The B-52’s

The B-52’s

Cindy Wilson – circa 1989

“Everybody goes to parties / They dance this mess around” – ‘Dance This Mess Around’ (The B-52’s)

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a frightening disease.  It is a degenerative illness that is usually fatal, though in at least some cases its progress can be slowed and the patient’s life extended.  Often, it is not AIDS itself that is fatal.  As its full name implies, AIDS weakens the body’s immune system.  Consequently, another disease – such as cancer or pneumonia – is contracted and it is this secondary infection that leads to death.  Though it may not be strictly accurate, AIDS is often associated with homosexuality.  Ricky Wilson of The B-52’s dies as a result of AIDS-related illness.  He was quiet about his sexuality, but that is one of the few quiet things about The B-52’s.

Ricky Helton Wilson (19 March 1953-12 October 1985) is born in Athens, Georgia, U.S.A.  His younger sister, Cynthia Leigh Wilson, is born on 28 February 1957.  Ricky and Cindy share a birthplace and will both become members of The B-52’s.  Ricky and Cindy are the children of Bobby Jack Wilson and his wife Linda J. Wilson (nee Mairholtz).  Bobby Wilson is a fireman and a veteran of the U.S. Army.  The marriage between Bobby and Linda must have ended sometime during their children’s youth, because there is a reference to Ricky and Cindy having a step-mother who is a factory worker.

Ricky Wilson develops an interest in music ‘at an early age.’  He learns to play guitar.  Ricky Wilson attends Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia.  A summer job at the local landfill earns Ricky enough money to buy a two-track tape recorder.  This allows him to capture his guitar playing and early attempts at songwriting.  ‘The Looking Glass’ is a local ‘head shop’ (i.e. they sell things related to smoking cannabis and various other stuff of interest to their clientele).  In mid-1969 Ricky Wilson meets another local youth at ‘The Looking Glass’ who shares his interest in music and Eastern mysticism.  This boy’s name is Keith Strickland.

Julian Keith Strickland is born on 26 October 1953 in Athens, Georgia.  His father operates the Southeastern Stages bus station in Athens.  Keith has a brother.  Like Ricky Wilson, Keith Strickland displays an early aptitude for music.  Keith’s mother can play piano by ear.  When Keith is 5 or 6 years old he begins to pick out tunes in a similar fashion at the family piano.  He then moves on to drums, but doesn’t start playing guitar until he is 16 to 18.  Keith Strickland attends Clarke Central High School but is in the grade below Ricky Wilson since he is a little younger.  One of Keith Strickland’s classmates at Clarke is future Hollywood actress Kim Basinger.

Ricky Wilson confesses he is gay to Keith Strickland while both boys are in their teens.

In mid-1969 Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland put together an act called Loon.  They begin to write songs together and aspire to play live gigs – but that doesn’t happen.  Instead, from 1969 to 1971 Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland play in a band called Black Narcissus (a name that is perhaps inspired by the 1947 movie of the same name?) with their high school friends Pete Love and Owen Scott III.

Ricky Wilson graduates from high school in 1971.  Keith Strickland graduates from high school in 1972.  The two boys wander around Europe for a year before returning home to Athens, Georgia.  The duo goes back to Europe for another year before winding up back home again.  Ricky and Keith then begin working for Keith’s father at the Southeastern Stages bus station.

Although Ricky Wilson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland all come from Athens, Georgia, the other two members of what will become The B-52’s – Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson – are both from New Jersey.

