IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT in the Orpheum theater in downtown Boston, and a garishly dressed is assembled, swaying slowly back and forth to an old Montown number, which no one can remember. The house lights are dimmed, and five silhouetted figures make their way to their instruments. A nasal, almost adolescent voice comes out of nowhere
The stage lights come on, revealing not an adolescent, but a grown man probably in his 20s--a perfectly clean-cut figure that, with a coat and tie, could pass for a young executive--who has issued the guttural cry. To one side of him is a elegant-looking woman, with flowing blonde hair. She wears a sparkling evening gown and white tennis shoes, bouncing up and down to the pounding beat. To the other side of the man is another woman who is banging away on a keyboard. Her red miniskirt and beehive hairdoo stand out. At the back of the stage are two more clean-cut-men--preppy almost, were it not for their New York intelligentsia slacks and shirts. One, head down, is slinging away on lead guitar, sending up the wall of sound that has enveloped the theatre. The other is furiously pounding out a thunderous drum beat, more than compensating for the band's lack on the bass. All five band members are lurching and jerking crazily to and fro.
And as the music to the B-52's "Party Gone out of Bounds" picks up and you begin to lose control of your feet, you remember the summer of 1979. Jimmy Carter was still President, the Senate was debating SALTII, and Sky lab came plunging to earth in a whirling ball of fire La Cage aux Folles was a very cool movie to tell your friends about and Carl Yastrzemski got his 3000th hit. But most important this was the summer you first heard the song.
You didn't know what to make of it. Was this some sort of practical joke? Was this a one short deal from some weirded-out band you would never hear from again? Another Hues Corporation? Or Jig saw? Bands we will surely cherish forever.
So, this one was much more substantial. Not just another piece of compressed, prefabricated shlock--this song was there and really meant something. It was a political statement that asked people to stand up and vote with their feet. You caught the infectiousness of the 52's "Rock Lobster" and moved in ways you never dreamed of You did the Shy Tuna, the Camel Walk, the Shu-ga-loo and many more inane dances.
THREE YEARS LATER with two and half albums under their collective belt, the B-52's are still-a-garbage collecting band scrounging for bits and pieces from assorted rock genres and recycling out a unique sound, in which the only constants is a bobbin beat "Rock Lobster" was only the beginning of a string of songs merging punk, funk, new-wave. Southern boogie, and anything else capable of stirring quiescent feet to motion. Keeping the party going was all this self-proclaimed "tacky little dance band" from Athens. Georgia wanted. And evidently, that's all their fans wanted.
The B-52's latest release, "Mesopotamia," a six-song "mini-disk," provides the first evidence that the group craves artistic progression. The work is a turn away from the undirected insanity of the first two albums to a sort of directed insanity, governed by David Byrne, the group's new producer and ployrhythm maestro of Talking Heads fame. Byrne seems to have effected a tilt by the band to the funk side of its background. "Mesopotamia" doesn't give up the fun of "The B-52's" and "Wild Planet". It merely is a rechanneling of the 52's focus from outrageous melodies to a soul-influenced rhythm.
A lot of fans nonetheless may feel betrayed by this new direction. The songs off "Mesopotamia" are indeed relatively restrained compared to the manicle "Private Idaho" or "Planet Claire." And the sound is thicker, more introspective than their earlier work Critics say the 52's have been a "limited" hand all along all the latest albums shows, these harpies claim, is the pretentious drivel that arises when a cutesy band takes itself too seriously.
While the B-52's no longer bop indiscriminately, they have lost none of the loony, self-conscious humor that made them so endearing "Mesopotamia" is a very intelligent album, much more cerebral than say, "Wild Planet." But it still makes you want to dance, which more often than not makes or breaks a pop album.
Take the lead in song, "Loveland". Clindy Wilson's torch of a voice blends in with the thick, funky beat laid down by drummer Keith Strickland and guitarist Ricky Wilson. The result is a kind of trance, similar to producer Byrne's hypnotic work on "Remain in Light," certainly not as intricate or complicated, but more minimalist and celebratory. And it makes you want to move.
THE HUMOR EMERGES in later numbers like title cut "Mesopotamia" or "Throw that Beat in the Garbage Can." the 52's best trick has always been to create danceable tunes, with lyrics so ridiculous that you feel tremendously self-conscious while twitching your feel. "I am no student of ancient culture," warbles the silly frontman Fred Schneider in "Mesopotamia," which he trumpets in concert as being kind of "geological." Before I talk, I should read a book." Yeah, he should, but these don't sound like the sort of lyrics that go with dance music.
That doesn't matter--he's going to tell us anyway, and we're going to dance. And in the funky "Throw that Beat..." Schneider seems to be complaining about the very beat that defines his own hand. "It's driving me crazy--...it makes me apprehensive--...no, no, no." Definitely bizarre but compelling stuff.
As are the other funky and humorous three songs on the mini-album, which serves to show us that there is a lot more behind this hand than sheer, lovable eccentricity that they have happily not abandoned. Keep "Planet Claire," "Rock Lobster," and "Private Idaho" stored away in a safe place for future listening pleasure. You'll need em again, Go get "Mesopotamia." It's not limited or pretentious. Just try to keep still when playing it. Just try not to giggle. Bet you can't. The party's not stopping. It is just moving to a different room.