Today’s environment – a dizzying mélange of neon, advertisement, slum detritus and ‘junk culture’ – has fascinated artists and poets since the 1950s. But not until ’78 did any band appear who utilized the same sort of extrovert art established by the Pop painting brigade of the ’60s: a highly personal, descriptive balancing act incorporating both sentiment and irony.
From the deep-fried Southern environs of Georgia the B-52’s burst upon the rock world; modern folk artists who made poetic use of the real dreams behind consumer goods, pulp mags, thrift-shop refuse. They arrived trailing speech balloons for lyrics – a homage to the narrative techniques familiar from comics and bad movies. And their method of composition was the archetypal Pop procedure of collage.
Musically, they were among the first recyclers of early funk innovations – which they married to a driving dancefloor beat: a combo that made them instant box office once an appearance on American TV’s Saturday Night Live spread the news.
For a wide spectrum of fans, the B’s encapsulated the sound of social restlessness, but they also offered a D-I-Y mode of survival: they proved that taking a positive, not a negative attitude to NOW could pay off.
Success made them sitting ducks for every sort of pressure, however, and in ’81 they released an album which made many of us wonder if their inventiveness hadn’t begun to dissipate altogether. The spiritless Mesopotamia was obviously the baby of producer and head Head David Byrne; on it the B’s themselves sounded swamped, confused and often forlorn.
“Neither,” says drummer Keith now, “did the record company exactly go full blast to promote it.”
Two years passed with no other word until a few weeks ago – when the band surprised everyone with a spanking new LP entitled Whammy!. Not only the most sparkling and accomplished work they’ve yet committed to vinyl, it’s also a forceful re-statement of those original factors which first took them to the top. Only it’s cleaner, sharper, more modern. ??
I had trouble taking it off the turntable long enough to track Cindy, Kate, Fred, and Keith (Ricky was suffering the after-effects of Mexican food the night before) down to their temporary London lair for fuller info.
When I did, it transpires that this band has hardly been inactive during all that time the UK has heard nada from them. They played the giant US Festival in the States: appeared between Toots and his Maytals and Gladys Knight at the World Music Festival in Jamaica: opened for the Who at a dustbowl of a stadium in Florida (“a nightmare!”); and played themselves on America’s TV soap opera, The Guiding Light.
“We were supposed to just pop into this disco they have in their fictitious town,” relates Keith, “and there was this guy in the show who’s supposed to be trying to make it in music. Fred and Cindy gave him some tips after we did our numbers.
“He had a future,” adds Fred. “But our acting was abysmal: we couldn’t stop laughing.”
The B-boys are relaxing in their hotel’s ‘Garden Terrace’, Fred having won his perennial UK battle for “tea with cream and honey please”.
Keith’s just out of the shower so his slicked-back hair contrasts sharply with his dress pants (ribbon down the outside leg), T-shirt and waistcoat. Both are feeling frank about the less profitable aspects of their recent past – the somewhat touchy subject of Byrne and Mesopotamia.
Keith stares at this glass of beer. “At that point we were sort of having to start over,” he says slowly, “cos on the second album half the material was stuff we’d been doing for a long time, left over from our first batch. But when a third album came round it all had to be new. So we felt we had to try something different because there we were– starting all over again. Only we also felt pretty self-conscious at that point and had sort of a distorted view of ourselves from just reading stuff.”
“We were really in danger of becoming a parody of ourselves. I mean, we had never thought about an ‘identity’ before and there we were thinking about it a lot. Always saying, wait a minute, if we do this then the critics will say that. We asked David in because we knew him and since he was a musician, we figured there were certain ways in which he could direct us (laughs) – and he certainly did!”
“He operates more, uh…hierarchically.”
Fred laughs too. “He wanted to work with us because our other image is so intellectual,” he says rather cryptically. “But you know, he’d known us for a couple of years. Not exactly real close, not exactly as friends; we were sorta in awe of him actually.”
