Turn on that lava lamp … ’cause things are gonna get a little sexy up in here.
An ongoing theme to this extensive Behind the Grooves series on one of the most perfect pop albums ever created, the B-52’s eponymous debut from 1979, is how with its raw production and performances that completely commit to the absurdism in the lyrics, there is an immediate, potent effect that is achieved with each and every one of these songs, as if the band somehow congealed out melted platform shoes and tacky lamps in order to become a perfect antithesis to disco’s self-serious sanctimony, favoring the gritty instead of the lush and wacky instead of the romantic. They were art-pop weirdos on the crest of the New Wave wave, and because they believed so wholeheartedly in their songs about rock lobsters and creatures coming from Planet Claire, they exuded a confidence that they were never able to recapture, as on this disc and this disc alone, they created a world that was inhabited only by the B-52’s and their lucky listeners. As an album, The B-52’s worked because it played its own internal logic that’s simultaneously indecipherable and also completely relatable in its own wacky way.
Thus, after a flawless four-song stretch on the LP’s a-side, it’s side b that opens with “Lava”, one of the most openly sexual tunes the group has ever written. Written by the entire band with all the vocalists to the forefront, “Lava” marries another classic Ricky Wilson guitar chug to a single-note key plink that syncopates nicely with the drums. It starts off groovy but takes a bit of a minor-key turn in the pre-chorus, showcasing that strange bit of menace that the group never brought up in any album since then. At times, it got a bit dark musically, and when Fred Schneider decides to put an end to any lies about Planet Claire by screaming at you in the album’s opening track, it goes to show that even amidst songs that list off both girls’ names and fictional dances, that playful atmosphere came at a cost, and because the menace mixed with the merry in unexpected ways, The B-52’s develops a unique tension that carries over from song to song, the lyrics often hinting at some deeper emotions at play before covering them up in wordplay and sound effects. Again, this was an effect achieved by the band only here and, quite frankly, it never wound up being bettered.
So while the astonishing “Dance This Mess Around” slithered and teased, “Lava” goes straight in for the kill, barely masking its carnal intent on the lyrics:
“My love may be as high as the highest volcano
But the altitude is way too high
Well it get so cold when you look at me that way — yeah
I just wanna have that hot lava
Lovin’ me away”
Of course, this is the B-52’s we’re talking about here, and it wouldn’t be them without the occasional bizarre tangent, which we get in the song’s final verse, Schneider shouts out “I’m gonna let it go / Let it flow like Pompeii or Herculaneum!” Then, as the song crashes in towards its finale, the vocalists all take turns making cries and screams that rise in intensity as Wilson strums his guitar with even more ferocious intensity, and then the climax happens, and in a light sight and a muted riff, everyone just says “Yeah”.
There is no greater meaning to be gleaned from this song, but there doesn’t need to be either. In their later years, the group played around with innuendo (“I’m gonna kiss your PINEAPPLE!” from “Strobe Light” immediately comes to mind), but were never this playfully vulgar again. While the song never was released as a single or gained the same notoriety as deep album tracks like “Dance This Mess Around”, it is still a fan favorite. It also had the misfortune of being included on the band’s terrible Party Mix! EP from 1981, where the only major notable addition is a crazy sax solo that is at one point filtered through a wah pedal. But as the case with virtually every song that appeared on that disc, the remix barely holds a molten candle to the original. It may add some volcano sound effects in there, but nothing beats the original recording with lines like “I gotta lotta lava love locked up inside of me”.
Congratulations: you just heard the B-52’s have a musical orgasm — and it was awesome.