Appropriately, it started in the back of a Chinese restaurant in the South, with five people sharing a mammoth drink called a Flaming Volcano. From the restaurant, the party moved to a friend’s basement. It was there a frustrated poet-turned-journalism student (Fred Schneider), a protest singer-turned-goat farmer (Kate Pierson), a waitress kid sister (Cindy Wilson) and two friends who shared affection for James Brown and Captain Beefheart (Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson) became the cult sensation, the B-52’s.
Thirty seconds after it starts, Nude On the Moon: The B-52’s Anthology, proves that jam session irrecoverably altered the course of pop history. On the most superficial level, the 25 tracks of kitschy, bikini-beach New Wave are a document of playful, danceable creativity from Planet X.
But lurking below the songs about the mod-plasticity of love, monsters from beyond, Southern jive-talking spies and low-budget surf guitar are the seeds of a cultural revolution. With the “Rock Lobster” as its refreshingly gay mascot, the anthology pays homage to a revolution that offered art rock without pretension that took the world by storm. (Frank Zappa, David Bowie and William S. Burroughs were at one of the band’s first shows in New York.) What started around that Flaming Volcano not only directly influenced the next generation of cult-luminaries such as Björk’s Sugarcubes, Moxy Früvous and Ween, but also motivated a retired John Lennon to start writing songs again. Culturally, it has even more importance than that; it championed freaks over frats (some not-so-coincidental common ground the band’s music shares with the grunge movement) and married underground rock to retro fashion.
As a high-gloss retrospective, Nude On the Moon ably overcomes the main problem that riddles most compilations, offering both an ideal introduction to the band for newcomers and a handful of must-haves for B-52’s diehards. The former requirement is satisfied by a catholic attention to the band’s early grit, including high-profile rockers such as “Rock Lobster,” “Private Idaho” and “Lava,” as well as slightly lesser-known essentials and more discerning late selections such as “Give Me Back My Man” and “Deadbeat Club.” Old-school fans should relish the 52-page book of photos of the band in its gorgeous bouffanted glory and the unreleased tracks, including an outtake of “Queen of Las Vegas” from the Mesopotamia sessions and a notable new edit of “Theme from a Nude Beach.”
Ultimately, the collection breaks through the shell of hairspray and criminal popularity of “Love Shack” to the beautifully outcast essence at the heart of the B-52’s. It can be heard immediately in Fred’s snarl, Kate’s coo — voices that represent freethinking, strange love and the vast, uncharted territory of the imagination. Most importantly, these are the voices that created an off-center, oversexed, sci-fi world of beach parties, spy games and teenage rebellion that belonged exclusively to societal underdogs — and still does.
Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].