“I think our humour is a little more subtle than some people grasp,” Fred maintains. “I mean, if you take it at surface value then it might seem real kitschy, but there’s a lot more to it, a little more meaning and a lot more politics. Our show’s real high energy anyway so it’s hard to capture on record what we do. Even on this album some of my singing is only about one-tenth of what it is onstage.”
Keith: “It’s just hard in the studio because you can’t have that energy you need from an audience. So much of our stuff is also just observation, coming back through this sort of wild format.”
Fred: “Yeah – we like picking up on mannerisms and phrases; since the first we’ve been conscious of taking things peoples say to incorporate them in our lyrics.”
Keith: “You know, we’ve always been a little worried about Britain – we tend to be represented as sort of shallow over here. I guess our sensibility doesn’t necessarily come across; here what people see visually tends to inform their whole impression. But it’s a real communal thing how we write, and I think that layering aspect ends up giving a lot of different levels of meaning to a song. It’s sort of subliminal.”
At dinner the following night after a debut on Channel 4’s Switch, Cindy and Kate’s exhaustion doesn’t stop them from expatiating with equal fervour on the group’s solidarity – honed even tighter thanks to their Mesopotamian trial by fire.
“Actually,” says Cindy, flicking a lock of real ash-blonde hair out of her beer, “the jams for those songs were still great. But the mood was – ominous. We’d come right off the road after all that touring and there we were, just plopped down to write a whole new album. And it was winter. And we weren’t at home. I mean, we were home, but we weren’t at home, if you know what I mean.”
Kate, petite and spectacularly beautiful with delicate Sissy Spacek-type colouring, stirs a small bowl of cream soup.
“The first two albums were real unconscious,” she says. “We never even separated who did what; we just jammed and juxtaposed ideas. And I never felt like there was any sort of judge of who was making what. But Mesopotamia seemed real conscious of who had which responsibilities.”
Cindy: “We had most of it written before we went in the studio but David added a lot of different things and headed a lot of things in opposite directions to what we planned, so we ended doing it mostly in the studio.”
Kate: “We were looking for him to have input, though – he’s often blamed for ruining that album, which is really not his fault. It was an experiment. And, face it, we were having our own difficulties around then; maybe we were getting a little too subconscious!”
Regeneration arrived in the form of reassessment aided by a true kindred spirit: Steven Stanley, the house engineer at Compass Point and architect of the Tom Tom Club LPs (one out, one in the works) as well as the B’s own ‘Party Mix’, two of whose arrangements the band now use in concert.
“Steven’s this real young whizzkid from Jamaica,” says Fred. “Real alive; he’s got incredible energy in the studio. With him, this album sounds as close as possible to the way we wrote it – on our four-track at home. And since the second album we’ve done our jamming with a drum machine, so when Steven said, keep it in, we did…and that definitely changed the tone.”
Keith: “We were sorta headed in that direction anyway; we’ve always used an organ on stage, for instance, so it was just much more efficient to use a synthesizer. But I have mixed feelings about the drum machine because it really was an experiment. I was going to go back and put drums over it.
“I’m not sure how far we’ll continue with electronics,” he adds. “They’re nice to a certain extent, but I think they do get kinda cold. They’re so precise they don’t vary the tempo enough, really, but then you don’t know those things till you’ve done ’em once.”
Cindy and Kate laud the fact that “with Steven we were able to be collective again and work at own pace.” On ‘Song for a Future Generation’ they even used what Fred calls “the blackboard method – everyone writes something on our blackboard and if it works, it works. We even have a pointer!”
Kate: “Steven’s a great dancer too; he bops in the studio. He’ll just spin around and punch al these buttons and the drums’ll come up real loud. Then he’ll hold onto the board, putting his legs up behind him. We’d be singing in the studio and we’d see his head just going back and forth with this big smile on his face. But he is exacting; he never lets you off with, oh, that’s good enough.”
A major part of what the band wanted to reinstate was the fact that every B-52 accomplishment comes through group effort; according to Fred, that’s what’s behind ‘Song for a Future Generation’.
