[7 July 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“52 Girls” is only the second song on the B-52’s first album, and despite never being released as a single, it has gone on to become a cult pop classic of the highest order—and all they do is just list the names of girls.
One of the most remarkable things about The B-52’s as an album—and something the group was never able to fully capture in any album since then—was creating not just a distinct sound, but getting right on down to creating a distinct guitar tone. Although there are unamplified guitar rock tunes aplenty in the great rock landscape, with everyone from Blondie to Prince able to turn those ringing strings into New Wave pop hits, there was a certain grit to Chris Blackwell’s production on this album, somewhat punk in the most arguable of ways but more than anything, it’s just a great damn melody.
From the opening 1-2 drum hits to Ricky Wilson’s confident and plucky strumming, “52 Girls” wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. With the oscillating notes during the verses, Wilson gives Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson that perfect amount of room to land their vocals, which are remarkably unadorned, given a raw treatment that makes it sound like they are recording in a small concrete room. There’s no studio gloss over anything, and perhaps that’s why “52 Girls” has a certain kind of sexiness to it: it is primal energy, somewhat aggressive but built upon a strong melody, and, amazingly, you just might be compelled to call it a bit sexy as well.
I mentioned in the intro to this Between the Grooves series that, yes, “sexy” is actually an applicable term towards this disc, but that’s largely due to the fact that even when tackling goofy alien themes or creating what some would argue are just novelty songs about lobsters, there was a total lack of self-consciousness on this LP that the B-52’s were never able to recreate in full down the line. On later albums, they “played” kitsch as an angle; on this disc and this disc alone, they were kitsch. Fred Schneider’s conviction on “Planet Claire”, the pummeling rock thump of “Lava”, the seductive groove of “Dance This Mess Around”—these weren’t mere poses, no. They were presented in a way where you fully believed in what they were saying, and that otherworldly confidence gives these songs depth that go well beyond what’s listed in the lyric sheets.
“52 Girls” exemplifies this trait to a T: in terms of lyrics, Kate and Cindy simply list off names of girls (including their own), and only note that you can “see them on the beach / Or in New York City”. Although they say that these are the “principle girls” in the U.S.A., their only other challenge is to see if you, the listener, can name them today. That’s it. These are not the topics that great insight can be culled from, but when married with Wilson’s multi-tiered melodies and Keith Strickland’s well-placed tom hits, there is a thunderous energy that’s generated with Kate and Cindy shout out “Name them all today!” It’s not defiant so much as it is simply empowered, and although some can try and parse these spare verses for meaning, the band’s performance tells us everything we need to know. It truly is meaning implied through presentation, and during this time in history, absolutely no one could do that better than the B-52’s.
Despite never seeing the light of day commercially, the B-52’s seemed to understand early on what kind of otherworldly magic they had captured with “52 Girls”, and it was given a do-over on their ill-fated 1981 remix EP Party Mix!. As with most of the tracks on that cheap cash-in, the “52 Girls” remix removes everything that made the original such a thrill: the guitars sound flat, the drums are processed and tinny, and, worst of all, Kate and Cindy’s vocals are given some bubbly and inoffensive studio clarity, essentially neutering the raw nature of the original in just about every way imaginable. (Fun fact: adding dog yelps near the end also doesn’t help the cause.)
One awful remix aside, “52 Girls” basically has “fan favorite” written all over it: not only did the song become a live staple, but it also appeared on both the band’s 1998 and 2002 best-of compilations, one of the few non-singles to garner such a spotlight. What’s more, hard rock bands have actually taken quite the liking to the tune, with punk-pop stalwarts the Offspring actually covering it on an obscure 1991 compilation called Contains No Caffeine. While some of the more upbeat party pop tracks wound up defining the B-52’s in the mainstream, it was songs like “52 Girls” that truly endeared them to their fans. There are actually some contingents of fans that actually call it their best song—and, in truth, it’s damn hard to argue against that claim.