By Mike Finkelstein
On Saturday the Greek Theatre hosted two of the more influential ‘80s new wave/hipster bands you could ever shake a stick at: Squeeze and the B-52s or, as Kate Pierson put it, “the B’s and Squeeze.” Of course, hip comes in many styles, shapes, and sizes. These two bands both represent different strands of hipness. The B-52s revel in retro kitsch rooted in the early 1950’s to early 1960’s, while Squeeze were one of the more sophisticated pop bands to come out of England during the New Wave period of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The evening started in the twilight when Glenn Tillbrook led Squeeze onstage to an enthusiastic reception from a crowd that was still settling in. As a younger man, Tillbrook was a bubbly looking lad. Now, he still has a hip haircut, the same bright eyes and a very long goatee. He looked a little crazy from the shoulders up but in a very stylish suit, he also looked like quite the adult. They launched into “Take Me I’m Yours” and we were off and running. It really should be noted that John Bentley, in a snazzy jacket and sunglasses, could easily have posed for a place on the cover of Nick Lowe’s “Pure Pop for Now People (Jesus of Cool)” album. And for that matter, keyboardist Stephen Large’s red sharkskin jacket just screamed 1978.
As the set progressed, songs such as “Cool for Cats,” “Another Nail In My Heart,” and “Up the Junction” stood out for their clever chord structures and, at times, for their quick rhythms. Squeeze’s vocal signature is the clarity between Tillbrook’s higher and Chris Difford’s lower harmonies. The rhythm section of John Bentley on bass and Simon Hanson on drums was remarkably crisp, particularly at the beginning of their encore when the band stretched out instrumentally on “Slap And Tickle.” Paying attention to detail, keyboardist Large also brought a Farfisa organ along for the show as it was an important part of Squeeze’s sound and of New Wave in general.
Over their career Squeeze has built a rich catalogue and they are currently in fine musical form. Throughout the set, Tillbrook adroitly peeled off several quick guitar leads over some busy changes and the whole band played like a well-oiled machine. About half way through the set, the hits began to flow. From “Hourglass” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” to “Pulling Mussels From the Shell” to “Tempted,” and “Black Coffee in Bed,” Squeeze were cruising and the crowd was loving it. Squeeze never did become pigeon-holed by the times, and simply followed their ears in writing and arranging. This probably explains why a song like “Tempted” (one of their first ) sounded so timeless. It has musical dynamics, a tasty cycle of chords, lots of atmosphere as well as descriptive, sentimental lyrics. It also uses a more traditional organ sound and moves at a more deliberate clip than some of their other songs. Similarly, the words to “Black Coffee in Bed,” painted a vivid picture and its catchy elasticized riff and well placed background ooh oohs drove everything home with style. It’s truly refreshing to watch a band endure the way Squeeze has. For the audience, hearing these songs live had to have been like catching up with an old friend.
Top billed this evening were the B-52s, not so much named after the warplane as after the beehive hair-do, circa 1952. There is no other band quite like them. They may never have set out to be a hugely successful and enduring rock band but fortune works in strange ways. They are champions of kitsch and it’s not a put-on . You can hear it in the music and see it on the stage.
As the band made their entrance one couldn’t help but notice the spiffy strobe panels behind the back line and the orange lights above the stage, which further brightened singer Fred Schneider’s already orange jacket. The band is three vocalists, Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson backed by 2 guitars (Keith Strickland and Paul Gordon), bass (Tracy Wormworth) and drums (Sterling Campbell). Their set was short by headliner standards, clocking in a little over an hour including an encore. But it was definitely festive.
The B-52s’ material draws from surf music, a bit from punk rock barre chord fury, and uses dynamics to bring out the humor in the words and to sell the song. The B-52s esthetic centers on space men, flying saucers, ocean creatures and other things that would capture a 7 year old’s imagination in the early 50’s. In perfect style, these images are narrated to us by Fred Schneider’s sardonic voice, which is somewhere between speech and singing, but closer to speech. What really sets the group apart is the sound of Pierson’s and Wilson’s voices in harmony and at quirky moments alone. Their voices flesh out the skeleton of the song that Schneider builds for them. Trendsetters that they turned out to be, Pierson and Wilson continue to wear thrift shop chic clothes. And on Saturday it really seemed that from a distance, Strickland and Gordon, both in sunglasses and in similar rocker stances in front of the strobes, looked like mannequins at a Macy’s. Was this by design?
The B-52s’ program was an entertaining recitation of the bands catalogue of hits. Some of their songs simply plodded along — like “Eyes Wide Open” — while others were enduring party favorites. “Private Idaho,” and “Rock Lobster” are vintage danceable nonsense from the band’s early years, showcasing everything lovable about them. Later in the band’s career they released Cosmic Thing which yielded the more sophisticated but danceable and radio friendly mega-hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam.” “Roam,” in particular, was a soaring bit of harmony between the capoed guitars and the girls’ voices. The audience was all over it, dancing and singing euphorically as they undoubtedly did when these songs were all blowing up on the FM dial and in every other dorm room and off campus apartment.
This was the type of double bill that some people reminisce about seeing in a bar or a now defunct small club back in the early days of new wave. More than 30 years later it’s great to see that both outfits are clearly within themselves and going strong, much to the people’s delight.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.