When people think of the B-52’s, they often think of fun, silly, and energetic party-pop songs, and for good reason: a great majority of the hits they’re remembered for fit this bill to a T, filled with call-and-response vocals and rather buoyant melodies. Sometimes they were goofy, sometimes they were a bit more traditional with their themes, but they were always a lot of people’s one-stop-shop for good times and fun rhymes.
However, what may arguably be the single greatest song they’ve ever created retains none of these features. “Dance This Mess Around” is filled with longing, a bit of rage, and a vibe that is downright sultry, the soundtrack to a late-night slowjam in a room lit by nothing but lava lamps. There has never been a B-52’s song quite like it, but, most distressingly, they never attempted to go after this vibe ever again.
The first song on The B-52’s that was written by the entire band, “Dance This Mess Around” opens with an incessant ‘60s keyboard bounce that matches a thick, descending bassline and Ricky Wilson’s open strum guitar chords, creating an atmosphere that’s unusually sparse in comparison to the rest of the band’s work. Once Cindy Wilson’s voice comes in, though, she sings with a quiet, understated tone, one that’s more reflective than celebratory. “Remember”, she starts, “when you held my hand?” Then, as Fred Schneider’s surprisingly haunting toy piano plinks join in, Cindy delivers a much more personal query: “I say remember / When you were my man?”
Although playing things close to the heart has never been the band’s MO, there’s still a few songs that have hinted at deeper, raw emotions, and “Dance This Mess Around” truly shows the group with their guard let down. The song’s second half distracts us from the emotional inquiries at the onset, naming lots of non-existent dances like “the Aqua Velva” and “the Shy Tuna” while Cindy engages Fred in more call-and-response vocals (“Doesn’t that make you feel a whole lot better?” she asks; “Huh?” is what she gets in response).
Yet even with the veil of silliness drawn part-way through, there are few goosebump-inducing moments as potent as when Cindy screams the song’s pre-chorus during that first verse: “Why don’t you dance with me?! / I’m not no Limburger!” While referencing a paritcular type of cheese assuredly falls within the nonsense-driven lyrical universe that the B-52’s inhabit, the passion in which Cindy screeches out “Why don’t you dance with me?” is that of a woman scorned, confused, and breaking. Prior to this, she asks her mystery man to “roll it over in your mind”, referring to this idea that she doesn’t need her heart broken again. The actual lyrics, sparse as they may be, only hint at so much, but Cindy’s performance sells us on a pain that is much deeper than what is superficially there. Name all the dances you want, but the narrator of his song is hurting, and, also, is not cheese.
As always, some well-placed unamplified strums by Ricky Wilson ends up helping creating a unique and foreboding atmosphere, as the song goes through enough dynamic shifts to keep things interesting even though it’s all rooted in the same melody line. The band would go on to write songs keeping this sort of sparseness on their second album (see: “Dirty Back Road” from 1980’s Wild Planet), but rarely were they able to recreate this kind of emotional intensity on later works.
The song was released as the third and final single from the B-52’s’ debut album, and although it reached #24 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts, it failed to breakthrough to the mainstream even after the group played it during their appearance on the January 26th, 1980 episode of Saturday Night Live (with host Teri Garr). Some raw footage from 1978 shows just how raw-nerve the song could be given the circumstances, but, really, true B-52’s fans have known this track for years as not only one of the finest tunes the group has ever composed, but also one of the absolute best tracks of the era, commercial recognition be damned. This, along with “52 Girls”, are the kind of songs that gave the band’s debut its distinct personality, and it’s for this reason that it’s a shame they never came close to matching it ever again.