[23 June 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
There are a lot of iconic B-52’s one-liners. Most of them are funny. Some of them are downright surreal. Yet virtually all of them leave you feeling like you’re going down to where the love honey grows, and picking just one to sum up the entire aesthetic of these fearless Athens, Georgia New Wavers is actually harder than you’d think. Do you pick a zinger from “Love Shack”? The bizarre “Song for a Future Generation”? The wonderful guitar strut of “Private Idaho”?
There’s an abundance to choose from, but if you had to go with just one kitsch classic, it’s hard to argue with Fred Schneider giving voice to the single greatest warning cry your ears have ever heard: “There goes a narwhal!”
This, of course, comes from one of the group’s signature songs, “Rock Lobster” (which also served as their debut single back in 1978), and can be found on their 1979 self-titled debut. A funny thing about that first full-length, though: despite containing memorable tunes like “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire”, there is an honest-to-goodness magic that is contained within such an unassuming nine-song goof of a disc. It’s more than just novelty songs: on this album (and, tragically, only this album), this wacky five-piece—consisting of drummer Keith Strickland, guitarist Ricky Wilson, and that inimitable trio of great vocalists: Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson—managed to create an entire world all their own, one where goofy and sexy could co-exist in the same song (sometimes right on the same line), where comedy wasn’t made without a great sense of songcraft behind it, and, best of all, absolutely nothing else sounds like it, either when it was released or even now, some 35 years down the line.
While their formation story has been told several times over—what with this group of Athens, GA friends jamming at a local Chinese restaurant before playing their first-ever gig at a friend’s house on Valentine’s Day in 1977, soon naming themselves after a kitschy 1960s hairdo, their first single “Rock Lobster” becoming an underground hit before Island Records president Chris Blackwell wound up producing the group’s debut—and while their legacy has been defined by late-‘80s/early-‘90s landmarks like “Love Shack” and “Roam”, their finest artistic statement remains that simple nine-track debut effort. On their early ‘80s albums, they still managed to find moments where they truly managed to rock out, but their debut album was that only time that they truly managed to be sexy as well.
Truly, there are few debut albums that have arrived as fully-formed as The B-52’s, and when all the songs are taken together, from the opening B-movie narrative of “Planet Claire” to the closing cover of Petula Clark’s signature song “Downtown”, one realizes that by taking all these junk-culture tropes (the odd jokes, the obsession with all things vintage, etc.) and wrapping them in sturdy, polished songs with a bit of a gritty production finish, you have something that no one could have expected from a group that so often gets written off as a mere novelty band: actual, genuinely human moments. Underneath those monster hairdos, there are big brains and beating hearts, and even when a lot of the band’s lyrics consist of nothing but lists (see: dance crazes, invented fish, just girls’ names), their lasting impact is greater and more memorable than some would argue it has any right to be.
Although the album’s commercial success has been modest (although it never charted higher than #59 on the Billboard 200, it has gone platinum, making it the band’s second-best-selling album after 1989’s Cosmic Thing), the pure emotional power of this album isn’t lost on everyone: VH1 named it #99 on their list of the 100 greatest albums ever made, while Rolling Stone placed it at #152 on their own list of the 500 greatest. Everyone knows “Rock Lobster”, but few people know the rest of the joyous pieces that make up the awesome power The B-52’s, and over the coming weeks, we will dance this mess around, get out our lava lamps, and explore why the B-52’s’ debut album is one of the greatest albums ever made.