When I opened the new reissues of the first two B-52s albums (from 1979 and 1980, respectively) I was taken with the bold-faced words on the reproduction of the original custom labels which instructed the user to “Play Loud.” I have been looking for clean original pressings of these albums — both the eponymous debut The B-52’s and the hot-on-its-heels sophomore (and some-say-superior) sister, Wild Planet — for some time now, compulsive collector that I am. High on the list of great party albums of their day, finding these pressings in top condition is not exactly an easy task out in the wilds of record collecting (ie. at stores and such) at reasonable prices. Yes, I might find clean used copies of them online, but for me that buying process is not as much fun and something I only resort to as a last ditch effort (usually for things that are impossibly rare). The best copies I’ve found of these albums to date have been (probably) second press runs with the beige Warner Brothers label (both are pressed at Sterling and the first one has no barcode on the cover, an indicator of a relatively early press). But, they are well used and as good as they sound, still have seen some love over the years; add to that noisy 1970s remnant oil-crisis era vinyl, and I keep feeling I can do better on these albums for my collection.
Thus, when I saw the standard-weight, colored vinyl reissues out from Warner Brothers / Rhino Records, I decided to take a chance on them. If ever there were records that needed to be on colored vinyl, it was these two (red and yellow) albums by The B-52s. The new (seemingly limited edition) pressings are well centered and generally pretty quiet (sorry colored vinyl haters) and they even come with the original inner-sleeves reproduced for good measure. I picked up my copies at Amoeba Music and 1234GoRecords here in San Francisco. I haven’t been able to find these editions on Amazon so I suspect these are exclusives for record stores — so, yes, you will need get out of your person cave and go down to your favorite store to find these!
But, getting back to the whole “Play Loud” concept, I’ve only seen this sort of instruction a handful of times over the years, including on The Cure’s Disintegration and John Lennon’s first solo singles from 1969 and 1970, “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma”). I’m sure there are others out there. Admittedly, I am not entirely sure if these are all honest directives due to the nature of the recording — such as on the Cure album which says: “This music has been mixed to be played loud so turn it up” — or simply a desire on the part of the artist for their fans to rock out as righteously as they did in the studio and turn up the volume “to 11.” Some music just sounds better played really loudly, stimulating endorphins and all that…
Still, it intrigued me seeing these B-52s records telling me to pump it up… so, given I was planning on reviewing the albums I did and the results were interesting. While the music didn’t fall apart (as happens some times with lesser remasters), the harshness factor increased significantly as I played the reissue vinyl louder and louder to a point where it hurt my ears. On the earlier pressing, I was able to take up the volume a great deal louder before it became ridiculous. Along the way, I noticed that the bass and midranges were rounder sounding on the original and I was also hearing a bit more of the resonance of the studio and amps used on the recording. The new reissues sound fine played at a comfortable — dare I say, “average” — listening level. So perhaps one should take that “Play Loud” instructive with a grain of salt if you are getting the new editions.
Further intrigued, I popped on to Tidal to see what was there and found both albums (click here for yellow, here for red as well as a Complete Collection of B-52s albums) streaming at 192 kHz, 24-bits. Not surprisingly, they generally sounded real good and quite similar to the new reissues. So much so, I wouldn’t be surprised if the vinyl was mastered off of the same files (stands to reason… but it’s admittedly a guess, folks).
All this brings me back to the collectors conundrum: which versions do I keep? Well, for now, I’ll keep both. I like the colored vinyl ones and the pressings are quite a bit quieter than my originals. My reality is that for the most part I can’t play music which has been heavily digital processed loudly for long periods anyhow, so these will be good for casual background listening — they aren’t bad, really! If I want to crank up the volume a bit, I’ll have my originals to fall back on.
Here’s another speculative twist I’ll leave you with based on a discussion I had with another B-52’s fan on a Facebook music group I participate in: apparently, the UK original pressings are the ones to seek out if you want to hear this music in “first generation” fidelity. While I have not been able to find confirmation of this — possible fan rumor — I was told that the original tapes were lost for remastering purposes and also that producer Chris Blackwell (who was from England) kept the masters in the UK. Thus, the UK pressings (mastered at Sound Clinic) were likely made off the master tape while the US pressings may well have been created off of a safety dub. If anyone out there in audiophile-land has more details on this, please leave some comments below for all of us fans to read about.