NOTE TO SHELF: Cosmic Thing by The B-52’s
This is the space where I recommend, or just blather on about, a recording from my shelf that I feel you should know about. I won’t do this everyday but when I do, it will be about recordings that “glow” or scream “play me” when I walk by the shelf (or the virtual iTunes shelf).
Today, I glanced at the shelf and noticed Cosmic Thing by The B-52’s. What follows is something I have been meaning to write for years.
Cosmic Contradiction? America’s favorite party band’s most commercial release is also a deeply spiritual and personal concept album. A celebration of cosmic transcendence you can dance to.
Following the death of founder guitarist Ricky Wilson (in 1985 from complications of AIDS), the rest of the Athens, Georgia collective — Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland and Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson — were at a musical and spiritual crossroads. It had been six years since they had broken through with their eponymous 1979 debut, surely one of the most ubiquitous party albums of its day. And while they certainly made some impressive follow-ups — including 1980’s Wild Planet, 1982’s critically acclaimed Mesopotamia EP (produced by David Byrne) and 1983’s Whammy! – by 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites, they seemed rudderless without Wilson’s signature Mosrite surf-guitar.
Ricky’s loss hit them hard; so much so that they found it impossible to tour behind the album and pulled off the road entirely for a few years.
But the party wasn’t over, they just needed to adjust their view of themselves. Maybe switch things up.
Thus, when the original four reconvened, Keith Strickland stepped from out behind his drumkit and taught himself how to play guitar in more or less in the identical style of his fallen friend. They could adjust the sound, but death had affected them. What did they want to say about the world? Could they somehow fold into their music their own politically aware, socially conscious, LGBT friendly worldview? Sure, even at their most camp, the band’s songs barely concealed an almost hippie penchant for social activism; they had always known that “art” is the middle word in “party”.
If there was going to be a wake for Ricky, it was going to be one hell of party.
The tribute would be, quite simply, a cosmic thing.
Working with some of the best producers of their day, Don Was and Nile Rodgers, and with instrumental support from cool bass player Sara Lee and groove monster drummer Charlie Drayton, the B-52’s created a record that was both their most artistic and personal album ever and, paradoxically, the most mainstream commercial release of their career.
As the catchy single “Love Shack” shot out of MTV and the radios of the world, in the summer of 1989, who would have guessed that this southern juke joint party was in fact a treatise on cosmic transformation? In other words, spirituality you can dance to.
Perhaps this was the B-52’s mission statement all along. To reach as many people as possible and get their toes tapping long enough to get them thinking about broader topics.
Underlying Kate and Cindy’s hippie harmonies, which had never been sweeter or tighter, or more in stark contrast to carnival barker Fred Schneider’s call-outs, songs like “Roam” “Dry County” or “Deadbeat Club” present a lyrical theme of wistful nostalgia, longing, loss and the quest for transcendence.
And you can party down to them. But then comes the album’s instrumental coda.
“Follow Your Bliss”, provides the final clue about the album’s transformative treatise. With a title based on Joseph Campbell’s three word secret of life, the piece is weighted by an elegiac, big-note surf guitar figure reminiscent of Ricky Wilson; a “missing man formation” in song. It is also uncharacteristically free of novelty – for once cosmic trumps comic – vacillating between an insistent keyboard figure and angelic female vocal “ahhhs”. Schneider respectfully stays out of the whole thing.
In context to the rest of Cosmic Thing, it comes off like the end theme to a particularly poignant film; the cosmic punch line to an album that, up until that moment, has quite literally danced around the subject.
And now a bonus find, the rehearsal run through of the band doing “Cosmic Thing” (in curlers) on SNL in 1990.