With government changes and vaccines appearing, it’s looking more and more like we can experience musical events in 2021. If ever there was a time for “The World’s Greatest Party Band” to hit the road, this is it! I mean, who better to save us from the funk that has hung over us for the past year than the B-52s!?
They have been called surf-infused rock, post-punk, ‘60s rock, alternative rock, and pop rock, but there is no need to label them; we know their sound instantly. Really, the only label they need is the one they gave themselves: the tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia. The B-52s have given us silly lyrics (and even animal noises) in dancey party music, complete with “thrift-store chic,” but also political messages and calls for gay rights before it became trendy. They have gone through extreme loss, but persevered and brought us immense happiness with their trademark sound.
After 40 years together, they remain family and devoid of typical band pettiness. As high school friends and acquaintances who played in various bands, they decided to jam together one night and a band was born. Keith Strickland told Rolling Stone, “We didn’t have a goal of what we wanted to sound like when we started out. We just knew we wanted it to be fun.” He continued, “We started the band just to entertain ourselves. We weren’t thinking of having a career 40 years later.”
With Strickland on drums, Ricky Wilson on guitar, and Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s sister) handling vocals, the group played their first show at a Valentine’s Day house party.
Despite most members having shy personalities, they let loose on stage. Their energetic performances brought them loyal fans and the gang headed to New York City to play the legendary clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Their bright appearance stood out from the black, broody punk/post-punk bands. It is easy to see what energy they bring in the video for their first single, “Rock Lobster.”
Yes, “Rock Lobster” was their first single. The B-52s song *everyone* knows. I mean, the sea creature sounds alone… Schneider told Rolling Stone: “I went to this disco in Atlanta called the 2001 Disco. Instead of a light show, they had pictures of puppies, babies, hamburgers and lobsters on a grill. And I thought, ‘Rock Lobster,’ that’s a good idea for a song and probably no one else would.” But they did and jammed a bit, creating the song as the lyrics got “weirder and weirder.” “I used to live on the Jersey shore, because I’m from New Jersey, so you would constantly hear ‘Pass the butter, please’ on the radio, which was tanning butter,” he continued. “I would do that and the gals came up with those wild fish noises.”
THE EARLY DAYS
In 2015, Pierson told OC-based TNN RADIO that in those early days “we were aware of what was happening in New York, but we were a microcosm of Athens and that’s the thing about this band… we had fun and people felt our vibe… and they left our shows feeling it was OK to be weird.”
KATE PIERSON | B-52s
The band found it worked best when they simply got together and jammed. Schneider described the process: “We would jam for hours. It would sometimes take a month or two to come up with a song. We’d record everything on reel, and Kate and Ricky would take them home and go through it and pick out parts. That’s why ‘Rock Lobster’ was originally six minutes and 47 seconds long.”
By 1979, they had a record deal and headed to the Bahamas to record their self-titled debut. With “Planet Claire,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and a shorter and faster version of “Rock Lobster,” it worked. “Rock Lobster” got them on the Billboard charts and “The B-52’s” album has become certified platinum. “Rock Lobster” would also play a critical role in music history by inspiring John Lennon to start recording after a long hiatus, and create his final album. I know Lennon is a big deal and all, but I prefer the “Rock Lobster” appearances in “Family Guy” and the VeggieTales movie (“Rock Monster!”).
The band headed back to the Bahamas to record their follow up, “Wild Planet.” In a smart move, they had reserved some of their better songs for the follow up, not wanting to blow them all on their first record. Audiences were familiar with those songs already, but they received a fresher sound and slick production. Propped by the singles “Party Out of Bounds,” “Give Me Back My Man,” “Strobe Light,” and the amazing “Private Idaho,” the album quickly went gold and the band appeared on “Saturday Night Live.”
The shy band members had to step even further out of their comfort zone for the live TV broadcast. Pierson told Rolling Stone, “We looked really animatronic because we were scared, but it came off as being this alien sort of attitude, which served us well, because people were like, ‘Whoa, this is so weird.’ But we were just shy and terrified.” Schneider agreed, “’Saturday Night Live’ was nerve-racking. I was so sick to my stomach, but it went really well…”
The band spent much of 1978-1980 on the road in between albums, but took a breather for most of 1981. As 1982 approached, they returned to the studio to create their album with Talking Heads’ David Byrne acting as producer. It became the six-track EP “Mesopotamia” instead of a full-length album, which spawned rumors of strife with Byrne.
Pierson told The Guardian, “It was wrongly stated that we had some kind of conflict with David Byrne, but that’s not true at all.” She further explained, “It was really our manager Gary Kurfirst, who was also Talking Heads’ manager, who felt we needed to keep the momentum going. So we just bowed to his pressure to cut it short and put out what we had. Songs like ‘Cake’ were never really finished.” With horns, synthesizers and layered guitars, it was a departure in sound for the band, but did moderately well. They joined Byrne and the other Talking Heads at the inaugural US Festival with other ‘80s legends Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, The Police, and The Ramones.
With plans to record a full-length album for real, the band returned to the Bahamas. They continued with the synthesizers Byrne had encouraged, plus added a drum machine to free up Strickland to play other instruments. “Whammy!” did well with “Whammy Kiss,” “Legal Tender,” and “Song for a Future Generation,” and the supporting tour wrapped up with a performance at Brazil’s famous Rock in Rio – the largest audience they had ever performed in front of.
