clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The B-52s’ Technicolor Dream Lives on in “Love Shack”

‘Cosmic Thing,’ the album that birthed the eternal all-ages jam, turns 30 on Thursday

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

It is, to this day, a perfect song, transcendent in its profound silliness, incandescent and irresistible even after three decades of radical overexposure. A psychedelic bear hug of a song. A galactically scaled Pee-wee’s Playhouse of a song. Kitsch as a religious experience; pure camp as the purest joy imaginable. It is the true story of pop, and maybe even punk, when it stops making sense and starts getting real. It was, or perhaps one day will be, the highlight of your wedding. It is “Love Shack.” Please do not demean us both by pretending that you do not, personally, to this day, still secretly or not-so-secretly love “Love Shack.”

Cosmic Thing, the fifth full-length from New Wave titans the B-52s—the pride, or at the very least the id, of Athens, Georgia—came out 30 years ago Thursday. The record, an improbable comeback bid for a flamboyant late-’70s crew (named after its female members’ bombastic hairdos) laid low in the mid-’80s by commercial disappointment and personal tragedy, is way more than just “Love Shack,” of course. But “Love Shack” remains the world entire, a defiantly all-ages party anthem that peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, denied the top spot by [checks notes], uh, Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain” and Bad English’s “When I See You Smile,” the second-best hard-rock power ballad written by Diane Warren.

The late ’80s and early ’90s were a strange and occasionally wonderful time; I wish “Love Shack” had run for president, with Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” as VP. “When we handed it in,” famed pop eccentric and Cosmic Thing coproducer Don Was told Rolling Stone in early 1990, “I don’t think there was a single person who said, ‘Hah! That’s the hit the B-52s have been needing for the past 12 years!’” But “Love Shack” was exactly that; the B-52s had in fact made the cover of Rolling Stone’s “Special College Issue” in March 1990.

The band’s self-titled 1979 debut, anchored by the surrealist surf-rock anthem “Rock Lobster,” somehow combined ’50s B-movie zaniness with a wry, Mystery Science Theater 3000–esque running commentary on that zaniness, outlandish fun but never a joke, cheap thrills but never cheap irony. Think a way less caustic Devo; think the raddest and gnarliest punk-rock guitar riffs most onlookers never quite thought to describe as such. Surrrrrrprise! blurts out bombastic singer Fred Schneider, with the infectious warmth of Mr. Rogers and the outré ardor of John Waters, at the onset of 1980’s Wild Planet, wherein original guitarist Ricky Wilson spearheads a handful of all-time jams. He’s a god for “Private Idaho” alone; recently I jumped straight from Wild Planet to the new album from the metal band Baroness, and the two records somehow melted together for a very enjoyable 20 minutes or so.

The B-52s—rounded out by Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson on percussion and vocals, Kate Pierson on keyboards and vocals, and Keith Strickland initially on drums—formed in Athens ostensibly after sharing a giant “flaming volcano” adult beverage at a Chinese restaurant, which inspired them to go home and write a song called “Killer Bees.” They made their New York debut in the late ’70s at Max’s Kansas City, in front of approximately 17 people, including, allegedly, Lux and Ivy from the Cramps. “We forgot to even ask if they wanted us back,” Schneider recounted to Rolling Stone in a 2018 oral history. New York City did.

The band made perfect sense as a Technicolor riposte to the Ramones or the Sex Pistols or even the less-flamboyant-only-by-comparison Talking Heads, but struggled for a few albums in the early ’80s amid all the synthesizers and drum machines and encroaching cynicism. When Ricky Wilson died in 1985 of AIDS-related cancer, the B-52s took a yearslong hiatus that appeared to be permanent. “It really is amazing that Cosmic Thing is such a happy album,” Cindy Wilson told Billboard last year, “because it came from grief and sadness.”

What makes Cosmic Thing great, of course, is that you can totally feel the grief and the sadness, even amid all the exuberance. Strickland moved from drums to guitar and proved, via “Love Shack” alone, his own acumen with riffs so indelible you are perfectly content to live with them in your head forever; Nile Rodgers, he of Chic, produced several tracks and brought his trademark nervous, ageless funkiness. “Gyrate till you’ve had your fill!” Schneider blurts out by way of greeting on the relentlessly peppy title track; “Junebug” is a slower and more humid take on the party-at-the-zoo wackiness of “Rock Lobster.” But it’s also one of several tunes, including “Bushfire” and the gorgeous Kate-and-Cindy showcase and hit single “Roam,” that seek bliss through a feral sort of escapism, as if the real world is just a little too much to bear.

There’s some jarring but still quite tuneful fury here, too: Schneider rants about everything from “ozone holes” to “secret wars” to “good old boys tellin’ lies” to “atomic lasers falling from the sky” on “Channel Z.” But my personal favorite is “Deadbeat Club,” a wistful and almost unbearably gorgeous ballad that evokes the eerie, aching magic of Athens as capably as anything on, say, R.E.M.’s Murmur. Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s voices intertwine beautifully; the B-52s at their best have always made the past sound riotously futuristic, light-years ahead of their time even when they’re looking directly backward with some combination of delicate anger and bracing melancholy. “Anyway we can,” they sing, “we’re gonna find something / We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain.” And suddenly that seems like the only idea worth having.

That mastery of one’s own personal nostalgia is a neat trick to learn when revisiting a 30-year-old record now inevitably wrapped up in one’s own exuberant and/or melancholy shit. The revitalized B-52s made other records and blazed other trails: In 1993, their Cosmic Thing follow-up Good Stuff lost the Best Alternative Album Grammy to Tom Waits’s Bone Machine, truly a battle for the ages. But in 2019 they’re mostly content to mostly play the hits with, mostly, that same outsize aplomb: You can buy a two-disc, 30th-anniversary version of Cosmic Thing, and you can watch the band play tunes from it on tour all summer, still belting out “Roam” both like it’s the first time and possibly the last. Or, of course, you can go to any wedding, anywhere, at any time and revel in “Love Shack” anew, unbeatable in its unifying delight, and undimmed too.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Nile Rodgers’s name.