The B-52’s – Mesopotamia
In 1981, Athens, Georgia based band, the B-52’s, were known as “The World’s Greatest Party Band,” due to their quirky lyrics, uptempo music, and punchy guitar riffs. They were transforming classic guitar riffs from the fifties and early sixties and assimilating those riffs to the new wave and raw post-punk style. However, coming off two smoking hot near-perfect classic albums, The B-52’s self-titled debut (1979) and Wild Planet (1980), the B-52’s were about to embark on changing their sound and experimenting in the studio. They wanted to place value and skill onto their next release in the production, in which before, their first two albums were quick and easy to make. To make this happen, they called no other than Talking Heads frontman and Brian Eno’s sidekick, David Byrne. The Talking Heads just came off the significantly well-crafted and critically acclaimed, Remain in Light (1980). Byrne, who was a great part of the production and sound of the Talking Heads, agreed to produce the B-52’s next release. Although, Byrne was working on another project, the musical score for American dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, he worked on that during the day and Mesopotamia at night. Working while getting very little sleep, the work was stressful for Byrne. This was originally supposed to be released as a full album, but with pressure from their label, Warner Brothers, to get an album out quickly and Byrne and the band having different ideas for the mixing of the album, the release became an EP rather than their third studio album. There were four known outtakes that were supposed to be released on Mesopotamia, but were left off. Three out of the four were re-recorded for their next release, Whammy! (1983), which included: “Queen of Las Vegas,” “Big Bird,” and “Butterbean.” The fourth track, “Adios Desconocida,” a tender ballad, has yet to be remade or released. The B-52’s actually wanted to include “Bird Bird” on Mesopotamia, but Warner Brothers disagreed and demanded “Deep Sleep” instead. And honestly, I agree with their label. The original version of “Big Bird” has never been released, but was played live during their Mesopotamia tour and has been rumored that it sounds just like the version from Whammy! – which includes a trumpet and saxophone solo and sounds like a typical B-52’s track, while “Deep Sleep” is very mellow and calm – something the B-52’s have never recorded, thus perfect for the avant-garde blend featured on Mesopotamia and in which, you can clearly hear the David Byrne touch.
The opening track, “Loveland” carries a steady bass line and chirpy synth lines, overlaid with Cindy Wilson’s slinky and irresistible vocals. It continues with Kate Pierson’s soothe and seductive voice on “Deep Sleep.” Pierson’s vocals quickly alters on the standout track, “Mesopotamia,” which features a very Talking Heads-esque opening and groovy beat. It greatly illustrates Pierson as a frontwoman, even though she shares the vocals with frontman, Fred Schneider. Nonetheless, she holds the spotlight. The next track, “Cake,” seems like a big mess – there is way too much happening at once. It’s a shared Wilson and Pierson track, featuring way too many layers including vocal overdubs, synths, and percussion. During the bridge, the song sort of fades away while Wilson and Pierson start talking about baking a cake, but then builds up again towards the end. “Throw the Beat in the Garbage Can” has a similar opening to Devo’s “Race of Doom” from New Traditionalists (1981), mainly in the instrumental section including: synths, keys, and bass. The song also strongly emphasizes the wild saxophone playing. The final track, “Nip It in the Bud” features a choppy guitar riff from no other than the late and extremely underrated guitarist, Ricky Wilson, a man who really knows how to wear a turtleneck. The opening guitar also draws similarity to the single, “Song For A Future Generation,” later released on Whammy!, taking the place of synths and the electronic atmosphere.
What the B-52’s showed here, were signs of change. Even though there were some classic elements, such as the bizarre songwriting and guitar style, the band radically changed their sound. They progressed themselves to the appropriate new wave and art rock eighties style. However, they wouldn’t perfect this until their next release.
Favorite tracks: “Loveland,” “Deep Sleep,” “Mesopotamia,” “Throw the Beat in the Garbage Can”
Least favorite tracks: “Cake,” “Nip It in the Bud”
You can listen to The B-52’s Mesopotamia here.
The B-52’s – Whammy!
In 1983, the B-52’s followed up Mesopotamia, with their third studio album, Whammy!, which is basically a continuation of what they did on Mesopotamia. However instead of working with David Byrne, this time the band worked with Jamaican audio engineer and producer, Steven Stanley, best known for working with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. The B-52’s were relentless with changing and updating their sound, thus Whammy! is another take on the band’s journey of experimentation.
During a visit at Compass Point Studios in the Nassau, Bahamas, best known for where AC/DC recorded Back in Black (1980) and also where Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, recorded their cringe-worthy seventh studio album, Love Beach (1977). First at the studio, the B-52’s re-recorded the tracks that were left off of Mesopotamia (“Queen of Las Vegas, “Big Bird,” and “Butterbean”) and later in December of 1982, recorded six new songs. At this time, guitarist, Ricky Wilson and drummer, Keith Strickland became multi-instrumentalists, by contributing all of the instrumentals, except additional instruments such as the trumpet and saxophone for Whammy!. Even though this album vastly differs from their first two releases, it still shows the B-52’s in their typical quirky and zany style.
