THE B-52’S (ALBUM, 1979) & ‘SO WRONG THEY’RE RIGHT’ (FILM, 1995)
A kitschy new-wave band and latter-day 8-track collectors find joyous rebellion through thrift-store junk culture.
The Album: In 1979, kitschy, kooky Athens, Georgia new-wave band The B-52’s issued its self-titled debut album, with nine songs including “Planet Claire,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and “Rock Lobster.” The year before, they had released a different version of “Rock Lobster” as an indie single. My 8-track copy of the album is an RCA club tape, with extremely long pauses at points to even out the programs (and ponder wtf you just heard).
The Film: After promoting the ’90s 8-track revival in his fanzine 8-Track Mind, Russ Forster decided to visit some of the country’s most crazed tape collectors. In 1994 he and a videographer drove across America to interview fans of the unhip, outdated 8-track format. His lively and hilarious 90-minute documentary, So Wrong They’re Right (1995), is still available on video streaming and (of course) VHS tape.
Dare to be Dumb: Amidst the serious, heavy vibe of the postpunk era, the B-52’s were willfully goofy, with wacky lyrics like “Chased by a catfish… mee-yow!” In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds says the band would hold a laugh box to the microphone at early gigs to lighten the mood. 8-tracks are kinda laughable, too; in the film, Phil X. Milstein says these tapes are “so wrong they’re right” and compares them to black Labrador dogs: “they’re big, they’re dumb, but they’re sweet and basically they get the job done.”
Forward To The Past: Both B-52’s and 8-track buffs turned to retro trends from fifteen years prior. Reynolds notes that the band drew inspiration from “sixties dance crazes, comics and animated cartoons, and pulp sci-fi”; on the album, Henry Mancini and Petula Clark riffs collide with scenes of tiki-bar paganism and beach-party horror. Of course, 8-tracks have become an iconic ’70s collectible; in the film they’re joined by Banana Splits T-shirts, Beetlejuice dolls, smiley-face knick-knacks, and a beloved Erik Estrada poster. New York street artist Brendan DeVallance suggests that “happiness waits for you behind the times.”
Goodwill Hunters: Both band and collectors took inspiration from second-hand shops. Reynolds says the B-52’s’ “retro-kitsch image was hatched in [Athens’] numerous thrift stores and yard sales,” certainly the source of the band’s funky album-cover wardrobe. In the film, author Pagan Kennedy explains her thrift-shop obsession: “so much amazing stuff, so cheap… sort of being recycled…. this endless cycle of things changing hands.” Marci James shares her daring adventures raiding a Goodwill back room for secret stashes of 8-tracks; though she pays for the tapes, this nefarious habit gets her banned from the store for life. Bad will at Goodwill!
Swimming Upstream: The B-52’s weren’t exactly punks, but they did share that movement’s rebellious spirit. Their lyrics gently protest America’s limited societal choices (“they do all sixteen dances”) and restricted roles for females (“52 Girls” lists the “girls of the USA” in their entirety). In the film, Russ Forster says tape collectors are “driven to reject the prevailing mood of conformity by an irresistible force deep within us.” Doug Von Hoppe’s performance piece “My Vision for America” shows him setting fire to a pile of compact discs, defying what Forster calls the “masters of marketing who constantly tell us what to hear and how to hear it.”
Deadbeat Club: All three men in the original B-52’s lineup were gay, and “in Georgia back then, it was not at all cool to be gay,” says Maureen McGinley, the band’s early manager as quoted by Reynolds. “It was a tightly knit group, and that came from not being accepted by the larger community.” The film’s 8-track outsider clan “horde[s] together [via] networking to literally preserve every working 8-track cartridge on the planet,” says James “Big Bucks” Burnette. This far-flung network has fostered surprising friendships like the one between quiet student Christine Williams and “swingin’ 8-track chick” Abigail Lavine.
Infinite Loop: Both the B-52’s and 8-tracks have endured; the band continues performing to this day, and the tapes remain a cult favorite with future hipster potential (Brooklyn’s Academy Record Annex added an 8-track section just last week). Still, there have been losses; guitarist Ricky Wilson passed away in 1985, and Abigail Lavine died just two years after the film was released. (Her witty musings from the 8-Track Heaven website are preserved on archive.org.) Yet even as we come and go, the 8-track’s endless loop plays unceasingly for those who will listen; as DeVallance notes, “Eternity comes but once in a while.”
So Wrong They’re Right (trailer, 2 minutes): Includes outtakes from the film, including appearances by Tiny Tim and David Byrne and some groovy Abigail Lavine dance numbers.
So Wrong They’re Right (film, 92 minutes): Watch the entire documentary at the link and below.
You can read last week’s installment here: Jefferson Starship, ‘Red Octopus’ (1975)
Join us for more of Andrew Tonkin’s 8-Trackin’ next Thursday!