The B-52s (spelled incorrectly with an apostrophe on album covers and promotional material as The B-52’s) originated as a New Wave rock band formed in Athens, Georgia, United States, in 1976. The B-52s’ sound is marked by the vocals - the female harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, and the generally spoken-word or sprechgesang male vocal counterpoint of Fred Schneider, Ricky Wilson’s surf style guitar and Keith Strickland’s go-go beat drumming. The resulting unique “guy vs. gals” vocals, sometimes used in call and response style (as in their songs “Private Idaho” and “Good Stuff”), are a trademark of the band. Presenting as a positive, enthusiastic, slightly wacky party band, the B-52s have focused on songs telling tall tales (“Rock Lobster”, “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland”), glorifying wild youth (“Love Shack”, “Deadbeat Club”), or celebrating wild romance (“Strobe Light”, “Hot Pants Explosion”), all set to a danceable New Wave beat.
The band’s name comes from a particular beehive hairdo resembling the nose cone of the aircraft of the same name. Keith Strickland suggested the name after a dream he had one night, of a band performing in a hotel lounge. In the dream he heard someone whisper in his ear that the name of the band was “The B-52s.” During their early years, wigs of that style were often worn by the band’s female singers Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson. The correct name for the band had long been “The B-52’s”, but in 2008 they dropped the apostrophe, with their official website and Funplex album and single covers reading “The B-52s”. In a June 2009 interview with the Arizona Daily Star Schneider said that band will hereafter be known without its apostrophe.
Cindy Wilson (vocals), her older brother Ricky Wilson (guitar), Kate Pierson (organ, vocals), Keith Strickland (drummer), and Fred Schneider (cowbell, vocals) formed the group in an impromptu jam session after sharing a tropical Flaming Volcano (sometimes reported as a Scorpion Bowl) drink at a local Chinese restaurant, and played their first gig in 1977 at a Valentine’s Day party for friends. The band’s quirky take on the New Wave sound of their era was a combination of dance and surf music set apart by the unusual guitar tunings used by Ricky Wilson. Their costume thrift-store chic set them apart as well. During the Mesopotamia tour, the band’s famous wigs were under the care of Jackie Slayton, one of Athens’s leading artists and long-time friend of the band.
Their first single, “Rock Lobster,” recorded for DB Records in 1978 was an underground success that led to the B-52s performing at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City in New York City. “52 Girls” was the B-side. Two versions of the single were released in the United Kingdom that featured the B-side “Running Around”. The buzz created by the record in the UK, meant their first show in London at the Lyceum in the summer of 1979 was packed in anticipation, with many U.K. Pop stars, such as Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Joe Jackson and others in attendance.
Their debut album, The B-52’s, contained re-recorded versions of “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls”, along with six more originals and a remake of Petula Clark’s classic “Downtown”. It was eventually certified platinum. The album had greater success internationally, especially in Australia, where it hit Number Seven on the back of three hit singles: “Planet Claire” (#43), “Rock Lobster” (#3) and “Dance This Mess Around”. “Rock Lobster” gave the band its first entry on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
The follow-up, Wild Planet, reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart in 1980 and was certified gold. “Private Idaho” became their second Hot 100 entry. On January 26, 1980 the B-52s performed on Saturday Night Live. They also performed at the Heatwave festival (billed as the “New Wave Woodstock”) in Toronto, Canada, in August 1980.
Party Mix! was released next, a remix album that took tracks from the first two LPs and presented them in extended forms.
In interviews before his death, John Lennon cited “Rock Lobster” as an inspiration for his comeback.
Although recording sessions with David Byrne (of Talking Heads) were aborted before a full album had been produced, the recordings were released as the Mesopotamia EP in 1982 (Party Mix! and Mesopotamia would later be combined and released together on a single CD). According to The B-52s fan club newsletter, c. 1982, “Song for a Future Generation” took a full 24 hours straight to record at A&M Records (at the time Herb Alpert’s company and site of the former Charlie Chaplin Studios in Los Angeles).
The Whammy! album in 1983 brought the band into electronic and drum machine experimentation, much to the chagrin of some of their early fans. “Legal Tender” became their third chart single, while the album broke the Billboard 200. After the initial pressings of Whammy! were released, copyright issues with Yoko Ono led to the song “Don’t Worry” being pulled and replaced on future copies of the album with a new track called “Moon 83,” a variation on “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)” from their debut album.
Fred Schneider (Fred Schneider & the Shake Society) released a solo album in 1984, with contributions from bandmates Kate Pierson, Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads, Keith Haring and RuPaul, who appeared on the video clip for “Monster”, a song about the “monster” in Fred’s pants.
