Friday, August 31, 2012

The B-52's -- "Dance This Mess Around" (1979)

Do the coo-ca-choo
Do the Aqua Velva
Do the dirty dog
Do the escalator 

There were a lot of records about fad dances released in the early sixties -- Chubby Checker's "The Twist," Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time," Freddie and the Dreamers' "Do the Freddie," the Orlons' "The Wah-Watusi," Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion," and many, many others. 

"Dance This Mess Around" is more reminiscent of a number of later singles that referred to several different dances, not just one.  For example, there was Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances" (later covered by Cannibal & the Headhunters and Wilson Pickett):

You gotta know how to pony like Bony Maronie
Mashed potato, do the alligator
Put your hands on your hips, let your backbone slip
Do the Watusi, like my little Lucy 

Kenner's version of the song mentioned a total of sixteen dances: the pony, the mashed potato, the alligator, the Watusi, the chicken, the twist, the fly, the jerk, the tango, the yo-yo, the sweet pea, the hand jive, the slop, the bop, the fish, and the Popeye.

Here's Jenner's original 1962 single.  Note that his version does not include the "na na na na na" section, which was improvised by Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia of Cannibal & the Headhunters when he forgot the lyrics.

"California Sun" by the Rivieras (which was covered by the Ramones and the Dictators, among others) is another example of this genre:

Where they walk, and I'll walk
They twist, and I'll twist
They shimmy, and I'll shimmy
They fly, and I'll fly

Finally, there's "Nobody But Me" by the Human Beinz:

Nobody can do the shing-a-ling like I do
Nobody can do the skate like I do
Nobody can do the boogaloo like I do
Nobody can do the Philly like I do

"Dance This Mess Around" is different from the earlier songs in one important way -- the dances it lists are not real dances, but made-up ones.  

Here's another verse from "Dance This Mess Around":

They do the shu-ga-loo
Do the shy tuna
Do the camel walk
Do the hip-o-crit 

[Editor's note:  The lyrics to "Dance This Mess Around" are printed on the record sleeve of The B-52's album.  The B-52's capitalized the names of their fictional dances as if they were all proper nouns, but I decided not to do that.   Because waltz, tango, fox trot, and other older dances generally aren't capitalized, I decided not to capitalize the names of these dances -- except when the name was itself a proper noun, like "Watusi" or "Aqua Velva."  (I bet you didn't know that Aqua Velva was originally a mouthwash.)]

The B-52’s (who dropped the apostrophe in 2008) were almost as odd a band as Devo was.  (Not quite – I don’t think any band was an odd as Devo was.)

The B-52’s formed in 1976 after its founding members had shared a communal “Flaming Volcano” drink at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Georgia.  (Three of the band’s members – siblings Cindy and Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland – were born in Athens, home of the University of Georgia.  I’m not sure how New Jersey natives Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson ended up there.)  The band’s first public appearance was at a friend’s 1977 Valentine’s Day party. 

The group released their first single, “Rock Lobster,” in 1978, and the success of that record resulted in gigs at two legendary punk/new wave clubs in New York City (CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City).  Their eponymous debut album was released in 1979, and it was a big favorite of mine and my good friend (and Federal Trade Commission officemate) Scott. 

Scott and I were just two of the twenty or so brand-new attorneys who started working at the Federal Trade Commission on September 21, 1977 – almost four months after we graduated from law school, and two months after the bar exam.  Why did the agency wait so long to put us to work?

If you had ever worked for the federal government, you’d know all about fiscal years.  For the feds, the year begins on October 1 – that’s the day when your new appropriation kicks in.  Any agency funds that aren’t spent by September 30 are lost forever, so there is often a mini-orgy of spending in September each year.  (Heaven help the agency that doesn’t spend all of its appropriated funds for salaries, travel, office furniture, or whatever by the end of the fiscal year – Congress might get the idea that the agency doesn’t need so much money and cut back on the next year’s appropriation.)

The other side of the coin is that if an agency is spending too much money, it has to tighten its belt and defer expenditures until the next fiscal year.  That’s why all the new hires at the FTC came on board on September 21.

The FTC's headquarters building
“Wait a minute,” you say.  “September 21 is in the old fiscal year.  Why didn’t they start you on October 1?” 

The FTC paid its employees every two weeks.  You got a check at the end of the pay period.  So if you started on Monday, September 21, you didn’t get paid until Friday, October 2 -- which fell in the subsequent fiscal year.  We could go to work in the old fiscal year, but our salaries didn’t count against the FY (fiscal year) 1977 budget because we didn’t get our checks until after FY 1978 had begun.  Comprenez-vous?

I was fortunate to be assigned to share an office with Scott.  He had been in my law school class, but we hadn’t known each other.  And while we didn’t have a lot in common on the surface -- I had grown up in Missouri and gone to college in Texas, while Scott was from Long Island and had gone to Princeton -- we were both huge Yankees fans and had similar tastes in music.  So we got along just fine.

We were fond of the old Georgetown University station, WGTB, and used to have its very outré music playing in our office eight hours a day.  The very left-wing students who had run the station in the sixties clashed regularly with the Jesuit administrators of the university.  By the time Scott and I came to the FTC, the university had managed to wrest control of the station back from the radicals.  They were still playing music that no commercial station in Washington would touch, but the politically extreme programming and public-service announcements for NORML and a local abortion clinic were gone.

Soviet-style sculpture outside FTC HQ
How were we able to work with Fugazi and the Cramps and Husker Dü and the B-52s blasting away in our office?  To be perfectly frank, we didn’t really do that much work our first couple of years at the FTC.  (I’d say the problem was 50% youthful high spirits, 50% lack of supervision.) 

WGTB wasn’t our only distraction.  Another young attorney we became friendly with used to bring around a photocopy of the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.  That puzzle was a bitch, boys and girls – it required a lot of time.  (Your tax dollars at work!)

But that time wasn't entirely wasted.  I still remember learning that there were certain words you saw often in the Times crossword, but nowhere else – “orts,” for example.  ("Orts" refers to the scraps of food left behind after you've finished a meal.  I've seen the words several times in crossword puzzles, but never anywhere else.  I guess it could come in handy in Scrabble as well.)

Here's "Dance This Mess Around":

The B-52's performed "Dance This Mess Around" live on Saturday Night Live on January 26, 1980.  (The host that night was Teri Garr, one of my all-time favorites.)  Click here to view that performance.

Use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

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