For a long time, the book on the B-52's was that the Athens, Georgia, pop combo purveyed harmless, at times sophomoric, dance fluff. And if all that comes to mind when you think of the band are beehive hairdos, Day-Glo attire, retro dance steps and lead singer Fred Schneider flouncing around uttering inane fishy non sequiturs during "Rock Lobster," well, you need a dose of critical revisionism.
First of all, behind the silly façade lay a lot of deliberation at constructing a visual image that journalists and fans could hang their hats upon. Try this trick: Close your eyes, say the word "B-52's" to yourself, and try not to conjure a picture of Schneider doing a frantic geek-wiggle, or the luscious Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson shimmying and bobbing like bouffanted white-trash Annettes crashing a sorority dance soiree. Over time the shtick may have grown tiresome for the band members, but they took it to the bank. And as anyone who ever saw the B-52's in concert will testify, they were a lot of fun to watch.
Secondly, the band had chops, particularly in guitarist Ricky Wilson (sadly, he died of AIDS in '85), who could unleash surf licks with the best of 'em, but he was also an immensely talented minimalist with a keen ear for space and viscosity. Listen to his bell-like tolling in "Dance This Mess Around," or his "Peter Gunn" chukka-chukka riff that drives "Planet Claire," or his twangy funkadelicized licks that recur throughout "Give Me Back My Man": This is not the playing of some punk amateur who just picked up a guitar to have something to do at a party. In concert he had to carry more than his weight as well, adding additional low tones to help make up for the fact that Pierson's keyboards, while essential to the band's overall sound, particularly in the more sci-fi/surf numbers, weren't totally sufficient for supplying bass lines. (Eventually, ex-Gang of Four gal Sara Lee would be brought in on bass.)
And lastly, of course, the B-52's wrote insanely infectious tunes, of which this two-CD collection is ample testimony. It delves far deeper than the '88 greatest hits collection Time Capsule, adding the obligatory rarities and unreleased tracks to the album-by-album overviews. (Included in the slipcase package is a nicely annotated 52-page booklet loaded with photos and an essay from Michael Azerrad, author of This Band Could Be Your Life.) You can pick your own faves from among the 15 cuts. I tend to favor the earlier era -- "Give Me Back My Man" is an extraordinarily sensual grooveathon, while "Party Out of Bounds," with its myriad of snarky, overlapping sound effects, sounds like a Fellini nightmare as directed by Robert Altman. Others may go for the latter-day platinum period when the album Cosmic Thing spawned megahits like "Roam" and "Love Shack." But it's all good, and it's also a telling document of a band that picked up on the DIY punk spirit, injected it with the artsy/brainy side of New Wave, and proceeded to deliver those aesthetics directly to the doorstep of the mainstream.
I mean, c'mon -- you'd rather be listening to Cyndi Lauper?
Get the Music Newsletter