Reviewed on this page:
The B-52's - Wild Planet -
Mesopotamia - Whammy -
Fred Schneider - Cosmic Thing - Good Stuff - Just Fred - Funplex
Like Blondie, another New Wave band with 50s roots, but from Athens, Georgia, rather than New
York, and with a more highly developed sense of camp. Most songs were co-written - though I believe lead singer Fred
Schneider was primarily responsible for the lyrics - and a democratic approach prevailed in the recordings as well: each
band member had an individual sound, all adding up to an instantly recognizeable whole.
After their debut - with the signature tune "Rock Lobster" - the band rapidly climbed to its high point with the single
"Private Idaho" from Wild Planet, lost their way in typical early 80s fashion with some synth experiments, and fell into
the doldrums after the death of Ricky Wilson from AIDS. After a huge comeback hit with 1989's "Love Shack," the band was mostly inactive until regrouping for 2008's Funplex.
Kate Pierson, vocals, organ; Fred Schneider, vocals; Keith Strickland, drums, keyboards, guitar; Cindy Wilson, vocals;
Ricky Wilson, guitar. Ricky Wilson died, 1985. Cindy Wilson left, 1990; returned, 1998.
The B-52's (1979)
Retro surf rock suddenly became hip with this debut.
Instrumentally, all the weight is carried by Ricky Wilson's laser-sharp rhythm guitar riffs and Kate Pierson's
jokey organ, while vocally the contrast is between Fred Schneider's deadpan rants and Cindy Wilson and Kate's wild belting.
The lyrics are incredibly silly ("Dance This Mess Around"), but it's not hard to detect the undercurrent of anxiety in
science-fiction yarns like "Planet Claire" and the immortal riff tune, "Rock Lobster."
It's an effective schtick - and the band made sure to stick with it - but much of the songwriting is thin ("6060-842"),
some of the songs are quite long, and the lack of variety may get to you.
Wild Planet (1981)
From the opening "Party Out Of Bounds," a high-energy good time, with Ricky's circular guitar lines propelling every track, Fred playing the weirdly uptight poet of excess - like a surf version of the guy from Cabaret - and Cindy and Kate's unrestrained singing delivering on his promise.
I think I finally understand what George Clinton means when he calls the B-52s "P-Funk for white people"... it's not that they're a funky band, it's that their hook-filled, self-aware, mocking but affectionate approach does for surf music what Parliament did for R & B. "Private Idaho" is the best example, crystalizing everything the group does well, and tunes like "Quiche Lorraine" are nearly as good.
If you're inclined to be critical, though, you could point out that they're working with a pretty small bag of tricks: "Runnin' Around" is composed of the same riffs as "Idaho," for example.
Produced by Rhett Davies (who also engineered) and the band.
At this point the Athenians hooked up with David Byrne, produced this six-track EP and added a variety of instruments;
I'm not sure if the intention was to make them look more serious or make him look less so. Synth is the dominant instrument,
and all the rough edges have been smoothed out.
The result lacks the band's usual good humor and charm - self-mocking numbers like "Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can" fall flat -
but doesn't replace them with depth or innovation, so it's a bitter pill to swallow.
The tunes themselves are trivial (title track) and don't even approach catchiness, except on the closing "Nip It In The Bud."
Okay, I shouldn't have blamed Byrne, because the band continued in the same lame direction.
Producer/engineer Steve Stanley went completely overboard with programmed drums and synths (the personal ad satire
"Song For A Future Generation"). Ricky Wilson's guitar pops up here and there (the instrumental "Work That Skirt," which also
includes an electronic percussion break that sounds like a geeky homage to "Magic Bus"),
but he never really gets to do his stuff.
When you look under the hood, though, the songwriting isn't very good either: "Legal Tender,"
a half-baked ode to counterfeiting; the faked playfulness of "Whammy Kiss."
I don't even know what to say about the intentionally grating cover of Yoko Ono's "Don't
Worry." No, wait, I do know what to say: please don't do stuff like that.
The only halfway-decent song is "Butterbeans," Schneider's mock-garage ode to an underappreciated legume, and even that
would sound a lot better with some live instrumentation.
Other plusses: Pierson and Cindy Wilson still sound great ("Queen Of Las Vegas"); Ralph Carney and David Buck add groovy
horns to "Big Bird."
Fred Schneider (Fred Schneider: rec. 1984, rel. 1991)
Schneider's solo debut didn't see the light of day for seven years, not sure why... maybe the band was on the verge of breaking up, but didn't.
