15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
My knowledge of the B-52’s was limited enough in the summer of 1989, when their album Cosmic Thing hit the station, that I didn’t realize how difficult it probably was for the band to buckle down and make it. During the recording of their previous album, 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites, guitarist Ricky Wilson, a founding member of the band and brother to vocalist Cindy Wilson, died of complications related to AIDS, making him perhaps one of the earliest and most prominent members of the music industry to succumb to the illness. He’d known about his medical issues for a few years, but kept it from the other members of the band, apparently because he didn’t want them to fuss over him or give him any other special treatment. He wanted to play his guitar, not become an object of pity. When he died, the his bandmates were understandably distraught, especially his sister. They didn’t tour to support to album and scattered across the country. Cindy reportedly wrestled with full-on depression. Many of them voiced feelings that the band couldn’t continue without Ricky. For those in the know, there was a general expectation that Bouncing Off the Satellites would be the last album delivered by the most boisterous, joyful band to come out of Athens, Georgia.
Three years later, that theory proved to be faulty. The B-52’s not only released a new album, but it sparked the greatest commercial success of their career. As hard as it may have been to get started again, the album betrays no sense of a group of mournful individuals, even as they must have been constantly reminded of their fallen friend’s absence. That must have been especially true for Keith Strickland, previously the band’s drummer who took on lead guitar duties for the album. Though the whole band shared most songwriting credits equally, the process of creating the music side of the songs often fell primary to Strickland and Ricky Wilson. Even the collaborative process was a sad, ever-present reminder of absence of Ricky. Like anyone who perseveres with what they know best to move past the grieving process, the band made the sort of music they’d always made. There was nothing especially forlorn about about any of the songs.
The B-52’s made records that were just waiting for a party to spring up around them. The first single was “Channel Z” (though I’m sure many people assume a different, far more famous song had that honor) and it immediately announced to any curious listeners that the jubilant spirit was firmly in place. “I don’t know, I feel like something’s happening/ Something good is happening” Kate Pierson belts out, as only Kate Pierson can belt something out. Overall, the album was the typical B-52’s pop pinata, springing out irresistible energy as if it and sneakily brilliant pop hooks were the easiest things in the world to conjure up. Working with producers Don Was and Nile Rodgers may have freshened up the sound somewhat, but it was unmistakably the same B-52’s style that had wiser listeners shaking their respective thangs on the dance floor at least since the days when “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster” were fresh.
The sound may have been familiar to some, but the wild success of Cosmic Thing, unprecedented for the band, indicated that there were plenty people first discovering just how fun music could be. That process really began with the second single of the album, the grandly goofy and giddily propulsive “Love Shack.” Bolstered by a colorful, blissfully enjoyable music video that confirmed that the Chrysler was indeed fairly described as whale-like in its size (and established the Love Shack touted “Burnt Eats” as a menu item), the song busted the B-52’s in the Billboard Top 40 for the first time. The song eventually climbed all the way to number three, which only seems like a shockingly low placement for a song that is probably about as well know as any song from the especially fertile decade of the eighties. (You know what song did manage to make it to number one that summer? “Batdance” by Prince. Don’t hear that one very often any more, do you?) What’s probably less well known is that the band’s follow-up single, the exquisite “Roam,” was equally successful on the Billboard singles chart, also peaking at number three.
Listening to the record now, I completely understand why the album was so big for us that summer, especially understanding that we weren’t limiting ourselves to one single at a time. The whole album sounds like summer, albeit not necessarily in the way that immediately springs to mind. A song is typically tagged as made for summer if it’s got some bubblegum joy and a sprightly, unforgettable hook. “Love Shack” could be scientifically created to fill the role after extracting defining characteristics a summer song from the unconscious expectations of a couple dozen unsuspecting test subjects.
But other songs tap into other aspects of the summer months. The previously mentioned “Roam” is as ideal for the open road as any Tom Petty song that practically begged to be blasted out of car speakers. “Roam” nails that aching wanderlust that kicks in during the summer, especially for those residing in humble central Wisconsin communities that seem to get a little smaller with each passing square of the calendar, certainty mounting that every adventure worth having lies at the other end of a long ribbon of interstate. And “The Deadbeat Club” with its languid, downward slope rhythm is a perfect summer evening, the heat of the day dissipated in favor of a welcome, drifting breeze cool that somehow inspires an even greater laziness than the oppressive noonday sun. “Let’s go crash that party down in Normaltown tonight/ Then we’ll go skinny dippin’ in the moonlight” still sounds to me like the great way to burn off the evening hours, and in my false, idealized memories, my friends and I “dance in the garden/ In torn sheets in the rain,” just like the song says. The song is so gorgeously worn out that even Fred Schneider’s trademark bray is delivered in the equivalent of a minor key.
As gratifying as it is that Cosmic Thing represented an improbably successful continuation for the band, in many respects, it also stood as a significant ending. Cindy Wilson left the B-52’s before they recorded their follow-up, 1992’s totally underwhelming Good Stuff. Everyone was clearly worn out at that point, as it was sixteen years before their next studio album, a layoff that erased any doubt that they now belonged on the eighties refugee version of the oldies circuit, playing decades-old songs for fans that wanted nothing more than the few old hits they loved, like someone punching the same number-and-letter combination on the fabled jukebox in the Love Shack. There are certainly worse fates. In the summer of 1989, though, their music couldn’t have felt more vital, more needed, more now. I don’t think I fully acknowledged or understood it at the time, but Cosmic Thing was the soundtrack of that summer. Thankfully, it was perfectly suited for the task.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis