I can’t explain why, but this chunk of songs includes the first single released from each of the following albums: Funplex, Bouncing off the Satellites, Cosmic Thing, and Good Stuff. In the case of all but one of these songs, its not the song I’ve ranked highest from the parent album. Conclusion – record companies don’t always recognize The B-52’s top work.
Moving on with this “strictly my opinion” list.
20. Dance This Mess Around
From the 1979 Album The B-52’s, Officially the Third Single
The first time I became aware of The B-52’s was on January 26, 1980. I was 13 and had stayed up late to watch Saturday Night Live with my mother. Almost certainly I was hoping to see Mr. Bill. Anyhow, on came The B-52’s to play “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around.” Being more of a Billy Joel and Cheap Trick connoisseur, I turned to my mother and said “they must have named themselves B-52’s because they’re bombers,” thinking that I was especially clever to make a pun on “bombed.” I was wrong on several accounts. First, that wasn’t why they named themselves The B-52’s. Second, the performance is actually listed first on at least one list of best SNL performances. Third, I’ve since seen the performance again and they’re fantastic. Fourth, I’ve forgotten everything else about that particular Saturday Night Live but I’ve remembered this song ever since then – particularly the lists of dances. “Dance This Mess Around” is a great song because its an extremely silly song about the 15 major dances that is presented as if its the most deadly serious thing ever set to music. What you say? I’m just sayin’.
19. Summer of Love
From the 1986 Album Bouncing Off The Satellites, First Single
Ricky Wilson died during the Bouncing Off The Satellites process, but he was very much alive when they recorded this song (he even has a writing credit on it). I don’t know quite when he passed in relationship to when the vocals were laid down on the various songs, but when “Summer of Love” was released, I assumed it was before Cindy and Kate sang it. They just sound so sad. All these years later, I’m now under the impression that this song was already in the can when the world lost Mr. Wilson but it still sounds so painfully sad to me. The original mix features more prominent guitar and I like it quite a bit more than the version that ultimately made it to the record. Anyhow, I think what makes the song sound so sad to me is the sense that they’re longing for a time that is long gone. In Noh theatre, the word yugen describes a beauty that you see through reflection – like moonlight on a pan of water or like an old person pining for the lost beauty of youth. I wonder if that’s the sadness I experience listening to this? I played this track a bunch in 1986 on WRBC.
18. Good Stuff
From the 1992 Album Good Stuff, First Single
The titular track from Good Stuff is, indeed, good stuff. Don Was produced this track – he produced some of the songs on Cosmic Thing, too, including “Love Shack.” In fact, this track sounds just a little bit like “Love Shack,” albeit without Cindy Wilson who was taking a break from the band. On this album, Fred and Kate stopped being quite so euphemistic about sexual references and embraced a slightly more direct approach to singing about the deed. As Fred sings “Let people say we’re downright nasty/I just say we’re down right.” By Funplex in 2007, Fred is able to sing about being an eroticist while Cindy and Kate urge listeners to pump. I really dug “Good Stuff” at the time and still dig it quite a bit to this day.
From the 2007 album Funplex, First Single
It was 15 years between the release of Good Stuff and the follow-up album, Funplex. Its now been ten years since Funplex since life speeds up as you get older. This album was produced by Steve Osbourne, the same dude who helped restart New Order’s career on 2001’s Get Ready. As a result, the album has a bit of contemporary (in 2007 terms) electronica. Its a terrific album and there’s four songs at least on it that weren’t released as singles that could have been (“Pump,” “Dancing Now,” “Deviant Ingredient” and “Eyes Wide Open”). “Funplex” is a fun track about three characters who are having weird days at the titular mall. I’m sure they selected it as the first single because it contains all of the elements of a classic B-52’s song including contributions from all three vocalists but the next single was even better. Funplex apparently just barely broke even and there’s reason to believe it will be the final album by the band, which is fine because its a really strong last release.