Whammy! opens with “Legal Tender,” which features a steady drum machine and a genuine keyboard, underlaid with warm vocals from frontwomen, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, singing about making fake money in a basement, ready to be spent. The synthesizers also play a huge role in the opening track, drawing a resemblance to the new trend of new wave artists throughout the eighties, giving value to the instrument. “Whammy Kiss” features frontman, Fred Schneider at his most extreme, ending the song in reverberation by screaming “Give it to me!” With that line, you could probably guess how crazy this song is. This track differs from the rest due to how over the top it is, but that was what the band was known for. Next to “Mesopotamia,” the next track, “Song for a Future Generation” is the best experimental track from the B-52’s. It shows all five members singing, along with the key and synth lines creating a pleasant and cheerful landscape. Without a doubt, this is the best song off the album. If you thought “Whammy Kiss” was outrageous, the next track, “Butterbean” is just as bad. It almost sounds like the band is mocking their classic surf/punk style with modern instruments disorganized and outrageous draggy backing vocals from the females. The chorus changes several times in the song, but it is still a fun song to dance to. “Trism” is another alluring track from the start of it, but it becomes too repetitive and drags on. “Queen of Las Vegas,” shows some similar keyboard riff like shown on the classic Cindy Wilson lead vocal track off their debut, “Dance this Mess Around.” The lyrics are the deepest on the record, showing how perfect the vocals are without any male interference. The next track is a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry Kyoko” however on this version, your ears won’t bleed at the very beginning (come on, I love Yoko, but fuck that opening scream) and there is no Kyoko. The B-52’s transform Yoko’s version into a jumpy, obnoxious, Devo-like synth anthem. It gets even weirder on “Big Bird.” There’s a surprising horn and African drum section over a low keyboard line – something that could have been featured on nineties Nickelodeon, later ending in jazzy style. The congas are extensively emphasized, showing a wild taste and Stanley’s influence. The final track, “Work That Skirt” is a jam featuring all sorts instruments, with the electronics sounding like something which could have easily influenced the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2003). It’s a fantastic instrumental piece, but it’s a weak way to end the album. As a listener, you demand more. It would have been better as a transitional track; sort of a break from all the loopy singing by Schneider, Wilson, and Pierson.
This whole experimental project was a great idea by the band – it didn’t fail at all like some artists do when changing their sound. It’s a very eccentric and genius album, but holds too much emphasis on the consistent use of keyboards and synths, which was clearly its point. It creates this futuristic atmosphere, which still holds today. It might not be as classic as their first two albums, but it shows a much more stable organization in their order of songs. It’s very undeviating – keeping the party going. The point of the B-52’s music is supposed to make you get up and dance and that is exactly what they did on Whammy!.
Favorite tracks: “Legal Tender,” Whammy Kiss,” “Song for a Future Generation,” “Butterbean,” “Big Bird”
Least favorite tracks: “Trism,” Don’t Worry”
You can listen to The B-52’s Whammy! here.
Beck – Mutations
In 1998, it seemed that there was more to Beck than his slacker rapping pounding hit “Loser”. In 1996, Beck released his supreme second official studio album, Odelay, launching Beck to become one of the best musicians of our generation. Like Beck’s previous album, Mellow Gold (1994), it was an album of versatility. It blended various genres such as folk, psychedelia, hip-hop, noise rock, and electronic rock. Set apart from this, in 1998, Beck released Mutations. It was the third official studio album that showcased a more folksy and bluesy side of Beck, like in his early days. In other words, it was a return to Beck’s true artistry. In 1998, the public knew Beck for his obscured witty lyrics and eclectic style, featured in his first two official albums. Other than that, what he did was ignored commercially.
After two years of touring, Beck went back into the studio to record a new album. According to Beck, in the VH1 special, Behind the Music, he was going through an acoustic period and wanted to record a no sample-mixed album that was straightforward with some traditional songs. He hired no other than Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich. In two weeks, they recorded some space-age folk tunes, establishing Beck as an innovative artist. He would name this album Mutations, a transformation from its predecessor. The album wasn’t supposed to be released as an official album due to the change in style from its previous one. Beck meant to release the album independently, but when Geffen – Beck’s major label, heard it, they allegedly swiftly released it. And besides, Nigel Godrich is too good to produce an independent record.