Frederick William Schneider III is born on 1 July 1951 in Newark, New Jersey.  Fred grows up with an eclectic bunch of musical influences.  He claims his first love was Broadway show tunes.  Fred then takes an interest in Halloween songs and Christmas songs.  Finally, he moves on to the danceable pop hits coming from the Motown Records stable of recording artists.  During his youth, Fred Schneider moves with his family from Newark, New Jersey, to Belleville, New Jersey.  But when he considers a college degree, Fred looks further afield.  “I was interested in wildlife conservation, and I chose Georgia because they supposedly had a good forestry school.”  However that doesn’t work out as well as Fred hopes.  “I switched to journalism,” he explains.  For his final project, Fred Schneider writes a book of poetry that is published as ‘Bleb’ (1975).  Fred Schneider then drops out of school.  “I stayed in Athens,” he says, “because I liked the town a lot.”  Fred Schneider works as a janitor, acts as a driver for the charity ‘Meals on Wheels’ and gets a job as a waiter at El Dorado, a local vegetarian eatery.

Katherine Elizabeth Pierson is born on 27 April 1948 in Weehawken, New Jersey.  This means that Kate Pierson is the eldest of the five future members of The B-52’s.  Although born in Weehawken, she is raised in Rutherford, New Jersey.  Music is part of the Pierson household.  “My father played this beautiful Gretsch guitar,” Kate recalls.  “He was in a big band [i.e. a large group, playing the kind of swing music made famous by the likes of Glenn Miller], and then when he got married, he stopped.”  Young Kate also shows an aptitude for music.  “I played piano.  I was in chorus and choir and stuff at school,” she says.  At high school, Kate Pierson takes inspiration from folk rock musician Bob Dylan and forms her own folk group.  In 1964 she discovers the music of British band The Beatles and moves towards rock music.  Kate Pierson forms a band called The Sun Donuts.  She then goes on to attend Wheaton College in Massachusetts, transferring to Boston University where Pierson obtains a journalism degree.  Like Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson travels around Europe for a time.  “I was a barmaid in Newcastle [in England],” she reminisces.  When she returns to the U.S.A., Kate Pierson is accompanied by ‘a male friend from Manchester [in England].’  (Note: One account refers to ‘her English husband’ but there is nothing else to suggest the pair wed so it seems more likely that they just lived together in a manner similar to a married couple.)  Kate’s companion is unable to find work in Boston because he lacks the proper papers.  A friend promises Kate’s partner work in Athens, Georgia, so the couple move south.  “I used to live on a mini-farm [in Athens],” Kate says.  It’s what she describes as “a hippie, back-to-the-land thing…I kept goats, rode a bike, grew vegetables.”  It doesn’t appear to be very lucrative though.  To earn a living, Kate Pierson works as a paste-up artist in the type shop of a local newspaper.

Athens, Georgia, is a ‘college town.’  It is home to the University of Georgia.  Cindy Wilson claims that, “Athens was great because there were so many influences because of the college that you didn’t get in most Southern towns.  It was a great place to grow up and become creative.  We had to make our own fun.”  Ricky Wilson, Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson meet socially.  “We were friends, kinda arty bohemian types who just liked to hang out and party together,” says Kate Pierson.  “It wasn’t just us,” she adds.  “It was Jeremy Ayers and Robert Waldrop and a whole bunch of other people.”

The idea of forming a band arises on ‘an October night in 1976.’  At a local Chinese restaurant called HuNan, Ricky Wilson, Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson share a tropical drink called a ‘flaming volcano.’  A jam session follows.  The five of them enjoy themselves and decide to form a band.  The line-up is: Fred Schneider (vocals), Cindy Wilson (vocals), Kate Pierson (vocals, keyboards), Ricky Wilson (guitar) and Keith Strickland (drums).  This is the basic set-up, but many of the group play additional instruments depending on the needs of the song.  For instance, Cindy Wilson plays bongoes and guitar and Kate Pierson plays keyboard bass and guitar.  Generally, the band gets by without a bass player since Ricky Wilson’s guitar tunings and Kate Pierson’s keyboards cover that end of their sound.

Fred Schneider acknowledges the origin of the band’s name: “Keith [Strickland] came up with The B-52’s.”  Keith says, “I was having this dream one night.  It was about this lounge band that had a woman keyboard player and she introduced the band as The B-52’s.  I sprang up out of bed and said, ‘That’s it!  The B-52’s!’”  It is also the designation for a particular beehive hairdo resembling the nose cone of the American aircraft the B-52 bomber.  Naturally, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson try to adopt this hairstyle.  “When we first started, we had a hairdresser in Athens, Laverne, and she just teased up Cindy’s and my hair so big,” marvels Pierson.  As a matter of practicality, the girls often wear wigs.