The surf-rock tunes are by John Coté, who also programmed the drums and played various other instruments; Fred wrote the lyrics, and they're his usual clever silliness ("The Planet's A Mess"; "Summer In Hell").
As with Whammy, though, the plastic sterility of the sound makes the good time vibe ring false... it's like a computer simulation of a party rather than the real thing.
The exceptions are the arch, amusingly smutty "Monster," and the detached, disturbing "I'm Gonna Haunt You."
Produced by Schneider and Bernie Worrell, who adds keyboards (usually including bass synth) to most tracks.
The notable guest is Patti LaBelle, but she's wasted on the hyper, shrill duet "It's Time To Kiss";
Pierson adds backing vocals to several tracks (the strikingly B-52s-sounding "Boonga (The New Jersey Caveman)"), and Tom Beckerman adds a couple of tasty guitar solos to "Cut The Concrete."
Bouncing Off The Satellites (1985)
The last album to feature Ricky Wilson. (DBW)
Cosmic Thing (1989)
After Wilson's death, the band regrouped: Strickland switched to guitar, and Sara Lee appears on bass
(though not credited as a band member).
Production is split between Don Was and Nile Rodgers, and they both return to a live feel
(Charlie Drayton drums on the Was tracks) while incorporating enough synthesizers to sound modern
("Dry Country," with a weird pseudo-sample of "Miss You").
"Love Shack" nearly recaptures the anarchic spirit of the early records, and it was a big hit;
elsewhere, the songwriting is flat (the underwritten "Roam," a less successful single;
the trash-culture homage "Channel Z," with the desperate unfunniness I usually associate with Weird Al Yankovic).
Strickland acquits himself well, supplying credible licks throughout,
not to mention a Duane Eddy imitation on the closing instrumental "Follow Your Bliss."
In 1991, Pierson guested on REM's Out Of Time.
Good Stuff (1992)
There's more to making good music that just repeating kitschy catchphrases over familiar surf-rock hooks, isn't there?
Ten attempts to renovate the "Love Shack": "Tell It Like It T-I-Is" (a phrase borrowed from
the immortal LaWanda Page); "Hot Pants Explosion"; "Is That You Mo-Dean?" Beyond a certain point,
the fact that it's all tongue-in-cheek doesn't help anymore... either way, it's just plain boring. They do change things
up a couple of times, including psychedelic raga motifs on "Revolution Earth" and the interminable "Dreamland," but it's no
Cindy Wilson had quit by now, leaving Schneider, Pierson and Strickland (still on guitar); without Cindy backing her up,
Pierson seems to be trying a bit too hard (title track).
Again, half the tracks were produced by Was, the rest by
Rodgers; Was used a variety of players - Sara Lee, Zachary Alford,
Jeff Porcaro -
while Rodgers' rhythm section was Tracy Wormworth and Sterling Campbell... David MacMurray adds woodwinds on a few tunes
In 1994, the group contributed to the soundtrack of The Flintstones as The B.C.-52's.
Just Fred (Fred Schneider: 1996)
Well, I can't accuse Schneider of staying in a rut this time: this is a painfully loud, crudely recorded and mixed (courtesy
of producer Steve Albini) grunge album. Three different backing bands - Shadowy Men On A
Shadowy Planet; Six Finger Satellite; Deadly Cupcake - and they all sound pretty much the same, with ragged distorted
rhythm guitars, occasional solos, and medium-fast tempos ("Secret Sharer"). Deadly Cupcake does contribute both of the listenable
cuts on the CD, though: "Bulldozer" and "Radioactive Lady Eyeball," both based on memorable drum patterns.
Schneider's tense, arch vocals sound even more
out of place than you'd think ("Sugar In My Hog"), when you can hear him through the intentionally muddy mix.
There's a cover of Nilsson's "(You Put The Lime In The) Coconut"; otherwise, all the lyrics are by Fred and the music is by
whichever band is backing him.
Time Capsule (1998)
A greatest hits with a couple of new tracks. (DBW)
A reunion featuring Schneider, Pierson, Wilson and Strickland, plus Wormworth and Campbell.
Produced with Steve Osborne, and the sound is dance-rock with retro elements ("Pump"), but it never gets overly predictable the way Good Stuff had. The vocals are as good/weird as ever ("Hot Corner"), and Strickland's guitar licks are on point, though several of the tunes are slight ("Love In The Year 3000").
Trouble is, at album length the listener's smile fades: like eating a full dinner of hors d'oeuvres, you're having fun at the beginning but eventually you wonder is this all there T-I-is?
Nip it in the bud.