Here’s the third part in our list of bands that changed our lives. These are more than just our favourite bands, these are bands that altered how we think about music and provided the soundtrack to our lives.
Part 3. The B-52s
I first heard The B-52s as a teenager during the 1980s. The track was a re-release of ‘Rock Lobster’ from their 1977 self titled debut album. The Duane Eddy style guitar, the odd vocals, the even odder lyrics and ability to sound old fashioned and futuristic at the same time left me entranced. It reached 12 in the UK singles charts at the time, with my pocket money helping it on its way.
There were three tracks on the b-side, including the sci-fi instrumental Planet Claire, and that was enough to convince me I’d found my new favourite band.
Cassettes (remember them?) of their albums followed, with their second album Wild Planet fast becoming one of my all time favourites along the way. This was thanks in part to the breathtaking ballad ‘Give Me Back My Man’, sung by vocalist Cindy Wilson. It was hearing this that I realised that The B-52s were no mere novelty act singing about lobsters.
There’s a comment in a recent Pitchfork book on classic tracks that points out that The B-52s were blessed with three great singers. In the quirky almost camp drawl of Fred Schneider, the perky Southern vocals of Kate Pierson and the blues of Cindy Wilson I can’t argue with this.
‘Give Me Back My Man’ is the perfect example of Wilson’s vocal talent in particular. For me she is up there with the great female vocalists of all time, Joplin, Fitzgerald and more. She bridged the gap between country/blues and new wave and punk. She screamed, she wailed, she sang with the rawest of emotions. This and other Wilson tracks like ‘Dance This Mess Around, are quite simply superb and show off the skills of one new wave’s greatest ever divas.
So why did this band change my life. Well, a few decades on I still listen with awe to tracks such as those mentioned and other favourites like ‘Hero Worship’ and ‘Song For A Future Generation’. Not many bands have that longevity.
The family feel to the band is another factor in their impact on my life. Formed in the mid to late 1970s in Athens, Georgia, by family and friends: Cindy, her brother and guitarist Ricky Wilson, along with Schneider, Pierson and drummer Keith Strickland. This gives them a warmth and genuine sense of being more than just a band.
I’ve also grown with the band through their changes. And although I don’t have much time for their latter studio albums Funplex and Good Stuff, up until the early 1990s I was a firm champion of their latest releases.
Take 1985’s Bouncing off the Satellites. It’s the perfect summer pop album but also one of the saddest collection of tracks. Ricky Wilson, who was the chief song writer and the most naturally gifted musician of the band died during production. The sadness and grief is inescapable when listening to this album. I can’t hear songs such as ‘She Brakes For Rainbows’ without thinking of the band’s grief.
The band took a long break after that but re-merged with their most successful album to date, Cosmic Thing. While for many Cosmic Thing is known for the party track Love Shack, there’s so much more to this album, which was largely written by Strickland, who in switching from drums to guitar emerged surprisingly as among the most pop savvy artists from the new wave/punk era. Tracks such as ‘Junebug’ are among my favourites.
It was shortly after Cosmic Thing was released that I managed to see them live in London. It was good seeing my heroes, but the tour was when Cindy took a break from the band. Instead Julee Cruise filled her shoes and no matter how well she sung there really is only one Cindy Wilson.
Top Ten B-52s Tracks
2. Dance This Mess Around
3. Hero Worship
4. Private Idaho
5. Give Me Back My Man
7. Nip It In The Bud
8. Song For A Future Generation
by Joe Lepper