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Back to the Beehive

The party is on again, as the B-52's tour stops in SoCal with the Pretenders, Royal Crown Revue.

July 30, 1998|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the dark cloud of grunge finally lifting from the pop landscape, such antidotes to angst as ska and swing have rushed in to dance in the sun.

But no one delivers the dance like the B-52's, and as sure as the first great summer day triggers a beach party, the new climate has lured the veteran band back into tour mode. That and a new "best of" album, "Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation," that needs a little promoting.

Going for synergy, the '52's have hooked up with the Pretenders for a U.S. tour, adding a neo-swing spin in opening act Royal Crown Revue. The bill comes to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Sunday and the Universal Amphitheatre on Aug. 4 and 5.

While this might look at first glance like an '80s nostalgia package, it's actually a teaming of two acts that have kept active--although at eccentric and individual paces that haven't done much for visibility or career momentum.

That might explain the spotty business in the first of the tour's two months, when the bands have frequently drawn half-capacity crowds to large amphitheaters.

"I would have thought that the combined acts would have been a little stronger," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the concert trade publication Pollstar. "Both of those acts haven't worked a lot in recent years, so they're certainly not suffering from overexposure. If that tour had gone out in the winter it probably would have been much better. . . . The summer concert market is just too overcrowded."

But the reviews have been overwhelmingly strong--the B-52's obviously don't need full houses to throw a good party.

"People are saying the shows are better than ever," says singer Fred Schneider, 42. "I know you hear that baloney all the time, but . . . the dynamic is back."

That's not a surprise. Though they haven't made a new album since 1992's "Good Stuff" or toured since 1994, Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland and Cindy Wilson (back in the fold after dropping out in 1990) regularly convene to play special events and private parties for corporations. They've also continued writing in various combinations--resulting in two new songs, "Debbie" and "Hallucinating Pluto," for the new compilation.

As Schneider puts it, once a B-52, always a B-52. Still, fans shouldn't get primed for a full new album. These '52's are in their own private Idahos.

Says Schneider, "Twenty years on, everyone really has their own lives. The band is still the major force in it, but we like our time together and our time doing our own things. We'd never say there's nothing happening in the future as far as a record. We just never know."

The B-52's first got folks dancing in the late '70s when the group, then a quintet, came straight outta Athens, Ga., with a brand of sublime silliness that quickly found a niche in the post-punk world.

The music--terse guitar riffs that all seemed like variations on the "Peter Gunn" theme, taut drumming, science-fiction organ--was fronted by Schneider's deadpan bark and the anything-goes vocal inventions of Pierson and Wilson, whose Fellini-inspired beehive hairdos gave the band its name.

The music's benign daffiness was enhanced by the group's visual flair and its lyrical enshrinement of kitsch Americana, from B-movie motifs to thrift shop decor. Their world was lit by lava lamps and strobe lights, and they implied that there's no problem that can't be solved by a good jukebox and a handful of quarters.

People couldn't resist, even if they weren't exactly sure what to make of it.

"Some people saw us as forerunners of space-age music, adventurous musically, avant-garde," says Pierson, amused. "But then some people saw us as purely frivolous and novelty."

But the party went out of bounds when guitarist Ricky Wilson, Cindy's brother and the musical architect, died of AIDS in 1985. The four survivors slowly regrouped, with drummer Strickland taking over as guitarist and chief sound designer.

They came up with 1987's "Cosmic Thing," their best-selling album and the source of their two biggest hit singles, "Roam" and "Love Shack." In the album, their trademark wackiness was balanced by something new--a poignant, resonant melancholy that deepened the emotional range in such songs as "Roam" and "Deadbeat Club."

"We definitely became more serious," notes Pierson, 50. "A lot of the stuff just came out naturally, what we'd been thinking about. A sort of bittersweet nostalgia."

Of course, "serious" is a relative term. The B-52's play "Roam" in the current show, but they know where their bread is buttered.

"Once you're pegged as something, there's no way you can change it," says Schneider. "It's like when Lucille Ball tried to do a serious dramatic role. But what can you do?"

Or as Pierson puts it, "We've fallen back into the shadow of the beehive."

BE THERE

The B-52's, the Pretenders, Royal Crown Revue, Sunday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 7 p.m. $17-$50. (714) 855-4515. Also Tue.-Wed. at Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 7:45 p.m. $28-$58. (818) 622-4440.

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