If you were going to make a B-52’s “best of” mix, you’d pretty much need to use at least everything from #26 up here. Maybe from #31 depending on how you want to define “best.” Well, maybe not you, but definitely me.
Here we go:
30. Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side Single With “Mesopotamia”
You’d be forgiven if you heard the opening keyboard melody and thought this was an early 80’s Devo song. Creating Mesopotamia might have been a problematic process, but it did allow the B-52’s to get comfortable with incorporating some different sounds in their music (which was, in fact, the goal). While this didn’t necessarily pay off immediately, by the end of the 80’s, they became huge by being willing to break away from certain distinct elements of sound from their first two albums. This track’s two big stand-out changes are the inclusion of horn and the deliberate dissonant harmony of Cindy and Kate. There’s a jazzy feeling to the sing that would feel out of place on their more kitschy space-surf rock from The B-52’s and Wild Planet. As I’ve mentioned before, bands are kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t in regards to exploring new sounds – if they change, they’ll get the “I liked them better when…” reaction from some and if they don’t change, they’ll get the “everything by them sounds the same” reaction from others. You can’t make everyone happy so you’ve got to follow your bliss.
From the 1986 album Bouncing Off the Satellites, Third Single
Speaking of follow one’s bliss, “Wig” sounds like a song by a band having a great time singing about something that they think is a hoot to sing about. Cindy and Kate (and occasionally the men) wore wigs on stage all the time and the band has a close relationship with interesting hair (indeed, the name of the band was inspired by a hairdo). Bouncing Off The Satellites is part of the tragic part of The B-52’s story. While recording the album, Ricky Wilson (guitarist and in many ways the musical heart of the band) died suddenly. As a result, the band didn’t tour in support of the record – in fact, the record as a whole sounds unfinished to me. It probably was. How do you return to the studio when your friend, brother and best musician has just passed away? (The answer, as it turns out, is have one of your band members – in this case, Keith Strickland – reveal himself to be a quirky musical genius in his own right) “Wig” is a fun song (I love the “neon neon side of town” refrain, the sheer joy of the word “moose” at the end, and the band’s enthusiasm) that is a little marred by the wig jokes. I wrote about whimsy vs comedy before and this one crosses a little too far towards comedy to really make repeat listenings equally enjoyable to the initial ones.
28. Hallucinating Pluto
From the 1998 Album Time Capsule: Songs For a Future Generation, Promo Single
The B-52’s went on a bit of an extended hiatus from creating new music from 1992’s Good Stuff through 2007’s Funplex. I don’t know enough about what was going on with the band to explain this. Cindy Wilson rejoined the band at some point in the mid-90’s (she’d left before Good Stuff) and the band was still riding high from the success of Cosmic Thing. They could easily have had success with a couple of late 90’s/early 00’s albums. Or they could have not had any success. Who can say? The only musical evidence of where their collective head was at could be heard on the compilation album Time Capsule. As I’ve mentioned before, the way you used to force fans to buy a collection of songs they already owned was to include new tracks on those compilations. “Hallucinating Pluto” was one of two original tracks on that album. Its a fun, upbeat hippie number about the power of love sung by Fred Schneider. While it was released as a single to radio stations to promote the album, it didn’t chart. The B-52’s really started exploring their political side (particularly in regards to the environment) as early as “Private Idaho.” I really love them for it, but the American charts in the 90’s (and even through now) rarely embrace socially conscious pop if they can avoid it. Anyhow, decent song.
27. Nip It In The Bud
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side Single with “Deep Sleep”
The fifth of six tracks on this list from Mesopotamia (in other words, all the tracks from Mesopotamia are on this list) is “Nip It In The Bud.” I don’t have a whole lot to write about this song other than that its a quite good high energy song that sounds like a transitional form between early B-52’s and the band they were becoming. Great Cindy Wilson vocal, too.
26. Dirty Back Road
From the 1980 Album Wild Planet, Third (?) Single
According to Discogs, this appears to be the third single released from Wild Planet. Its not listed at Wikipedia. Its unclear to me if this was a promotional single or a song that wasn’t released as a single in the U.S. Indeed, I don’t know where it was released. Suffice to say, I think it is their third single from that album and, regardless, its sort of a great lost song. I love it when Wilson and Pierson sing together – the interplay of their voices is one of the things that really makes the B-52’s special. “Dirty Back Road” is a sultry sort of song that suggests a dusty assignation between lovers using driving on a back road as a metaphor. Its not played directly for laughs so its left to the listener to decide if its intended to be funny (I don’t think so) or sultry (oh my yes). This track also features a terrific Ricky Wilson guitar line.
