B-52s – Funplex
My friends and I were trying to come up with the ideas for what we thought would be the perfect party. We thought about motif, we thought about food, we thought about where it should be held. Then, one of us mentioned music. We thought about whether or not to have a DJ – who would it be and what kind of music would they play, all of that kind of thing. Eventually we decided (rightly, I might add) the perfect party had to have a band. Which band, though? Which band could possibly fit the bill of being the perfect band for a party? While someone piped up a great choice in Kool and the Gang, when my buddy said The B-52’s, we had to acknowledge his genius as The B-52’s are undoubtedly the best party band ever. From their early hits “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around” to their later hits “Love Shack” and “Roam”, the band has had quite an influence on the party scene no doubt largely due to the cooing vocals of female singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson and the flamboyant showmanship of male vocalist Fred Schneider. Drummer turned guitarist Keith Strickland (musical director for this new album) and late guitarist Ricky Wilson (brother of Cindy) have also played huge roles in the band’s success.
The B-52’s, not REM as most commonly thought, were among the first few bands to spearhead the college town of Athens, GA’s brilliantly vibrant music scene. Taking their name from a slang term for the bouffant hairdos worn by female vocalists Pierson and Wilson, the five-member unit formed in the mid-70’s after hatching their plans during a drunken late-night dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It didn’t matter that none of them had much prior musical experience. They all loved music and wanted to try their hand at becoming a band. In fact, their first shows had the band “enhancing” their performances with taped guitar and percussion accompaniment because they were too inexperienced to play their instruments and sing at the same time adeptly enough to play live in that fashion. The band’s first paying gig was at famed New York rock club Max’s Kansas City and later gigs at venerable punk showplace CBGB’s brought the band to the attention of the music press in New York City who simply adored the campy kitsch of the band and their disposable dance-pop. In 1979, the band issued their first album full of bizarre, exceedingly danceable quirk-rock and scored a minor hit with “Rock Lobster”. After a few more well-received albums and EP’s (including a Schneider solo project) the band released their album “Bouncing Off The Satellites” in 1986, a cobbled-together effort the band managed to pull together in tribute to bandmate Ricky Wilson who had died of AIDS-related causes the year before. By now, the bloom had worn off the band’s rose and the B-52’s were seemingly treading water, expecting people to laugh at the same jokes over and over again just because they were couched in semi-new arrangements.
After the release of “Satellites”, the band went into seclusion, both to mourn their lost comrade but also to retrench and find their muse again. Luckily for the band, they eventually found their spirit again. The band resurfaced in 1989 with their comeback album Cosmic Thing, which turned out to be well worth the wait. In the years between albums, Strickland left his drums behind to become a fantastic soul-influenced guitar player partially in tribute to Ricky Wilson and partially feeling the need to fill the musical hole Wilson had left when he passed. The erstwhile dance band also made the great move of hooking up with former Chic member and dancefloor genius Nile Rodgers as well as Don Was to help craft their ideas and bring their sound up to date. The result was an album that clicked with the public like no other B-52’s album before. Huge hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam” were all over the radio for the next year and have become staples ever since. Despite feeling buoyed by the success of the album and the band’s re-emergence as the dance floor titans they always were, Cindy Wilson had bittersweet feelings about the band’s good fortunes since her brother’s untimely death and decided to exit the band in 1990. When the band released their next album, 1992’s Good Stuff, they were down to a trio and the album just didn’t have the musical oomph of their previous release. A decision was made by the remaining members to become a live band only from then on with no new releases, and they stayed true to that vision for the next 16 years.
Which brings us to the band’s very long awaited new album.
Those expecting a Cosmic Thing-like return to form are bound to be disappointed. A 16-year wait with all the expectations a reunion after all of that time brings with it is almost insurmountable. It would have almost been better for them just to come back with a large-scale tour but, see, the band never stopped touring. True to their word after Good Stuff, the band never really recorded again but they never stopped touring either, playing many corporate dates and often going out on summer tours. While their profile was way down, it wasn’t impossible to go out and enjoy a B-52’s show every once and a while. So why record again? First off, I believe they really love music, but the cynic in me wonders if they started to get lower paydays on the concert scene because they hadn’t had albums to promote and keep them in the public conciousness for so long and they needed a way to perk up the business, so to speak. Either way, though not up to their greatest heights, when the band wants to put together a great album they know how to do it and this one is pretty good. With an up-to-the-minute production aesthetic supplied by producer Steve Osbourne, the band has never sounded as slick and current as they do on this album. But, undoubtedly the biggest coup for the band was getting Cindy Wilson back in the fold! Her harmonies with Pierson on this album show they still have some of the best voices for dance-rock around and Schneider, for his part, shows he hasn’t lost a whit of his campy energy. While the songs, quite frankly, are not as memorable as their best work, they sound great and are full of the irrepressible energy the band has brought to everything they’ve done. Stronger songs would have helped nudge the quality on this up a bit, but I am just too busy dancing to this album to worry about it!
While this is neither up to the rarefied air of the classic B-52’s of “Rock Lobster” fame or even the later years when “Love Shack” was the coolest song on the radio, this new CD shows the B-52’s in fine form considering it’s been fifteen years since their last album of new material. Here’s hoping it’s not just a one-off to spike their concert fortunes and they decide to keep the momentum going. The band is so filled with engaging personalities I believe they have another Cosmic Thing in them if they keep going. Until then, this one will do quite nicely.