"Between The No & The New" by Jesse Krakow

BETWEEN THE NO AND THE NEW
"Wild Planet" - The B-52's
Warner Bros. (1980)
 
You know that moment when "weird" music stops being "weird" to you? Like when you first understand that "Trout Mask Replica", "Philosophy Of The World", or "Interstellar Space" are supposed to sound like that? It's a moment you will never forget, a moment that will forever change how you ingest art. You realize that certain things take time to process, and that just maybe, you don't know half as much as you think you do. And you become more open to new thoughts and new ideas. Thus, "weird" music doesn't sound so weird anymore. It just sounds good. But what if the inverse is true. Is it possible to listen to something "good" and slowly discover that what you are actually listening is weird? That in the same way that people overlook artists like US Maple because they're way too 'weird", people under-look popular bands because they aren't "weird" enough. I believe this is true, which is why I consider The B-52's "Wild Planet" an art-rock masterpiece.
 
What? Yes, those B-52's. People - hell, even The B's themselves - consider the band "a little dance band from Athens". But the truth is that if you peel away the layers you'll find a no-wave band in the guise of a pop band. Thus, the perfect bridge between the no and new. Two virtuosos female vocalists - together & separately, one male singer who can't sing at all, an enthusiastic and competent drummer, and in my mind's eye, one of the most bizarrely original and underrated guitarists of all-time. Oh, and they also wore these insane beehive wigs. 
 
The B-52's (Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, Ricky & Cindy Wilson) are best known for "Rock Lobster" (off their 1979 self-titled debut), "Love Shack", and "Roam" (off 1989's "Cosmic Thing"). These are all great songs, with "Rock Lobster" notable for being the kind of "weird" song that somehow becomes a hit (Primus' "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver" & Ween's "Push Th' Little Daises" being further examples of this). A song with detuned guitars, lyrics about various types of fishes & water-related activities, and full-on shrieking that last for almost seven minutes should not be a hit. In between these two albums they released a few more albums - 1986's "Bouncing Off The Satellites", 1983's "Whammy!", 1982's "Mesopatamia", and their sophomore effort from 1980, "Wild Planet".
 
1980 was a pretty interesting year in music. The Sex Pistols were no more - now there was PiL doing anti-rock rock music. Punk wasn't dead like disco - X had just released "Los Angeles" - but Darby Crash would die later in the year. The Clash & The Pretenders were mixing rock, reggae, & prog and selling tons of records. Lydia Lunch was putting out "Queen Of Siam" and doing insane stuff with 8-Eyed Spy, and James Chance was still skinny. Even Captain Beefheart got into the act, as a musical guest on "Saturday Night Live". And then you had The B-52's and "Wild Planet". Somehow this little band from Athens mixed rock, pop, punk, no-wave, & experimental music together, threw it up into outer space, dressed it in outrageous outfits, and brought it back down to earth so the rest of us could dance to it. In doing so, they were able to mix all that was good about music at that time AND sound like no one but themselves.
 
If you haven't heard it yet, below is a track-by-track analysis.
 
TRACK 1: "Party Out Of Bounds". A pounding rock beat, an ominous guitar chord as ugly as anything Glenn Branca ever played, and suddenly we hear a male voice yell "SUP-RISE!" As far as entrances go, it's impossible to tell if he's greeting us at the door with a party streamer and a bottle of champagne or a leering grin and a butcher's knife. But then you realize that Fred Schneider is simply excited - like reallyreallyreally excited - to see you, and more importantly, he's genuinely maniacally happy that he surprised you at the door. And his enthusiasm is frightening, the way a manic-depressive in manic mode's enthusiasm is frightening. But Fred is not a manic-depressive, he's just ready to party. So what do you do? You let him in. And this happens 7 seconds into the record. 
 
The rest of the song is an instructional manual of what you - the impromptu party host - can do insure your sudden guests have a good time. Parchessi, charades, & a scavenger hunt are mentioned. The actives are innocent and playful. The music, however, is not. It's scary. Monster movie organ, tritone keyboard bass, and more ominous guitar chords underpin The B-52's helpful hints for planning your next soiree. There are songs with dark lyrics and happy music (Guns 'N Roses "Used To Love Her" being the best example), but these are happy & constructive lyrics with dark, foreboding music. Who writes songs like this? 
 