25. Is That You Mo-Dean?
From the 1992 album Good Stuff, Second Single
After the unexpected enormous success of Cosmic Thing, Cindy Wilson decided she needed to back away from the B-52’s for a while. I recently watched an interview with the B-52’s from right before they released Cosmic Thing and they seemed like a bunch of people who were totally unaware that they were about to move from “cult act” to “superstars.” How can you ever be aware of that sort of thing? How can you prepare for it? According to a different interview, Cindy just wasn’t prepared and it was too much for her. Fred, Kate and Keith soldiered on as a trio and recorded Good Stuff. The worst thing I can say about that album is Cindy isn’t on it, but I really otherwise liked it quite a bit. They built on the strengths of Cosmic Thing and if it doesn’t reach the heights of that album, its still a strong set of songs. “Is That You Mo-Dean?” is about alien abduction or, perhaps, astral projection. It features a great call and response sequence from Kate and Fred and is generally just a whole lot of fun. Also, I love that the title character gets abducted while waiting for the bus to take him to the store so he can buy hots dogs and wine. Something about that image captures the character of Mo-Dean more than any longer description could.
From the 1998 Album Time Capsule: Songs For a Future Generation, First Single
As I mentioned, Cindy returned for their 1998 greatest hits package and knocked one out of the park as if she’d never left. “Debbie” is a song ostensibly a fan letter to Debbie Harry of Blondie but its also a song about every cool woman who has fronted a rock band. Cindy and Kate sing a great harmony chorus, but the whole song is kind of great (some nice rock guitar work from Keith). If you listen carefully in the background of this song (and a few other of their songs) you can hear Fred singing backing vocals using a more traditional singing technique. Anyhow, “Debbie” wasn’t really an especially big hit, but its a great little single.
23. Tell It Like It T-I-Is
From the 1992 album Good Stuff, Third Single
“Tell It Like It T-I-Is” features another terrific back and forth between Kate and Fred. I have honestly never put any thought into what the lyrics are about (maybe something to do with being yourself? Keeping it real?). Its so much fun to sing along with this tune that I guess I’m just going to continue not worrying about it. If you wish to sing along at home, make sure to sing Fred’s backing vocals during Kate’s verses too.
22. Song for a Future Generation
From the 1983 Album Whammy!, Third Single
After the Mesopotamia sessions were abandoned, The B-52’s returned to the studio determined to explore different sounds. They didn’t want to sound completely different from themselves but they wanted to expand beyond surf and 60’s kitsch. The resulting album was the delightful new wave classic Whammy! Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland play all the instruments and the trio of singers continue to do their thang. Part of what makes this particular song so much fun is all five members of the band sing – there’s a men’s chorus, a woman’s chorus, and solo bits for each member of the band. “Songs for a Future Generation” is essentially a slightly warped musical take on advertising for that perfect partner with whom to procreate (thus, the future generations part). The song leans heavily on 80’s style keyboard work and doesn’t sound much like previous B-52’s songs at all.
21. Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland
From the 1986 album Bouncing Off the Satellites, Second Single
The late Ricky Wilson appears briefly as the sun in that video. The B-52’s didn’t make a video for “Summer of Love” and it managed to be a hit. I don’t know if the record company forced them to record this video as a (at the time) last-hurrah for the band or not, but I’m glad it exists if only for their fabulous outfits. The sci-fi costume Fred Schneider is wearing is especially boss. The song is a sequel of sorts to the classic “The Girl From Ipanema.” In the original song, the titular girl, you might recall, keeps walking by the narrator and just doesn’t see him. In this song, she’s given an inner life and a reason why she doesn’t see – she’s lost someone and she’s not happy in Brazil, so she moves somewhere to (perhaps) escape her pain and start over. Its sort of a happy ending for her, if not for the man she just doesn’t see. Cindy Wilson is the featured vocalist on this one and, as per usual, she’s a delight.
Coming Next: Some seriously good stuff