In hindsight, 1979 was quite an interesting year for rock ‘n’ roll. Pink Floyd released its last great album with The Wall, The Clash took punk rock into new stylistic territory with London Calling, Gary Numan laid the groundwork for synth pop with The Pleasure Principle, The Specials started a ska revival with their self-titled debut, and post-punk was put on the map with albums by Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), Gang of Four (Entertainment!) and Public Image Ltd. (Metal Box).
Another notable release in 1979 was the debut album by the B-52s, which sounds like it came from another planet — a campy, kitschy, crazy planet whose inhabitants really like to dance. Perhaps the planet is called “Planet Claire”? In any case, this album, which mixed surf, girl group, garage band and sci-fi movie soundtrack elements into a unique package, brought the B-52s into the consciousness of the inhabitants of Planet Earth, and formed the template for their subsequent work.
It’s all there — the shrill and spot-on harmonies of the Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, the flamboyant spoken vocals of Fred Schneider, and the driving rhythms of Keith Strickland. (It must be noted that, sadly, original guitarist Ricky Wilson, who was Cindy’s brother, died of AIDS-related illness in 1985.)
At the Majestic Ventura Theater on Thursday night, Cindy Wilson (also sometimes on bongos), the still uber-cute Pierson (sometimes also on keyboards), Schneider (sometimes also on xylophone or cowbell), and Strickland (now on guitar and keyboards, rather than drums as on the debut album), along with backing musicians, showed that the B-52s can still deliver the goods more than three decades on.
The band’s debut album was nicely represented by the encore of the Peter Gunn-in-Space “Planet Claire” with Pierson singing along with the kitschy organ at ear-splitting volume, their surfabilly signature song “Rock Lobster,” and “52 Girls,” which I think would require musicology training to fully appreciate the quirky vocal patterns that Wilson and Pierson make seem so natural.
Later high points in The B-52s catalog were also visited in full-on party fashion, eliciting much dancing — “Private Idaho,” the Wilson singing showcase “Give Me Back My Man,” the Talking Heads-flavored “Mesopotamia,” and the big hits “Roam” and “Love Shack,” which closed the main set.
“Love Shack,” a personal karaoke favorite, deserves a special highlight. There are just so many little touches — a Chrysler that’s “as big as a whale,” glitter on the mattress/highway/front porch/hallway, the cowbell, the build-up of “bang bang bang on the door baby,” and the out-of-left-field climax of “tin roof ... rusted.” Could this be a superior party rock anthem to that LMFAO thang?
The latest B-52’s album, 2008’s Funplex, was well represented by the show-opener “Pump,” the title track, the G-spot referencing “Ultraviolet,” “Dancing Now,” “Love In The Year 3000,” and “Hot Corner” about the band’s hometown of Athens, Ga. These weren’t as well known to the audience, but being safely in the B-52s mold they kept everybody movin’ and everybody groovin’.
It seems that the B-52’s haven’t changed too much since they landed on Planet Earth way back when. But really, isn’t that a good thing?
Give Me Back My Man
Party Out Of Bounds
Love In The Year 3000
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.