TRACK TWO: "Dirty Back Road". If you like "Love Shack" and "Roam" this might be the song that changes the way you perceive The B-52's. For one thing, Fred Schneider is nowhere to be found. And unlike most of their songs, this one can best be described as "sleepy". A simple three chord vamp with an oddly constructed melody sung in unison by Kate & Cindy. What is most noticeable is A) they are singing in an alto range as opposed to their normal bright soprano voices, and B) how relaxed they are. And why shouldn't they be? They're singing about driving with their "foot on the pedal, feet in the air", and having fun doing "reckless driving on a dirty back road". After a bizarre 16-bar interlude the girls come back for the second verse, and guess what - nothing happens. They sing the same exact words in the same exact melody with the same exact music behind them. This is something that Shudder To Think would achieve to perfection on "Hit Liquor" off "Pony Express Record" - repeating the same exact form with seemingly no deviation. (It also foreshadows Kate Pierson's collaboration w/ Time of Orchids on the song "Same Exact".) This is not a song you can play at parties and expect anyone to dance to. This is a sparse piece of music based around lyrics where nothing happens. Thematically it's akin to Teenage Jesus & The Jerks' "I Woke Up Dreaming" where you are bludgeoned by static. And this is the same band that did "Love Shack".
 
TRACK THREE: "Runnin' Around". Heavy kick drum & power chords kick off this tune, w/ Kate & Cindy sing about "my baby". Again, within seconds of the song I'm confused. Are they in love with the same man, and if so, are they aware of it? (It seems doubtful that they they share custody of the same child…) They begin to tell us that they're "runnin' around" looking for him/her, and Fred starts to chime in with details like "looking' up, looking' down". Apparently he is helping them look for said baby. But then the vocals suddenly drop out and we're in the midst of a junky minor-key guitar break that Sonic Youth would reference eight years later on "Silver Rocket" (off "Daydream Nation".) It's a jarring transition, seemingly random, but it starts to make sense once you realize that the dark instrumental section is the imaginary soundtrack for Kate & Cindy aimlessly searching for their baby.
Which then slams into the next section, where for the next 30 seconds the guitars and drums play stark, syncopated hits over which Fred yells at Kate & Cindy where and who they should be looking at, while they repeat the song's title in a gorgeous and oddly structured melody. In some ways this section is reminiscent of the middle section of Captain Beefheart's "Ashtray Heart" (off "Doc At The Radar Station, also released in 1980). But where Beefheart expressed exhausted, frustrated, male energy over dire music, The B-52's express hopeful confusion and male/female energy over dire music. It's perhaps the heaviest moment on the record, and I do mean heavy. Although they might not use heavily distorted guitars, blast beats, odd time signatures, or guttural screams, The B-52's are just as heavy as Neurosis or Gorguts. Heaviness isn't solely a sonic phenomenon. It can be, sure, but it also cannot be. Clean guitars can be just as heavy as distorted ones (think Yowie), and a 20-something year old Southern belle wearing gigantic fake eyelashes can be heavier than a dude with a beard and a black t-shirt.
 
TRACK FOUR: "Give Me Back My Man". For all of the people that only know Cindy Wilson from "TIN ROOF! Rusted…", please meet a different Mrs. Wilson. In what is arguably her signature moment (w/ the possible exception of the intro to "Dance This Mess Around" from their first album), Cindy delivers a desperate love performance to the woman who stole her man. So desperate is she to get her man back that during the chorus she pleads  "I'll give you fish/I'll you candy/I'll give you everything I have in my hand." Yes, fish. To the woman who broke her heart, stole her man, & wrecked her life, Cindy offers her fish. I've listened to this song hundreds of times and I still can't get over that line, what it means, what kind of woman would offer fish in exchange for a lover, and what kind of women would accept fish in exchange for a lover. This is made all the more bizarre considering the backing music is simply gorgeous. (In particular, the chord on "I'll give you candy" - a C/Bb - is an unexpected treat.) This all ramps up the final chorus, where Kate & Cindy sing the chorus , while an overdubbed Cindy soars over it all, in a voice that sounds like she might have just stopped crying or is right about to start crying. Meanwhile, a haunting Ebow-ed guitar (similar to sounds Adrian Belew would soon be making) blends in with a repetitive glockenspiel line and sporadic drum machine fills before slowly fading away. And we never learn if the woman Cindy is singing to accepts fish as a barter for giving her back her man.
 
