Rediscovering the genius of the early B-52s | Bleader

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rediscovering the genius of the early B-52s

Posted By on 08.01.17 at 12:00 PM

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click to enlarge The original B-52s lineup - COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS
  • Courtesy of the artists
  • The original B-52s lineup

We all know about how absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I think with music sometimes absence makes the ears grow sharper. A few weeks ago I stumbled across live footage of the B-52s playing "Private Idaho," and I couldn't tear myself away. In my teenage years, the B-52s were my gateway into nonmainstream music, opening the floodgates for every weird, outsider, and experimental act I've sought out in the decades since. But at a certain point I put those records away, metaphorically speaking. I could still enjoy them, but I'd come to see them as just silly pop. Encountering that performance of "Private Idaho" (a song from the group's second album, 1980's Wild Planet) made me reconsider my outlook, and now that I've dug out the band's self-titled 1979 debut, I'm the one who seems silly.

That record holds up remarkably well, with its uncanny mix of whimsy, catchiness, weirdness, and experimental impulses—the B-52s even seem to channel the vocal techniques of Yoko Ono on "Rock Lobster," whether they meant to or not. The production is amazing too, and to this day the album sounds like nothing else in the world, hijacking all kinds of kitschy musical tropes to create something dazzlingly original.

The first side of the album is particularly unfuckwithable, which made picking a tune for today's 12 O'Clock Track especially tough. But I opted for "Dance This Mess Around," a truly bizarre song that celebrates the redemptive power of getting down. It opens amid the suffocating depression of a breakup: a chintzy toy piano bangs away over Ricky Wilson's twangy guitar and an insistent organ lick, while Cindy Wilson desperately asks, "Remember when you held my hand? / Say, remember when you were my man?" Cindy's frustration, hurt, and rejection boil over into the hilarious assertion "I'm not no Limburger" (the notoriously stinky cheese that was a regular object of derision in The Little Rascals), and then the song opens up with a riotous invocation of dancing, both as a sexual metaphor and an outlet for creativity. The band rattle off a slew of wild dance names, riffing on the lists in Wilson Pickett's "Land of a Thousand Dances" with a slew of their own—including the Shy Tuna and the Aqua Velva. And even when the wild, absurdist fun takes over, the sense of hurt never completely vanishes.

Today's playlist:

Daniel Corral, Refractions (Populist)
Jimmy Cleveland, Complete Recordings (Lone Hill Jazz)
Françoise Hardy, L'Amitié (Future Days/Disques Vogue)
Various artists, Let No One Judge You: Early Recordings From Iran, 1906-1933 (Honest Jons)
Fred Neil, Bleeker & MacDougal (Elektra)

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