The B-52’s – Cosmic Thing – Classic Music Review

I’ve been keepin’ up with the goin’s-on over yonder in my ol’ neck o’ the woods, and I do declare, y’all are sure riled up about this Trump feller!

Now, I don’t mean to cause y’all any conniptions, but gettin’ madder than a wet hen ain’t gonna do you much good. Gettin’ your feathers ruffled over a guy who’s too big for his britches don’t make a lick o’ sense. Makes as much sense as tits on a bull! ‘Bout as useful as a steering wheel on a mule!

Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and used to pitch a fit when things didn’t go my way, my mama coulda tanned my hide but good, but instead she give me a piece of advice I can recall to this day. Mama told me that the only reason folks get angry is cuz they have these things called expectations, see? And when folks don’t live up to expectations, a hissy fit don’t make a whole lot o’ sense because t’ain’t their fault that you expected them to act one way and they went all cattywumpus on you.

The way I see it, this no ‘count Trump feller is doin’ ‘zactly what y’all should have expected him to do. Y’all knew he’s got the heart of a thumpin’ gizzard! Y’all knew if brains were leather, he wouldn’t have enough to saddle a junebug! Y’all knew he’d piss on your leg and tell y’all it’s rainin’! If y’all thought different, well, you don’t know dipshit from apple butter! Gettin’ your knickers in a knot ain’t gonna change things one lick, no sirree!

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, but I got just the thing to take that burr out of your saddle! You see, back in the old days when we had a Georgia peanut farmer sittin’ in the White House, a group of young ‘uns down yonder in that there Peach State started makin’ music that made people happier than Ol’ Blue layin’ on the porch chewin’ on a big ol’ catfish head. Now, truth be told, they let a couple of Yankees into that group, but I’ve lived long enough to know that folks is folks, and y’all shouldn’t give a hoot or a holler about that. So, set yourself down right here on the swing, pour yourself a nice cool glass of sweet tea, give these kids a listen and I guarantee that you’ll be grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kickin’ competition.

*****

I am now one of those foreigners Americans love to loathe, and I know that Americans have always had a hard time taking advice from foreigners. For just one moment, try to remember me as the girl you used to know—the one who follows baseball religiously, loves no culinary delight more than a cheeseburger and a chocolate malt and who has spent more time in the Love Shack than Pamela Anderson.

Here’s my advice about how to survive Trump: you could learn a lot by listening to The B-52’s, especially Cosmic Thing, one of the greatest comeback albums in history and a valuable lesson in human resilience.

When the B-52’s hit the scene in the late 70’s with their bouffants, passion for kitsch and a sound somewhere between girl group, surf and cheesy sci-fi, they were just what a world suffering from high inflation and energy earthquakes needed. They were a gas! Fuck this malaise shit, let’s slap “Rock Lobster” on the turntable and dance all night!  The B-52’s were also unique, featuring two girl singers in Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson whose style mingled the best of the Shangri-Las with a touch of Brenda Lee, and a frontman in Fred Schneider whose sprechgesang fell somewhere between carnival barker and endlessly upbeat but down-on-his-luck used-car salesman. It doesn’t sound like that combination could have worked in any alternate universe you care to name, but it did, and The B-52’s took flight.

They continued on a strong trajectory with Wild Planet, where they gave us the marvelous “Private Idaho” and two brilliant theatre-of-the-absurd pieces in “Quiche Lorraine” and “Strobe Light.” An unfortunate detour involving a collaboration with David Byrne led to a truncated third studio effort, and their fourth album, Whammy! lacked the punch of the first two. They had just finished recording their fifth album—the surprisingly gloomy Bouncing Off the Satellites—when tragedy struck.

Ricky Wilson, the talented lead guitarist whose experimental tunings and love of classic reverb tone contributed significantly to the band’s signature sound, died of complications related to AIDS at the age of thirty-two. He hadn’t told anyone about his illness except fellow bandmate Keith Stickland—not even his bandmate sister, Cindy—so his death was doubly shocking. His death occurred at the height of the AIDS hysteria, when AIDS sufferers were treated like lepers and public sympathy for AIDS patients and their acquaintances was in short supply. The combination of shock and grief sent the band into seclusion for two long years. They needed those two years to work through all seven stages of grief; had they come back too early out of a sense of obligation to fans or in an attempt to use music to take their mind off the tragedy, I doubt very much if their output would have come close to what you hear on Cosmic Thing.

