Is This Band Good: The B-52s
A monthly feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANT: B-52s
I would be happy if I didn’t have to hear The B-52s’ “Love Shack” ever again.
Musically, it’s the equivalent of waking up after partying too hard and not realizing you’re still drunk. You’re chipper as all hell, praising higher powers for how delicious you feel. But it doesn’t take long for the euphoria to wear off. In fact, it fades pretty fast. The hangover’s coming, and being awake to feel it creep across your brain is worse than waking up with it.
There’s a relentlessness to “Love Shack,” with its forced good-vibes-only, uh, vibes. In both song and music video, the titular shack feels like a purgatory where people are doomed to party against their will for all eternity (not unlike the soda mascot, Slurms MacKenzie the Original Party Worm from Futurama). A peppy drum intro feeds into singer Fred Schneider’s opening lines: “If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says fifteen miles to the—” And then Cindy Wilson’s sings jubilantly, declaring your destination: Looooove shack!
Honestly, it sounds more like a threat than a promise.
For all intents and purposes, “Love Shack” should not be a song, and despite all my bellyaching in the previous paragraphs, that’s not a judgement call. Released in June of 1989, “Love Shack”—from the album Cosmic Thing—marked a comeback for a band who had arguably hit their artistic peak ten years prior.
The B-52s’ origin story is as charming as it is obnoxious. The band formed in 1976 when five bohemian friends in Athens, Georgia drank too many Flaming Volcanos one night and drunkenly held an impromptu jam session where only two of them—guitarist Ricky Wilson and drummer Keith Strickland—actually knew how to play instruments. The whole scenario just seems so flippant, like when one of your rich friends suddenly declares that they’re a [enter artistic discipline].
Rounding out the jam sesh was Kate Pierson and Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson—who provided vocals—and poet Fred Schneider who, I guess, just yelled? Although their sound became more polished throughout the years, this party-time, throw-caution-to-the-wind dynamic remained with The B-52s throughout their career.
In 1979, the band released their self-titled album which was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. A bold mix of post-punk and surf rock—and delivered with a John Waters/kitsch sensibility—the album practically pioneered the New Wave movement.
Just like the kitsch that inspired them, The B-52s have always toed the line between fun and insufferable. It’s often difficult to separate the idea of The B-52s—which is cool—and the actual band. There’s no question that they were outrageous, creative, brave and otherworldly, but listening to them is a lot like eating an entire cake by yourself, and that cake is a weird flavor, like Funfetti or something.
So, once again we ask: Are The B-52s actually good, or are they just a good-time novelty?
Carrie Feller: I am a San Diego based musician. My current projects are the bands Hexa and Hours. I also perform solo and released a 4-song minimal dark synth EP called Damage Orbit last year. I enjoy piano, guitar, cats, photography, cooking, critical theory, pop music and cartoons.
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of this newsletter and I also like music. I think about music a lot. I sometimes write about it. I have very good taste in music.
Ryan Bradford: My dad was a New Wave-head, and I’m sure I heard “Love Shack” and “Roam” countless times before I knew the name of the band that performed them. But you didn’t need to have a New Wave dad to hear these songs played everywhere in the early ‘90s; after Cosmic Thing, the B-52s were ubiquitous.
But when I was 13, I fell hard for “Rock Lobster.” That surfy guitar riff, the aquatic creature sounds, and the sheer insanity of it all was like a cartoony aromatic smell that lured both my childhood and burgeoning adult interests. Like They Might Be Giants, The B-52s instilled in me the idea that a band could make grown-up music that sounded like kids’ music—a notion that I still find subversive and cool. “Rock Lobster” was one of the first MP3s I ever downloaded, and I have a weirdly specific memory of watching them on Jay Leno in 1998 and being deeply satisfied that they played “Rock Lobster.”
But as I got more into traditional punk, my interest in the band pretty much ended with “Rock Lobster,” along with the lingering aversion I had/have for “Love Shack.”
Oh, and who could forget the “Glove Slap” parody they wrote for The Simpsons?
