Happy 40th Anniversary to The B’52’s’ eponymous debut album The B-52’s, originally released July 6, 1979.
Forty years ago when I first listened to the B-52’s’ self-titled debut album, I was left speechless because I had no idea what I had just heard. I was at a friend’s house when I first heard it and I asked him to play it again. There was definitely no other music that I could draw a reference from, because it was some serious otherworldly shit.
Upon listening a second time, I concluded that the Athens, GA based bandmembers—Fred Schneider (vocals), Kate Pierson (vocals, keyboards), Cindy Wilson (vocals, percussion), Ricky Wilson (guitar), and Keith Strickland (drums, guitar, keyboards) —all had to be high when they wrote these songs. No sober person could come up with this stuff. Hey, that’s where my mind went as a 14-year old whose favorite film at the time was Animal House and was a frequent viewer of Saturday Night Live.
I spun the album many times over the years and I developed a greater appreciation for it each time. The band created their own space to occupy for decades. When their debut album was released, there weren’t many commercial radio stations that would play their music and MTV was not around yet to play their videos endlessly. It was only word of mouth, club play, college radio and a few TV appearances back then that helped the B–52’s gain some exposure.
Produced by Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, The B-52’s is an intoxicating mix of kitsch, camp, and clever lyrics, all combining to convey the feeling of being in a ‘50s sci-fi/surf movie with danceable music. The first track, “Planet Claire,” plays like the opening credits of a sci-fi movie, complete with the bass line from Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.” The band gave Mancini a songwriting credit because his infamous riff was featured prominently throughout the song. It’s all instrumental until the 2:27 mark, when we are introduced to the talking/singing style of Schneider, who vividly describes where they have taken us: “She came from Planet Claire / I knew she came from there / She drove a Plymouth Satellite / Oh, faster than the speed of light / Planet Claire has pink air / All the trees are red No one ever dies there / No one has a head.”
Now that they’ve properly introduced themselves, they head straight into “52 Girls,” an uptempo, frenzied song in which Wilson and Pierson share the lead. Unlike Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game,” “52 Girls” name checks a whole list of girls that doesn’t quite equal 52, but by the time you finish the track, it’s clear the B-52’s were playing an entirely different sport than everybody else and having fun doing it (“Effie, Madge, Mabel, Biddie / See them on the beach or in New York City / Tina, Louise, and Hazel and Mavis / Can you name, name, name, name them today / Can you name, name, name, name them today”).
What set the B-52’s apart from many of their peers is that they knew who they were from day one. Well, at least they gave that appearance. A song like “52 Girls” doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s a catchy song that you immediately want to sing along with. “Dance This Mess Around” is sung by Cindy Wilson, who relays the humorous, yet melancholy tale of a woman who demands and pleads to know why her object of affection won’t dance with her (“Oh say, why don’t you dance with me? / I’m not no Limburger Just a limber girl, just a limber girl / Just a limber girl, just a limber girl”).
The fun part is when Schneider comes in to offer a little assistance by listing the names of dances, some of which we have never heard of. Yet, for the last forty years, whenever someone abruptly says “They do all sixteen dances,” we know exactly what they’re talking about. The Shy Tuna, the Aqua Velva and the Hip-O-Crit became familiar to us, courtesy of Schneider.
“Rock Lobster” remains one of the crown jewels in the B-52’s’ discography and its influence is multigenerational. John Lennon cited it as one of the reasons for his comeback, telling Rolling Stone in 1980, “I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda. Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time. It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’”
There’s no denying that Yoko Ono’s influence is all over “Rock Lobster.” Strickland, the song’s co-writer once stated, “Yoko was such an inspiration for us in the early days,” he says. "That’s definitely an homage to Yoko when Cindy [Wilson] does that scream at the end.” It all came full circle in 2002, when Ono joined the band onstage at Irving Plaza for a rendition of “Rock Lobster.” The highlights of the remainder of the album include “Lava” and a cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” as only the B-52’s could pull it off.
The B-52’s were New Wave before the genre was even officially named and they stayed relevant long after it was gone. Their debut album is one of the most fun and quotable LPs of all time and it was a window into how much fun they had recording the album. There’s no way you can’t feel good after listening to it. In “Dance This Mess Around,” Wilson asks “Hey, so don’t that make you feel a whole lot better, huh? / I say, don’t that make you feel a whole lot better? / What you say?” After listening to this album for what seems like the millionth time, my answer is still an effusive “yes, it does make me feel a whole lot better.”