Part III of my “Only Assholes Don’t Like the B-52s” multimedia dossiers on the wild and wonderful recording career of that great American band, the B-52s. Today’s topic, my personal favorite of all of their releases, the 1982 EP produced by David Byrne known as Mesopotamia.
Yes, what is generally thought of as being one of their least successful records—it was critically savaged when it came out—is to my mind their very best work. The hiring on of Byrne, then at the height of his creative powers—he was simultaneously producing the seminal score he did for Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production, The Catherine Wheel—I thought was an inspired move on the band’s part. Byrne introduced the polyrhythmic African beats of Remain in Light and his Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts into the signature sound of the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia’’ to great effect. I was a huge Talking Heads fan, so hearing elements of their “African/Eno-era” sound melding with the trademark B-52s wacky racket was heaven for me as a teenage rock snob. Byrne took their sound to a different place, and I felt nicely expanded on their sonic palette. The B-52s obviously felt differently, as Byrne was fired before a complete album could be recorded (hence only an EP of the sessions was released).
Seriously, you have no idea how often I played this record. It falls into the “soundtrack of my life” category in a big way. But what many fans of the group do not know is that there are three very different versions of Mesopotamia: The “classic” shorter US/Warner Brothers EP version; the extended mix version mistakenly(?) released in Germany and in the UK by Island Records; and the 1991 CD version, which basically mixed David Byrne’s contribution right out of the proceedings…
The first two B-52s albums are classics, and to my mind perfect in every way, but a third album in that same style would have probably been one too many. Byrne’s involvement, for many fans, took the band a little too far away from their inspired amateur beginnings perhaps, but who else but Byrne was capable of coming up with such amazing grooves back then? And haven’t the B-52s always been about the beat? David Byrne was on fire then creatively. I’ve read that the B-52s felt that his production made them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but hey, what a valid direction that was for them!. True, certain elements of their sound (Ricky Wilson’s Venusian/spy-fi surf guitar for one) were diminished, but other elements (Wilson’s striking use of dissonance in his compositions) are given free rein with different instrumentation (like the nearly atonal “No Wave” horn lines). Their sound was nicely expanded upon by Byrne’s “dubbier/trippier” and more-layered production approach, if you ask me, but the B-52s didn’t ask me, and it’s their call, ultimately…
Still why not release a special collector’s edition of Mesopotamia with the original longer David Byrne mixes and the known outtakes: “Queen of Las Vegas,” (see below), the original “Big Bird” and “Butterbean” (both recut for Whammy) and the pretty, out-of-character Fred Schneider ballad “Adios Desconocida” (which you can hear here). In any case, the longer, “alt” David Byrne version of Mesopotamia, unavailable now for nearly 30 years and never released on CD can be downloaded all over the Internet.
PS I don’t hate the 1991 remix of Mesopotamia, but I’d never choose to listen to it over either of the David Byrne versions. Ever. Nuff said.
Kate, Fred and Cindy on the set of The Guiding Light soap opera in 1982 (see below for video clip)
A slamming live “Mesopotamia” from the Rockpop Festival, Dortmund, Germany, 1983:
Compare the nearly 8-minute David Byrne-produced version of “Cake” with the shorter song that was released ex-UK and Germany. This song minus the horns at the beginning? A sacrilege!
And to think that at one point, I actually thought this song really was really about baking a cake… Short version of “Cake” (US version):
Below, “Deep Sleep.” It’s true that this would very much sound at home on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but would anyone doubt that this is the B-52s once the vocals come in?
The B-52s make a guest appearance on The Guiding Light in 1982 performing “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can.”
The longer David Byrne version of “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can”:
The longer version of Mesopotamia’s opening track, “Loveland”:
The original “Queen of Las Vegas” recorded with David Byrne for Mesopotamia. The song was re-recorded in a very different arrangement for Whammy. This was first released on the Nude On the Moon greatest hits compilation. Quite interesting, although the Whammy version still kicks its ass.