The B-52’s play their first gig at a place called Julia’s in Athens on 14 February (Valentine’s Day) 1977.  It’s a party for their friends.  “There were only seventeen people.  We made seventeen bucks,” notes Fred Schneider.  It’s a memorable night for Cindy Wilson, the youngest of the group, because she meets her future husband, an art student named Keith Bennett.  “He was an artistic weirdo and I related to that right off,” says Cindy.

The B-52’s ambitions are humble.  They just aim ‘to amuse themselves at parties.’  ‘The band members have little or no previous musical experience, and perform most of their earliest shows with taped guitar and percussion accompaniment.’  Cindy Wilson works as a waitress at a local restaurant called Kress: “I had to get a job because it was my job to buy a microphone,” Cindy explains.

In April 1978, one of The B-52’s earliest original compositions, ‘Rock Lobster’ is released on DB Records.  Around the same time the group gets the opportunity to play gigs at New York City venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City.  “My parents lent us their station wagon [to get to New York],” points out Ricky Wilson.  The group becomes a ‘sensation.’  Gary Kurfirst becomes their manager.  In early 1979, a recording contract is signed with Warner Bros. (U.S., Australia) and Island (U.K.).

The mid-1970s is the time of the punk rock revolution.  “We started in the punk era,” agrees Keith Strickland.  “But coming from Athens we had absolutely no sense of what punk was [since the U.S. punk scene was mainly in New York and Los Angeles].”  The B-52’s is usually considered to be a new wave band, one of a group of acts that don’t ‘sound like punk rock but nevertheless owe their existence to the new punk-inspired aesthetic.’ (i.e. do-it-yourself, non-conformist, back to basics)  New wave is quirkier and less aggressive than punk.

The B-52’s have ‘an outrageous stage image which includes mini-skirts, go-go boots, toy instruments and music that combines high camp with irresistible rhythms.’  “We always dressed like this,” says Kate Pierson.  “We always shopped at thrift stores; it was sort of a pastime…It wasn’t a conscious decision to recreate the 1950s or 1960s or anything.  It was just for fun.”  The sound of The B-52’s is as outrageous as their stage apparel.  Most commonly, all three of The B-52’s vocalists chip in on each track.  Less frequently, the two girls sing together.  In the minority of cases when there is just one singer, it is usually Cindy Wilson.  Fred Schneider doesn’t really sing the lyrics so much as intone them.  Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson scream, warble and harmonise.  “The way Cindy and I do our harmonies is completely unique,” insists Pierson.  “It just comes out of a feeling, you know, and we’re just winging it.”  Kate Pierson also provides cheesy organ trills.  Ricky Wilson employs ‘open tunings’ on his guitar.  He removes the two middle strings as he doesn’t have any use for them – though he does sometimes play with five strings rather than four (a standard guitar has six strings).  “He really had a vision,” Cindy Wilson says of her brother.  “He was one of the strongest elements of The B-52’s from the beginning.”  Behind the drum kit, Keith Strickland flails away at a manic pace, trying to follow Ricky Wilson’s eccentric arrangements.  Kate Pierson lists among the band’s influences Nino Rota (who wrote the music for Italian director Frederico Fellini’s surrealist films); 1960’s British pop singer Dusty Springfield; Yoko Ono, the avant-garde partner of ex-Beatle John Lennon; and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.  Fred Schneider tries to sum up The B-52’s sound this way: “We just did our own thing, which was a combination of rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and Fellini, and game show host, and corn, and mysticism.”  But it is Kate Pierson who probably provides the best definition: “We’re [a] self-proclaimed tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia.  And sometimes America’s greatest party band.”

