“Private Idaho.” “Give Me Back My Man.” “Love Shack.” “Legal Tender.” Everyone has a favorite track by The B-52s. The party band extraordinaire has been together for over forty years. In 1976, the original quintet (Cindy Wilson, brother Ricky, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland) held an impromptu jam sesh after sharing a “flaming volcano” cocktail. Their sound and style alchemized while playing house parties for friends in Athens, Georgia. Over the years, the band survived terrible loss, enjoyed mainstream success and surfed over shifting tastes in music. Recently, singer/songwriter/musician Kate Pierson shared her favorite tracks and the stories behind them.
The B-52s (they dropped the apostrophe in 2008) came together in Athens, Georgia, before it was known as a music town. Pierson had moved there with her “future ex-husband” to go back to the land, not to make art. “It was a farmers’ town: there was a hardware store, a feed store and a seed store. I had this place for $15 a month in the middle of a field, a funky old shack – it was the love shack! I lived out there and we formed our own group of crazy individuals: eccentrics and artists just having fun together and creating our own fun. We were hanging out and crashing parties together. If there was free beer we would crash the party and create havoc. One time I took a garden hose into the house and sprayed it around. Luckily they were my friends, and it was a rented house.”
Among the eccentrics were Ricky Wilson and his sister Cindy, Keith Strickland and Schneider, and the idea of forming a band came after they shared a Flaming Volcano cocktail at a Chinese restaurant. “We are all big music fans. Fred had a huge record collection. We all listened to really eclectic stuff, and there was the University of Georgia music library, so we had access to African music. I was a really early fan of African music. We listened to Perez Prado and Kai Winding, and soul music, and B-movie soundtracks and Nino Rota. There was no internet then, so we were looking in encyclopaedias for inspiration.”
From that stew came Rock Lobster. The lyric came from a disco in Atlanta called 2001 – “Fred really got inspired when he was at a disco and saw these crustaceans projected on the walls” – but the song was propelled by the riff Wilson picked out on his Mosrite guitar. “At first, Rock Lobster’s success was a complete surprise. We’d been saying to each other: ‘This is so weird; who’s going to listen to this?’ When we played our first party in Athens, our friends all danced: that’s a really great sign. We knew we were on to something.”
After their second album, Wild Planet, went Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, the pressure was on to reach the next level of success, and the B-52s went into the studio with David Byrne producing, for what was supposed to be their third album, but ended up being the six-track EP Mesopotamia. Why didn’t they finish an album? “It was wrongly stated that we had some kind of conflict with David Byrne, but that’s not true at all. 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.” The sound of the first two records had been dictated by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who wanted them to sound sparse, like their live sound. “But we were kind of disappointed – we wanted to sound a little better. So the choice of David Byrne was to evolve the band’s sound a little bit.”
By 1983, a certain idea about the B-52s had become cemented. “‘Wacky’ was the word people used. We were perceived as a really silly, campy, wacky band. 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.” It seems remarkable now, given that you can make a strong case for the B-52s as the parents of pop music’s embrace of retro-futurism. “We were too much in the future,” Pierson says, laughing. “We were future-futurists.” Take Trism. “Fred thought of the trism: a time machine, like the Star Trek ‘beam me up’. There’s a line in there – ‘You gotta go by trism’ – and I don’t know if anyone knew what the hell we were talking about. But I love that song because, like a lot of our songs, there’s no real chorus. Every part of it is different. Cindy and I have a real weird harmony, and it’s so quintessentially B-52s, but it’s one of those songs we don’t really do live. It’s one of the hidden gems to me that I still treasure hearing because I haven’t heard it very much.”
Before the 1986 album Bouncing Off the Satellites was released, Ricky Wilson died of Aids-related illness, having kept his illness secret from all of his bandmates except Strickland until just before his death. “We saw Ricky get thin and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I stopped eating Mexican food.’ He loved Mexican food. 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.”It was Strickland who brought the band back together. He switched from drums to guitar, learning to play in Wilson’s style. “He was the catalyst. It was a healing thing. We felt that, in honour of Ricky, we had to do this.
“The title of Love Shack was Fred’s idea, though some of the lines in the song [are about] my place that I lived in for $15 a month, in the middle of a field with goats. But Fred was thinking of this place called the Hawaiian Ha-Le – a juke joint out in the country, primarily African American but students would go there, and it would play great soul music. I think of the place in the movie The Color Purple, one of those country juke joints. It’s a fictitious place, but the whole idea is that everyone’s welcome to the party.” Editor’s note: In the music video above, be on the lookout for a pre-“Drag Race”-fame RuPaul.
The B-52s honoured their Athenian past in Deadbeat Club, remembering the time before they were famous, when they either had deadbeat jobs or no jobs – hence the title – and would live the lives of art students. “It’s very nostalgic, and it’s about things that really happened. We had a going-away party for our friend Robert Waldrop: a silent party. We met in this garden and it was silent. It was raining, and we had sheets and blankets around us, and we were naked except for the sheets. We ran around him and swooped around him. Very art school-y, but we thought we were the first people to ever do that.”
Pierson says the title track of Cosmic Thing “encapsulates the record. Half the album is very bittersweet, but Cosmic Thing is the forward-thinking song, and it’s political.” Cosmic Thing lifted the B-52s into proper fame. The singles Love Shack and Roam were hits pretty much all around the world. Everywhere except Japan – a failure Pierson attributes to their name. Although the band’s name refers to a beehive hairdo, the hairstyle is in turn named after American bomber aircraft.
With a big hit album came 18 months of solid touring. “When you tour that long, you come back home and new buildings have been built in the meantime, and you feel like you’re in the rock’n’roll army,” she says. “We were insulated, with each other, on this tour. So I don’t think we had time to live the life of pop stars. We were on the bus. We partied with each other – we had some epic bus parties, and the bus driver created a dance called the Bore Hog. We would do our concert then get on the bus and keep rolling. It was a wild ride though. We were tired of being this underground band – this was a confirmation of something.”
The recording of Bouncing Off the Satellites had been a difficult and dislocated process, “because Ricky was sick – he just couldn’t handle all the group jamming. It was fragmented, and I felt alienated, as I think Fred did, too.” Cosmic Thing reunified the band. “It felt great coming together, even though Ricky was missing. We felt like, wow, there’s some part of him that’s still there with us, and it was healing.”
His absence, though, became apparent when the group began touring. “Cindy would sometimes look over on stage and see a phantom Ricky.” All the time on the road, thankfully, did not cause ructions in the group, as can be the case. “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 others’ 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.”
Juliet of the Spirits
The most recent B-52s album brought them back to one of their earliest inspirations: the director Federico Fellini. Not only did they adore Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini’s films, they had considered calling themselves Fellini’s Children before settling on the B-52s. “We actually wrote to Fellini to see if he would do a video. He politely declined. We were so influenced by him, and the Deadbeat Club video was very influenced by his film Juliet of the Spirits. And this song came directly from the movie. We all contributed to it. Keith had the idea of doing a song as a tribute to Juliet. And it’s a very empowering woman’s song. I feel it should have been as big a hit as Roam, because it really has power to it.”
Might it be said that the B-52s – placing women front and centre, and not merely as objects for the male gaze – were a key feminist group? “Cindy and I, from the beginning, did not dress for beauty. We wore crazy wigs and crazy outfits. So we were never trying to be glamourpussies. But we didn’t have a leader and we all contributed equally.” She laughs. “I’m happy if anyone wants to think of me as eye candy nowadays.”
The band is currently on tour in North America. Click here for venue locations and tickets.