What you hear is the one quality that distinguishes great records from so-so records: total commitment. On Cosmic Thing, The B-52’s held nothing back, and the energy in their performances makes you want to join in, sing along and shake your cosmic thang. After the failed Byrne experiment and the tragic loss of Ricky Wilson, The B-52’s had to find themselves again, and as was true for dear Dorothy, there was no place like home. Fred Schneider observed:

When we started writing for that album, we realized that a lot of the songs seemed to hark back to our roots, the time spent in Athens. It was a way to reassert who we were and why we got together in the first place.

And they reasserted themselves with a vengeance.

The festivities get off to a roaring start with “Cosmic Thing.” After the shortest drum roll in history, Fred Schneider enters with a voice tinged in reverb, a megaphone like-effect that gives his vocal the quality of one of those shitty announcers on late night TV commercials selling magical junk guaranteed to solve your non-existent problems for $19.99 C. O. D. It’s the perfect introduction to a delightfully wacky journey that pokes fun at the ridiculous notion that higher consciousness is a platonic, puritanical experience:

I was havin’ this out-of-body experience
Saw these cosmic beings
Everywhere I went up there, they were shakin’ their cosmic things

Of course they were! As superior beings, the aliens must have already figured out that the drive of the species to procreate can be channeled into to the much more fulfilling, consciousness-raising experience of non-stop fucking, and we should all be grateful that The B-52’s were kind enough to share this vital knowledge with us! Here’s all we have to do to accelerate of human evolution:

You better shake your . . . honey buns! Shake your honey buns!
Shake it till the butter melts, shake it till the butter melts
Shake that cosmic thing, shake that thing, shake it, ohhhh yeah!
Shake that thing all night long, shake it man you can’t go wrong
Don’t let it rest on the President’s desk, rock the house!

The performance can best be described as a gradual build in the level of ecstasy, with Fred Schneider’s arousal levels eventually hitting peak intensity and the gals filling the spaces with screams, war cries, whoops and their typically spot-on dual phrasing. Keith Strickland had traded in his drum set for a guitar and had worked hard to learn some of Ricky Wilson’s stylings—and it pays off here in a surf-influenced solo that would have made Dick Dale proud. As an album opener, “Cosmic Thing” is a triumphant shout to the listening audience—“We’re back!”

“Dry County” follows, a more laid-back number with a lounge-like tempo reflecting memories of life on a hot summer day in Georgia. The problem is that this lounge is in a dry county with nothing stronger than the official Georgia State Drink of Coca-Cola. When the girls show up kicking up the stones on the passway in anticipation of a good time, there’s nowhere to go, no way to escape the dusty heat and nothing to do but sit on the porch and . . . swing. Sounds fucking lovely. I do love the vocal arrangement, particularly the synchronized glide of the voices on the word “swing” and the complex call-and-response in the song’s fade, but “Dry County” reminds me why I’ve sworn never to visit the South in summertime—been there, done that, screw that.

A more vivid and interesting recollection of Athens, Georgia arrives in the form of “Deadbeat Club.” Keith Strickland talked about it in an interview with Spin magazine, as reported on Songfacts:

In the early days, we all used to sit around like this, just hang out, drink coffee and talk. It was sort of Cafe Society in Athens. It looked like we never worked or did anything, and friends of ours would say, ‘Oh, you’re such deadbeats.’ So we’d joke about ourselves being the deadbeat club. When I played the music for Fred and Kate and Cindy, everybody just started singing about the deadbeat club. That’s what the music evoked in them, when in a lot of ways that’s what I was thinking when I wrote It. And I didn’t tell them that I was thinking a lot about Ricky. They just picked up on it. It was very spontaneous. It’s really one of the most autobiographical songs we’ve ever done.

