singles by choice
(albums when it's necessary)
23 August 2019
(listening with headphones)Avid Acutus
Funk F·XRII
Benz Micro LP-S
Linn Kilmax DS (Renew)
TEAD Mastergroove Mk 2
TEAD Vibe Phoenix / Pulse 2
Luxman P-1u
Sennheiser HD800

I always thought I liked the B-52s. But I don’t: I love them. Why it’s taken me so long to realise this, I wasn’t sure. I’ve had all the albums for as long as I can remember, and revisiting them now, I know all the songs. But they were just records I liked, and if you asked me to list my favourite bands, I’d never think of the B-52s.

I think with any art, what you get out is proportional to what you put in, and I’d taken the B-52s (they’ve dropped the apostrophe now) at face value. You know, Rock Lobster, Love Shack, good-time silly party band. I hadn’t put the work in to go beyond that.

Recently though, for reasons I can’t explain, I started sitting up half the night watching old B-52s videos on YouTube, and the penny dropped. I knew there was so much more depth, and I dived into that bottomless blue.

After about a month of listening to pretty much nothing else, (the exception being Steps Gold, which has also had a lot of play) here’s my assessment. For what it’s worth.

Starting with the music: its genius was in its minimal simplicity. Ricky Wilson’s guitar playing was out of this world: the sound, the style, the originality. And Keith Strickland’s drumming was the perfect counterpart: hard-hitting, tight, and filling in all the gaps without ever sounding busy or losing sight of the music’s (dancing) purpose. For much of the first two albums, the backing is just those two going at it, maybe with a bit of synth bass, which apparently someone played live. Sequencers are for wimps, right?

Then (as the song says) there’s Kate! Kate and Cindy! The unmatchable brilliance of their harmonies is too obvious to warrant much discussion, expect perhaps to mention the magic that happens when they sometimes (deliberately?) drift (ever-so-slightly) out of tune. I never knew Kate was a multi-instrumentalist, and I hadn’t even fully grasped how soulful Cindy’s singing could be. I’m a clot.

Watching those old videos, I loved how unselfconsciously cool the girls were: the crazy looks were rarely flattering, and the dancing was ad-hoc and clunky. They’re all about what they are, and what they’re doing. Don’t like it? Don’t care! The B-52s were above 2019’s self-conscious affectation. They were honest. That’s the most you can ask of any art, and it’s probably why their art persists.

I pretty much had Fred’s number though. Fred is the magic electricity that makes the monster come to life. Everyone loves Fred.

It was from exhausting YouTube’s supply of B-52s material that I found out there was another version of Rock Lobster. And here it is. The Internet, as with so many things, has wildly differing, and frequently offensive, opinions on what a copy of the original DB Records pressing is worth. Some chancers want upwards of $300 for a copy. I got mine for a tenner, postage included. It’s not in the best shape, and has lost its picture sleeve at some point, but who cares? It’s Rock Lobster (but not as we know it) and 52 Girls (but not as we know that either.)

They’re different sounding from the versions that made the LP. Thinner, faster, with a more pronounced cowbell. Some people, including, I believe, the band, think the LP sounds comparatively sterile and overly clean, but I love its sound. I love how sharply defined that clattering guitar is, especially on 52 Girls, and here it’s scratchier and more distant, and I find the comparative lack of punch on it and the drums somewhat takes away from the driving danceability. But I’m not a dancer. I’m too English, too reserved, too self-conscious, too afraid to have a good time. I’m the antithesis of this music.

5

Obviously the last record is a tough act to follow, but I’d heard this was really good. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s not bad. I’m going to go out on a limb here. A very sketchy limb that I will regret. But it sounds… ready? Forgive me: it sounds millennial. It sounds like music made by people in their late 20s for people in their late 20s. But more to the point, it sounds like the embodiment of those people. It’s nice, it’s confident (whilst not being confident), it’s skilled and proficient, ambitious, and not clearly of any particular origin. But it’s also kind of safe, and a bit bland to an old duffer like me who prefers the sort of aimless shit people made on four tracks in the last century.

3

Middle-aged man makes pathetic attempt to recapture youth by acquiring record of electronic dancing music.

I’m out of my depth here. I don’t even know what speed to play it at. I worked out which side was which from the matrix number, and the label has the lengths of the songs on, so I’m timing the ‘a’. I reckon it’s got to be 33 though, because the ‘b’ is six-minutes-plus, and you’re not going to get that on a 45rpm seven inch.

The ‘a’ is a repetitive thing that sounds like it’s being played extremely loud through a bad or broken PA in some kind of venue where young people assemble to do chemically enhanced dancing. Probably under a railway. Sort of the same couple of bars over and over again.

The ‘b’ is more of the listening kind. Slower and thoughtful. Its restless, repetitive bass line is smeared over with grainy digital noise and choppy chords.

There’s something anxious about it, which makes it the last thing I need. I quite like it though.

3