Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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THE B-52's 1979-1989 (1990)

***

With the B-52's.
Directed by Adam Bernstein, Mick Haggerty, Mary Lambert, and others.
(Warner Reprise Video, color).

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Decked out in thrift-shop trash and mile-high beehives, a "cheesy little dance band from Athens, Georgia" blew into the cozy little world of postpunk Manhattan in 1978 and convinced arty types that maybe neither New York nor London was the center of the universe. Not long afterwards, the B-52's actually became a hit dance band, and though they lost heart when guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in 1986, they staged an unexpected comeback with 1989's Cosmic Thing, their best-selling album ever.

Beginning with a previously unavailable 1979 live clip and capped off with three promos from Cosmic Thing, this compilation lives on the border between pop and art. We'd expected that their well-documented visual sense would insure a measure of creativity that finally isn't there--the cutouts and such often look just slightly hackneyed, as if the band and its directors got there second. And only about half the songs rank among the band's best. But it doesn't much matter--the personnel make up for it.

Kate Pierson, as glossy as nail polish on a demonstration card, and Cindy Wilson, who came from Planet Claire, are backup girls as role models. The band would be nothing without them. But Fred Schneider's deadpan timing, silly costumes, and unflappable amateur-night confidence make him some kind of genius--the comic kind--and, increasingly, the variety and expressive volume of his singing carries the music as much as the beats and hooks. It's fitting that the compilation climaxes with "Monster," from Schneider's 1984 solo flop. A Mary Lambert-directed gem fleshed out with clay and conventional animation, it's a song about what's in his pants that's suitable for viewing by four-year-olds, and the only great video the B-52's never made.

Video Review, May 1990