TRACK FIVE: "Private Idaho". That this song became the inspiration for a movie about narcoleptic gay street hustlers based upon Henry IV AND an enduring staple of FM radio is quite odd, but thems the facts. A surfy guitar riff sets the tone for the song, which features lyrics that are at once highly literal and completely metaphysical. At first listen it seems like  "my own private idaho" is an imaginary place in the mind. But the song is also riddled with literal references like "underground like a wild potato". (Idaho being the potato capital of the US). Fred further confuses by commanding us to "get out of the state you're in!" Is he telling us to move or to cheer up? It's hard to tell, especially when the rest of the song talks about pools, chlorine, lawns, and patios. It's quintessentially American in the way that "Raising Arizona" is. Which is to say, it is and it isn't.
 
But all this fantastically imagery is overshadowed - in my mind - by Ricky Wilson's guitar work. At first glance it seems like he's doing a standard bluesy call and response riff with himself, with each part recorded separately. Indeed, listening to it you hear a slight difference in the tone of the high part and the low part. However, after speaking with later-era B-52's guitarist/keyboardist Pat Irwin, I learned that Ricky played that part - as he did all his parts - on one guitar. He would overdub for texture, but all the parts were played were devised and performed to be played live on one guitar. With that in mind, now listen to that guitar riff. Whether you play it in standard or altered tuning, with a pick or fingers, it's a frighteningly hard guitar part to play. Rapid-fire up and downstrokes in an effortlessly fluid way with a razor-sharp tone. It's like a less dissonant version of a part Charlie Looker could have played on Zs self-titled record.
 
TRACK SIX: "Devil In My Car". Every album needs a big hit, and I can only presume that this song was written as such. Which is not to say that it's not odd. In fact, it's very odd. Within the first minute of the tune it goes through about 8 different sections before culminating in a classic Cindy scream/Kate vibrato. Why are the screaming? Because the devil is in their car. And I imagine The B-52's truly believe in the devil. Or at least one of them does. (I'm guessing Cindy)
 
As the song moves ahead the structure begins to reveal itself to us, and we see just how brilliant The B-52's are at layering sections on top of each other. In between Fred ranting about how he can't out on his safety belt, Kate & Cindy pop up randomly with harmonized "oh"'s, before hitting on a series of unison passages that build and build yet don't amount to much. In this way it reminds me of the way the melodies on The Shaggs' "Philosophy Of The World" constantly filter in and out of each each other. You sort of know what's coming up next, but yet you're always guessing. Meanwhile the guitar and drums are relentless. They just pound and pound, the power chords not really going anywhere, the girls still singing, Fred still screaming. And then it ends with the devil still in their car and them being scared. Funny to think that this song was at the time ostensibly the obvious single - it being the most overtly "new-wave"-y - while "Private Idaho" - which actually has a much more traditional song structure, became the radio staple. But then again, this is the band who made it big with a seven minute song featuring a "bikini whale"…
 
TRACK SEVEN: "Quiche Lorraine". I could simply write: "this is a song about a dog named Quiche La Poodle" and that would be enough for most people. I could, and just did, but there is much more to this song than that. For one, the song starts with an oblique two-note guitar ostinato under a rising atonal sci-fi organ, before Fred tells us that for he and his oddly-named dog, "having a good time on a crummy day is our game". Such an awkward way to express a beautiful sentiment, doncha think? But after a tense intro the song starts building to a more traditional rock groove with bubbly synth bass driving everything, over which Kate & Cindy sing the song's title in octaves. On a technical note: people usually talk about how amazing Kate & Cindy are at singing harmony, and this is true. But what is also true is that a lot of times where people think they're singing harmony they're actually singing in octaves. Very, very high octaves. Seductive Chipmunk octaves.
 
Later on Fred describes the dog in detail. She is dyed dark green, two inches tall, has a strawberry blonde ball, is wearing sunglasses, a bonnet, and designer jeans, is attached to a 30-foot leash, runs around shouting "Bark!", and breaks his heart. This prompts Keith Strickland to loudly whack his overdubbed floor toms in a quasi-tribal beat, leading to a two-note surf guitar riff on his lowest string and a dissonant staccato chord on his highest strings. It's probably the sassiest moment on the record, and it comes out of nowhere. It also lasts the duration of the song, over which the atonal sci-fi organ from the intro re-enters, and Kate & Cindy resume singing the song's title. What have we learned? Don't pick out a weird looking dog at the shelter? Don't name your dog after something you eat? Be wary of dogs who can shout words? Who knows? But it's the strangest song on an album full of strange moments. 
 