16. Whammy Kiss
From the 1983 album Whammy!, Second Single
“Whammy Kiss” is one of Fred Schneider’s best vocals. Manic Fred is my favorite Fred and he really, really wants that whammy kiss of yours. The interplay between him and the Kate/Cindy duo is delightful and incredibly catchy – the chorus is a basically a total blast. And the music by Ricky and Keith? Just so damn much fun. I remember first hearing this song in high school – there was a kid named Matt (?) Grasso (?) who had band names written all over his Earth Science book cover (made from a paper bag – that’s how we covered books back when they were books) including the B-52’s. I’d not really listened to them beyond the one SNL experience (and, if you recall, I didn’t care for them). Immediately sensing that there must be something cool about the bands this kid liked, I pretended I enjoyed them when they I saw them a year or two earlier. When Whammy! came out and was all over MTV and WXCI, I genuinely fell hard for the band. If I were to ever be forced to replace Fred Schneider in concert for one night, this is the song I think I could most effectively sing. Because it’s just so much fun.
15. Channel Z
From the 1989 album Cosmic Thing, First Single
This is the first of four singles from Cosmic Thing on this list. All four are in my top 15. When that album came out in summer of 1989, I think we all sort of kind of fell head over heals in love with it. “Channel Z” was released first in March and more or less ignored. I might have played it once or twice on WRBC. However, after the huge success of “Love Shack,” “Roam,” and “Deadbeat Club,” it was re-released and hit number 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks. At that time, I played it a ton on KTUH (I’d moved from college to grad school in the intervening months). Don Was and Nile Rodgers split producer duties on Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff – this one was a Was track. I especially love Fred Schneider’s “Channel Z – All Static, All Day Forver” semi-rap at the end. When he gets worked up I love him so much.
14. Strobe Light
From the 1980 album Wild Planet, Fourth Single (?)
Speaking of Fred Schneider getting worked up, “Strobe Light” is a song about wanting to have sex under a strobe light. The lyrics takes the form of an obscene phone call, albeit one that sounds mutually consensual. The opening line – a spoken “where’s my telephone” – became a mini-catch phrase among a certain group of my friends in high school. I don’t think I realized that that line was setting context for the song until years later – I mean, he’s saying that so we know he’s on the phone as he’s talking to his lover. I also realized recently that when he says “I want to kiss your pineapple” he’s not being absurd, just employing a euphemism. Ricky Wilson’s guitar work is a bit of a surf rock force of nature on this song. He liked to play with only four strings and non-standard tunings. No euphemism.
13. Give Me Back My Man
From the 1980 album Wild Planet, Second Single
Cindy Wilson sings this delightfully over-the-top 60’s death song about a woman who mourns for her lover who was eaten by a shark and tries to get him back by offering bribes to the man-eater. I feel like anything else I write about it is going to pale in comparison to that sentence.
12. Revolution Earth
From the 1992 album Good Stuff, Second Single
Man, if I were to make a movie about the B-52’s, I’d probably make Kate Pierson the focal character. I watch the early videos of their live performances and she seems profoundly uncomfortable on stage. Then you watch the video for this song (or really anything starting around the Cosmic Thing era) and you can see that she just found herself. Maybe it was being freed up from having to play instruments (the backing band took that over around this time) but she just started letting herself loose vocally and, I don’t know, spiritually? She was highly in demand as a backing vocalist for a number of years (by Iggy Pop and R.E.M. for two) and she just dominates a number of songs by the B-52’s. “Revolution Earth” is a showcase for her gorgeous voice and she soars through it. Its one of the highlights of Good Stuff.
11. 52 Girls
From the 1979 album The B-52’s, Single Released in Germany and The Netherlands
I am slow on the uptake. I am slow on many things. I didn’t realize until very recently that the “52” in “52 Girls” refers to the band and not to the number of girls discussed in the song. Ricky Wilson and a man name Jeremy Ayers wrote this one and its sort of a goofy/serious surf rock tribute to all sort of iconic women of the 50’s and 60’s. I associate the B-52’s with John Waters from time to time because they have similar taste in kitsch. Kate and Cindy sing this song sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, sometimes with just a touch of deliberate dissonance (at least to my ear) – a style they employ on some of their other songs as well but that they debuted here (“52 Girls” was the b-side to their first single).
Coming Next: The rest of the Cosmic Thing singles.