The B-52's eponymous debut celebrates 40 years

As The B-52's eponymous debut celebrates its 40th anniversary, we take a closer look at the band's legacy and their never more relevant message of inclusivity

Feature by Lewis Wade | 04 Jul 2019
  • The B-52's

The B-52's have been billed for years as the "the world's greatest party band." They're now mostly remembered for retro beehives, kitschy go-go boots and a series of bonkers mondegreens that are no less surreal than the actual lyrics ('Tiiiiiin roof / Rusted!' anyone?). So, beyond the ubiquitous wedding DJ specialty Love Shack, and quirky sirensong Rock Lobster, just what more have The B-52's contributed to the pantheon of modern popular culture? In short: much more.

The band are currently in the midst of a farewell tour that may well close the book on one of the most inventive, weird and just downright fun musical entities that's ever existed. This July also marks the 40th anniversary of their groundbreaking debut album, so what better time to revisit their greatest release and consider its importance along with considerations of the legacy this group is to leave behind.

There's a common cliché when looking back at classic debuts to say that a band were "ahead of their time" or that they were "out of step with the trends of the day" but such lines would be a serious understatement for The B-52's. Was there ever a time, and could there ever be a time, when the prevailing musical trends were new-wave, avant-surf-rock and white funk colliding with post-punk and 60s girl group harmonies in a technicolour explosion? Where songs about fandom-as-cannibalism and surreal adlibs involving fictional sea creatures delivered in a madcap sprechgesang were considered en vogue? Even the most pretentious musical anthropologist would be hard-pressed to argue that case. And that's only a taste of what The B-52's brings to the table.

By the late 70s, the American musical landscape was either revelling in the coke-fuelled hedonism of disco, safety-pinning everything in sight and affecting the studied nihilism of punk, or  desperately clinging on to the bloated corpse of classic arena rock. The B-52's subverted the grave inclinations of the punks, forging an unholy alliance between the rhythmic foundations of Georgia funk, instrumental aesthetes like Brian Eno and Henry Mancini, and experimental favourites like Captain Beefheart. They wrapped this concoction together with Ricky Wilson's unique approach to guitar tuning, bizarre call and response vocals and a stage presence that can only be described as relentlessly camp.

Rock Lobster famously inspired John Lennon to get back in the studio after a five year hiatus, on the somewhat condescending belief that popular music had finally caught up with Yoko Ono's radical genius. However, though it may be the most immediate and popular of the album's songs, it's just the tip of the eccentric iceberg. Planet Claire opens the record with 50s sci-fi tones that go on way longer than they have any right to, before a bunch of nonsense lyrics about a planet where everyone is immortal and has no head. The track also features Ricky Wilson on smoke alarm (!). It's not exactly Blowin' in the Wind, but damn if it doesn't get your attention.

From there, the band follow up with two songs based around lists that are never completed; the punky ode to famous women of the past, 52 Girls, and the most forlorn, despairing Cindy Wilson vocal turn in a song that also includes a bunch of non-existent dance moves, Dance This Mess Around. The band don't delve into emotionally-charged territory too regularly, settling instead for sneaky moments of poignancy hidden beneath the veneer of surrealism, but these two songs in particular show a band with the ability to set a distinct, emotive tone.

When the band started getting attention in New York after outgrowing the club scene in Athens, Georgia, they were playing in CBGB's and Max's Kansas City alongside dour 'serious' acts like Ramones, Patti Smith or Television, providing a splash of colour in an otherwise grayscale scene. But, despite the party atmosphere of their shows, there was still a streak of avant-garde about them. Given their eye-catching garb (mostly cheap, found or altered retro clothes), they were ready-made for a visual medium, and their performance on Saturday Night Live in early 1980 showed that you could be experimental and weird, catchy and full of positivity without pandering to what was trendy.

They were also so brazenly queer that it was rarely even remarked upon, just taken as matter-of-fact. Four of the five members of the group are/were gay and Ricky Wilson's tragic death in 1985 was one of the first high-profile Aids deaths in the USA, just weeks after Ronald Reagan's first public acknowledgement of the disease. However, this has also made it easier for some to 'other' the group over the years, dismissing them as novelty, one-note or niche, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Looking for open, honest notes in their lyrics is a thankless task, but there are clues here and there, such as the message of solidarity in the brilliantly titled There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon): 'If you're in outer space, don't feel out of place / Cause there are thousands of others like you'. While most avant-art was pointedly anti-mainstream, The B-52's were all about inclusivity – everyone is invited to the party, regardless of gender, sexuality or race. And just because you were innovative didn't mean you couldn't have fun.

The band's second album, Wild Planet, is another underrated gem in the new-wave canon that showcased a more polished, refined side of the band. It was a little less raw, less off-the-wall, though it does feature a song about a tiny green dog with designer jeans and another in which Cindy Wilson negotiates the return of her lover from a shark. The group would never scale these dizzy, creative heights again, though sporadic hits filtered out like Love Shack, Roam and even a late-career highlight in 2008's Ultraviolet.

However, they have been influential to a range of subsequent stars like Madonna, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and Sleater-Kinney (52 Girls has more than a hint of proto-riot grrrl). Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl admired them, citing their ability to craft unconventional sounds on a major label as a determining factor in their decision to join DGC Records. The band's zany adlibs and non-sequiturs have even found mainstream acceptance 40 years on through the manic raps of Migos and Future, or the stream-of-consciousness surrealism of Young Thug and SahBabii (all coincidentally from or based in Georgia).

But more than just their music, The B-52's simply showed that you could be experimental and fun, you could be camp without being a caricature, and you could be yourself without feeling the need to conform to the expectations of others. The B-52's is the finest encapsulation of all the multiplicities that make The B-52's such a special band. That it also sounds like the world's greatest party? Well, that's just a bonus.

The B-52's was released on 6 Jul via Warner Bros