TRACK EIGHT: "Strobe Light": The most overtly-yet-obliquely sexual song they ever did. Fred, Kate, & Cindy tell us they "wanna make love to you under the strobe light", but it's not clear who they're talking about. Is Fred talking to Kate or Cindy, or Kate & Cindy, or possible Kate/Cindy? Is Fred targeting one or the other, is he expressing his desire for a threesome, or does he imagine that Kate & Cindy represent one ideal hybrid female? This is all the more interesting considering that Fred was and is openly gay (as is Keith Strickland and as was Ricky Wilson). With this in mind, we can imagine Fred singing this to a man. But then where does that leave Kate & Cindy? Are Kate & Cindy individually or collectively competing for Fred's affections? Or are they talking to the same guy Fred is talking to? I have no idea, which is one reason why I love this song so much.
 
The other reason I love this song so much is a section that happens shortly after Ricky's angular guitar break (reminiscent of Zorn Horn Rollo's herky-jerky lead of "Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Boy"). Fred delivers a laundry list of the body parts he'd like to kiss. The eye, the neck, the tummy are greeted by gasps & moans by Cindy, and a peppy "ooh" by Kate. But the next line - "I'm gonna kiss your PINEAPPLE!" - is greeted with a shrieked "WAAA!" by both Kate & Cindy and a bizarre sci-fi organ flourish. I've never heard pineapple being used as a euphemism for a part of the body before or since, have you? Shit, maybe Fred is envisioning Kate and/or Cindy wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit headpiece, we don't know. We don't know, that's the point. This is a song about people wanting to make love to someone or something, and that something could be fruit. You know, the kind of song that most of the artists on Warner Bros. Records were putting out at the time….
 
TRACK NINE: "53 Miles West Of Venus": The album-closer begins with a warbly organ/guitar line over a throaty keyboard bass vamp. The keyboard bass tone is eerily similar to the tone Tony Levin would get on his Chapman Stick on King Crimson's 1981 album "Discipline", and the part itself is similar to the intro for "Frame By Frame". The the tempo picks up and Ricky takes over with a bizarre call and response line with Kate's synth, somewhat similar to  what The League Of Gentleman were doing at the time, except with a sense of humor and drama. The guitar line then snakes in and out itself, playing one note overandoverandover again before awkward stopping and letting the space hang there. Space, that's the key. Unlike most guitarists, Ricky Wilson knew when to play and when not to. He wasn't a technician who could dazzle you with blinding speed, but his ideas, tone, and note choices easily rival a "proper" guitarist like Steve Howe. Then, once you think there's nowhere to go, Ricky busts into this Keith Richards-on-candied-sweet potatoes riff  over which Kate & Cindy repeat title phrase, with (again) Fred nowhere to be found. I almost think that the song was supposed to have Fred's vocals on it, and while they were waiting for him to write some lyrics for it they grew to like the song as it was and kept it like that. As the last chorus expands into the coda, enormous synth sounds come out of nowhere to punctuate Kate & Cindy's words, and as the song begins its slow fade toward nothingness we are enveloped in a cloud of reversed-vocals, & spooky synthesized bells. And then the record ends.
 
Now, is "Wild Planet" art-rock in the way that Can or Magma is art-rock? No. But Ricky Wilson could have sat in with Can, and Kate & Cindy would sound great singing in Kobaian. It's art-rock like The Velvet Underground were, like Roxy Music were, like Japan were. Where unique musical ideas are filtered through unique people wearing unique outfits and acting uniquely onstage. Is it prog? Well, remember, the term prog comes from the word progressive. and when you boil it down, progressive means "new and different". Somehow prog became synonymous with "songs in 17/8", but it's not. It's about looking for something new, looking ahead, onward and upwards. And in 1980 The B-52's were up there in outer space wearing giant behave wigs and holding four-string guitars. You can't get too much artier or progressive than that. 
 
SUP-RISE!!!