12 September 2009
In an earlier post, we noted the dilemma many New Wave groups faced as the days of skinny ties and twitchy pop began to give way to the grey overcoats and angular, funk -inspired dance music of Post Punk. Like Lene Lovich, the B-52's had epitomized the retro dayglo orange fun of the late seventies scene. On songs such as "Rock Lobster" and "Planet Claire" they had mixed twangy guitar lines, kooky organs and beehive hairdos into a sweet and frothy confection, filling college dorm dance floors and even making inroads onto mainstream radio. But as the eighties dawned, they too went looking for ways to expand their musical range, and assert their willingness to take artistic risks without abandoning their abiding commitment to the groove that moves.
To help them make the transition from New Wave to Post Punk, from the college dorm to the local art gallery, they enlisted the help of David Byrne, hoping he might do for the five-piece from Athens, Georgia what Brian Eno had done for The Talking Heads, secure their place as critical darlings while paving the way for further commercial success. By the time that Byrne came to work with the band in 1982, he had fully absorbed Eno's interest in African polyrythms and analogue synthesizers, and was already beginning work on his first solo effort, a score for Twyla Tharp's dance company that he would call, The Catherine Wheel. He soon stripped the B-52's' sound down to a dancey, primitive beat, the kitschy Secret Agent Man style guitar lines losing out to sleek synthesized bass lines, brass arrangements, and inventive percussion effects of the kind that were beginning to emerge from the nascent hip hop scene in New York. The resulting sound was considerably darker and more atonal than the band's earlier efforts, full of angular, abstract grooves that stood in stark contrast to the increasingly earthy and distinctly southern sensuality of Kate Pierson's and Cindy Wilson's vocals. It was adventurous, challenging music, but perhaps more reflective of Byrne's private preoccupations of the time than the interests of the band or its record company. At some point, the band and its producer fell out with one another and the sessions were abandoned. To recoup some of the costs, six of the most fully developed tracks were released as an ep, called Mesopotamia, a name which captured the sense of a band reaching deep into the past for the sound of the future.
Mesopotamia has always had its defenders. I certainly remember liking it a great deal more than their first two albums at the time of its release, but in general it has been regarded as a misstep by the band's fans. When it came for a cd reissue, it was completely remixed so as to efface any sign of Bryne's involvement, and it is this sanitized version which is today most readily available. But back in 1982, by some fortuitous accident, initial copies of the ep were released on the Island Record label in the UK and parts of Europe that included Byrne's longer, dubbier, and altogether more interesting mixes of several tracks, offering a brief glimpse of what The B-52's' third album might well have sounded like had Bryne been allowed to complete the project.
The version of Mesopotamia presented here is ripped from an early release UK copy on Island Records, complete with the black inner sleeve. The first side includes the extended mix of "Loveland," while the b-side offers versions of "Cake" and "Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can" that are far superior to those released subsequently. Thanks to VanceMan for the tracks from side two!
--Crash The Driver