I love the process: Keith came up with the music and the singers allowed the music to reveal what was flowing through the shared stream of consciousness. You can hear the synchronicity in the vocal performances, which evoke sweet memories of those long conversations young adults have before the economic system takes over and sucks up all their time. The various haunts they frequented in Athens take on a special meaning, and it’s obvious from the vocals that the girls cherished those places, that period in their lives and their identities as social outsiders, free of expectations and obligations:

Going down to Allen’s for
A twenty-five cent beer
And the jukebox playing real loud
“Ninety-six tears”
We’re wild girls walkin’ down the street
Wild girls and boys going out for a big time
We’re the deadbeat club (deadbeat club)

Compared to other areas of the country, it couldn’t have taken much to earn the designation “wild girl” in the South of the 1970’s; the South has always been the most conformist part of the United States. Still, history records that Athens was the center of the musical explosion that made a major contribution in creating the genre we now call “alternative rock,” and the presence of a major university and its proximity to Atlanta almost foreordained Athens to serve as a center of Southern counterculture. In the stultifying atmosphere of traditional Southern culture, breaking free must have been a glorious experience, captured here in the song’s beautiful, triumphant chorus:

Any way we can
We’re gonna find something
We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain
We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain
In the rain

I just love that imagery—nipples and asses revealing their tantalizing shapes through the soaked sheets, music filling the air and the incredibly appealing idea of doing something just for the hell of it, for no reason other than . . . it sounds like fun! Deadbeats, my ass—these people are fucking alive!

And dancing in the rain is a great way to get yourself in the right frame of mind before you head on down to the Loooooove SHACK! Baby, if you can’t get your mojo going when you hear the opening beats of “Love Shack,” get your useless ass to the nunnery and lock the door behind you! I don’t think there’s any way you can’t get up and dance to “Love Shack”—it’s like it hits every dance-sensitive nerve in your body, transforming your voluntary muscles into involuntary captives of the groove. And better yet, the three vocalists give it their all throughout the song, encouraging even the klutziest dude in the joint to give it a go. The intro is absolutely fabulous, especially when Fred announces, “15 miles to the . . .” and Cindy Wilson finishes the line like an excited kid who just found out daddy’s taking her to Disneyland: “Loooooove SHACK! Love Shack, yeah, yeah.” The excitement continues when Kate steps in with the verse, soon joined by Cindy in a duet that shakes with excitement:

I’m headin’ down the Atlanta highway
Lookin’ for the love getaway
Headed for the love getaway

And while the girls continue to croon and swoon over the “love getaway,” Fred Schneider reappears as the caricature of the gloating American male, his big car a substitute for his small dick, his environmental obliviousness on full display:

I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale
And we’re headin’ on down to the Love Shack
I got me a Chrysler, it seats about twenty
So hurry up and bring your jukebox money!

The B52’s may very well be “The World’s Greatest Party Band” (according to their website), and if they are (I won’t argue), it’s because their songs are often peppered with subtle jabs at the absurdities of American culture, and they know how to pull that off without ruining the vibes.

Two passages in particular stand out as examples of musical excellence: the first begins with Cindy Wilson taking over and delivering the “glitter lines” in a low register:

Glitter on the mattress
Glitter on the highway
Glitter on the front porch
Glitter on the highway

Editorial aside: if you’ve never thrown glitter on the mattress, do it! Prep the room with soft candlelight and as your bodies gyrate and cover themselves with bits of glitter and the light captures flashes of color on warm skin . . . wow, fucking wow!

Cindy’s interval leads straight to another belt-it-the-fuck-out version of the chorus, and when Fred shouts, “Love Shack, baby!” the temperature goes up another few degrees as we come to understand that the Love Shack isn’t one of those No-Tell Motels where slimy people cheat on their spouses, but a spontaneous orgiastic experience driven by music:

Huggin’ and a-kissin’
Dancin’ and a-lovin’
Wearin’ next to nothin’
‘Cause it’s hot as an oven
The whole shack shimmies when everybody’s
Movin’ around and around and around and around

The second passage of note comes after the horns collapse, like someone let the air out of the musicians’ lung balloons. This is the classic bring-it-down-a-notch technique used in every dance-friendly genre since the beginning of time, from Glenn Miller to Little Stevie Wonder to the J. Geils Band. The B-52’s execute this passage with perfection, refusing to take it down too far and kill all the excitement—just a few bars before they explode with the high-volume repetition of “Bang, bang!” loaded with all the sexual connotations of that phrase. Neither of these passages would have been so memorable without a solid foundation, and interestingly enough, it’s not so much the rhythm section that keeps “Love Shack” moving as it is Keith Strickland’s guitar—a cascade of classic rock guitar licks executed with rhythmic perfection. If my rather tedious words haven’t painted a vivid enough picture for you, check out the video—Kate and Cindy shake their tits with pride, like every strong, shameless woman has the right to do without some jerk interpreting it as an invitation:

