that point I had bought their entire back catalogue for a second time, though re-mastered and with German vocals.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, in it I learned of what became known as the Bucha Effect. “Why are helicopters falling out of the sky?” asked the mid-1970s military. Investigating scientists found that the strobing light from the rotors was at a frequency near that of human brainwaves which has an effect; in this case it was the pilot’s passing out.  It is with this type of repetitive interruption of the silence that ‘Europe Endless’ starts.  It unfurls as an arpeggio in G, falling into itself like the Mandelbrot set.  The bass and drum tracks are precise, each emphasising exactly what it should and more.  A perfectly efficient machine is working.  In it you can feel the intelligence and patience that went into its making.  Even before the vocal has entered you are more than aware of the aesthetic for the album; sparse layering and rhythmic interplay, both exquisitely judged.  Though not yet at the title track are already aboard TEE we are already in motion.  ‘Parks, hotels and palaces (Europe Endless)’, Europe is all becoming one during this journey as boundaries blur and nations disappear in parallax.  Vocals are reserved and optimistic.  Clean vocal, vocoder vocal, clean vocal, vocoder vocal. Lulling and enthralling to the extent that when the song ends its nine minutes plus you immediately miss that little arpeggio, you are soon uncomfortable in its absence.

‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Showroom Dummies’ move on to themes of the vacuous nature of modern European society and the music takes a music darker turn.  Over minor drones Hutter tells us that “Even the greatest star, find themselves in the looking glass” in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a comment on vanity and celebrity also empty and throwaway, a ‘placebo profundity’ as I once heard it put.  They move as close to a shout as Kraftwerk would ever get in announcing “We are showroom dummies”, the latter of these two quotes is the most interesting, and being as it is both a comment on Western society’s ultimately pointless obsession with defining ourselves through fashion and a rebuttal to critics of Kraftwerk’s understated live performances.  By responding to the accusation that ‘they just stood there’ in song they winked at those who knew they were doing so much more but seemed to say to everyone else, “YOU’RE showroom dummies”.

By the time of the title track you are firmly centred in Kraftwerk’s European vision.  It’s main melody sounding like a continental anthem, one filled with the drive and capital of Western Europe and mournfully aware of the sacrifice for the greater good over to the Communist East.  Travelling by rail may have been an obvious and easy step post-Autobahn given its success and the possibilities available representing the sounds of sleepers and points etc. but it is executed with aplomb.  Kraftwerk’s knack for subtlety ensures our carriage is safe, what could have easily turned into tawdry pastiche is instead treated with awe and respect.  They replicate both the train and what it embodies.  Frontiers are wider, travel and communication between them is quicker, possibilities are greater, possibilities are endless, Europe is endless as it spreads across the world.

This spread of technology bringing with it a more homogenised Western culture would see Kraftwerk propelled along with it.  Their effect on all electronic music is unquestionable.  Their influence on hip-hop well documented.  It is one of my greatest my greatest musical disappointments that Kraftwerk are often considered by others as being pioneers in the sense that they are unlistenable, intelligent in a way that they satisfied only the brain,  that their vocals are to be laughed at, that they are considered boring.  The fact is much Kraftwerk’s enduring success lies in their ability to write joyous small songs of such detail and scale.

A Hiles