This CD represents a number of points about music and commerce and culture trends and influence and aging. I hope by cataloging them I can get at something worthwhile.
1. This CD came into my possession through marriage.
I’ve been married long enough that to encounter something from before I met my wife is like discovering a strange and distant artifact in the most everyday of places, like finding a gold doubloon in the take-a-penny cup at 7-11. There’s the lightweight cook set still used for backpacking, the occasional book (such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar—calm down, people), a few mixtapes made for her by old friends, and a half-dozen CDs, yet none of these things represent my wife’s passions. She’s a good sport when it comes to camping, as long as I do the planning. She loves to read but never buys books anymore (“Libraries are free!” she tells me). Despite being an excellent singer, she rarely seeks music out on her own. A friend gave her the Hamilton soundtrack last year, and she listened to it plenty, but after a few weeks it was back to NPR. This from a woman who in her youth memorized every single word of Styx’s Paradise Theater album. Clearly, being married to me has robbed her of some kind of musical joy.
2. My wife acquired this CD through the BMG Music Club, where you get your initial twelve CDs for a penny.
How do I know? No barcode. [“See? No barcode!”]
Whenever I think of the music industry crying over people stealing music, I think of these clubs, the last of which appears to have died only in the late oughts. Record companies gave CDs away as if they were valueless, in a system that was easy to game, as long as a few rubes bought a few CDs per year. If one or two CDs at full price covered the cost of the other twelve, then why was I charged $15 each time I went to the Wherehouse to pick up the latest from Pearl Jam? Perhaps we oughtn’t blame Napster or Spotify for the demise of the major record labels. The Man did it to himself.
3. I was a freshman in college when Cosmic Thing was released.
I’d been a fan of the B-52’s for a while. I loved the debut CD in high school, but before that, when I was in elementary school, I heard “Rock Lobster” on one of those old Warner Bros. promotional records, and it was nothing like the Boston, Led Zeppelin, or Neil Young with which I heard my brother fill the house. The neighborhood’s resident proto-hipster, a few years older than me and who made his own clothes and covered his walls in record sleeves and had the first waterbed I’d ever seen, told me and my friends that when Fred Schneider yells “Down, Down,” during the song’s breakdown, everyone at the band’s concerts gets down, literally, sinking slowly to the floor. I took him at his word, even though there was no way of verifying it. Apparently, he was right.
I love that video. It’s bracing to watch a band that few people knew play a song, on a tiny stage in a tiny club, that will in a few years become a cultural touchstone. The songs on the B’s first album are campy, inventive, surprising, and alive. “Planet Claire” builds slowly into something both ominous and dance-worthy, and “52 Girls” has no chorus and unison singing, and the whole album sounds woodshedded and tonally warm and handmade. You can almost “see” the musicians’ fingerprints on the sounds. The drums sound like they’re in the room with you. Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s vocals—their yips and yelps and screams and ululations—are bizarre and inspired and were so different from the more traditional “rock” vocals I’d hear on the radio from Ann Wilson and Pat Benatar. Ricky Wilson’s punk-inflected “Peter Gunn” guitar was the secret weapon. “Rock Lobster” is a lot of fun, for many reasons, but the last minute and a half or so cooks with gas via a guitar whose driving, repetitive low end emits, through expressive joy, trebly bleats and squawks. Marvelous. Listen to it again and hear what I mean.
Like John Waters and Tim Burton, who also devoted themselves to trash culture and the campier aspects of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the B-52’s mellowed with age and bigger budgets. Cosmic Thing’s production is credited to Don Was and Nile Rogers, tasteful producers favored by those (David Bowie, The Rolling Stones) looking for a career renaissance. Their touch can be heard immediately, in the drum sound, which is tight and shiny (thok, thok, thok), as opposed to the big, wet drums that dominated the ‘80s. All of the music feels compact. In my car, Cosmic Thing sounded as if it were coming out of one speaker and not two. The middle range dominates the mid-tempo songs. The harmonies are lovely, but the singing is straight. There are no calls of the manta ray or bikini whale. Fred Schneider shouts “Shake your honey buns!” and you may think of your dad saying something mildly embarrassing in front of friends brought home from school.
There’s nothing on the album as irresistibly silly as “6060-842” or “Song for a Future Generation,” as passionately unhinged as “Hero Worship,” as flat-out inspired as “Private Idaho.” The guitar plays a fine rhythm, yet its voice is less punk than adult contemporary. “June Bug” and “Channel Z,” my two favorite tracks, come closest to the strange urgency of records past. The former is about sex, and the latter about ecological destruction, perennial topics of inspiration.
4. Despite the apparently lukewarm assessment, above, Cosmic Thing still sounds great on an August afternoon with the windows open and a warm breeze blowing through (your car, your apartment, the leaves of the trees).
5. This CD represents the end of my influence on my son’s musical tastes.
Once my younger son, the other music fan in the family, grew tired with kids’ CDs, I suggested he listened the B-52’s. He loved them, and they provided, for a time, the soundtrack for our drives. He’s since moved on to his own music—currently in heavy rotation: 21 Pilots. As parents have felt since the invention of the hi-fi, I wish he’d turn it down
6. The B-52’s are still at it.
They last released an album in 2008, called Funplex, and three of the remaining members still tour. I listened to the song “Whammy Kiss” on YouTube, a thing at my fingers I neither pay for nor understand. Climate change continues apace. To write this article, I listened to a CD of music that was manufactured over twenty years ago of music that came out almost thirty years ago by a band that began playing forty years ago and will be playing in San Diego on August 14 with the English Beat. To borrow a phrase from Robert Christgau, “Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies.”
Next week: V/A, Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One