I first encountered the B-52s through “Love Shack” and its relative ubiquity. And then I became familiar with Kate Pierson through Out of Time. But I have never really been a fan of camp – or rather I am only a fan of selective camp – and so I thought they would never appeal to me. At some point later I heard “Rock Lobster” and “got it” in the sense that I could see why it created a buzz about them.
But now that I have heard an awful lot of the contemporary music I really get why this was a big deal. If you believe the New York Dolls invented punk (I don’t necessarily) then you think a key component of early punk was camp. But, of course, the British punk bands were incredibly earnest and the opposite of campy. (I assume this is one reason the Pistols hated the Dolls.) It’s possible someone could view the Ramones as campy, but that’s an interpretation they don’t necessarily force on the audience. The Dictators could be considered campy, but they could also be considered a little too satirical for that. (Also, I don’t think the Modern Lovers are camp, exactly.)
There hadn’t been camp in punk since the Dolls, if you include them in punk, and if you don’t then punk had never been campy. Punk was mostly serious. New Wave was, if anything, even more serious than punk, while trying to pretend it wasn’t so serious. Post Punk was serious.
But the B-52s are very clearly one of the campiest rock bands anyone had ever heard in 1979. There’s the same kind of worship of the sounds of yesteryear that was appearing in things like Bat Out of Hell and Grease but with the attitude of Rocky Horror filtered through the experience of punk music.
The result is something that sounds very much of its time – it’s very clearly the product of punk music, especially when Pierson or Wilson is screaming when we know they can actually sing – but which also barely resembles that music, such as in how flagrantly gay Schneider is and how reliant they are on goofy ’60s-inspired novelty sound effects and surf rock.
It’s so refreshing to hear a band that thought punk sounded like fun rather than rebellion. That kind of attitude was few and far between in 1979.