Their outrageous performances may have kept them to the outside of the mainstream, but it was leading them towards the developing alternative music scene. There was also that new music video channel, MTV, playing them on a regular basis, which opened up more audiences to the B-52 style. “‘Wacky’ was the word people used. We were perceived as a really silly, campy, wacky band,” Pierson said. “And that was hard. I love to read British critics, but one of them – I will never forget – said: ‘They will not push their American trash aesthetic on us.’ That’s pretty much how it was seen: an American trash aesthetic, a band that were really, really silly. But we had a lot of very deep thoughts.” More of those deep thoughts would come from events in 1985.
The B-52s were living together in an attempt to record their next album, but it wasn’t working. They separated to write the material on their own, then come back together to jam like they had before. When the recording began, Ricky Wilson was keeping a secret: he was very sick from AIDS. Strickland knew, but the other members were not aware. “We saw Ricky get thin and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I stopped eating Mexican food.’ He loved Mexican food,” Pierson told The Guardian. “One day he didn’t show up for rehearsal. Keith called me the next day, and said, ‘Ricky’s in the hospital and he might die.’ It was the most shocking thing. It seemed as though we, particularly Cindy, would never get over it. Looking back, we were in denial. We thought something was wrong, but we never dreamed he would suddenly die.” Ricky passed away within a week of the phone call.
“Bouncing Off the Satellites” was released the following year, but the band did not tour in support or promote it. All four remaining members were devastated by Ricky’s passing. “We just couldn’t handle it,” said Pierson.
RICKY WILSON | B-52s GUITARIST
They spent the next few years apart and mourning. In that time, Strickland found comfort in writing music, plus learned to play guitar in Wilson’s style. He approached the others about making music again. They met up in Manhattan and, “We were very serious about it,” Wilson said. “We would work for four days a week, and it came together pretty quickly. It was all about nostalgia. It was looking back at the good times we used to have in Athens, so it was a wonderful, healing record.” Strickland was thankful they could be together, “We spent a lot of time just talking, and we needed that. We were our own support group after Ricky’s passing, which was a very traumatic thing for all of us and, in particular, for Cindy.” After losing her brother and band mate, Wilson also found the recording to be beneficial. “It turned out to be such a healing thing to get back together again,” she said. “It felt like Ricky was in the room.”
“Cosmic Thing” not only helped heal the band, it became their most successful album. “Love Shack,” “Roam,” “Deadbeat Club,” “(Shake That) Cosmic Thing,” and “Channel Z” propelled the 1989 album on charts and sales, plus gave them mainstream success, the cover of Rolling Stone, and MTV Video awards.
The band went on an 18-month tour for the album, and while most of us would no longer speak after that long on the road, the B-52s made it work. Looking back, Pierson said, “We’re still friends, which is a miracle after 40 years of touring. We’ve taken a lot of breaks too, and we haven’t made that many records, so we’ve taken the pressure off. We’re friends enough to give each other space, and we know what pushes each other’s buttons. So we try not to go there. It’s like those families where it’s dysfunctional and sometimes it’s better not to say things. But we still hang out together, and we eat together and party together. That’s kind of miraculous, that we love each other.”
After the extensive tour, Wilson decided to leave the band. Thankfully, not due to drama or infighting, but to become a mama. Pierson took time to do work with R.E.M. (“Shiny Happy People”) and Iggy Pop (“Candy”). Schneider released solo material. Their manager was pushing for the follow up to “Cosmic Thing,” so the three remaining members worked quickly to create one.
In 1992, “Good Stuff” materialized and the band hit the road again. A more political album, “Good Stuff” also had plenty of danceable tracks to entertain listeners. While not as huge as “Cosmic Thing,” it did earn the band Grammy nominations, but the band was once again worn out. “We toured a lot for that album and after that, I was exhausted,” Strickland explained. “I’m not sure if Kate and Fred felt the same way, but I know they wanted to take a break. And the break lasted a little bit longer and it kept lasting longer and longer. We tried to write again a couple of times, but it wasn’t working.” It would be nearly two decades before their next new album.
At this point, I must confess I completely forgot there was a Flintstones movie in 1994. The B-52s became the BC-52s to perform the title track for the movie. A few other side projects occurred for the members, but the big news was Cindy Wilson returned and the foursome created “Time Capsule,” a collection of hits, plus two new songs. Years of touring and disc collections continued until 2008 when they released their first full-length album in 16 years, “Funplex.” Obviously many people were missing the band because “Funplex” debuted at 11 on the Billboard chart in the US.
Since then, we’ve received more compilations, plus live material – including their 2011 return to their hometown for a 34th anniversary event released on CD and DVD, “The B-52s With the Wild Crowd!” They continued to perform live, but in 2012, Strickland announced he would no longer tour. “I was just over traveling on the road,” he said. “I’d been doing it for 35 years, so I stopped the year I turned 60. I just wanted to get in the studio and work on music. I’ve been more interested in that than performing anyway since Ricky passed.” Fortunately, he stayed on as an official member of the B-52s. The remaining three members have continued to tour with bands like OMD, The Go-Gos, The English Beat, Tears for Fears, and Simple Minds. Their music has appeared all over pop culture media: “The Wedding Singer,” “Queer as Folk,” “Ugly Betty,” and of course, “The Simpsons.”
Fred and Cindy continue to venture off on their own projects, Kate has gone on to do more music side project, not long ago she did a solo album “Guitars and Microphones” which gave her another hit with “Throw Down the Roses.”
During their 2019 anniversary tour, Pierson told The Guardian, “I’ve come to treasure the idea that we are silly and wacky and that we give people a sense of fun and release and happiness. People come up and say, ‘You helped me through high school,’ or ‘You helped me through a crisis,’ and that’s such a gift.”
At the risk of sounding cheesy, that sounds exactly like what we need in 2021 and I look forward to their return to the stage so we can all shake our cosmic things!