If this Between the Grooves series has gone out to prove anything, it’s that crystallized inside the recording of the B-52’s first album is a nervy, gritty, and surprisingly supple New Wave energy that was wacky as it was sexy, smart as it was fun, kitsch as it was considered. It is a near-flawless album, and one of the greatest pop discs ever made. Although there were still great songs throughout their career (and a very decent attempt to reclaim what made this 1979 disc special with their 1980 follow-up Wild Planet), the nine tracks that make up this eponymous effort are as close to perfect as you could possibly get.
Yet, if there is a single “weak track” to be found on The B-52’s, it would be the second song on this LP’s b-side: “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”.
Obviously, the song’s faults aren’t in the title, because that is an incredible name for a song. Instead, what makes “Moon” suffer in comparison to so many great, iconic tracks is exactly that: context. Had a song of this nature been included on 1983’s Whammy! or 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites, it would’ve been an immediate highlight. However, within the context of the album, “Moon” unfortunately comes off more as a pastiche of other great elements we’ve already heard on the disc, lacking that “wow” factor that makes every other song here an absolute keeper.
Right from the opening keyboard riff, we hear immediate aural echoes of “Planet Claire”, the album’s epic opener, and as Ricky Wilson’s guitar strums come into play, we realize something is a little different this time around: the keyboard is used as the lead instrument, with Wilson simply adding a bit of color and texture. While, on a pure sonic level, one would imagine that this switching of instrument leads would make for a nice break in the action, it actually does the exact opposite effect, pushing forth a main melody that is far blander than anything else on the disc.
There are two reasons as to why this is the case: for one, Fred Schneider, for all his personality, is not a great keyboardist, but knows a good deal about texturing. The single-note rhythmic pulse he adds to “Lava”, the surprisingly effective toy piano plinks that color “Dance This Mess Around”—these are all elements that give the songs depth and character. Here, the riff plays out its welcome mighty fast, which leads us to the second reason why “Moon” lacks the shine that makes the rest of the LP glow: a restrained Ricky Wilson. With his unique key changes, his well-considered arpeggios, and his subtle changes to his guitar tone, Wilson ultimately makes the best B-52’s song absolutely shine, interjecting with a unique identity that was easy to appreciate but hard to imitate. By being relegated to mere rhythm guitarist here, his charm as an instrumentalist is put on a tight muzzle, and the song suffers as a result.
What’s more, on a lyrical front, we don’t hear the same absurdist buy-in that makes the rest of the group’s non sequiturs sound as surprisingly grounded as they are. The angry rebuttal Schneider gives during “Planet Claire”, the vague peek into the world of a woman scorned on “Dance This Mess Around”, etc.—every song on this album had at least one emotional or somewhat jarring element that gave the disc its tension. On “Moon”, it’s just all wackiness up and down without any sense of center. There’s a party on the moon with all the other planets showing up, you shouldn’t feel out of place, etc. It’s the start of an inclusionary lyrical trope that the group would go back to time and time again (most notably on “Love Shack”), but even “Rock Lobster” started only slightly off-kilter before going into its delightfully nonsensical throes. Here, there’s no level changes in the imagery—it’s all standard-issue weird from the get-go, with no discernible peak.
Yet, this by itself doesn’t make “Moon” a bad song, no. In terms of its quality, it feels like it would actually sound right at home on the fairly confused Whammy!, but when surrounded by so many notable home runs, “Moon” feels like the odd man out, a b-side that snuck its way onto the album’s actual b-side. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, one does with it somewhat stuck up for itself more or at least was given a little bit more time inside the songwriting oven. As it stands, it’s only a lesser moment on The B-52’s, but in truth, how could it not be when surrounded by peaks as glorious as these?
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// Notes from the Road
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