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DIRECT HITS : B-52's Take Aim at Politics, Not Just Parties, on Latest Album

October 22, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

You know the world is getting to be a serious place when even the B-52's start turning into political commentators, as they do explicitly or implicitly on several tracks of their new album, "Good Stuff."

The band, which performs at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Saturday, started out in 1976 in Athens, Ga., about seven years before R.E.M.'s emergence made the world start thinking of that college town as an alternative-rock mecca.

The B-52's were smart enough to realize that their wry, quirky combination of kitschy style (including beehive hairdos that wouldn't be equaled until Marge Simpson arrived with her spectacular blue cocoon) and catchy, danceable, stripped-down garage rock would fit in much better on a late '70s New York City scene that had spawned such kindred bands as Talking Heads and Blondie.

After moving to New York, the B-52's enjoyed quick success with riotously fun songs such as "Rock Lobster," from the band's 1979 debut album. In those days, demanding "Why won't you dance with me? I'm not no Limburger," as they did with comic verve in "Dance This Mess Around," was the closest the B-52's came to a statement of protest.

With "Wild Planet," the band's second album, and "Party Mix," an EP of dance remixes, the B-52's continued in the early '80s to be one of the most successful bands playing what a few years later would be dubbed "alternative" music. But the hits dwindled, and in 1985, the B-52's were shaken by the death, from AIDS, of guitarist Ricky Wilson, a key architect of the band's sound. "Bouncing Off the Satellites," the last album recorded before his death, was issued, and generally ignored, in 1986.

With the 1989 album, "Cosmic Thing," the B-52's regrouped and scored their biggest success ever. Keith Strickland switched from drums to guitar, and the B-52's came up with a string of hits, including "Love Shack" and "Roam."

"Love Shack," the song that launched the album's success, stuck with familiar party-hard themes. But "Channel Z" introduced a plaintive note in its plea, "All I know, we've got to change what's happening," and "Roam," besides being catchy and danceable, was an eloquent vision of transcendence via the imagination.

"Good Stuff" has its share of outright silliness, notably "Hot Pants Explosion," an ode to tight, slight bodywear. "Is That You Mo-Dean?" is not about a Watergate wife, but a zany intergalactic space hero. But "Bad Influence" has plenty to do with politics, as the B-52's warn against a political establishment made up of "wide mouths with narrow minds." The album notes also include a dedication "to all of our brothers and sisters who are living with HIV."

"Good Stuff" hasn't been as big a hit as "Cosmic Thing," perhaps because the album lacks the distinctive harmonies between Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. Wilson (Ricky's younger sister) left the band before it began recording the album. The B-52's have carried on as a trio, with Fred Schneider moving from tart, sung-spoken color commentary to sharing the anchor's booth with Pierson in call-and-response lead vocals.

On tour, however, the B-52's are back to the original female-harmony concept, having recruited Julee Cruise, famed as the languid tavern chanteuse of "Twin Peaks." Rounding out the touring lineup are drummer Dan Hickey, percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos and keyboards player Pat Irwin.

Who: B-52's.

When: Saturday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. With the Violent Femmes.

Where: The Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: San Diego (I-405) Freeway to Irvine Center Drive exit. Turn left at the end of the ramp if you're coming from the south, right if you're coming from the north.

Wherewithal: $19.75 to $25.75.

Where to call: (714) 740-2000.

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