Mutations opens with “Cold Brains,” a psychedelic track about nothing but death. The most memorable verse is its opening, including Beck’s glorious emphasis on the lyric “unglued” or as we know it, “ungluuuUUUed”. Following that, is a languishing and haunting track titled “Nobody’s Fault but My Own”. It’s remorseful, but later drifts towards selfishness and then the narrator falls in a sinister nature of depression. It’s considered to be the most compelling song off the album, embedding elements of Indian music just as Odelay embraced Latin. The track “Lazy Flies,” a never-ending vocal approach from Beck with lyrics like “The skin of a robot vibrates with pleasure”. It sounds almost like a precursor to what would be shown in his spellbinding follow-up Midnite Vultures. Afterwards follows my personal favorite, “Cancelled Check” that depicts a false reassurance. In an interview with KCRW in 1995, Beck stated how the song was inspired by an infomercial, discussing positive thinking and offering the viewer more if they purchase his tape. “We Live Again” was a song written by Beck as a tribute to his grandfather, Al Hansen. Beck’s grandfather was an artist, who employed garbage in his art, like stated in the lyrics: “Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy” – a major influence on Beck. The song was a great transition piece into the approaching experimental climax.
A song heard like no other throughout the album is the exotic ”Tropicalia”. It’s a song depicting a festival-like atmosphere celebrating Brazilian music with dancing and such, but behind all of this, “misery awaits”. It’s a tribute to the many Tropicalian artists of the late sixties, including Os Mutantes, who Beck very much admired. In Throwing Frisbees At The Sun: A Book About Beck, Beck stated that he still wakes up early on Sunday mornings and riffles through old stacks of records at various stores hoping to find an old folk collection, or some Tropicalia that he’d never heard of. In an interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Beck stated “‘Tropicalia’ was a song loosely about that era of Brazilian music and culture when these musicians were under siege by the powers that be and the music was changing. I found it an exciting time and interesting subject matter.” It’s one of those happy sounding depressing songs. Later songs such as ”Dead Melodies,” “Bottle of Blues,” and “O Maria” continued this beautiful flow the album offers. Furthermore, came the song “Sing It Again,” almost like an encore piece that killed the wonderful flow. At the beginning, Beck is heard saying: “Should we do another one then?” The albums ends with the elegant and heart-wrenching “Static,” a perfect closing for the album, where Beck utters the final lyrics “Be gone”.
The album has now ended, so you think. Out of the speakers, comes this odd Game Boy carnival sound transitioning towards a hard rocking guitar riff. Later, you hear Beck singing on this hidden track, unlike the previous hidden tracks from earlier albums which are mostly electronic high-pitched noises. The track is entitled “Diamond Bollocks,” which sounds like an extra off Odelay. The style of this hidden track was perfect with what followed a year later.
With the success of Odelay, Beck brought in a new fan base with Mutations and introduced listeners to the softer side of him. With a strong critical reception, it still didn’t reach the potential as its forerunner. It was an album where Beck wanted to be taken seriously. He wasn’t singing about going back to Houston to get some pants or a giant dildo crushing the sun. His lyrics here were much more somber and mature than what he recorded before. It’s not an enigma this time, we know what he is talking about. He echoed and fulfilled that beauty of those early days into something sonorous. Thanks to Mutations, it lead the way for companion albums to follow such as Sea Change (2002) and Morning Phase (2014). Unfortunately, it’s an album overshadowed by its placement within Beck’s discography, but it truly showed Beck after his breakthrough.
Favorite Tracks: “Cold Brains,” “Cancelled Check,” “Tropicalia,” “Bottle of Blues,” “Static”
Least Favorite Tracks: If I had to choose, it would be the transition to “Sing it Again”
Listen to Beck’s Mutations here.
Golden Earring – Moontan
In July of 1973, the Dutch rock band released their ninth studio album, Moontan. Hairy chests and colorful clothing was what now Golden Earring was presenting. They were also progressing more towards mainstream hard rock. They were successful. In 1973, their single, “Radar Love” became a radio hit and went to number-one on the Dutch charts and reached number-thirteen on the Billboard charts in the United States. It also hit Top Ten in many countries, including the UK, Australia, Germany, and Spain. It became a showstopper at concerts and helped the band achive worldwide fame. Golden Earring went from small ballrooms to the grand stage.
Moontan opens with the track “Candy Says”. It includes a heavy guitar riff attached with Barry Hay’s future-eighties vocals, implicating just as how Golden Earring was ahead of their time. “Suzy Lunacy (Mental Rock) blends hard rock with glam and sounds as if, T-Rex wrote a song for The Rocky Horror Show. On “Just like Vince Taylor,” Golden Earring imitates the mainstream hard rock style, sounding like KISS and Aerosmith. This was perfect because both groups opened for Golden Earring during their 1973-1974 tour, which might’ve been the influence for a sound like theirs. There is some long and consistent instrumentation that can be boring on some tracks including “Are You Receiving Me” and “The Vanilla Queen”. Nevertheless, these tracks showcase Golden Earring in their natural habitat, progressive rock.
Moontan holds more than just a single. From the first chord to the last, it fuses various genres. It was an that was overshadowed by its lead single. Moontan was the pivotal point in Golden Earring’s career, never achieving the success here again, until ten years later, with their hit “Twilight Zone.”
Favorite Tracks: “Candy’s Going Bad,” “Suzy Lunacy (Mental Rock),” “Radar Love”
Least Favorite Tracks: “Are You Receiving Me,” “The Vanilla Queen”
Listen to Golden Earring’s Moontan here.