Stewart Mason of AllMusic described “Junebug” as “the sexiest song they’ve ever recorded” and opined that “‘Junebug’ sounds like a couple have slipped away from the love shack to indulge at a little private canoodling at the river’s edge.” Shit, do any of these mainstream critics ever listen to the songs they review? Or read the fucking lyrics? The first verse clearly obliterates any connection to the Love Shack:

She’s the wildest hon in the wild kingdom
She’s the wildest thang to float down
Well there’s alligators and razorbacks,
But I don’t care, I like to go down tubin’ with you, Junebug

The simple fact that the couple “go down tubin'” indicates that they’re most likely teenagers, and teenagers will fuck anywhere their parents can’t find them (“Let’s glide behind a wall of vegetation/I don’t want no prying eyes on a love celebration!”). And when I say anywhere, I mean ANYWHERE:

Hey there Junebug, you sure look good dancing in the mud . . .
In the red mud!
Mosquitoes and water moccasins, ‘gators and crocodiles
June’s imagination really drives me wild!

Do you get it yet, Mr. Mason? The girl’s name is June, she’s hotter than fuck, and her horny toad of an admirer calls her Junebug (an oddly affectionate term, since the junebug is a big, fat dumb insect that can hardly fly straight). Either June is so hot or this guy is so horny that he’ll fuck her in the red Georgia clay while mosquitoes feast on his exposed ass and nearby reptiles gather in anticipation of a hearty meal. Being quite the pervert myself, I hate judging people based on what gets them off, but getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and alligators is not my idea of a good time! No, sir, “Junebug” is a song about uncontrollable teenage hormones, nothing more, nothing less.

What I find most fascinating about “Junebug” is that it’s the first song that came together after the band’s hiatus. The song is hardly formulaic, and one would have thought that the band would have chosen something more straightforward to get their chops down before taking on what ends up as a relatively complex arrangement with an open-ended melodic line. The highlight of the song is the long fade where Keith Strickland rocks out on guitar and the singers engage in the go-go-go-go/whoa-whoa-whoa call-and-response to mirror the overwhelming sensations of a hard-and-fast fuck that is so intense that neither party gives a shit if their last contribution to the human race is to serve as crocodile bait.

You may have discerned from my comments on “Junebug” that I’m not particularly fond of natural environments, and if you read my review of Woodstock, you are aware that I thought about turning my father over to Child Protective Services for having the gall to take me camping. Based on those two pieces of evidence, you would likely conclude that I would loathe a song that celebrates “dancing down those dirty and dusty trails” and encourages listeners to “rocket through the wilderness.”

Wrong! “Roam” is one of my favorite songs ever, the only song that makes me yearn to own a convertible someday so I can take it out on the open road with the top down and sing this sucker at the top of my lungs.

The angelic opening passage presages a religious experience, and though I’m technically no longer an American, I fully embrace the true American religion of the open road. What I love about “Roam” most of all is that its message isn’t limited to the interstate highway system or bounded by the procedural and soon-to-be physical walls that mark the borders of the USA. It’s about exploring the world beyond those borders—not through packaged tours or planned itineraries or wealth sufficient enough to allow you to keep your distance from those weird foreigners who can’t even speak English—but exploring the world with nothing more than curiosity and companionship:

Fly the great big sky
See the great big sea
Kick through continents
Busting boundaries
Take it hip to hip, rocket through the wilderness
Around the world the trip begins with a kiss
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without wings, without wheels
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without anything but the love we feel

The song is a pièce de résistance for Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, arranged so Kate takes the first verse, Cindy the second and both sing in unison on the third. The way they shift in and out of harmony is mesmerizing, and the inspired, amazing falsetto harmony on “to-ooo” in the chorus always sends shivers up and down my spine. The feel of the song is loose and relaxed, with a nice easy groove accentuated by hand claps that like so many B-52 songs send you catapulting out to the dance floor. And while you’re out there having a good time rocking out to the music, take a minute and just imagine Kate & Cindy as co-Secretaries of State, instructing U. S. ambassadors and consular staff to approach foreign relations “without anything but the love we feel,” and try to tell me the world wouldn’t be a much safer, happier place than it is today.

