Graded on a Curve:
Fred Schneider,

Celebrating Fred Schneider in advance of his 71st birthday tomorrow.Ed.

Fred Schneider is famous for his work in The B-52’s, but over the years he’s also released a pair of solo LPs, the second of which found him in some unexpected company and delivering a set of pumped-up, punked-out mania. But ‘96’s Just…Fred isn’t really an outlier in the man’s discography, standing instead as a brief manifestation of an alternate career possibility that also reinforces how the ‘90s produced all sorts of unusual musical documents. The record’s charms could easily encourage a little bit of the ol’ pogo and might even inspire a few appropriate laughs, so in the end it’s very much a part of Schneider’s MO.

I can still remember quite clearly the reaction of certain friends and acquaintances over the arrival of Just…Fred, the out-of-nowhere solo record from instantly recognizable vocalist Fred Schneider. The general idea expressed by these folks was that in deciding to record an LP with a certain highly opinionated and defiantly indie-minded producer and a bunch of oft-noisy underground rockers as his backing, Schneider had suddenly, out of the blue, gotten “hip.”

To put it kindly, that assessment only made any kind of sense if one’s historical perspective spanned back to around 1988 or so. To put it less kindly, it was simply malarkey, a belief wrapped up in denigrating The B-52’s mainstream breakthrough Cosmic Thing and its smash hit single “Love Shack” as unworthy of any serious consideration.

That song’s ability to cross nearly any kind of social lines in its soundtracking of celebrations of all sorts has almost turned it into a cultural inevitability. If you’ll be attending a wedding party any time soon, the smart money is on hearing “Love Shack,” and maybe more than once. The groom’s grandma might even start a conga line. In this writer’s perception the tune has become so associated with revelry that imagining a person listening to it while alone in their abode, simply sitting in a chair and perhaps eating an apple, seems rather ridiculous.

For some, the song’s social ubiquity will be off-putting. And a person can certainly hold legitimate reasons for disliking the tune. Plus, it’s such a dead-ringer that endeavoring to evaluate its actual artistic worth can seem like a waste of time; the reality is that it will continue to be there, at least until future songs eventually usurp its stature.

But without the commercial success of Cosmic Thing, The B-52’s very existence would seem rather anti-climactic. For while they exploded from the Athens, GA scene in 1979 with a debut album that’s status as a party classic is hard to dispute, the band were also saddled with the rep of the American New Wave’s patron saints of kitsch.

And while The B-52’s was a hit, it wasn’t actually that big, the record’s most successful single “Rock Lobster” not even breaking the US Top Fifty; that’s how strong the anti-New Wave sentiments of “real rockers” were at the time. Instead, the LP came to signify a road not taken, as New Wave fizzled out and morphed into the far more polite and introspective template of college-rock, a scene led in part by the group’s Athens cohorts R.E.M.

The B-52’s shouldn’t be reduced to just their debut and Cosmic Thing, however. The band’s 1980 sophomore effort Wild Planet is also quite a gas, and the vinyl version of their ’81 EP Party Mix is a cool curiosity that weaves songs from the first two albums into side-long pieces that essentially do the DJ’s work for them. How thoughtful.

“Mesopotamia,” the six-song ’82 EP of the stalled-out David Byrne-produced sessions for their prospective third album, is maybe a wee bit underrated. Whammy!, their actual third LP, continues the techno-pop inclinations hinted at on “Mesopotamia” and unfortunately endures as something of a disappointment.

A constant factor in the The-B-52’s strategy was the basic absence of angst. While far more than escapist fare, it was also assessed by many as “good-times” music, though methinks this is often overstated; it’s better said that the band’s sounds were intended to provide sweet release.

But if those anti-Wavers of yore required something considerably more libidinal (i.e., “manly”) in their pursuit of the rocking ideal, than ‘90s folks that were cognizant of their pre-Cosmic Thing existence were very likely to consider them as a quaint exponent of a supposedly simpler time; The B-52’s just weren’t “serious” enough for the era of Cobain, grunge, and indie-rock.