Carrie Feller: My introduction to the B-52s was the song “Love Shack.” As with all radio hits, it was played at every birthday party, every school dance, every grocery store, shopping mall, restaurant, roller rink. Despite its mainstream appeal as a party hit, I had never heard anything like it. It was not like U2 or Talking Heads, or Aerosmith or Janet Jackson. So, I loved it. The girl gang vocals, Fred Schneider’s talk-singing, the horns, the hand claps, the big hair, the glitter on the mattress, glitter on the highway, glitter on the front porch. Tin roof rusted. I loved it.
A little later, a cool uncle would lend me his Wild Planet cassette.
Ryan Bradford: First things first: what is Fred Schneider?
Conceptually, I mean. There’s no question that The B-52s would not be The B-52s without him, but it’s difficult to think of his role as more than a bizarre hypeman. Besides the member of Mighty Mighty Bosstones who just dances, I can’t think of another musician who’s as extraneously essential as Fred Schneider.
As a poet he’s got a knack for surreal, Dadaist imagery, but also so does a fridge covered in magnetic poetry. Personally, I don’t have anything against his voice and delivery, but B-52s songs without his vocals work just as well. For example, “Give Me Back My Man” from Wild Planet (which has since become my favorite B-52s song) is completely carried by Cindy Wilson, and shows the strange, raw potential of the band.
But every time I think I’m ready to give up on Schneider, I consider a world without him—and it is indeed a bleak world. Truthfully, I love that he exists, even if he kind of drives me nuts, and his ability to deliver his ridiculous poetry with a serious face is unmatched. Schneider’s schtick is so ingrained in the annals of pop culture, there’s even a relatively well-known improv exercise called “Hey Fred Schneider, what are you doing?” where participants go around, spouting off the most inane observations they can think of. The results usually aren’t that far from a legit B-52s song. In fact, I recently went on a road trip through Nevada and used the exercise to keep myself entertained.
Of course, it’s easy to judge the band through a lens of 21st century apathy and irony, but let’s not forget that they emerged amidst a scene that was bogged down with self-serious post-punk and no wave. This was also a time when hardcore punk was becoming increasingly violent, masculine and exclusionary, which make B-52s’ queer partytime vibes feel that much more revolutionary (80% of the founding members identified LGBTQ).
The band incorporated elements from post-punk—angular guitars, static rhythms—filtered it through their mondo aesthetic, and turned it into something that was actually fun. I can’t imagine a more fun show than seeing B-52s in 1980, and this performance of them from that era (which I watched numerous times while researching) feels more like an alien exorcism than a concert. When was the last time you were at a concert and people actually danced like this?
Unlike other bands in this series, I found myself more endeared to the band than before I started. I’ll even call their first two albums stone-cold masterpieces. The sequence of “Give Me Back My Man” to “Private Idaho” to “Devil in My Car” off Wild Planet is one of the best three-song runs in history. Even their third album Whammy!—which feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be DEVO—has some bangers, but it’s mostly notable for being Ricky WIlson’s final album with the band. Wilson, the unequivocal creative force whose strange guitar work and tunings defined the B-52s’ sound, had been suffering from AIDS—largely unbeknownst to the rest of the band. He died in 1985, and his absence is felt hard on Cosmic Thing and everything thereafter.
One last thing about Ricky’s unusual guitar tunings before I turn it over to Carrie. It’s reported that he once said: "I just tune the strings till I hear something I like, and then something comes out...No, I don't write anything down I have no idea how the tunings go."
What a truly amazing musical mind.
Carrie Feller: As previously stated, when I first encountered The B-52s, I was sold. Pre-teen me had no qualms with a good party hit (still don’t) and I truly appreciate the modern indie rock vibes of other Cosmic Thing singles like “Roam” and “Deadbeat Club.” A few years later, I would dig into more of their catalogue, starting with Wild Planet.