Although The B-52’s record a few cover versions and outside compositions, most of their material is original – and, usually, written by the group as a whole.  “We write a communal type of music,” says Kate Pierson.  “When we first started writing songs together, we wrote collectively, and we still do.  Some songs in the beginning were individually written by Ricky [Wilson] or a collaboration between Ricky and Fred [Schneider]…although we all added our bits.”  Keith Strickland claims, “Ricky and I used to write the music together.”  Even thematically, The B-52’s are a bit contrary.  “It’s all about fun,” yelps Cindy Wilson.  In contrast, Kate Pierson despairs of, “Everyone calling us whacky, whacky, whacky and they didn’t understand the incredible seriousness of the band.”

The debut album, ‘The B-52’s’ (1979) (US no. 59, UK no. 22, AUS no. 7), is released on 6 July on Warner Bros. (U.S., Australia) and Island (U.K.).  The disc is produced by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell.  It requires careful handling to capture the group’s originality and Blackwell performs the task admirably.  ‘Rock Lobster’ (US no. 56, UK no. 37, AUS no. 3) is rerecorded for the album.  The song is co-written by vocalist Fred Schneider and guitarist Ricky Wilson.  Keyboardist Kate Pierson explains that, “Fred started with the lyrics.  He had gone to this disco…I think it was called the 2001 Disco, and he saw these crustaceans that were projected onto the wall, saw a rock lobster, and…I guess he wrote some lines about it,” she concludes, breaking into laughter.  Keith Strickland, the band’s drummer, remembers that Ricky Wilson asked him if he would like to hear “the stupidest guitar line ever.”  It is, of course, the riff that becomes ‘Rock Lobster’ and Keith is quick to encourage his colleague.  Ricky’s guitar part seems to borrow from the rumbling guitar of the ‘James Bond’ movie theme and Duane Eddy’s playing on the theme for the 1958-1961 television detective show ‘Peter Gunn’.  Lyrically, ‘Rock Lobster’ seems to be the soundtrack to a mutant offspring of a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster movie and one of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon’s ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ films.  Schneider casts an eye over, “Boy’s in bikinis / Girls in surfboards,” and urges, “Pass the tanning butter.”  Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson provide a bizarre series of shrieks and ululations to accompany each example of sea life Fred itemises.  “HERE COMES A BIKINI WHALE!” cries Fred at the climax as Cindy unleashes her best horror movie starlet scream.  ‘Rock Lobster’ has a polarising effect.  Those who like it think it is utterly brilliant; those who dislike it find it so bizarre, it’s offensive.  Perhaps due to the element of surprise, this mini-epic of madness remains the finest song in the repertoire of The B-52’s.  It becomes a freakish hit in Australia.  Other highlights on the album include ‘Planet Claire’ (AUS no. 43) and ‘There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon)’, pieces that sound like they belong to some long forgotten sci-fi B-movie.  ‘Planet Claire’ is co-written by Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland.  “Some say she’s from Mars / Or one of the seven stars / That shine after 3.30 in the morning,” Schneider sings/says before hollering at the top of his voice, “WELL SHE ISN’T,” and adding ominously, “She came from Planet Claire.”  ‘There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon) is one of three songs on the album credited to The B-52’s collectively as authors.  The others are ‘Dance This Mess Around’ and ‘Lava’.  ‘Dance This Mess Around’ is a spotlight for Cindy Wilson where she howls with unaccountable anguish, “Why don’t you dance with me / I’m not no Limburger (i.e. a particularly smelly type of cheese).”  ‘Lava’ is a lusty tribute to human geology: “My love’s eruptin’ like a red hot volcano.”  Ricky Wilson co-writes two tracks with acquaintances from the group’s social clique in Athens.  Jeremy Ayers co-writes ’52 Girls’, a recitation of cool chicks from the 1960s (plus “Kate and Cindy”!).  Robert Waldrop is co-author of ‘Hero Worship’, a lovelorn dedication to a dreamboat.  The B-52’s (minus Cindy Wilson) write ‘6060-842’, the title being a number to dial for “a very nice time.”  Rounding out the album is a cover version of ‘Downtown’, British pop singer Petula Clarke’s song from 1964.  Although the general public is unprepared for this concoction, ‘The B-52’s’ is the group’s finest album, ‘a collection of manic, bizarre and eminently danceable songs.’  “We never thought it would get past our circle of friends in Athens,” says Fred Schneider modestly.

