Over the Wall – # 14
An unusual, incomparable group this week, who went from the American underground to international fame.
Edition #14 – Dance This Mess Around: The B-52’s.
From cult phenomenon to top-ten success, the story of the B-52’s (the name is now apparently written without the apostrophe) is one of a unique group that came out of the American post-punk frontier and went on to be one of the most recognisable bands in contemporary pop.
Coming together in Athens, Georgia, in the late seventies, the original B-52’s lineup of Ricky Wilson, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, and Fred Schneider had something happening right from the very beginning. They quickly became one of the most talked-about groups in the American underground, releasing their debut single in 1978, the non-sequitur masterpiece that still defines the group for many, “Rock Lobster” (b/w “52 Girls“), followed by the instant classic self-titled LP in 1979, both to great acclaim. By the time of their second LP, Wild Planet, in 1980, the band’s singular blend of retro and modern was an international, but still underground, success. Driven by Ricky Wilson’s guitar riffing and the infectious trade-off vocals of Pierson, Wilson, and Schneider, the sound of these first two albums is an exciting mix of various strands of fifties/sixties rock and weird punk, a fusion that has remained appealing ever since. These two LPs presented the band at their strangest and most vibrant, musically and visually, and their playing with the kink and camp of post-war America during this time resulted in one of the most memorable aesthetics of the era.
Following up on their early success, and ready for a breakout, the group were cutting their third LP with David Byrne. The record was never completed as intended, but the handful of tunes that were finished were released as the Mesopotamia EP in 1982. Byrne’s presence led to a dance/groove sound more in-line, as could be expected, with Talking Heads than the raw guitar shimmy of the early B-52’s records, and, despite it being an interesting artifact, Mesopotamia remains one of the least-known of the band’s records. Further departure was in store, when their third LP, Whammy! came out in 1983. With its electronic pop sound, this record hasn’t ever been as well-received as the band’s other efforts. It did spawn two great singles, but failed to make much of a splash, and the band kept quiet for a couple of years until their fourth LP, Bouncing Off The Satellites, came out in 1986. Taking the slicker dance and electronic sounds they had been playing with for the last couple of years even further, this record never really got much of a chance, as Ricky Wilson, then afflicted (unbeknownst to his bandmates) with AIDS, died unexpectedly during the making of the album, bringing a stop to the band. The album was finished, but the band weren’t there to back it up when it was released. It remains kind of a forgotten record, the last in the line of the lesser-known B-52’s records in the early/mid-eighties.
During the time spent apart in the late eighties, original drummer Keith Strickland was writing music which eventually led to the re-forming of the band, and their smash comeback/international mainstream breakout record, Cosmic Thing, in 1989. With two top–ten singles, it was to be the band’s biggest record, and it re-established them for the late eighties/early nineties crowd. The sound was much shinier and media-friendly, as one would expect for a chart-topping record, and while Strickland took over on guitar, the vocal set-up remained the same, keeping much of the basic vibe of the band intact. There was someone missing, though, and that made the success of the record bittersweet.
In the years after Cosmic Thing, the B-52’s were on and off, doing some soundtrack appearances, performances, as well as producing one LP (as a trio, without Cindy Wilson) in 1992 and a greatest hits collection with some new tunes in 1998. It would be a decade until they put out any more new material, during which time they played select concert dates, occasionally appearing in pop culture reference and attaining pop legend status as their early works kept finding new audiences. The band re-emerged in 2008, though, with the Funplex LP, a venture into contemporary electro rock sounds that got mixed reviews, despite many being glad to see the band back.
One of the longer-running, and most successful groups of the American post-punk set, The B-52’s may always be defined by two certain periods (maybe even two particular songs) in their career, but they have a lot more to offer.