That year, the B-52s re-formed to record Bouncing Off the Satellites. But on October 12, 1985, Ricky Wilson died at age 32 of what was originally reported as cancer but was later revealed to be AIDS-related illness. Devastated, the band went into seclusion and did not tour to promote the album. Nevertheless, Bouncing Off the Satellites eventually reached 85 on the Billboard 200. Cindy went into a deep depression after her brother’s passing, while Keith retreated to Woodstock, New York, and Kate and Fred stayed in New York City. The band felt that it would be impossible to continue without Ricky.
During the two-year hiatus that followed Wilson’s death, Strickland switched from drums to guitar and began writing music. After Strickland played some of his new music for the other band members, they all agreed to try writing together again, with Pierson, Wilson and Schneider contributing the lyrics and melodies. Their song “(Shake That) Cosmic Thing” was a centerpiece of the soundtrack to the movie Earth Girls Are Easy.
In 1989, the band released Cosmic Thing, their long-anticipated mainstream breakthrough. “Channel Z,” a single from the new album, became an alternative and college radio hit, hitting number one on the U.S. Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, receiving significant airplay on MTV’s modern rock show 120 Minutes.
The next single, “Love Shack”, would become the band’s signature tune. With its party vibe and colorful music video (featuring a cameo by a then-unknown RuPaul), “Love Shack” not only became their first Top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, but ultimately reached Number Three in November 1989. That peak was matched in March 1990 when their follow-up single, “Roam”, also reached Number Three. In Australia, the country that had most embraced the band a decade earlier, “Love Shack” stayed at Number One for eight weeks.
A fourth single, “Deadbeat Club”, which reminisced about the band’s early days in Athens and whose video was shot on location and featured a cameo by fellow Athens artist R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, reached Number 30. The Cosmic Thing album climbed into the U.S. Top five and earned multi-platinum certification. The group had a hugely successful world tour to support the record, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in March 1990.
Pierson lent her vocals to Iggy Pop’s song “Candy”, which gave him a Top-40 hit. In 1991, Schneider’s solo record was re-packaged and re-released, resulting in his first Hot 100 single when “Monster” climbed to Number 85, and Pierson again guest-starred on a popular track, this time it being fellow Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People”, which reached Number Ten in September 1991. Pierson appeared on another song from the band’s chart-topping album Out of Time, “Me in Honey”.
In late 1990, Cindy Wilson took time off from the band, with Julee Cruise filling in for her parts on the eventual tour. As a trio, the B-52s released Good Stuff in 1992, and the title track reached Number 28 in August of that year. The album made it to Number 18 in the U.S. It is also the group’s most overtly political album, though they had been activists and fund-raisers for environmental, AIDS and animal rights causes for many years. Subsequent singles were not as successful and the album did not sell as well as Cosmic Thing.
The band had its next chart entry in 1994 when, as The BC-52’s, they appeared in The Flintstones live-action movie and sang the title song. When released as a single, it reached Number 33 in the U.S. and Number Three in the UK. In 1994, the B-52s also performed the theme song for the Nickelodeon series Rocko’s Modern Life from the second season on. In the 1990s, ex-Duran Duran drummer Sterling Campbell joined the band, but left in 2000 to tour with David Bowie and was replaced that year by Zachary Alford, who had recorded and toured with the band during the Cosmic Thing era.
A career retrospective, Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation, appeared in 1998 along with two remix maxi singles (“Summer of Love 98” and “Hallucinating Pluto”). Cindy Wilson rejoined the group on two of the new songs and a major tour (with co-headliners the Pretenders) to promote the collection. “Debbie”, another single from the album (a tribute to Blondie’s Debbie Harry), placed Number 35 on Billboard’s Hot Modern Rock Tracks. In 1999 they recorded a parody of “Love Shack” called “Glove Slap” for an episode of The Simpsons. They co-headlined another major tour in 2000 with the Go-Go’s. Also in 2000 they recorded the song “The Chosen One” for the movie Pokemon 2000.
A more extensive anthology, Nude on the Moon: The B-52s Anthology, appeared in 2002. The B-52s recorded the song “Orange You Glad It’s Summer” for a Target commercial that aired in spring/summer 2002. Target also used the song “Junebug” in a TV spot in 2007.
In late 2004, the band opened for Cher on a few dates of her Farewell Tour. In March 2006 they opened for the Rolling Stones at a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. They had three remix EPs released by Planet Clique: Whammy! in 2005, Mesopotamia in 2006 and Wild Planet in 2007. During this time span they appeared on many television shows including The L Word, V.I.P., The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, The Arsenio Hall Show, Saturday Night Live, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Today Show, Good Morning America and numerous times on VH1.
Funplex (2008), the band’s first original album in sixteen years (since 1992’s Good Stuff), was released on March 25, 2008 by Astralwerks. Talking about the record’s sound, Keith Strickland noted, “It’s loud, sexy rock & roll with the beat turned up to hot pink.” The album is produced by Steve Osborne, who was asked to work on the album based on his work with New Order on the album Get Ready. With this album, the band dropped the apostrophe from their name and became The B-52s.
