Dance This Mess Around: The B-52’s - “Downtown”

[25 August 2014]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

For an album as giddy, raw, punkish, fun, and overall exciting as The B-52’s is, it is actually somewhat fitting that the final song on it isn’t only a cover, but also a stripped down, laid-back, celebratory send-off to one of the finest discs in the history of pop music.

Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, part of what made The B-52’s so special was the fact that while the band certainly borrowed tropes from B-movies, vintage shops, and forgotten New Wave 45s to create a universe that was all its own, it wound up creating an album that was musically well-considered and very assertive (sometimes even downright aggressive) with lyrics that were offbeat, wacky, and hinting at real human emotions when you weren’t distracted by their bizarre turns towards the sci-fi. Outside of “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”, where the song’s title proves better than the song itself, The B-52’s is truly one of the greatest pop albums ever made. The B-52’s were never able to fully recreate the magic captured here (and boy howdy did they try sometimes), but after introducing us to their own unique and strange world with such unbelievable conviction, closing with a Petula Clark cover just seems absolutely fitting.

Opening with some room chatter, as if this was done at an office party, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilsonquietly sing and shout as the drums (complete with cowbell!) keep a simple beat and the old whirring keyboard is used the song’s only instrument at the start. There’s a bit of an unrehearsed, casual vibe to the whole thing, almost like it was recorded on a lark, but during the track’s last minute, Ricky Wilson’s guitar adds in a few notes, and then the full-band sound comes into play, giving a nice bit of pep and energy at the end before fading out, just like it started, into some casual conversations—and then the disc stops spinning.

While some may argue that by closing with “Downtown”, the album goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, but after wrapping up the b-side with the charge- up tracks of “Hero Worship” and “6060-842”, “Downtown” serves as an excellent cool-down, a good-natured vibe to let the people know that while the party is over, the mood doesn’t have to be dour because of it. Hence the nice element of the people talking before and after the song (and even a bit during): the song is kind of secondary to everything else at the moment, more of a tone-setter than a fully realized work—which, due to its placement, works brilliantly.

Some bands truly are capable of creating their own universes within the course of their discographies, but the B-52’s wound up doing so within their own, compressing their worldview into a bright yellow album that reeks of originality and was absolutely unafraid to be weird. It was bold for a band that soon got consumed by its own knack for party-pop whimsy, and while there were great songs after, no album ever featured the same attitude or style that it displayed here. Even with “Rock Lobster” having gained an immortality all its own, “Hero Worship”, “52 Girls”, and especially “Dance This Mess Around” are all absolute, undisputed gems, all stemming from a rarefied air that most bands only wished they could capture for a single song, much less an entire album.

Although my own memory can be spotty sometimes, I actually think that the B-52’s were the very first concert I ever attended, where the Pretenders and the Mask-featured swing band Royal Crown Revue opened for them. The B-52’s invited certain members to come up on stage and dance during the duration of their set as they went out to tour on the strength of Time Capsule, their single-disc greatest hits set, but although the concert was extremely good, I was left with the impression that these people didn’t treat pop music like a monolith to be worshiped but more like a playground to fool around in. They were sometimes sexy but never overt, often wacky but never too far-flung as to stretch credulity. They were, in fact, just the B-52’s, one of the most unique bands to ever exist, and, with this one disc, they crafted a world that we all wanted to live on upon first listen. Although they never matched the end-to-end quality of this disc, in some ways, they didn’t need to: this is the finest distillation of their aesthetic, and, truly, one of the greatest pop albums in history.


Previous installments:

*Introduction
*“Planet Claire”
*“52 Girls”
*“Dance This Mess Around”
*“Rock Lobster”
*“Lava”
*“There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”
*“Hero Worship”
*“6060-842”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/185003-dance-this-mess-around-the-b-52s-downtown/