The B-52's

The B-52’s and Their Unique First Album (Between the Grooves)

We dance this mess around, get out our lava lamps, and explore why the B-52’s 1979 debut album is one of the best pop records ever made.

The B-52's
The B-52's
Warner Bros.
6 July 1979

7. “Hero Worship”

With “Hero Worship”, however, the B-52’s give us what may be their most direct, cohesive song to date. Smack dab in the middle of the album’s b-side, “Hero Worship” starts off with a very simple ascending guitar tone courtesy of Ricky Wilson. Matched note-for-note by Keith Strickland’s cymbal taps, this song feels like an anthem in the making, working its way up to some grand statement. However, once Cindy Wilson’s voice comes in, the song takes on a surprisingly dark undercurrent, her words pulling down what would normally be a fairly-upbeat rock number:

“Heroes falling to the ground
Like Hell’s magnet
Pulling me down
On my knees
I try to please his eyes
His idol eyes
Jerking motions can’t revive him
Mouth to mouth resuscitation
I just lay down beside him
And idolize

– “Hero Worship”

Although the iteration before the final chorus has a more staccato guitar-playing style, there is very little to “Hero Worship” that jumps, pops, or severely diverts from the song’s main groove. “Hero Worship” is one of the most stripped-down songs that the B-52’s have ever done, Cindy being the only vocalist on the entire track, her own voice never overdubbed once, the entire song sounding as if it was done in a single raw take (her yips and yells all definitely sound like they came from the same session, as that kind of thing is hard to fake). With drums, guitar, and bass, there are no other instruments brought in to accentuate or enhance the textural depth here. Instead, it’s just the B-52’s being themselves, all of the layering and melodic crevasses carved by Wilson’s careful guitar, which makes sense given he wrote this song with outside collaborator Robert Waldrop.

Yet even as the song finds its nice groove, Wilson’s voice gets more and more desperate, her wails wild and sometimes just a bit off-key, all as she begins yearning for her fallen idol all the more: “A lock of hair / A belt he wore / It’s not enough / I want more!” she screams before begging God to give her back his soul (wow). Although the studio reverb and her unique vocal phrasing cover up the words somewhat, the song’s power is still something that’s very potent. It’s rare for the B-52’s to invoke heaven and hell imagery at any point, but fortunately, they don’t do it in any typical way as they instead focus on not being able to let go of the recently departed and idolizing them all the same. It’s a topic that is a wee bit creepy on paper, but, given the wild and careening lyrical nature of this album, it actually fits in quite perfectly, the quirkiness drowning out any sort of perversity whatsoever.

As it stands, however, “Hero Worship” doesn’t actually have that much of a legacy within the B-52’s history outside of being a go-to fan favorite. It never got notably remixed, covered, or released as some one-off single in any way, but people still come back to it time and time again, the very nature of the performance and the lyrics being things that are still very unique within the group’s discography. For a song called “Hero Worship”, it actually has received very little of its own — but as is the case with The B-52’s, this is a gem that gets to be discovered by a whole cadre of would-be heroes every single day.

8. “6060-842”

The penultimate track to the B-52’s’ seminal debut album, the follow-up to the somewhat more dramatic lyrical leanings of “Hero Worship” proves to be something that is firmly in Fred Schneider’s carnival-barker wheelhouse, even though the whole band (save Cindy Wilson) wound up writing it. It is a goofy party-rocker that has a surprising amount of punk energy, even if the guitar distortion is kept to a minimum.

Opening with the tapped-out drum beat that corresponds with Fred, Kate, and Cindy shouting out the titular phone number digit-by-digit, and then the song breaks into its surprisingly simple structure: two strummed major chords on repeat. Ricky Wilson’s strum pattern helps give the song verve, with several well-placed down-strokes adding a bit more rhythm and personality to the proceedings, but once the chorus hits, he adds in one more note into the mix, still keeping the riffs raw and agile, the momentum never stopping.

At the one-minute mark, the guitars drop out as the “Dial the number to call” portion starts up. Ricky Wilson adds some dry and atonal notes as decoration as the rest of the song is given a nice stop-and-start lurch. Bongos are reintroduced to give more weight to Keith Strickland’s drums, those and the keyboard swells giving nice echoes to the start of the album. The mixture of heavy instrumentation married to a punk ethos for what ultimately proves to be a remarkably zesty little pop number.

The lyrics get close to nothing accomplished, lying closer to the realm of a Seinfeld plotline more than anything else. It tells the story of Tina, who went into the ladies’ room and saw a number to call if she wanted a “very nice time”. The rest of the song is literally a tease, the chorus featuring Kate and Cindy saying that “606 and I’m waiting for you!” in some of their sweetest coos, but Tina time and time again finds out that the number just doesn’t exist, despite dialing the “stupid number all day long”. The song ends with several attempts to have a conversation with a disconnected number (Schneider’s cries of “Hello?” getting increasingly pained), firmly planting the song, of course, in the B-52’s’ universe of the weird.

As the song reaches its final stretch, there’s a flurry of guitar strums in the chorus that could shake a room, but then they fade out into the simple stop-start three-chord chug of the latter verses, bongos and keyboards still playing around before it all stops at once. Clocking in at just under three minutes, this was one of the last three songs that were actually written for inclusion on the LP. The others were the album’s low-point “There’s a Moon in the Sky” and arguably the group’s greatest-ever number, “Dance This Mess Around”. “6060-842” crackles with energy and aloofness that the B-52’s just couldn’t recreate on their later records. It still personifies the spirit of the album in glorious fashion and has become a minor cult notice in its own right.

In 2007, Karmadoza made an entire album of modern, more punkish reworkings of the B-52’s’ most notable hits, and “6060-842” was one of the LP’s highlights. That tribute also focused on some of the earlier, lesser-known tracks in the B-52’s discography, a third of its songs coming from this album.

Part of what makes The B-52’s so compelling is how utterly lost in its own universe it is with its slightly fractured sense of humor somehow managing to tie everything together. Prince tried imposing his humor on both his films and his albums, but with the B-52’s, the jokes were actually funny. Although, it bears noting that in the original album’s liner notes, there is a footnote that reads “This is an imaginary phone number and any similarities to this number are purely coincidental.”

9. “Downtown”

For an album as giddy, raw, punkish, fun, and overall exciting as The B-52’s is, it’s 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 records in pop music.

Part of what made The B-52’s so special was the fact that while the group borrowed tropes from B-movies, vintage shops, and forgotten New Wave 45s to create a universe all their own, they wound up creating a musically well-considered and very assertive record 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. 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 Wilson quietly 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. 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 album 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 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.

The B-52’s were the very first concert I ever attended and the Pretenders and the Mask-featured swing band Royal Crown Revue opened for them. The B-52’s invited audience 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 greatest hits set. 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 just the B-52’s, one of the most unique bands, and with this one album, they crafted a world that we all wanted to live on upon first listening. Although they never matched the end-to-end quality of this record, they didn’t need to. This is the finest distillation of the B-52’s.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally presented as a series of articles in October and November 2014.