Music Review





The B52s




July 24, 2008





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Having been a fan of The B52s ever since their first underground rock album The B52’s appeared in 1978 and last savoured them performing live in all their kitschy, fifties and sixties retro, thrift-shop splendour in the early ‘80’s, I was really looking forward to this concert, despite the fact that I didn’t have a ticket for it when I headed to the Roundhouse. In retrospect, like many of the bands which rose to popularity on the ‘new wave’ (now post-punk) scene in the late ‘70’s, the B52s, along with bands such as Devo, Talking Heads, psycho-billy standouts The Cramps, as well as their predecessors, Iggy and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and The Ramones, not only seemed to define the era with their blackly humorous comments on conservative America through their music and personas, but to playfully slap some sense into their fans, a.k.a. listeners.

As has generally been the case with many of the vintage punk and post-punk concerts I’ve been to in recent years, in all manner of locales, the crowd at the Roundhouse doubled as a kind of walking T-shirt museum.  Along with the faded B52’s, CBGB and Ramones shirts on middle aged wearers were well-preserved specimens with the ‘The Stranglers’, ‘X-Ray Specs’, ‘The Clash’ and ‘The Blockheads,’ and the names of countless other bands on them, along with that seminal favourite, ‘If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f***’, which, for many, still flies the penultimate flag of independence, in terms of record labels of that era. Old and young, male and female entered into the spirit of the occasion with kitsch shirts and shoes, kooky sunglasses and teased hair, while one thirty-something group, donned in all manner of ‘60’s clobber, bouffant wigs and Christmas tree ball necklaces, stumbled out of a number of rickshaws in front of the Roundhouse and still others brought their children, some young enough to hold their hands, to the show with them.

Avoiding the sizeable pool of shark-eyed touts encircling this colourful scene, we eventually managed to secure a pair of face value tickets from a guy who with a rockabilly demeanour and a militant ‘f*** the touts’ attitude. ‘Last saw The B52’s in the 80’s,’ he said, walking us to the door of the Roundhouse to confirm authenticity. ‘Last time I saw them was in 1980,’ I countered, ‘at the Philadelphia Zoo.’ ‘Well… in the States,’ he said, opening his hands as if to intimate that, it probably didn’t get much better than that. Which, even at the time, while I was blindly, yet vigorously frugging, jerking and shimmying among a similarly frantic crowd of B52’s fans on one of the formerly green lawns of the Philly zoo, ten feet away from the band, who were pricelessly wiggling their way through an incredibly energetic set, I would have been inclined to agree. As our ticket-seller headed off for a drink, we made our way up the stairs to our standing positions, at the back of the circle. That may sound like a terrible place to be in the Roundhouse, but in reality, the back of the circle, behind the seating not only offers a great vantage point, but also, plenty of room to dance, which, as any fan will tell you, is crucial at a B52’s concert!

The warm-up to this show, the B52’s pivotal London gig on their first UK tour in ten years, was a youngish, self-satisfied looking DJ who failed to ignite the crowd with his club mix, which was, oddly devoid of authentic tracks from the post-punk era. I use the word ‘authentic’ because a dumbed down remix of The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ grated, though the lone genuinely vintage track, ‘Psycho Killer’ by the Talking Heads was happily acknowledged by head bobbing and singing along from the mixed age crowd. But the generally homogenised mediocrity which preceded the B52’s only made their buoyant appearance onstage more welcome as they sprang into the spotlight with all the bounce and enthusiasm they are known for.

Not having seen the band perform live for so long, I was curious as to how they might sound after all these years, but I needn’t have worried. The vocal harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson are just as lilting and buoyant as ever, and quirky talk singer, Fred Schneider still delivers his nonsensical, yet strangely sensible, lyrics in his definitively droll, deadpan style, with great, understated humour. Keith Strickland who replaced the band’s original guitarist Ricky Wilson, (brother of Cindy, who passed away in 1985) is a musician who totally understands the band’s ironic bent as he not only writes much of their material, but was also the group’s original drummer.  Needless to say, Strickland had no trouble taking on the band’s songs, both old and new in powerfully exuberant style, flavouring them with a unique blending of his own wavering twang and the band’s trademark psycho/pseudo psychedelic/go-go tinges.  A tight rhythm section, featuring a smiling female bass player and drummer Sterling Campbell added unrelenting beats and steadily pulsating undercurrents to the highly infectious mix.

Red – haired Kate Pierson in what looked like a mini, black and green version of a old West’s saloon gal’s dress seemed amiable as did her blond, hot pants wearing, fellow singer, Cindy Wilson who put the crowd into the ‘swim’ of things with wriggling dance moments during her spine-tingling rendition of that great new wave classic ‘Gimme Back My Man.’ Fred Schneider seemed like a rather fussy traditionalist gone mad, in his neutral shirt and ‘slacks’ as he nimbly danced centre stage in accompaniment to his lead and/or call and response vocals on one blazing track after, another either in tandem with, and/or,  set against Pierson and Wilson’s lone vocals and/or harmonising. Guitarist Keith Strickland in his dark attire was on the outer fringerof the spotlight at times, but exuberantly bounded into it at others.

New material from the band’s latest album, Funplex, their first in sixteen years, was, in many cases, nearly as catchy and enjoyable as that of their early new wave era efforts, with ‘Juliet of the Spirits’, a song inspired by late Italian surrealist film director, Federico Fellini, featuring sublime harmonising from Pierson and Wilson, and the album’s title track being definite standouts. While some of the newer songs are still instantly recognisable as B52s tracks, others are just that much different enough to allow some scope for variety within the band’s set, which might help make performing ‘Rock Lobster’ for the trillionth time a little less tedious, though if it is tedious for them, it certainly doesn’t show in their exuberant performance!

The crowd grew increasingly ecstatic with every track the band played, and, as the momentum escalated, many attempted to transform the lower section of the venue into a huge dance floor to coincide with the infectious mood of songs like ‘Party out of Bounds.’ Meanwhile, we had no problems getting ‘down, down, down’, to the ever-mandatory ‘Rock Lobster’ or any of the other songs being played, in our comparatively spacious dance area upstairs. Two encores of two songs each wound up an unforgettable two hour set which had included countless classics, among them: ‘Strobe Light’, ‘Ultra-Violet’, ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘Love Shack’, to name a few, and the concert was resonantly rounded off with that seminal sci-fi favourite, ‘Planet Claire.’

Smiles all round at the end of it, and sweat too, in memory of post-punk and the perpetually groovy B52s.







Editor’s Note:
Although it is not our custom to review concerts that we have not been allocated Press Tickets for, this one was just too good to let our readers miss out on. 
Perhaps if Madame Editor wasn’t so busy writing her post-grad dissertation these days, she might have remembered to put in a request for press ticket as soon as this show was announced, rather than a month before it took place. If I quote Homer here, I don’t mean the Greek poet - D’oh…!






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