Sandtimer Selects : The B-52s – ‘Legal Tender’

As live performances continue to be off the table for Sandtimer or, indeed, most bands across the world, releasing new music has started feeling a bit abstract. Without being able to get a group of people sitting in a room and focussing in, musicians are entirely dependent on the limited attention spans of millions of people browsing on their computers or phones- a good deal of which are also relying on the same device for an entire day’s work as well as the lion’s share of communication with their friends and family. It is not an ideal situation. After publishing our latest album Running In Sunlight at the end of last year, we’ve been writing and (remotely) recording some music that departs significantly from what we’ve done before. But it feels way too early to share, particularly as the new material is geared towards a live setting, and we will need to have a serious think about how to proceed with a future release.

In the meantime, what can a musician do? One thing I resolved to do a bit more of during this time and from now on was writing- about being a musician and about music- and maybe sometimes about life in general.

Anyway, here’s the first of a (hopefully) weekly blog about songs we like called ‘Sandtimer Selects.’ At the end of the post is a playlist with any music added to this category so far as well as one or two of our own tracks.

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It was a dark and dreary winter day in the UK’s second lockdown, some time in November. I walked to the local Co-Op to get a few things we’d run out of. A song I’d not heard before came on the Co-Op radio*. The message, a call to ‘roam around the world’ gave me a much needed lift and, when I got back to my flat a few minutes later, I searched the lyrics, found it and listened to it about five times in a row.

That song was ‘Roam’ by The B52s. It’s such an uplifting, concise song and is full of energy, optimism and escapism- three things that the continuing crisis really saps, if you were fortunate enough to have them before. The way Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson alternate between unison singing and some quite adventurous harmonies makes the dual vocals a fundamental part of the song rather than just a decorative feature.

It took me a few weeks to get round to listening to more of their stuff but, as I started delving into their catalogue album by album, it was an enlightening moment. Unusual, angular chord progressions, unique guitar tunings and deft, driving rhythms underpin the open and carefree vocal delivery of Wilson and Pierson. Fred Schneider’s spoken, often quite comedic vocal bark adds to the humour and jollity that the band seem to embrace. I do really enjoy the song ‘Love Shack’ but don’t think it represents the full depth and breadth of The B52s compared to some of their other music.

The song that I keep coming back to above all others is Legal Tender from the album Whammy. A haunting synth pad creates chiming harmonies, underpinned by motorik style drums and pulsing electronic bass. The guitar chords, when they appear, are beautifully sparse, marking out just the first and fourth beats. The structure of the song is quite hard to pin down- verses lead into what feel like choruses but then turn out to be more verses- and the phrase lengths have their own logic which probably wouldn’t make much sense on paper.

There’s almost a feeling of slight wistfulness created by the moves between major and minor, but a sense of hope too. It’s a song about printing counterfeit dollar bills. Somehow, though, it transcends that specific theme to more widely represent rebellion and resilience- someone learning to thrive in a system that is not working for them.

The video is entertaining and quite endearing. At 2:01 you also get a passing hint as to how Ricky Wilson tuned his guitar.

The song also kind of reminds me of Mario Kart 64- I don’t know why this is or even which level (Toad’s Turnpike? Rainbow Road?) but it is a positive association in my brain.

* I don’t know how the Co-Op curate their radio playlist but they seem to nail it- mostly good pop songs which have all too often faded into obscurity and which are uplifting without being saccharine.

RS