The B-52s: CBGB, New York NY

CHARLEY THE Soundman huddled behind his sacred mixing board and coolly surveyed the growing house. Packed literally to the rafters, the overflow crowd was an increasingly rare sight these days at CeeBee’s. The kindly engineer’s bearded face allowed a thinly disguised grin as he whistled through his teeth, “‘S’jes like the old days.”

Indeed, a scant eight months ago, the five Southern-fried oddballs known collectively as the B-52s had turned many a jaded New York ear with their mucho endearing blend of new-wave style experimentation and sheer unadulterated pop eclectic-sy. And now they had returned triumphantly as one of the few real commercial possibilities left on the punk circuit. The B-52s proved I made no mistake in my initial evaluation, with their expert synthesis of a refreshing spontaneity and a clever calculation designed to produce a truly modern dance music.

The show begins with a droning pitch on a tape loop, prepared by drummer Keith Strickland, the group’s electronic whiz. The band silently takes their places; an odder array of types would be difficult to imagine. The Hitchcockian device of injecting terror into an otherwise normal situation is a characteristic of the B-52s which puts them in the new wave soundtrack class of bands like Talking Heads, Television, or the Feelies.

Lead singer Fred Schnieder, in Hawaiian shirt, painter’s pants and clipped mustache, looks innocent enough as he wrenches notes out of his toy piano and walkie-talkie, yet he seems weirdly detached from the swirl of activity. At the same time, he never misses a cue. Spooky vocals by mini-skirted go-go girl Cindy Wilson (who doubles on conga drums and bass guitar) and bouffant maven Kate Pierson (who also plays mysterious, Nino Rota-inspired keyboards) give the B-52s their other-worldly, futuristic texture.

Both girls have an uncanny ability to mimic the mating cries of various denizens of the deep on the group’s debut 45, ‘Rock Lobster’. With guitarist Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother) maintaining a subtle yet incessantly rhythmic brand of reverbed Ventures licks, the result is an infectious backbeat impossible to misplace. The joint wriggled with bobbing heads and shimmying shoulders.

I have not discounted the possibility that the B-52s may be just a bunch of rubes who’ve stumbled on the ultimate pop formula; it is imperative that they avoid the one-joke trap that threatens DEVO and effectively stymied the Cramps. ‘Rock Lobster’ is a wonderful song and a revelatory concept; but so was ‘Sunglasses After Dark’ until the Cramps felt obliged to do it every night and stopped meaning it. The robot philosophies of bands like these can only stay relevant by remaining flexible enough to respond to cultural currents. DEVO’s collaboration with Neil Young is a hopeful sign for the future in this light. It is vital for bands like the B-52s to expand, rather than limit, their potential audience.

As the show progresses, it is apparent why — even if the words “new wave” cease to mean anything — bands like B-52s, Erasers, Cramps, Contortions, Come On, Model Citizens, Screamers, and DEVO are the future. (A “no future” indeed… Ed.) The interaction between the sexes in the B-52s, either while exchanging verses, jamming instrumentally or just communicating with each other, takes place on a decidedly non-macho level. The men are passive workers, almost drones to the sullen yet controlling Queen B’s. The result is an equality which seeks to make sense of the static of junk culture: the high and low of art, Yma Sumac to Nancy Sinatra, with various pit-stops en route. The B-52s have pop culture covered like a blanket, and they don’t lose the beat.

Hopefully, there will always be a place for a band like this one to play and be discovered. For a while, the new wave circuit offered promising surprises like the B-52s consistently, but lately the flow has ebbed.

What the lovable Georgians from Athens have discovered is that if you lay down a prominent drum-beat you can get away with a great deal of experimentation. Without a bass player (Cindy plays bass guitar on one number, Kate plays a bass line on the organ, the latter something Suicide has been doing for years), the B-52s have utilized an almost synthesized drum beat simply and effectively.

The B-52s combine the dumbly naive but celebratory spirit of the ’60s with the advanced yet fatalistic technology of the ’70s to create a new dance music, a sort of industrial surf sound. The kids do just wanna dance, and the B-52s, in their own smart-ass way, cater to that primal urge in an offhandedly sophisticated manner. The band left themselves with a lot of space in which to build their “sound” castles. They must either construct them with enough strength to withstand the first large wave or far enough away from the shoreline not to be touched.

Actually the B-52s seem quick enough to be able to build and rebuild a few times over. They’re strong enough to thrive on adversity, simultaneously smart enough to design and castle and dumb enough to keep putting it in the same place… Pass the tanning butter/Here comes a sting ray/There goes a Man Ray/Here comes a dogfish/Chased by a catfish.” See what I mean?

© Roy TrakinNew York Rocker, November 1978

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