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35 Years Ago: B-52’s, David Byrne Team Up on ‘Mesopotamia’

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When the B-52’s moved from Athens, Ga., to New York City in the late ’70s, one of the first bands that befriended the new wave quintet was Talking Heads. Although the groups had distinct approaches to their music, an alliance made sense, given their shared love of dance music and off-kilter humor. They also shared a manager in Gary Kurfirst (who also worked with the Ramones and Blondie).

The B-52s’ first two albums – 1979’s self-titled debut and 1980’s Wild Planet – used up all of the band’s pre-existing songs. Kurfirst knew the group needed an infusion of new material, although he didn’t expect much to change in regard to the B-52’s nervy, retro-go-go, surf-rock sound.

“I really do feel trapped,” guitarist Ricky Wilson told Rolling Stone near the end of 1980. “Gary was talking about our next album, and I mentioned that it might not be a dance record, and he was so shocked by that idea. It’s shocking to me that people really do expect that of us now.”

Perhaps seeing a way to soothe Ricky and the band’s frustrations while simultaneously pairing two of his clients together, Kurfirst advocated for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne to produce the next B-52’s album. He wanted Byrne and the B-52’s to begin the project right away, in 1981.

“Actually, we wanted to write more songs,” singer/multi-instrumentalist Kate Pierson recalled to the A.V. Club. “We weren’t really ready to put out this album, and Gary had suggested working with David Byrne, but we hadn’t written all the songs out. He said, ‘You gotta put another record out!’ He was one of those managers who was, ‘Ya gotta do this! Ya gotta do that!’ So he kind of forced us.”

Although the band – who were looking to do something new – and Byrne – who had become interested in production via Talking Heads’ work with Brian Eno – were excited to work together, the situation in ’81 was far from ideal. As Pierson said, the B-52’s barely had enough material to record while the Talking Heads’ singer was working on his soundtrack for Twyla Tharp’s dance project The Catherine Wheel.

Bowing to pressure, each side made compromises. The band hastily readied the new songs and Byrne worked simultaneously on the projects – devoting time to The Catherine Wheel during the day and producing the B-52’s by night (and getting little sleep in the process). The match between these musicians seemed ideal, but the situation was far from it.

Listen to “Cake”

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“‘Cake’ wasn’t really finished,” Pierson said. “‘Deep Sleep,’ I just kind of stuck that lyric on in the studio in one take. It was just not finished.”

Mesopotamia was the name given to the project, which found Byrne helping the B-52’s to broaden their sound by using a lot of elements familiar to the recent Talking Heads LPs: worldbeat, horn sections and densely layered synthesizers. Whether it was lack of sleep, material or artistic cohesion, the collaboration soon broke down. The sessions stopped, leaving Kurfirst in a difficult spot.

The manager had promised this new release with a high-profile partnership to the B-52’s record labels (Warner Bros. in the U.S., Island in the U.K.) and now might have nothing to show for it. Kurfirst arranged to put out a remix EP – Party Mix – to buy the band some time to assemble something from the Mesopotamia studio sessions.

Eventually, the band agreed that there was enough good material to deliver a 25-minute EP with six songs. Ironically, “Throw That Trash in the Garbage Can” made the final tracklist. Other songs were junked and some were refashioned/re-recorded for 1983’s Whammy.

Mesopotamia came out on Jan. 27, 1982, followed by the B-52’s “Meso-American” tour to promote the record, including a guest spot on the daytime soap opera Guiding Light. But the difficulties didn’t end with the EP’s release.

Watch the B-52’s on ‘Guiding Light’

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In Island’s haste to get Mesopotamia printed and in stores, the label accidentally included longer rough mixes of “Cake,” “Loveland” and “Throw That Beat” – upping the EP’s running time by more than seven minutes. The error was found and corrected, but the fans who got their hands on an initial version quickly dubbed the demo versions “David Byrne’s original mixes,” due to some funkier touches and denser sounds. Some listeners still prefer the rougher takes to the versions on the approved EP, which earned mostly mixed reviews from fans and critics.

Because of the project’s rushed nature, fizzled collaboration and (partially) botched release, Mesopotamia remains a controversial entry in the B-52’s catalog. Over the decades there have been rumors, and even some blunt talk from singer Fred Schneider, about expanding the EP into a fully realized album.

“We sometimes think, ‘Wow, if only we could go back and finish Mesopotamia’,” Pierson said.

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