Just when new wave seemed to be bottoming out, along came Athens, Georgia’s B-52’s to rev it back up again, with distinctive junk-store ’60s visuals (Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s bouffant wigs — “B-52’s” in Southern regional slang) and stark, highly danceable songs with appropriately surreal kitsch lyrics. The B-52’s’ wacky sense of humor made their self-titled first album a sleeper that was finally certified gold in 1986. Now a cult classic, it contains such cornerstones of the repertoire as “52 Girls,” “Dance This Mess Around,” “6060-842” and the virtually generic “Rock Lobster.”
The eagerly awaited Wild Planet has its inspired moments: “Private Idaho,” “Party Out of Bounds” and “Devil in My Car” mesh a firm beat with dark and/or silly sentiments. “Give Me Back My Man” takes a new direction — a serious (!) showcase for Cindy Wilson’s Patsy Cline-influenced singing. (Vocalist Fred Schneider is usually up front for comic relief.) But too much of the album, with its short length and recycled ideas, comes across as a pale imitation of its predecessor.
Apparently the band felt the same way, and stayed away from the recording studio for the next year and a half. Party Mix!, issued in the interim, takes three songs each from the two LPs and — through the miracle of tape loops, overdubs and other studio tomfoolery — inflates them to nearly 30 minutes of playing time. The result is functional for discos but antithetical to the B-52’s’ minimalist precepts.
The band was next “officially” heard from on another mini-LP, Mesopotamia, salvaged from sessions produced by Talking Head David Byrne. Whether under Byrne’s humorless influence or not — he plays on the record and engages a couple of Heads-family percussionists to help out — the B-52’s get serious, with dire results. “Loveland” and “Deep Sleep” sacrifice élan for slickness — not a fair trade. “Cake” and the title cut (one of only two Schneider vocals) come off as selfconscious parodies of the old, carefree B-52’s. Only “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can” taps the zany reservoir that made the group popular in the first place.
After the curious abortion of Mesopotamia, Whammy! was a reassuring return to form, or perhaps formula. Beyond the excellent “Legal Tender” and “Song for a Future Generation,” the band goes through the by-now-well-worn motions on “Whammy Kiss,” “Trism” and “Butterbean.” Elsewhere (“Big Bird,” “Queen of Las Vegas”), horns — introduced on Mesopotamia — and intriguing narratives show the B-52’s are only on semi-automatic pilot. Drummer Keith Strickland and guitarist Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother) play all the instruments save horns; the sound is more electronic than funky-human.
Schneider’s solo project hardly discouraged fears about the state of the B-52’s. (Pierson helps out with vocals.) The pro tem Shake Society is a fine stopgap for the parent band’s looniness. Schneider’s lyrics continue to dwell on campy sci-fi (“This Planet’s a Mess,” “Orbit”) and campy fantasy (“Summer in Hell,” “Boonga”), with campy sex (“Monster,” “It’s Time to Kiss”) thrown in for good measure. The remixed reissue was billed and titled without mention of the Shake Society.
Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in October 1985, shortly after the recording sessions for Bouncing off the Satellites. Produced by British popmeister Tony Mansfield (who also plays Fairlight on every track) and with Schneider hardly in evidence, the bittersweet record was eventually completed and issued in late 1986. (Upon its delayed release, the bittersweet, uneven album was dedicated to him.) The first side is entirely delightful, filled with such classic B-52 silliness as “Wig,” “Detour Thru Your Mind” and “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland,” but the flip is overly smooth, limp and uninspired. Typifying the record’s structural oddness, Schneider is the only band member on the lengthy “Juicy Jungle,” co-written and largely played by one John Coté.
The skimpy eleven-song Dance This Mess Around compilation offers a far-from-definitive sampling of the band’s albums through Satellites.
Already on the brink of creative exhaustion and heartbroken by Wilson’s death, the B-52’s seemed over, but the four survivors slowly pulled themselves together and continued. Inevitably, though, the playful innocence that defined the group was gone, replaced by a self-conscious determination to have fun while supporting socially conscious activism. Drummer Keith Strickland switched to guitar and Don Was and Nile Rodgers (two seemingly odd studio choices that panned out beautifully) each produced half of Cosmic Thing, relocating the group’s old fun-filled groove and giving it a commercially snug berth for an amazing come-from-behind victory. Preserving the band’s kitschy spirit but eliminating its rhythmic eccentricity, the producers put the quartet’s signature vocals and whimsical lyrics center stage in a slickly mainstream re-creation of ’60s party music. While the sound is as consistent as TV dinners, the material runs from fabulous (“Roam,” “Love Shack,” “Deadbeat Club”) to fair (“Bushfire”) to flat (“Channel Z,” “Dry County”). While not fully divining the lost soul of planet B, the album at least takes great advantage of the bit it did recapture. But rather than making sport of their beloved sources, the B-52’s seem to be making campy fun of themselves.