“We’ve always wanted to do a song where we introduce ourselves. There’s so many of ’em: the Floaters, ‘The Jam’ by Grand Central Station…a lot of rap groups. We figured it was about time, especially as Kate and Cindy and I are upfront and Keith and Ricky have never sung. We like to promote all five of us,” he says firmly. “Be sure attention is paid equally to everyone this time round.”
THE B’s have already played four American warm-up gigs for the tour they commence in June; they’re in London on a brief stopover after filming ‘Rock Palast’ in Germany. The live show that’s on their agenda this summer will be half drums and half rhythm machine.
“So Keith and Ricky can get out and dance around too,” says Kate, though she confesses that she’s also “a little worried” about the rhythm box. “I think everyone’s a bit worried; that people might feel we’re not giving ’em quite as much as we did.”
“But this is the age for it,” interposes Cindy. “Besides, those songs were written with the machine so they fit right in.”
Kate: “Um. This may be the modern age, but things sure are getting conservative. Like here – if the Tories win this election it’ll be awful; wouldn’t that be UNBELIEVABLE? I always thought England was so progressive they would never vote Tory”.
Kate has lived in both Ireland and Newcastle, where she worked as a barmaid in Jesmond.
“I just saw Thatcher on TV in my room and you know the only comment they made? She was wearing thick, shiny Wellington boots!!! It’s as bad as watching Reagan on TV, which is like looking at a puppet.
“I never dreamed he would get elected, either, but at least his popularity is on the wane…particularly because of all the environmental scandals.”
Kate shakes her head. “It’s like this ’50s fashion trend that’s coming back. I for one just do not want to see that again! I mean, I like some of it, but this whole swing into nostalgia and glorifying the past…I wish people would finally move into the future. Fred and I – since we’re slightly older than the rest of the band (laughs) – we remember being told in school how those jet packs you wear on your back would be a reality when we grew up, and everybody would be using them to just whizz around to work.”
An ebullient sense of whizzing to work, however, is very much in evidence on Whammy!; it sounds like the art of a group with near-limitless resources of excitement in their own lives. And, these days, that’s very much the case.
Fred writes, “sort of Victorian verse”. He’s working on a book, originally composed of “overheard conversations” until they got “just a little too cheesy.” So now he’s decided to “stick with verse; I’m a big fan of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear”. Lyrically, Fred’s provided some material for a group Whammy! trumpet player Dave Buck is founding, and he also hopes to embark on a solo project with Bernie Worrell “and a couple of guys from Parliament”.
Cindy had devoted herself to a quiet life – mostly painting and the manufacture of fabulous, complicated masks (“they’re really subconscious” says Kate). Brother Ricky sticks to Mexican cooking and session work with the likes of Tom Verlaine; Keith still labours on varied projects in tandem with former members of the Plastics, together with Kate and Cindy.
Currently, plenty of music filters through to enliven their jam sessions: DJ Africa Bambaataa, Joan Jett (Kate’s fave), Culture Club, Prince Charles, ESG, REM, Bananarama, The Ramones, The Sugarhill roster, Fun Boy Three, Tanya Wenley’s ‘Vicious Rap’ and ‘Watchdog’, the Stray Cats and Fred’s pash Billy Idol (” ‘White Wedding’ is BIG in New York!”). They’re also still careful to plug their friends: Pylon’s new ‘Chomp’ LP, Love Tractor, Limbo District, Oh OK and the Now Explosion from Athens.
With four months a year their maximum touring schedule, the B’s look set for a sane and profitable period of heavy partying with the likes of you and me. Kate and Cindy have already started – hitting the Camden Palace in time to catch Rusty Egan rapping to Yello and checking out the Mohawks/fake dreadlocks along the London shopping drags. (“Hee-Haw clothes” or “the hillbilly look” is Cindy’s description of our New Dickensiana.)
Whatever happens in the coming months, this band at least shares the ultimate Whammy of pop: an unerring, recently refreshed sense of the absurd.
Or, as Fred puts it: “Our humour is our best safety valve. We’ve made mistakes and we realise that, but we’ve learned humour is the most important tool to help you find a way to salvage something for yourself out of all the craziness.”
© Cynthia Rose, New Musical Express, 4 June 1983