The B-52s @ Roundhouse
Camden Roundhouse. 24jul08.
I’ve checked two sources on this and apparently shiny happy Kate Pierson is 60 years old. Despite the B-52s longevity, this seems scarcely credible, that is if you were to ignore her sprightly nan-on-petrol-fumes-and-too-many-snifters-of-Bombay-Sapphire style dancing, as well as the look of grumpy determination slapped across her face when she’s off vocal duty.
I guess that’s what happens when a band gets locked in an MTV time capsule, in this case their Love Shack video. Nineteen years have passed since the Cosmic Thing album, that gave us that iconic single, which not only heralded a return to form, but a return to normality following the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. After a hiatus that almost became permanent, drummer Keith Strickland moved over to play guitar, and remains part of the core grouping, his playing here making the merit of his equal billing with the six-legged vocal machine of Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider all too apparent.
Mind you, given a combined age of 168 for the three vocalists, their stage performances certainly retain a youthful vigour (despite some of the dance steps). Wilson and Pierson’s harmonising wraps up 60’s girl groups, Hair and a kind of space-beach party schtick, and works in call-and-response to Fred’s passive-aggressive mince, barked out in perfect order as he surveys those dancing down the front with authoritarian suspicion. There are many great non-regulation voices who bring something distinctive and beguiling to the rock n’ roll canon: Jaz Coleman, a primeval roar; Mark E. Smith; a captivating drawl and Tom Waits, his gutter growl. Over in the corner, asking theatrically where the ice-box might be, is Fred, pouring his gert fuck-off jug of waspish camp into the punch bowl.
Since Cosmic Thing, only two further studio LPs have appeared: 1992’s Good Stuff and Funplex, released earlier this year. Having returned recently to regular live performance, the latter was written to give the band some new stuff to play but despite the fact that such a scenario, wedded to the main players wide geographic spread, might lead to some half-arsed filler, Funplex stands up alongside their very best material. Indeed, the absence of the new Eyes Wide Open tonight is a disappointment even in a set balanced fairly between songs old and new.
Still, its not like their isn’t plenty of t’riffic stuff to cover that absence, Party Out Of Bounds (featuring Fred sprinting from behind the curtain to deliver the first line with perfect wild-eyed gatecrasher’s glee – “Suh-PRIIIII-IIIZE”), Rock Lobster, Mesopotamia and Private Idaho all sounding magnificent, and their showmanship brings the best out of tunes such as Funplex’s title track, which makes much greater sense as part of a concert performance.
The new record makes use of modern electronic programming on songs such as Love In The Year 3000 (presented here as a love double-bill with the shack that you’ll know) but certainly not in a faddish way, more as a natural progression within and around their psychobilly pop to where a dance band needs to be in the 21st century. The B-52s might have kitsch quality, and have presented themselves as a relentless rabble of party-to-party troubadours, but they have a value over and above that of ephemeral novelty mainly thanks to having written some of the liveliest, wittiest and most innovative pop music of the post-punk/new-wave era.
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