The B-52s‘ music is candy-colored, effervescent fun — maybe more Pop Rocks than pop-rock — slightly tempered by dabs of deadpan silliness from frontman Fred Schneider.
The group evolved from a group of partying friends at the University of Georgia at Athens, and their eponymous first album became a post-punk, new wave hit on college campuses. Like their contemporaries Devo, the band were the comic relief of the new wave movement, though less deep dish and with less darkness on the edge of their town. While they cultivated an image of frilly insouciance, the music itself was carefully crafted, from unusual guitar tunings to the piercing female harmonies that seemed to prepare American ears for the otherworldly keening of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares. For an extended moment, it seemed every college party would eventually succumb at some point and dancers would lower themselves to the floor when Schneider commanded “Down! Down! Down!” in their surrealistic hit “Rock Lobster.”
Utterly new and somehow still familiar, the B-52s seemed to re-invent the ambiance of cheesy movies from the 1960s like Beach Blanket Bingo – part sunshiney surf music and part science-fiction absurdity. With Cosmic Thing, though, the group launched into the big time, shooting up the national album and singles charts with “Channel Z”, followed by “Love Shack” and “Roam”.
This new-found success, however, came with an irony that was too real and too cruel. In 1985, their original guitarist and a key architect of their distinctive sound, Ricky Wilson, died after contracting AIDS and hiding his condition from the members so as not to worry them. Wilson was the brother of one of their two female singers, Cindy, who dropped out of the band for a time afterward. After his death, the band went on hiatus, with drummer Keith Strickland eventually moving over to play guitar.
As a comeback album, 1989’s Cosmic Thing returned to their roots as a party band, aided by producers Don Was and Nile Rogers. “Channel Z” was an uncharacteristic but still playful venture into politics, calling out a litany of environmental threats. “Roam” showed a different facet of their girl-group sound, with a bit of an achy-breaky tone coming from the narrator as she talks to a wandering man. “Love Shack” is arguably their most defining song, as the singers tell the story of folks heading out to a backwoods place to let go of any “Channel Z” worries and dance. “Deadbeat Club” is a nostalgic recounting of their college days, when they’d lounge around and banter while other students padded off to class or the library.
The 30th-anniversary issue set remasters the original tunes, then adds B sides, remixes, and 16 live songs from two concerts in Texas. The addition of the live cuts in effect makes the set somewhat of a greatest hits album for those curious to add the group to their collection. At the live shows, they cover early hits such as “Rock Lobster”, “52 Girls”, “Mesopotamia”, and “Quiche Lorraine”. The live versions are not substantially different from the originals save for some deadpan stage patter from Schneider and some improvised lines in the songs, most notably some commentary on pollution in “Rock Lobster”.
While a whirl through the music of the B-52s is apt to bring a smile to anyone’s face, it also brings a wistful nostalgia to those whose salad days were dressed by this bright and shiny music. Schneider’s emotion-less sing-talking delivers some classic lines of absurdist humor, and the songs are unrelentingly compelling.
Strangely enough, the group’s dedication to their mission of delivering tongue-in-cheek party music delivered its own version of sincerity. The members were the perennial, beloved hosts who always created a “Love Shack” that welcomed would-be partiers with the promise of a good time and that the show would always go on.