Music

Dance This Mess Around: The B-52's - "Planet Claire"

The B-52's' opening salvo nicks Mancini, talks about aliens, and settled a bet I had with my dad on whether it was Kate Pierson's voice or a synth on that recording.

The B-52's

The B-52's

Label: Island / Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 1979-07-06
Amazon
iTunes

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".


Previous installments:

*Introduction



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.