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19 December 2017

Mark Ellen on The B-52’s: “A crisp cartoon of sound and vision”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Mark Ellen

I’ve just lowered the needle on this much-adored, crackling slab of vinyl to be ferried back to the outer reaches of science fiction. A bleeping digital pulse, a rackety backbeat and a shrill wave of synthesiser eventually usher in the camp, nasal tones of someone celebrating a planet where the air is pink, the trees are red and one of its deathless natives has escaped to Earth where she now drives a Plymouth Satellite.

Some albums hold a mirror to the soul, others offer wisdom that slowly registers through the passing years, but for me this eternally cheering companion simply strikes its dependable notes of comfort and nostalgia, as fresh and energetic as when it first touched down in 1979; a crisp cartoon of sound and vision. Its cinematic lyrics and twanging surf guitar conjure images of a fading America, of Sixties dance moves and coast-bound classic cars in that delightfully upbeat age when people expected space travel in their own lifetime and nothing seemed impossible or remotely serious.

The five members of this magnificent band tooled up for their stage shows by raiding the yard sales of their local Athens, Georgia, the boys appearing in Hawaiian shirts, the girls in garish stretch-fabric and towering bouffant wigs. Their songs were equally over-cranked and agreeable – “My love’s erupting like a red-hot volcano.”

You weren’t invited to make a personal connection with any of it, just to be richly entertained, to be transported to a sun-lit universe where poolside parties are in permanent swing, people have names like Crystal and Mercedes, and carefree types in vibrant leisurewear cavort as if in a beach movie, or lie sizzling after applications of “tanning butter” (as in the glorious “Rock Lobster”, the track that inspired John Lennon to get back to the studio).

I still find this album a charming slice of theatre, the irresistible soundtrack to a world whose allure never fades. Some favourite records can be purely escapist. This flicks that switch every time.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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