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Classic Album Review: The B-52’s | Nude On The Moon: The B-52’s Anthology

The two-disc anthology reminds you just how original the Athens outfit really were.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Some people remember The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I remember The B-52’s on Saturday Night Live.

OK, so it didn’t have quite the same global impact. But Jan. 26, 1980, was still a pretty memorable night in my house. I can vividly recall being glued to the tube by the giant beehive wigs, the ’50s thrift-shop outfits, the primal performances, and the sight of some guy with a weird little moustache shouting about a “Rock Lobster!” I can also recall heading to the record store the next week to buy The B-52’s first album — and the way the long-haired clerk laughed at the big yellow album and wondered why I was “wasting money on this new-wave crap.” My response? “Because they’re cool.”

Nearly 22 years to the day later, I stand by that statment — especially after sampling Nude On The Moon, the B-52’s retrospective from Rhino. With 35 tracks on two CDs and a 52-page colour book packed into a cardboard mini-box, Nude on the Moon is in many respects your basic career anthology: The singles, the best tracks from all their albums, a few rarities and live tracks, some unreleased fare, a glowing biography, a handful of quotes from the principal players and plenty of pictures. But if you haven’t listened to The B-52’s in a while — and I admit, I haven’t — it’s also one helluvan eye-opener, a reminder of just how groundbreakingly original the quintet of college kids from Athens, Ga., really were.

The best stuff arrives right off the hop. Disc 1’s first six songs come straight from that jaw-dropping 1979 debut LP: 52 Girls, Lava, Hero Worship and the classics Planet Claire, Dance This Mess Around and Rock Lobster. This side of The Shaggs or The Fugs, you’d be hard-pressed to find six stranger songs. In fact, a music teacher would probably argue they don’t even qualify as songs. The drum beats are absurdly simple and repetitive; the twangy surf-guitar licks and two-finger keyboard lines even simpler. The vocals consist mainly of shouts, screams, petulant rants, weird sound effects and off-key warbling. The lyrics often seem to be random lists of nonsensical wordplay or lists of dance crazes. Back then, it was like something from another world. But today — well, it’s still like something from another world. And that’s the point: After more than two decades, nobody has managed to duplicate their sound.

Hell, even The B-52’s had trouble pulling it off. Their second album, 1980’s Wild Planet, has some great songs: Give Me Back My Man, Private Idaho, Party Out Of Bounds, Strobe Light, Quiche Lorraine. But even though they were written at the same time as their earlier songs and recorded just a year later, the band’s increasing musicality make these cuts seem slick and sophisticated next to the insane kitsch and herky-jerky funk of that first album. Ditto for most of the second half of Nude On The Moon, which finds the band slowly but surely upgrading their songwriting and sound, replacing their provocative campiness with benignly quirky dance-pop. Which is not to say that tunes like Whammy Kiss, Mesopotamia, Cosmic Thing and Channel Z — not to mention breakthough radio hits like Love Shack and Roam — aren’t good songs; it’s just that they’re too slick for their own good. For my money, The B-52’s were at their best when they were going against the wave, not riding it.

I’m not the only ones who thought so. Even John Lennon dug the early B-52’s, Nude On The Moon informs us. Reportedly, he said their first album sounded so much like Yoko’s old songs, he decided music had finally advanced enough for him to come out of retirement. Not bad for “new wave crap.”