Following the viral success of their first single, ‘Rock Lobster’, off their 1979 self-titled debut album, The B-52s had to prove they were more than just a wacky novelty act. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, the eccentric quintet had already won over New York’s downtown club scene and even inspired John Lennon to write again, but they had yet to get everyone to join their party. The group’s motley mix of surf rock, new wave, girl group and post-punk sounds confused critics and audiences alike, but The B-52s’ sophomore album, Wild Planet, was about to live up to their title of “World’s Greatest Party Band”.
Listen to Wild Planet right now.
The B-52s don’t engender the same kind of cultural criticism as, say, Devo, Talking Heads and their other new wave contemporaries, yet they were post-punk pioneers in their own right. With their dissonant jams, absurdist lyrics and kitschy 60s aesthetic, the group ambushed the pop mainstream, and their influence now looms larger than their towering bouffants.
A united front
By 1980, The B-52s were regularly commuting between Athens and New York City, playing gigs at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB and Club 57, while drawing devoted crowds for their legendary live shows.
Their debut album served as an introduction to what The B-52s were all about. With no traditional frontman or frontwoman to speak of, they were a united front with a democratic style of songwriting that would continue on Wild Planet. Guitarist Ricky Wilson and drummer Keith Strickland made for a formidable rhythm section and would jam all night while vocalists Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson would improvise the lyrics. Wilson was truly the creative heart of the group, with an idiosyncratic style of guitar playing and dissonant melodies that defined their distinct sound.
Meanwhile, the trio of vocalists would trade barbs and harmonies with their trademark call-and-response style. Fred Schneider’s monotone delivery, juxtaposed against Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s shouty proclamations and vocal trills, made for an arresting pop experience.
From designing their own costumes to producing their own records (with co-producer Rhett Davies, who had cut his teeth with other experimental acts like Brian Eno, Genesis and Roxy Music), The B-52s embodied punk’s DIY spirit. Utilising some of the tracks intended for their debut, and keeping Davies on board from that record, ensured there would be a clear sense of consistency between the two albums, even as Wild Planet advanced the group’s campy garage rock sound. Without sacrificing their individualist style, the tighter playing, punchier hooks, zany energy and absurdist humour remained, just slightly more nuanced to reflect a more-seasoned band.
Giving punks permission to dance
With some of the slickest guitar lines and funk rhythms in new wave, Wild Planet is very much a party record. Like Blondie, The B-52s gave punks permission to move their feet, thanks to an inherently danceable punk-meets-Beach Blanket Bingo formula. The album opener, ‘Party Out Of Bounds’, kickstarts the shindig, with Wilson’s menacing guitar and Cindy and Kate’s tag-team harmonies.
The party only gets more “out of hand” throughout the album: their girl-group subversion continues on ‘Runnin’ Around’ and the record’s breakout hit, ‘My Private Idaho’, a frantic number that riffs on the Twilight Zone theme song and begins with Wilson’s entrancing guitar intro. The track also inspired director Gus Van Sant, whose film My Own Private Idaho would come out some 11 years later.
Picking up where their debut album’s ‘Planet Claire’ left off, the group’s sci-fi streak pervades much of Wild Planet, including the five-minute long cosmic jam ‘55 Miles West Of Venus’. But while Wild Planet is very much a dance record, it also documents the band’s anarchic punk energy before they caught wind of what decade they were in and adopted synths and drum machines.
“Why don’t you dance with me? I’m no Limburger”
The guitar is front and centre on songs like ‘Devil In My Car’ and the criminally underrated ‘Strobe Light’. Even ‘Give Me Back May Man’ sees Cindy Wilson go full riot grrrl a full decade before the movement coalesced. Speaking of Cindy, the Wilson sister truly steals the show on the latter and would go on to deliver the most emotionally-affecting moments in the band’s discography, grounding some of their wackier tendencies. Despite their penchant for shrieks and shouts, Pierson and Wilson were expertly skilled at harmonising, singing circles around each other and even switching parts mid-song.
As for the band’s surreal lyrical tradition, it would be hard to top the brilliance of “Why don’t you dance with me? I’m not no Limburger” on ‘Dance This Mess Around’, but they rise to the occasion, sneaking sexual innuendo into ‘Strobe Light’ and ‘Dirty Back Road’. While The B-52s never overtly sang about their sexual orientation, their coded messages were clear to their fans.
From cult act to Saturday Night Live
Five months after they released Wild Planet, on 27 August 1980, the band made their television debut on Saturday Night Live, raising their profile considerably from cult act to the poster group for American new wave. Wild Planet hit the Top 20 album charts in the US and UK, but larger mainstream success was still a few records away. Not arty enough for college radio, nor sexy enough for the Top 40, The B-52s occupied their own planet. It would take until 1989’s ‘Love Shack’ for them to crack the Billboard Hot 100.
Their reputation as a singles band persists to this day, but for those looking to explore The B-52s Technicolor landscape beyond the karaoke hits, Wild Planet is a great place to start.
Wild Planet has been reissued on 180g vinyl and can be bought here.