Ironically (or understandably, depending on one’s cynicism meter setting), Cosmic Thing became the B-52’s’ platinum-selling breakthrough. One long-shot winner couldn’t pave over all of the band’s internal bumps, however, and it took three years to get another album out of the gate. (In the interim, a remix of the David Byrne- produced Mesopotamia was issued on a joint CD with Party Mix!, offering easy access to the band’s least-known records.
The mysterious departure of singer Cindy Wilson left the trio of Strickland, singer Fred Schneider and singer/keyboardist Kate Pierson to make Good Stuff, again produced by the Was/Rodgers tag team. It’s another uneven collection. “Good Stuff,” with its powerhouse harmony bridge, and the rich UFO fantasy of “Is That You Mo- Dean?” are primo nonsense, and “Revolution Earth” boasts a gorgeous Pierson vocal, but skimpy songwriting and creeping seriousness undercut the record’s superficially appealing spirit. “Vision of a Kiss” is straight romantic stuff; fashion nostalgia can’t separate Fred Schneider’s “Hot Pants” from the obviousness of its desire; and the idealism of “Breezin’ ” dissolves into drivel (“We got to get it together”???). All the sonic giddiness Was and Rodgers can cobble together just can’t make the B-52’s’ cheerfulness seem sincere.
Toward the end of the ’90s, the B-52’s (with Cindy Wilson back on board) returned to action, working the shed circuit in summer package tours. Warner Bros. took advantage of the renewed activity by releasing Songs for a Future Generation, a compilation of tracks from the first album through Good Stuff augmented by two new songs: “Hallucinating Pluto” and “Debbie.” The latter was also included on the two-disc anthology Nude on the Moon. Apart from “Queen of Las Vegas,” an outtake from the Mesopotamia sessions, and live takes on “Quiche Lorraine” and “Whammy Kiss,” the set offers few surprises. Seven tracks from Cosmic Thing, all in their original versions, is definitely too many for a compilation.
After resolving whatever had kept the group from recording for 16 years since Good Stuff, Strickland, Pierson, Schneider and Wilson (minus the apostrophe) convened and released Funplex. Unlike Good Stuff, the self-consciousness is gone, and little effort was expended in either relocating the band’s original kitschy groove or trying to modernize it. With the help of producer Steve Osborne (New Order, Happy Mondays, Curve, Lush, Suede, Placebo), they locate the right balance between then and now. The sound echoes the past enough to be reassuring, but in a lightly electronica-inflected context that never succumbs to overly modern digital chill. And there’s hardly a bad song in the lot. Every one boasts a great melody, a memorable chorus or at least a terrific hook (although a couple, like “Eyes Wide Open” and “Dancing Now,” don’t offer much more). “Pump,” “Hot Corner,” “Ultraviolet” and “Too Much to Think About” bring the upbeat party spirit. The gorgeous, shivery “Juliet of the Spirits” features a sublime duet between Kate and Cindy, whose voices can still blend like nobody’s business. Space-alien sex is the topic of “Love in the Year 3000,” while languid decadence rules in “Deviant Ingredient,” A title Prince should have used. The only place where seriousness sneaks in is on the title track, which decries consumerism (“Fashion frenzy gets me higher and higher / No will power and my wallet’s on fire”) and the cost to human feelings (“You kicked my heart / Going up and down the escalator / You blew me off / And now you’ve lost the real thing”). Track for track, Funplex is the Athenians’ strongest, most consistently satisfying album since Cosmic Thing.
If Schneider’s first album was very much in keeping with the band’s joyful charms, his second is quite the opposite. With producer Steve Albini riding noisy herd on three groovy backing bands — Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Six Finger Satellite and the Deadly Cupcake (a pickup trio drafted from the ranks of Tar, the Supersuckers and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) — Just…Fred mistakenly attempts to reposition the beloved entertainer as an indie shouter. Straining like the neighborhood nerd making a fool of himself auditioning for the local punk combo, Fred’s hapless efforts to keep up with the unfamiliar rock aggression on songs like “Whip,” “Sugar in My Hog” and “Bad Dream” strand him in vocal hell. A bad idea on paper, the record is worse in the hearing, an embarrassing square peg/round hole disaster.