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The B-52's

The B-52s  Hear it Now

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For American teenagers, the mid-Sixties were a kind of mythic high-water mark: a loony but epic combination of kicks, innocence, explosiveness, camp and high drama, bound on one side by the pop politics of the New Frontier and on the other by the casual surrealism of Beach Blanket Bingo and Gilligan's Island. The B-52's capture what that period was about better than anyone I can think of. In no time at all, this self-described "tacky little dance band" from Athens, Georgia, has become the hottest unknown quantity around and the center of an intense word-of-mouth campaign ever since setting a jaded New York club scene on its ear last winter. While their long-awaited debut album doesn't come close to capturing the visual exuberance and rocking intensity that makes the B-52's, above all, a great dance band, it ought to be a revelation to people who've never heard the group.

Though they sound like every great trash-rock act of the mid-Sixties--from Lesley Gore to the Supremes to the Ventures--rolled into one, the B-52's are a long way from nostalgia. To them, it's a bygone era, seen from a stylized distance. When the names of Sixties pop icons like Gilligan's Island sex-pot Tina Louise, Brenda Starr or "Jack Jackie-o," emerge out of the blur of "52 Girls" ("These are the girls of the You! S.A."), it's as if the band were resurrecting long-lost patron saints.

The songs on The B-52's are drivingly modern, aggressively forward, with all the signposts (sexual and otherwise) obscured. This group turns the great American teenage tale of cruising and parties and beaches into a science-fiction fantasy, while simultaneously making interplanetary travel seem as homey as a summer backyard barbecue. "This is the space age," lead singer Fred Schneider, sounding like a pleasure-cruise huckster, announces in "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)." When he adds, "Don't feel out of place/'Cause there are thousands of others like you," Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson keen and carol behind him like ethereal messengers bringing greetings back to earth. What we have here is the conjunction of the planets treated as the universe's biggest pajama party.

Despite the lack of snap and punch in Chris Blackwell's production, the music has a wiry strength that doesn't let go. It's all ringing hooks and lunging dance rhythms, light and airy but with a simmering tension underneath in the form of Keith Strickland's stop-and-go drumming and the nips and jabs of Kate Pierson's Farfisa organ. In "Lava," a song that runs one erotic metaphor through a deft series of changes until it boils over in your head, guitarist Ricky Wilson's gutty power chords lurch and reverberate like slabs of molten stone on the move, the organ shrieks in distress, and the women's voices curl in whispers and moans around the melody. Everywhere, the tracks are spiked with hisses and beeps like the cheesy special effects of a Japanese horror movie. Yet there's a comic-visionary edge to the compositions, too, especially in "Planet Claire," The B-52's' pushing-off-into-the-void opener.

The tune where the band's themes come together most vividly is "Dance This Mess Around." Like nearly every cut on the record, it goes on far too long, but that doesn't dilute its incantatory force. "Everybody goes to parties/They dance this mess around," Cindy Wilson declares fervently, as if she's just seen the light, while a sinuous Doors-type organ snakes in to pull you into the beat. Wilson and Schneider run down a very funny list of imaginary dances ("Do the Aqua-velva!") as the music builds and sizzles slowly all around them, their voices entwining, colliding and splitting apart only to join together again. Like good disco, "Dance This Mess Around" celebrates dancing symbolically as the key to a whole way of life, but the song's crowded, offhand intimacy and warmth are a far cry from disco's glossy impersonality.

In some ways, "Downtown," the track The B-52's coasts out on, is even better. Petula Clark's hit version of a decade ago was a kitsch classic, a glamorized Broadway-style showstopper. Here, the B-52's take away all the props and let "Downtown" speak for itself. Cindy Wilson cajoles and insinuates her way through the lyrics, charging their promise of good times with suggestiveness and lazy heat. At tune's end--in a brilliant juxtaposition -- the rinky-dink organ line resolves into the classic guitar riff from the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" for a long, floating fade. For all its sweetly campy craziness, it's a genuinely rousing moment.

Some things don't work. There isn't a number here that couldn't do with some tightening and added color. "Rock Lobster," the big beach-party fantasy that closes side one, feels bloated and overcooked. (I far prefer the sparser, shorter version on the group's original self-produced single.) "6060-842," the trying-to-get-you-on-the-phone track, is played all right, with a pulsing chorus and some punchy rhythm guitar, but the idea is stale and the lyrics not very imaginative. It's easy, too, to regret the omission of live favorites like "Strobe Light" and especially "Devil in My Car," which, with its voodoo primitivism and crazed back-roads intensity, is the band's most Southern -- and probably best--song.

Still, these minor drawbacks--and the major drawback of the lackluster production--don't hurt as much as they might. Even toned down and flattened out as they have been here, the B-52's are one of the most exciting groups to come along in years. Though this album is a somewhat uncertain beginning, it promises great things. Right now, The B-52's is probably a livelier party than you've been invited to for quite a while.


(Posted: Sep 20, 1979)


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Review 1 of 1

jonnyoz13 writes:

4of 5 Stars

Growing up at the turn of the 70's/80's I have enjoyed a lot of artist and albums, but only a few come to mind that when heard for the first time were revolutionary to me. Among these were Devo's first album (Q?), Dark Side of the Moon, and of course the B-52's initial effort. So many "catchy" things, Fred's deadpan voice filtering in, Ricky Wilson's thumping cords, and of course Cindy and Kate's harmonious blasts. To this day they are the only band I own an album of, except for the Pretender's, that have primary female vocalist. They have got to be top 5 all time of female duos, synching so perfectly. Add to that the irreverant and offbeat lyrics, and UNIQUE applies with fervor.

Aug 5, 2006 00:09:13

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