The top ten songs illustrate why The B-52’s have some serious staying power. There’s some hot party tracks, some genuine and endearing silliness, and a couple of sweetly sad tunes. Sometimes all at the same time. Their enduring popularity as a concert attraction is, at least in part, because they seem pretty focused on having a good time and making sure you have one, too. Its been a pleasure listening to their music for the last couple of weeks. Indeed, when world news gets you down, I heartily recommend putting their songs on repeat for a few days.
Here we go:
10. Love Shack
From the 1989 Album Cosmic Thing, Second Single
“Love Shack” is one of those enormous hits that pretty much everyone knows and has some sort of feeling about – either excitement when it comes on the air, or “oh no not this song again,” or “Oh yeah, ‘Love Shack.’” It was so huge that its challenging to listen to it objectively. It became a big hit at a point in my life where I’d just moved to Hawaii to attend graduate school at UHM. I was miserable even though I was getting to do a bunch of things I really enjoyed. I had gone from having this huge network of friends in college to starting from scratch again. I spent a ton of time listening to my “go-to” sad times albums – Disintegration by The Cure and The Lexicon of Love by ABC. I can’t explain why, but sad music made me feel better – like I wasn’t alone in my misery. So I’m sitting on the beach when I don’t have classes in Hawaii just listening to Robert Smith sing about relationships falling apart and thinking I’ve made a terrible mistake by ever letting myself and my Bates friends graduate. Like maybe we could have all stayed there and remained 21 forever (this general sentiment no doubt inspired a whole line of stores). Anyhow, “Love Shack” had become a hit starting that summer when I was interning at a summer theatre in New Hampshire. It was a happy song that left me feeling a little bummed because I kept thinking how much fun it would have been for this song to have been a hit while I was still in college. It must have been a great party song. I still enjoyed it and everything, but when it was a hit, I wanted my music to be melancholy.
9. Legal Tender
From the 1983 album Whammy!, First Single
Arguably the best song ever written about counterfeiting and my favorite song from Whammy! I was 15 or 16 when this song came out and remember seeing the linked video on MTV while visiting some family friends on a ski trip to Colorado. I think I was still figuring out how lyrics worked at that time because I didn’t piece together that it was about counterfeiting until years later. I mean, its obvious, but for it to be obvious, you actually have to listen to the words as if they’re all connected and not just a series of random phrases and words. In fact, that’s my advice for listening to lyrics – assume they’re all intentional and that the writer is trying to communicate something. While this song has a ton of unison singing between Cindy and Kate, Cindy really seems to be the one having a good time here. At some point, Kate went from being the keyboardist who sang occasionally to a full blown confident front-person. I always love Fred Schneider’s contributions to videos of songs that he doesn’t really sing on. He has a blast no matter what. We should all be like Fred.
8. Deadbeat Club
From the 1989 album Cosmic Thing, Fourth Single
Speaking of melancholy, “Deadbeat Club” is another one of The B-52’s songs that has an underlying sadness to it. Ricky Wilson passed away between Bouncing Off the Satellites and Cosmic Thing and I think this is the song that comes closest to addressing that loss, albeit in an indirect way. The B-52’s were part of a group of bohemian artists in Athens, GA in the 70’s. This song is a nostalgic description of how much they loved that time in their life with the underlying message that that time has passed. Cindy Wilson is the featured vocalist on this one and – though I might be reading this into her delivery – she sounds deeply sad as she sings it. It makes for an especially moving and powerful song if you give yourself over to it. Even Fred’s occasional “Deadbeat Club” contribution sounds less manic than typical. Its a gorgeous song and maybe Cindy’s finest of finest moments with the band. It occurred to me recently that one of the great things about sad songs is that they’re always sad songs. Happy songs can attain sad associations, but sad songs are always exactly what they are.
7. Rock Lobster
From the 1979 Album The B-52’s, First Single
It wasn’t a top 40 hit and yet by the time I was in high school it was a staple at almost every dance. This is another song that is difficult to hear objectively – its been used in movies, on TV, in commercials, everywhere. In 1979, there wasn’t anything else that sounded like this – silly, manic, 60’s sci-fi surf rock. A slightly different (and regional label produced) version of “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls” was the single that first got them noticed by record companies. They had so many good songs that they were playing live in concert that they deliberately didn’t include them all on their first album – indeed, both The B-52’s and Wild Planet are a studio catalog of their early live shows. According to Cindy Wilson, she and Kate still regularly improvise the fish noises in response to Fred during the bridge. One of the things that I love about this song is it has the sense of (very good) amateur musicians playing at the very limit of their ability. I think Kate looks so serious during their early concert videos because she’s having to concentrate so hard to play keyboard and sing. That is not easy. The song always sounds on the verge of falling apart and it almost does until the amazing Ricky Wilson comes back in with his four-string surf rock guitar and brings the whole thing home. Really, there’s not a whole lot of songs that can match it as both a first single and as a declaration of band identity.