So the appearance of Just…Fred led many to the conclusion that Schneider had suddenly fallen under the spell of the period’s general free-for-all spirit. And it’s certainly deducible that he got caught up in the upside-down nature of the time, a decade where bands that once couldn’t have gotten arrested by a carousing record exec were suddenly given the keys to the big-label ranch in hopes of providing the next big thing.

But if so, his enthusiasm came at no cost to the man’s highly distinctive musical personality, which shines through loud and clear on Just…Fred. And if the record stands as an atypical wrinkle in his long career, it’s also a very good one. The story goes that Schneider had amassed a group of songs that were considerably darker than his norm, and therefore he felt they weren’t really suitable for The B-52’s proper.

So he sought out the production duties of one Steve Albini, former guitarist of ‘80s u-ground rock kingpins Big Black and also a studio vet with a rather uncompromising reputation. In a nutshell, he was openly critical of the corporate rock system, though this didn’t stop numerous major labels from acquiring his services, most notably on Nirvana’s final album In Utero.

The reality is that when enlisted by the big leagues, Albini took his job just as seriously as when he was assisting on the debut recording from a bunch of aspiring unknowns. For Just…Fred he brought in three different bands to back up Schneider; Toronto, CA’s Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Providence, RI’s Six Finger Satellite, and Deadly Cupcake, a group assembled for the session that consisted of The Didjits’ Rick Sims on guitar, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Russell Simins on drums, and Tar’s Tom Zaluckyj on bass.

And what might seem like an oil-and-water combination actually unwinds quite naturally. Right out of the gate “Whip” merges potent speed-punk with Schneider’s signature speak-and-shout style; more than once I’ve heard folks naysay the man as being essentially a “novelty” vocalist, but Just…Fred tramples that argument underfoot.

For time well spent with this album makes clear that many a hopeful punk act would’ve bent over backwards to secure Schneider’s talents as frontman. And as he turns up the aggressiveness he loses none of his unique inflection; in the process the songs really stand up and stand out. This is another way of saying the record is effectively Fred’s show. The backing throughout is surely admirable, but with a lesser or far more conventional figure at the microphone it would likely register as simply orthodox, potentially even generic, and would therefore be of far more minimal interest.

Take “Helicopter” for instance; Schneider’s alternation between drowsy emoting and agitated ranting works because it’s actually right in his wheelhouse; nothing feels forced or for that matter theatrical, at least in a negative way. But theatrical in positive way? Well, that’s “Sugar in My Hog” to a tee, the singer seizing upon the chance to ape the antics of an incensed biker victimized by vandalism. And what a performance he gives.

As the record motors along, Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” gets an inspired reworking, the transformation fitting Schneider’s approach like Day-Glo wetsuit. The original had seen a resurgence a few years prior through inclusion on the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs, but that fact doesn’t seem to figure much in its appearance here, since in an interesting parallel Just…Fred’s childhood cover snapshot echoes the same motif on Nilsson’s ’69 LP Harry.

Another particularly strong moment comes via the spastically stomping “Radioactive Lady Eyeball,” Deadly Cupcake coming on like early Helmet channeling ‘70s Devo while Schneider barks prescient lines like “call me on your cellular phone!” Also of note is the catchiness of penultimate track “Secret Sharer,” maybe the best tune-as-tune on the record, and Fred’s rather restrained vocals throughout.

Not everything here cuts the same level of mustard, but there are also no major dips in quality. And it’s much better overall than Fred Schneider and the Shake Society, his ’84 solo debut. Outside of the risqué hilarity of “Monster,” that album basically fizzled. By comparison, Just…Fred just…rips.

No, it’s not the guy’s greatest moment, but it’s not really that far off. And anybody that’s ever loved both the unsubtle thrust of The B-52’s and the blaring pummel of punk rock should find it an especially winning combination.


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