One of the major challenges of ranking singles by The B-52s is determining exactly which of their songs should be considered singles. They released a number of Double A-Side singles (which includes every song from Mesopotamia, for example) and at least one solo album included appearances from other members of the band (I ultimately am just including one track from this album as a bonus track). I’m reasonably confident that I’ve included everything that they released as a single. I’ve decided to include their one cover though I’ve excluded remixes and re-releases as per usual.
The B-52s are a band whose success was a delightful surprise. I think most of us who heard them in the very early 80’s assumed they’d be a flash-in-the-pan. I mean, how do you take songs by a kitschy 60’s inspired surf-dance band who sing about shark attacks, counterfeiting, and whatever else might be on their minds to the top 40 once much less multiple times? They have all the hallmarks of a novelty band and yet somehow became a party institution – largely due to killer melodies, humorous (and not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny) lyrics and the terrific interplay of three lead singers. Part of the secret, I think, to their success is that there’s a depth of feeling to much of their work that belies the surface jollity, particularly in some of their post-1985 songs. Frankly,we are fortunate to be alive at the same time as The B-52’s.
This is now the fifth time I’ve ranked a band’s singles and I may have had the best time working on this list just because their songs are so much fun. I’ve always enjoyed them, but listening to them closely this month has driven home how completely central Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland are to their success. You can strip away the lyrics to many of the songs and still dance your butt off to some great surf rock and dance music.
Anyhow, since this list focuses on singles, there’s a bunch of great songs by the band that won’t be appearing here (“Pump,” “Quiche Lorraine,” “Butterbean” and ‘Topaz” spring to mind). Also, as always, this is just my opinion and order is based on “do I enjoy this song more than the last one?” I’m like 90% happy with this list, which is an improvement from the New Order list. Let’s do this.
Bonus: Monster by Fred Schneider and The Shake Society
From 1984’s Fred Schneider and the Shake Society, First Single
Fred Schneider’s Sprechgesang vocal delivery is probably the most easily recognizable of the many unique delights of listening to The B-52’s. He’s also the writer behind many of the band’s delightful, loopy lyrics. I have a theory about why most B-52s songs don’t get old in the same way that novelty songs get old and it has to do with the difference between comedy and whimsy. Great comedy elicits a laugh the first time you hear it, but perhaps less of a laugh each successive time you hear it. Great whimsy inspires a sense of delight that doesn’t necessarily decay and may even increase with time. Schneider is a master of whimsy (among other things). This brings us to “Monster,” both the single and the stand-out track from Schneider’s first (of two) solo albums. The titular joke (that there’s a monster in his pants) is one you almost certainly heard before you hear the song. Schneider isn’t expecting you to laugh at it – perhaps he’s expecting you to recognize it. The fun thing about the lyrics is that he approaches the ludicrous double entendres in the song with dead seriousness. Schneider never once winks at the audience to say “Just joking.” This both enhances the silliness but also allows us to listen to the song multiple times because we’re invited to take it just as seriously as Schneider. Indeed, if we sing the backing vocals (which are the most fun part to sing), we’re complicit in supporting his contention that this monster in his pants is doing a nasty dance. I’ve got to tell you, I love this.
Since this is not a cannon B-52s song, I’ve not included it on the actual list, but if I did it would surely be in my top 20.
37. (Meet) The Flintstones
From the Soundtrack to the 1994 Film The Flinstones, First Single
Including the bonus track, there are 38 songs on this list and this is the only one I hate. Asking a band who built the earlier part of their career on 60’s nostalgia and kitsch to cover the ultimate 60’s kitschy TV show theme was inspired, but the actual cover is not. Indeed, the song is the entire movie in microcosm. It mistakes showing something familiar with show something interesting. While there is some small joy in hearing them sing “We’ll have a gay old time,” they don’t even let them play up the potential late-20th century double meaning of that. Its a shame – I can’t help but think they were constrained in how they were allowed to interpret the song. I’d love to hear what an unrestrained B-52s cover of this song might sound like. On the other hand, it was a Top 40 hit here and a top ten hit elsewhere, so what the hell do I know?