6. Hot Pants Explosion
From the 1992 Album Good Stuff, Fifth Single
You might not have heard this song. That’s ok. You should give it a listen.
Done? Ok. The B-52’s have a number of songs where the members riff out little jokes and puns – “Cake” and “Wig” come to mind. This song has that little “Supercali…” section that is a great example of what I was mentioning a few entries ago about the difference between whimsy and comedy. While the lyrics in “Cake” and “Wig” have a touch of “let’s make actual jokes,” the “Supercali-” sections here have more of a sense of outrageous silliness to them that allow them to remain amusing even after multiple listens – I mean, at least to me. The B-52’s also have a bunch of songs that celebrate the things they love. Clearly, hot pants is on that list. I just love Fred’s work on this song especially – almost every line he sings is classic, especially as the song starts wrapping up.
5. Juliet of the Spirits
From the 2007 Album Funplex, Second Single
I have reason to believe you may have missed “Juliet of the Spirits” when it was released, but I encourage you to spend a few minutes with it now and (perhaps) to add it to regular rotation on any play list of your choice. Inspired by the Federico Fellini film of the same name, the song is about a middle aged woman breaking away from an oppressive relationship and finding romantic freedom (an overarching theme on Funplex). Its a beautifully crafted single with a lot of little hidden pleasures – for example, the “aw yeah” that leads into the chorus and the “Lady be cool” bridge. Kate and Cindy are featured on my two favorite songs from the Funplex album – this and “Pump.” They’ve not made a new record in about ten years now, but I hold out hope.
4. Planet Claire
From the 1979 Album The B-52’s, Second (?) Single
I think this is the superior sci-fi surf rock songs from their debut album though I know the world prefers “Rock Lobster.” We used to listen to this song all the time when we were building sets/striking sets/just not leaving the theatre at a rational time while I was working at the Harwich Junior Theatre in the summer of 1990. The song had been around for 11 years and I know I’d heard it before but for reasons-unknown, it became my summer anthem that year. What I love about this song is Fred Schneider’s delivery – strip away the music and it would sound like he’s speak-singing a news report in a 1950’s alien invasion movie. I mean, obviously, that’s the intention but – holy cats! – he nails it. I also love the fade-in at the start of the song, the naive keyboard lines that build to “very serious theme music from a kitschy sci-fi film” intensity and that it takes forever before Fred even sings one word. Oh, and how it makes that subtle instrumental shift when Fred does start. The song is tremendous fun and since summer has started, I encourage you to let this song accompany all of your set builds and strikes. Nothing like science fiction music to accompany that feeling of living in a bad science fiction world. #2017amiright?
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side With ‘Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can”
I placed all the other singles from the Mesopotamia EP at the lower end of the list but the title track is so dang good. I know that the B-52’s thought produced David Byrne was making them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but I disagree with this thesis (35 years too late to offer any help). I think Byrne heard untapped potential in the band and this song is the clearest example of what they were capable of. Ricky’s signature approach to guitar is still clearly heard here even if he isn’t playing surf riffs, Cindy and Kate discover some fantastic minor key harmonies and Fred’s manic style of delivery is reigned in just enough to make it seem like there’s craziness ready to burst out at any time. Combined together (especially when everyone is singing different stuff at the same time), the song becomes a complex, amusing picture of a person who probably won’t ever have a career as an archeologist. I managed to miss this song entirely in the early 80’s and only stumbled across it in college while DJing at WRBC. Its been a favorite ever since.
2. Private Idaho
From the 1980 Album Wild Planet, First Single
This is as close to a perfect classic signature-sound B-52’s song as you’re ever going to here. One of Ricky Wilson’s best guitar riffs, zany hooting backing vocals (and a great set of choral “whoa-oh” backing vocals), a simple but effective keyboard line, Keith Strickland’s irresistible drumming and a career best vocal performance from Fred Schneider. Best of all, they’ve taken all of the elements that have allowed them to be a sort of zany party band (including pool party lyrics) and subverted it to serious social critique. Idaho becomes a metaphor for a state of mind (paranoia and an unwillingness to engage with the larger world community). Its a high tempo dance powerhouse that proved once and for all (to anyone who was paying attention) that there was much more to this band than sick riffs and zany lyrics.
From the 1989 Album Cosmic Thing, Third Single
I described my circumstances when this album was released up at #10 when discussing “Love Shack.” This was the B-52’s song I needed in 1989 when I was in a new place and questioning what I should do with my life. Sometimes the right song just comes along at the right time and it stays with you forever. Hearing Kate Wilson say its ok to roam around the world when I was missing New England was exactly what I needed at that time. The song is a little sad without being maudlin. Even though its directed at a female character (“oh girl dancing down that dirty and dusty trail”), I needed to hear it back then. I still feel inspired when it comes on shuffle or the radio or where-ever. Kate Pierson has come into her own by this time and moved from a nervous looking co-singer to a full-blown superstar front-woman. She nails this song and really made my life a lot better. Thank you Kate! Thank you B-52’s!
Coming Next: The Police. Probably.