Looking for tunes as part of a random “consulting” assignment led me to the B-52’s today, reminding me how much I love them, although you really shouldn’t need an excuse for that. Most people will know “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack,” but I was introduced to them by MTV after their 1986 album Bouncing off the Satellites (I was in the middle of Nebraska, how else was I supposed to have heard them?), so let’s go backwards from there and look at some of their less-widely-known tracks.
Satellites was recorded by Pet Shop Boys producer Shep Pettibone, and the production is appropriately slick, the first hint at future radio hits like “Roam,” and a great leap considering the raw sound of “Lobster.” Guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS during the album’s recording and, understandably, the band sound a little lost here; however, his funky playing keeps the tracks from sounding too shiny.
The B-52’s “Channel Z” (from Bouncing off the Satellites, 1986)
Wow, 20 years before “An Inconvenient Truth,” an environmental anthem that isn’t annoying, throwing in some astute media criticism as well!
The B-52’s “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland” (from Bouncing off the Satellites, 1986)
A bit of silly fun (check out that, er, toast!) but as good an example of mid-80s pop production that you’ll ever hear. Honestly, though, Wilson’s death hangs heavy over this video; you can just see it in the band members’ eyes.
Whammy!, the band’s previous album, featured their first charming steps into drum-machine-centric new wave, and it has more of the hilariously surreal imagery of the band’s early work, which was a relief to everyone after the last album, Mesopotamia, and its far-too-serious sessions with David Byrne.
The B-52’s “Song for a Future Generation” (from Whammy!, 1983)
So adorable, with its “wanna be the president of Moscow” innocence, and personal ads from each of the band members, but the funky harmonies at the end give the song some unexpected depth.
Their second album, Wild Planet, still had the kind of post-punk intensity that in retrospect sounds a lot more like the Dead Kennedys than the Pet Shop Boys.
The B-52’s “Private Idaho” (from Wild Planet, 1980)
This “live” video was recorded only six years before the Satellites material, but they seem a whole generation younger, don’t they?
Of course I can’t bring up the B-52s without talking about their first, self-titled album, a blast of campy post-punk in a world of high-style disco and earnest rock. I love bands that form before they even know how to really play any instruments, and this album’s melodies are brilliantly minimalist in their simplicity.
The B-52’s “Dance This Mess Around” (from The B-52’s, 1979)
This live performance from SNL is kind of stunning; with its weird surf-y guitar hook and insistence on listing “all 16 dances,” you can’t help but wonder what people in Peoria thought, if they were even watching.