The album debuted at Number Eleven on the Billboard charts in the U.S., immediately making it the second-highest charting B-52s album ever. The band toured in support of the album as well as making television appearances on talk shows, including The Tonight Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and performing on The Today Show on Memorial Day 2008. They also participated in the True Colors Tour 2008 with Cyndi Lauper and embarked on a European tour in July.
The first single from the album was “Funplex”, which was released digitally on January 29 to the iTunes Store in the U.S. The second single lifted from the album was “Juliet of the Spirits”.
The creative odyssey of Funplex began with Keith Strickland, who composes the music for the group. “I had been listening to a lot of electronic dance music and early rock and roll. I was inspired to use these two aesthetics together with our own sound to write some shameless dance-floor party music.” At home in Key West, Florida, he commenced crafting new tracks that retained iconic features of the band’s sound - such as their primal guitar hooks - while also emphasizing grooves. What emerged were originals like “Eyes Wide Open”, with its throbbing low-end and oddball percussion, and the chugging, unvarnished “Too Much to Think About”.
“I’m trying to convey a feeling when I write,” Keith explains. “I like to think of my instrumentals as landscapes. The chord changes, rhythms and sound quality of the instruments are all aspects of a sonic space, which is designed for Cindy, Fred and Kate to step into. I want them to feel inspired by the music and expand on that feeling with their melodies and lyrics ... little did I know that with our new songs ... they were going to get all sexy.”
The other members of the band were busy incubating new songs, too. “I’m always writing lyrics,” says Fred, “I have notebooks full of ideas, not just for songs, but cartoons, films, everything.” The band began meeting regularly at Nickel & Dime Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, for Stage Two of the writing process. Working with Keith’s foundations, Kate, Fred and Cindy commenced with their trademark “jamming,” creating melody lines, lyrics, and vocal harmonies, turning over myriad ideas until they hit upon the ones that served each song best.
“During the ‘jamming’ process Cindy and I usually focus a lot on melodies ...then the harmonies start to flow....and the magic begins,” Kate elaborates. “Sometimes we start with title or subject ideas but we often go to our laptops and jam out on lyrics while listening to the music.”
“Most people could not do this,” confesses Cindy of their democratic modus operandi. “What we’re trying to do is rare, but it works out. And you get a song that is multi-faceted, and has different senses of humor, and depth to it.” For instance, the initial spark for “Juliet of the Spirits” came from Keith, according to Kate: “He made a suggestion to look to the Fellini movie” - 1965’s Giulietta degli spiriti - “for lyrical inspiration, since his movies have always been an influence on our look and our hair! Cindy, Fred and I took it from there.” The title “Deviant Ingredient” may have sprung from a line of Cindy’s poetry, yet the song’s vocal twists, and vivid images of trawling the martini mile, are born from all the members’ intersecting imaginations.
To help formalize the sound of Funplex, the band recruited producer Steve Osborne (Happy Mondays, Doves, KT Tunstall), who had favorably impressed Keith with his work on New Order’s 2001 return to form, Get Ready. “Steve was strong, directed everybody well, had great ideas… and he understood us, too,” says Cindy. “A lot of people wouldn’t know what to do with our band, but he appreciated the quirkiness, and made it work. Can you imagine what a hard job that must have been?”
While Osborne and his team - programmers Pete Davis, Dave McCracken, and Damien Taylor, and engineer Dan Austin - helped refine subtle percussion and keyboard parts, enhancing the original tracks, they also made sure to retain a hefty dose of spontaneity. “We didn’t do a whole lot to the vocals,” reveals Kate. “The philosophy was to keep them a little raw. A lot of attention was paid to the individual tracks, but we were careful not to sound too slick or overproduced.”
Recording took place in two locations, first at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, followed by John Keane Studio in Athens, Georgia. Working at the latter venue, in particular, enhanced the good vibes that surrounding the making of the record. “It felt like coming full circle,” says Kate. The studio was literally just a few blocks from the site of the house where the band played its first show, at a party on Valentine’s Day, 1977. “We were tapping back into that wellspring of creativity,” she continues. “It was like the spirit of when we started. My voice teacher used to say tension is the enemy of all art, and being in Athens melted away any tension. It’s so easygoing there.”
You’ll find glimpses of the band’s Athens, Georgia, roots in the lyrics of “Hot Corner”, too. “That was a real corner by our old studio, in the Morton Building, where a lot of hot action took place,” Kate recalls. “Like ‘Love Shack’, the song is a mix of all things Athens: the bus station where Keith and Ricky worked, the dance parties we crashed, the crazy outfits we wore.”
Looking back at band’s pioneering fusions of punk, new wave, and vintage rock, it would be tough to imagine the contemporary musical landscape existing without having encountered the intersected spirits of Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, and Cindy Wilson. “We all cross-pollinate, and create a wonderfully crazy blossom,” explains Fred. Botanists don’t need a name for this stunning specimen, though. It already has one, known around the world - the B-52s.