[30 June 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
One of the first concerts I ever went to was where the Royal Crown Revue opened for the Pretenders, who opened for the B-52’s. While I was excited for the concert itself, it also served as a way to settle a bet me and my dad had: whether or not it was a synthesizer or either Kate Pierson’s/Cindy Wilson’s voice that served as the ominous opening wail to “Planet Claire”, the first track off of the B-52’s’ very first album.
We were both right, but my dad was still stunned at just how well Pierson’s warble went with the vintage synths that they used to create the B-movie atmosphere that proved so crucial to “Planet Clarie”‘s success. In Dance This Mess Around, our ongoing Between the Grooves feature tackling great albums track-by-track, we are looking at the opening salvo of one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and here taking on Athens, GA rockers the B-52’s and their eponymous debut.
Opening with the sounds of scant radio frequencies before Ricky Wilson’s propulsive guitar notes come in, the entire first half of the song is instrumental, as it appeared to be far more important to establish the world of the B-52’s before any words were to be inserted into it. (Also, it’s worth noting that if that opening strut of a riff sounds familiar, that’s because it’s is an unintentionally sped-up take on Henry Mancini’s classic number “Peter Gunn”; although Mancini has subsequently credited as a co-songwriter, such accreditation happened long after the fact, as even the CD release of the album still only cites Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland as the track’s masterminds.)
So with Ricky’s guitar, the band’s use of bongos, and Kate’s indelible synth harmonizing, “Planet Claire” absolutely bleeds ‘50s schlock novelty, ready to soundtrack a party lit only by lava lamps or perhaps serve as the soundtrack to a film about some rather swingin’ aliens. Then, on 2:30 on the dot, Schneider enters with that instantly memorable opening slavo:
“She came from Planet Claire
I knew she came from there
She drove a Plymouth Satellite
Faster than the speed of light”
Obviously, these are not meant to be taken too seriously, but it’s Schneider’s straight-ahead vocal cadence that ultimately sells the song. These aren’t “sung lyrics” as much as they are stone cold facts, and that distinction in performance is what ultimately helps sell the song despite its otherwise clownish qualities.
As the narrative continues, we also hear how no one ever dies on Planet Claire, and no one has a head (and there’s also a memorable passage wherein Schneider immediately corrects those spreading false rumors about the alien babe at the center of the song). It’s pure absurdism, almost childlike in nature, but the whole reason why “Planet Claire” and the rest of The B-52’s works is because the band does all of this with a straight face. During latter albums, there’s an overwhelming sense that the band is “in” on the joke, and many of the tracks the group penned during the late ‘80s are intentionally campy, which is a marked difference from here, wherein their commitment to the crazy is so absolute, the average listener doesn’t know if the band is even conscious of how wacky this all sounds (perhaps they truly believe in each and every out-there utterance!).
Thus, while some may view “Planet Claire” as dismissible and nothing more than a novelty, the commitment to character that shines through this performance is what sells it, and, for many, this proved to be the pitch-perfect introduction into the world of the B-52’s. Although the song was only a minor hit, going as high as #24 on the Billboard dance charts, it’s grown over time to serve as one of the group’s out-and-out calling cards, also doubling over as the opening song to Time Capsule, the group’s excellent greatest hits comp that came out in 1998. The B-52’s’ sonic universe is one of quirks, odd-turns, and then even more quirks. so as an introduction to that world, it’s hard to top that first trip out to “Planet Claire”.