Released almost a decade earlier in 1980, Wild Planet is a blend of new wave, surf rock, art pop, post punk, and psych rock. Many bands of this time were solidly locked into one of these genres, but I think The B-52s really succeeded in the genre-hopping style of this second release. Songs like “Private Idaho,” “Give Me Back My Man,” and “Dirty Back Road” tick all the boxes for what I love in a band to this day—angular guitars, weird tunings, driving bass, tight drumming, vintage synths, interesting vocal patterns and harmonies.
I was surprised to learn that this band had depth and loved that they were truly weird. They couldn’t just be a post-punk band, or a new wave band, or a pop band, because they also had to sing about a cool dog they met called Quiche Lorraine and have beehives long after anyone should. They worked with David Byrne as producer for their third release and ultimately parted ways over creative differences. I truly believe they out-weirded David Byrne, and I love them for this.
I also appreciate that this is not a band of professional musicians. Vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson do not have a broad vocal range. Their singing isn’t exactly refined, but the harmonies are thoughtful, well arranged, and beautiful. Fred Schneider, described on Wikipedia as “cowbell player, poet, lead vocalist”—in that order—can really be a lot, but also brings the levity and humor that sets the B-52s apart from their contemporaries. Ricky Wilson’s guitar style and alternate tunings on a 4-string guitar also created a unique sound that sets the band apart.
So, this is my case for the B-52s, in theory.
But listen, we need to talk about “Rock Lobster.”
“Rock Lobster” was the band’s first single in 1978 and launched their career. After its release, John Lennon allegedly declared the B-52s to be his favorite band and cited “Rock Lobster” as the inspiration for his comeback album, Double Fantasy.
“Rock Lobster” is quite possibly my least favorite song in the history of music. When I hear it, I want to run away, or if that is not an option, crawl into a fetal position and cry. I can’t comprehend any decision that was made in this shrill, cruel, joke of a song. The tone of the guitar and synth seems to exactly match the high pitch wailing of Kate and Cindy as they anthropomorphize the sounds of various sea creatures, while Fred Schneider…is being Fred Schneider. This song is 6 minutes and 48 seconds of pure terror. I will listen to Merzbow and Pharmakon and Swans alone in a dark room for the rest of my life, but please, let me never have to listen to “Rock Lobster” again.
So, there you have it. The B-52s wrote the soundtrack to some of the fondest memories of my childhood, were truly innovative, interesting, and fun, and are also responsible for my most hated and feared track of all time.
B-52s are good (in spite of and despite Fred Schneider), and the first two B-52s albums—sans “Rock Lobster”—are essential. The rest...not so much. And can somebody please toss “Love Shack” into a fire?
THE WEEKLY GOODS
As I mentioned last week, I spent a night at the world famous Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. By myself. I’ve been wanting to check the place out since I discovered that it existed, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to my expectations. I don’t really have a fear of clowns, but I did manage to creep the hell out of myself whilst doing some ghost hunting. I hope you read my account of it over at PACIFIC Magazine. 🤡 🤡 🤡
Get involved with this
The other day, a man knocked over an elderly Filipina woman in Manhattan, and proceeded to kick her while she was still on the ground. To make matters worse, employees in the building from which the footage was taken simply closed the door on the injured woman after the perpetrator ran away. There aren’t words to express how awful this is, and watching the footage made me physically ill. Anti-Asian violence is on the rise, but there are good people putting in the work to combat it. If you want to help, but don’t know how, visit San Diego’s Pacific Arts Movement website, which features a lot of resources, links to get involved, and opportunities to donate.
I never got into the band Arab Strap, but I’m obsessed with their newish song “The Turning of Our Bones” and its music video. (big h/t to SD artist Carrie Anne Hudson for sending it to me).
Careful, it’s kinda NSFW:
The video splices scenes from obscure ‘70s horror movies together, all of which I had never even heard of. After some wormholin’, I discovered that one of the films featured is called Messiah of Evil, and there just happens to be a pretty good version of it on YouTube. The film is unsettling with a lot of striking imagery, and artful in a way that seems ahead of its time. I have a major soft spot for ‘70s horror (especially Italian giallo films) and this is the best film of that style that I’ve seen in a long time.
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.