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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to The B-52s

The B-52s: Keeping Athens weird since 1976. The legendary college town of Athens, Georgia has historically been known as a hotbed for musical talent, whether it’s the alternative rock of R.E.M., the southern fried honk of Drive-By Truckers, spacey jamming of Widespread Panic, the folky twang of the Indigo Girls, or stripped-down garage blues of the Flat Duo Jets. But one band had to be the forerunners, and thank God it was The B-52s.

Formed by five freaks who floated around the still-burgeoning music scene of the city in the mid-1970s, The B-52s were everything that mainstream rock music was not: queer, angular, simplistic, kitschy, and dead-set on fun and freedom. With singers that outnumbered instrumentalists and obsessions with everything from monster movies and drive-ins to the atomic bomb, The B-52s weren’t just a band – they were an entire alternate universe unto themselves.

At the heart of it all was Ricky Wilson, who was the key to forming the band’s sound. As the band’s guitarist and sole melodic instrument (when Kate Pierson wasn’t playing keyboards), Wilson had to be a one-man orchestra. To accomplish this, he would throw his pawn shop guitars into wild tunings, with his lower strings replicating a bass and the higher strings playing traditional guitar chords. The wonky sound gave The B-52s a starting point for their unique sound, bolstered by Keith Strickland’s surf-rock drumming style.

Up at the microphones stood three unique individuals. First among equals was Fred Schneider, a former poet who never sang as much as he talked, toasted, screamed, and joked along with the music. As the band’s gonzo narrator, Schneider broke the same rules as a frontman as Wilson did as a guitarist. By his side was Wilson’s sister Cindy, whose husky voice sat at the base, and occasionally at the top, of the band’s two-part harmonies. The group was rounded out with Kate Pierson, a multi-instrumentalist who also happened to be a vocalist with a wide range and a penchant for both poppy melody lines and ridiculous noises.

Together, these five formed the first lineup of The B-52s, releasing four albums over the course of seven years. Then, in 1985, Ricky Wilson suddenly died due to complications from AIDS. The band took nearly half a decade to mourn his loss before picking up the pieces. Strickland had gradually been moving away from the drums and now became the band’s full-time guitar player and arranger. When the now four-person lineup of The B-52s came back together at the end of the 1980s, there was no way of knowing what they would do or if any of their audience remained.

Luckily, 1989’s Cosmic Thing not only brought the band back from the brink but also catapulted them straight into the mainstream. Production work from legends like Nile Rodgers and Don Was, Cosmic Thing ensured that The B-52s could keep partying for the rest of their lives, which is exactly what the band is doing now. Five decades after first sharing a cocktail and deciding to make a group, The B-52s remain one of the most iconoclastic and idiosyncratic bands who also happen to have sold over five million records.

If you’re looking to get into The B-52s but don’t know where to start, here’s a beginner’s guide featuring the six most essential and most necessary tracks within the band’s singular discography. While deeper cuts like ‘Party Out of Bounds’ and gonzo singles like their take on The Flintstones theme song are notable as well, these are the songs that remain iconic. Here are the six definitive songs for The B-52s.

The B-52s’ six definitive songs:

‘Rock Lobster’ (1978)

If there was one song to live and die by for The B-52s, it would have to be ‘Rock Lobster’. With everything from a John Lennon recommendation to a recurring Family Guy joke behind it, ‘Rock Lobster’ is as iconic as The B-52s get.

Featuring every signature from the band, including R. Wilson’s detuned guitars, Strickland’s surf-like rhythms, Schneider’s sprechgesang, and the bizarre harmonies/animal noises from Pierson and C. Wilson, ‘Rock Lobster’ is pure B-52s, sprawled out to nearly seven minutes of kitschy bliss.

‘Planet Claire’ (1978)

A major element of the B-52s’ DNA was in taking some of the silliest pieces of the pop culture past and reinterpreting them through their singular over-the-top lens. Sometimes it was hairstyles and fashion, sometimes it was B-movies, and sometimes it was even completely different songs.

‘Planet Claire’ is Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’ guitar instrumental warped with some of The B-52s own mysterious mythoi. In reality, ‘Planet Claire’ could just as well have been the world that The B-52s themselves came from, considering how they followed almost none of the traditional music idioms or styles in their own work.

‘Private Idaho’ (1978)

Just like ‘Planet Claire’ before it, ‘Private Idaho’ was all about an escape to a land that exists outside of the square traditional world, one where beehive hairdos never went out of style and pools are more interesting at their bottoms.

Complete with C. Wilson and Pierson’s signature tight harmonies and a yelping lead vocal from Schneider, ‘Private Idaho’ also happens to be one of the first signs that THe B-52s could be really fantastic pop songwriters.

‘Give Me Back My Man’ (1980)

Everyone who had seen or heard The B-52s knew they could be campy until the end of time, but taking the band of misfits seriously was another matter entirely. During the rare occasions when the band slowed down or didn’t lean heavily into their kitsch comfort zone, some fans didn’t know what to make of it.

A song like ‘Give Me Back My Man’ sounds like a parody of 1950s girl groups pulled into 1980s new wave, and if you want to see it that way, then that’s exactly what it could be. But it happens to be one of the more interesting detours in The B-52s catalogue, complete with an all-time solo lead vocal from Cindy Wilson.

‘Roam’ (1989)

After a full decade of highs and lows, The B-52s were not anybody’s idea of pop superstars in 1989. And then came Cosmic Thing, a Day-Glo party record fusing 1960s flower power, 1970s drugs, and 1980s pop. While most of the tracks focused on the breakneck eclecticism that was already iconic to the band, ‘Roam’ was something else entirely.

Centred around an acid-rock guitar lick, ‘Roam’ features just C. Wilson and Pierson taking you through the jungles, mountains, and hills all in search of wonder and excitement. It’s the most cut-and-dry pop song that The B-52s ever made, and it remains one of the most joyous tracks in the band’s setlists.

‘Love Shack’ (1989)

Just as ‘Rock Lobster’ set up The B-52s unique alternate reality, ‘Love Shack’ confirmed that it could stay open forever. Having sold over a million copies and landing at number three on the Billboard Hot 100, ‘Love Shack’ was the biggest moment of The B-52s entire career. Good thing it still kills.

With traded vocal lines, nonsensical imagery, and a monster pop hook at its centre, ‘Love Shack’ still has the ability to get just about anyone out of their seat. If there was one word that described The B-52s, it would be fun. No song in the band’s entire catalogue is more fun than ‘Love Shack’.