THE B-52’S ARE a great little dance band from Athens, Georgia, by way of New York City. They’re party people gone strange–too strange for Athens, where they got the bum’s rush that propelled them north. The B-52’s are real Southerners, though: true devotees of a party system in which everything serious is junked to make room for fun. Fun, after all, is what matters in life, and it’s what these bouffant bombers are all about. Fun is a void they drift through like asteroids, a vast expanse littered with cultural artifacts they keep bumping into. Gilligan’s Island. Star Trek. Petula Clark. Lesley Gore. The Mashed Potato. The Supremes. Beach Blanket Bingo. The way the B-52’s handle these collisions is what makes them wild. They’re connoisseurs of trash in a world full of it. To hear them is to lose yourself in the echo of pop arcana.
Wild Planet, the B-52’s second record, is a welcome companion to their first. It begins with “Party Out of Bounds,” a song that immediately brings to mind such instant classics as “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around” (cuts that made The B-52’s the premier party album of the summer of ’79). “Party Out of Bounds” gets right to the point with a shower of breaking glass and a loud “Surprise!” Then it asks, “Who’s to blame when parties really get out of hand?” The correct answer, obviously, is the B-52’s.
“Party Out of Bounds” notwithstanding, Wild Planet plainly lacks the relentless exuberance of the group’s debut disc. This is partly a result of the production: flatter and duller sounding than its predecessor, the new LP doesn’t attempt to dazzle. Mostly, though, it’s a case of sound following substance, because the doings on Wild Planet turn out to be a little bit creepy. It’s almost as if we’re being treated to the “dark side” of the B-52’s – their Twilight Zone, as it were. Last year, we got “Planet Claire” and the Aqua Velva; this year, we get “Devil in My Car” and “Quiche Lorraine.” (Don’t laugh. Quiche Lorraine is the name of a lost poodle.) Now, in fact, we’re served something of a B-52’s noir. Maybe “Party out of Bounds” was meant as a warning.
Certainly Wild Planet‘s second number is a signal that things are going to be different. “Dirty Back Road” is a track with a blacksnake for a bass line, a song that promises sports cars and sand in your hair but says, “Don’t look back.” When it’s over, we’ve been deposited somewhere in the sticks with nothing for relief but the chirping of crickets—a brittle sound that suggests a distinctly backwoods infinity. The tunes that follow are about misspent love and depression.
“Private Idaho” takes the form of a rebuke. “You’re living in your own private Idaho,” charges Fred Schneider, and as the girls pick up his refrain, he screams: “Get out of that state! Get out of the state you’re in!” Stinging guitar notes strike like ice water across the face. As the instruments and vocals grow louder and increasingly insistent, the music starts to achieve the rough-edged intensity that’s associated more with Neil Young than with the B-52’s.
“Devil in My Car,” long a staple of the band’s live performances, attempts the same effect with less success. The problem is half-heartedness: these musicians can’t quite decide whether to play the situation for chills or laughs, and they haven’t figured out how to do both yet (though they come close). The B-52’s recoup nicely, however, by ending the LP with the cool and hypnotic “53 Miles West of Venus,” in which they chant the title ad infinitum until we fall down twitching. This song could well become the teen-Zombie anthem of the Eighties.
Wild Planet proves that the group is still discovering fresh directions in the wonderful world of kitsch. Who knows what horrors lurk fifty-three miles west of Venus? The next B-52’s album might not be a party record at all. ◼︎