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side Single with “Cake”
The next batch of singles here near the bottom aren’t necessarily bad. They just don’t quite do it for me. Several of them are from an attempt at recording an LP with David Byrne as producer. The band and he and the label had a falling out and, in order to salvage something out of the sessions, the label released the six-song EP Mesopotamia. The title track is a delight, but the other five tracks are varying levels of forgettable. All six were released as double A-sides on three singles. My two least favorite of these songs were released back-to-back, so that’s handy. Here’s the problem, though. The original David Byrne produced versions of all of these songs are much more interesting than the US singles. “Loveland” in particular suffers in the edit. Apparently, the B-52s felt like Byrne was trying to make them sound too much like the Talking Heads. Unfortunately, with his production contributions reduced, “Loveland” ends up singing like a pretty dull new wave dance track. Listen to the full version here (which, to be fair, was also released as a 12” single at one point) and be blown away but how much better it is.
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side Single with “Loveland”
The full version of “Cake” (with horns!) is also significantly better than the single version (without horns!). There’s a spoken word section here where Cindy and Kate talk about baking a cake that I’ve always found kind of lame (not in least because it commits crimes against stereo recording) which is significantly better in the extended version because there’s an additional level of cacophony on top of it. I think there’s an interesting song to be found here, both musically and lyrically, but it sounds sort of unfinished – for example, like they started brainstorming cake double-entendre and then gave up (you can here this in the dialogue sequence – there’s a little bit of suggestiveness concerning the size of the pan and how long the cake will take to rise, but its not especially well developed. Ricky Wilson’s signature guitar sound was muted a bit on Mesopotamia in favor of Byrne’s rhythm tracks. The tracks are (when fully present) great even though I miss that guitar.
34. Deep Sleep
From the 1982 EP Mesopotamia, Double A-Side Single with “Nip It In The Bud”
“Deep Sleep” sounds totally like a Talking Heads song right from the start. An ambient Talking Heads song, but a Talking Heads song none-the-less. I love the Talking Heads, so this is, in theory, a good thing. There’s even an Adrien Belew-like guitar bit that Ricky Wilson (I assume) plays with great skill. The vocals are way back in the mix which I think is supposed to make the piece sound more dream-like. Instead, it makes it hard? to tell who is singing. Is it Kate? Is It Cindy? Is it Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads? Is it some other female singer? My point is that this tune could be sung by almost anyone and while its a very appealing piece, there’s almost nothing about it that sounds like it might be The B-52s. Surely that suggests it should be rated down a few notches?
From the 1979 Album The B-52’s, Seventh Single
There are only nine tracks on the B-52’s debut album. Seven of them were released as singles. “Lava” was the final first-print single released from the record (“Rock Lobster” was re-released half a dozen more times). There’s not a bad track on The B-52’s and, thus, “Lava” is a fun 5 minute listen. Ricky Wilson’s guitar work is, as always, very engaging and the rest of the band is terrific – the track just isn’t quite up to the level of some of their later singles. I think part of the reason for this is that the lyrics don’t really seem to be saying anything – just using lava as a metaphor for love or sex. That’s cool, its just not as immediately engaging as a song about a gender-flipped beach party or about an alien from Planet Claire or a list of women’s names.
32. Party Out of Bounds
From 1980’s Wild Planet, Single released in 1983 in Peru only
This is a fan favorite, but other than the “koo koo kooooo” backing vocals that occasionally pop out (and are used better on other songs), there’s not a whole lot here that I dig. Again, its fine, but I think this one falls a little more on the side of “novelty song that wears thin” and less on the side of “whimsical song that gets better the more you hear it.”
From 1979’s The B-52’s, First or Second Single
The B-52’s first single was a double A-side of “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls,” but that single featured different versions of both songs than the one’s we’re familiar with. They’re arguably better versions of the songs, but we’ll tackle that later. Since that was the case, this might be the actual first single released from the album. Its a song about a woman who finds a number on the wall (the titular “6060-842”) and discovers the number has been disconnected much to her sorrow. Fred Schneider plays both the narrator and the woman (he does not change his style of singing or, indeed, alter his voice in any way to do this). Fun single, but there are thirty that are better…
Coming Next: We start the “indispensable B-52’s song list” way before the top 20.