“Bushfire” deals with heat and resistance—sexual desire and the weird instinct that warns some people away from realizing those desires; “the smoke in your eyes” (great harmonies there) that smolders but never explodes into fire. We’ve all had partners who couldn’t get wet or couldn’t get it up, and in most cases, the problem is in the head, not the hormones:

My mind’s been going places without me lately.
I need your arms to take me down, take me to the ground.
But I hold back!

I’ve heard all the reasons why the fire doesn’t kick in. It’s too hot in here. It’s too cold. I had a bad day at work. My hemorrhoid is acting up. I had too much to drink. I didn’t have enough to drink. You’re too aggressive. You don’t seem interested. You’re too pretty. You’re intimidating. These are all excuses, for while there can be physical reasons for a sagging dick or a dry twat, people usually can’t get it going because they’re afraid to let themselves go. The song leaves us in that unresolved tension, as it should: there’s nothing you can do if a person chooses to stay in their head instead of taking advantage of the precious opportunity to get their rocks off. File them away under Dumb Shits and move on to a more compatible partner.

“Channel Z” was the big underground hit of the album, scoring points with hipsters who were somehow offended by the success of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” We’ll leave the discussion of the fragile identities of self-styled sophisticates for another day and extol the song’s virtues without getting hung up on such nonsense. With its relentless beat reflecting the steady drum beat of bad news, “Channel Z” reminds us that the recent obsession with “fake news” only serves to mask the truth that the news hasn’t been worth following for decades. The big networks figured out long ago that fear and disaster result in a ratings spike, so they pluck the scary shit out of the news feed then hire alleged experts on the topic to make sure we really freak out and keep tuning in to learn how we’re all going to die. “Channel Z” is the American version of “London Calling,” and instead of impending famine, nuclear threats and rising rivers, the worries here include PCB’s, space junk, the polar shift, waste dumps, irradiated food and the market crash of 1987. Here The B-52’s take it one step further by identifying the obsession of the news junkie as an untreatable addiction:

Gotta tune in, pico waves, gotta tune out, PCBs
Gotta tune in, market crash, gotta tune out, polar shift
Gotta tune in, narrow minds, gotta tune out, space junk
Gotta tune in, bombs, gotta tune out, atomic lasers falling from the sky

My favorite part of the song is when the music suddenly stops and we’re treated to rising scale harmonies on the word “free” before getting sucked back into the relentless beat of the news cycle that attacks any attempt to make the world a better place.

In contrast, “Topaz” imagines a future where “We’ll walk in ecstasy/Clear planet blue and green.” The music has a light, feathery quality about it, creating a mood of peaceful optimism and reverence for the world we inhabit. The girls’ voices on this one are exceptionally beautiful, gliding effortlessly over the supporting beat with delectable harmonies. The fade is structured so the background music fades first, leaving the girls to sing a cappella for one sublime moment. My only criticism is that the a cappella segment should have been extended for several measures—the sound of their conjoined voices is so beautiful that I feel I could listen to them forever.

The album ends with “Follow Your Bliss,” a pleasant, reflective instrumental piece marked by Keith Strickland’s Duane Eddy-style guitar that serves as a touching and fond farewell to Ricky Wilson. We only get two brief moments with the girls and their lovely voices, little touches that make you crave more but still leave you thankful for what you had.

“Follow Your Bliss” is a phrase borrowed from Joseph Campbell, whose book The Power of Myth had been covered by Bill Moyers in a PBS special that aired in 1988, a year after Campbell’s passing. In this excerpt from the interview with Moyers (thanks to the Joseph Campbell Foundation website), Campbell explains what it means to follow one’s bliss:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Cosmic Thing was the direct result of four very talented people following their bliss. When you listen to Cosmic Thing, you hear their joy in finding that bliss—in the music, in the lyrics and especially in the remarkable level of collaboration that guided them every step on the way. These were people who had gone through a very difficult time but simply had to put themselves “on a kind of track that has been there all the while” and live the life they deserved to live. Cosmic Thing is a timeless reminder that we all have the capacity to follow our bliss, and that we can have more of an impact on the world by doing so instead of wasting our energies on anger and resentment.

Y’all hear that, America?

3 responses

  1. If listening to the B-52’s can’t put you in a good mood…

    Like

  2. Are you getting David Byrne and Bryan Ferry mixed up? I thought it was Byrne who worked with them?

    Like

    1. Good catch! I always confuse the two. Thank you!

      Like

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