As I mentioned in the introductory installment of this series, Green Day’s American Idiot has often been compared to the Who’s 1973 conceptual opus, Quadrophenia, and it’s not difficult to understand why. After all, both records’ narratives center on rebellious teenage males whose punky individualism puts them at odds with social conventions, familial expectations, peer pressures, and romantic expectations. In other words, the protagonists of both records are sick of the bullshit that surrounds them, and they even develop alternate egos to help deal with the banality and overwhelming uncertainties of everyday life. Furthermore, both records contain rambunctious multifaceted suites in which each stylistic change represents a new emotion or perspective. Although the entirety of American Idiot contains examples of these connections, the second track, “Jesus of Suburbia”, does it the best. Broken into five distinct movements, the piece is a tour de force of catchy melodies, invigorating momentum, emotional timbres and progressions, and most importantly, wonderful transitions.
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Prior to 2004, few people would classify the music of Green Day as particularly sophisticated, intellectual, or thematically mature. Sure, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” with its poignancy, fragility, and beautiful orchestration, quickly became the introspective acoustic ballad of a generation, and fun singles like “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case” were amongst the catchiest mainstream songs of their era. However, for the most part the ‘90s saw Green Day dominating the airwaves as little more than a premier punk rock group. The band emblemized a contemporary take on the rowdy counterculture retaliation of ‘70s icons like the Clash, and while it did an excellent job of it (don’t get me wrong), no one ever expected the trio to branch out of its preset genre limitations stylistically, conceptually, or technically.
For an album as giddy, raw, punkish, fun, and overall exciting as The B-52’s is, it is actually somewhat fitting that the final song on it isn’t only a cover, but also a stripped down, laid-back, celebratory send-off to one of the finest discs in the history of pop music.
Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, part of what made The B-52’s so special was the fact that while the band certainly borrowed tropes from B-movies, vintage shops, and forgotten New Wave 45s to create a universe that was all its own, it wound up creating an album that was musically well-considered and very assertive (sometimes even downright aggressive) with lyrics that were offbeat, wacky, and hinting at real human emotions when you weren’t distracted by their bizarre turns towards the sci-fi. Outside of “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”, where the song’s title proves better than the song itself, The B-52’s is truly one of the greatest pop albums ever made. The B-52’s were never able to fully recreate the magic captured here (and boy howdy did they try sometimes), but after introducing us to their own unique and strange world with such unbelievable conviction, closing with a Petula Clark cover just seems absolutely fitting.
Sorry, Tommy Tutone: the B’s got ya beat.
The penultimate track to the B-52’s’ seminal debut album, the follow-up to the somewhat more dramatic lyrical leanings of “Hero Worship” proves to be something that is firmly in Fred Schneider’s carnival-barker wheelhouse, even though the whole band (save Cindy Wilson) wound up writing it. It is a goofy party-rocker that has a surprising amount of punk energy, even if the guitar distortion is kept to a minimum.
Opening with the tapped-out drum beat that corresponds with Fred, Kate, and Cindy shouting out the titular phone number digit-by-digit, and then the song breaks into its surprisingly simple structure: two strummed major chords on repeat. Ricky Wilson’s strum pattern helps give the song verve, with several well-placed down-strokes adding a bit more rhythm and personality to the proceedings, but once the chorus hits, he adds in one more note into the mix, still keeping the riffs raw and agile, the momentum never stopping.
As of right now, we’re seven tracks in to this Between the Grooves series exploring the B-52’s lightning-in-a-bottle debut. They’ve used kitsch, grit, sex, and smarts to get our attention, taking us to alien worlds and undersea bikini parties alike, all while committing to their performances wholeheartedly while giving us hints and teases of real human emotion underneath the wackiness of it all.
With “Hero Worship”, however, the Athens quintet give us what may be their most direct, cohesive song to date.