In the wake of the release of ‘The B-52’s’, the group tours through summer 1979 at gigs ranging from New York’s Central Park to Australia.  “It was so glamorous coming into Australia…We were just like stars,” recalls vocalist Cindy Wilson.  The B-52’s appear on ‘Countdown’, the pop television show of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  “I think we broke in England and Australia before we broke in America,” Cindy adds.

The B-52’s’ second album, ‘Wild Planet’ (1980) (US no. 18, UK no. 18, AUS no. 12), is released on 27 August and the rest of the world begins to catch up on the band’s style.  More people are getting the joke.  ‘Wild Planet’ is co-produced by Rhett Davies, The B-52’s and Chris Blackwell.  The album is spearheaded by the infectious jive of ‘Private Idaho’ (US no. 74, AUS no. 11), a group composition.  Director Gus Van Sant is inspired to borrow the song’s title for the movie ‘My Own Private Idaho’ (1991).  ‘Give Me Back My Man’ (UK no. 61), written by The B-52’s sans Kate Pierson, is a song that showcases vocalist Cindy Wilson.  “I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy,” she promises in a winningly mixed-up manner.  Her strident demand is backed by odd, boxy percussion in this relatively spare arrangement.  ‘Party Out Of Bounds’ is about a “Surpriiise paaarty” that gets out of control – but “Who’s to blame?”  It’s an eccentric good time piece written by the whole band.  Five of the nine tracks on ‘Wild Planet’ were written before the group’s debut album was recorded, so it is perhaps understandable that ‘Wild Planet’ shows ‘little musical progress.’

The B-52’s perform ‘Rock Lobster’ in Paul Simon’s movie ‘One-Trick Pony’ (1980) released on 3 October.  A sensitive folky singer-songwriter like Simon seems an odd companion for The B-52’s, but the group attracts a wide variety of fans.

‘Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s vocal acrobatics…recall the earlier work of Yoko Ono.’  Ex-Beatle John Lennon seems to realise this too and it serves to inspire him to come out of his self-imposed early retirement and release ‘Double Fantasy’ (1980) in November, an album shared equally between his songs and those of his wife, Yoko Ono.

From 1981 until at least 1983, the five members of The B-52’s all live together in the same house.

The EP ‘Party Mix’ (US no. 55, UK no. 36, AUS no. 80), released in July 1981, contains only remixes from the first two albums by The B-52’s.  That is, the contents are earlier songs they have released given new arrangements or reworkings.

The B-52’s begin work on new recordings with David Byrne.  The leader of New York new wave band Talking Heads seems like a good choice to act as producer.  However ‘conflicts between the band and Byrne’ result in a halt being called to the work.  The resultant ‘Mesopotamia’ (US no. 35, UK no. 18, AUS no. 79) is released as a ‘mini-album’ on 27 January 1982.  Some consider ‘Mesopotamia’ to be an EP, but with six tracks and a running time of around thirty minutes, the ‘mini-album’ designation seems more fitting.  The title track, ‘Mesopotamia’, is funky and, predictably, sounds a bit like the Afro-funk experiments of Talking Heads.  Written by the group as a whole, the song ‘Mesopotamia’ toys with “ancient culture” from “six or eight thousand years ago” and offers to “meet you by the third pyramid.”  Both ‘Loveland’ and ‘Nip It In The Bud’ feature vocalist Cindy Wilson.  On ‘Mesopotamia’, The B-52’s ‘largely abandon their trademark sense of humour.’

‘Whammy’ (1983) (US no. 29, UK no. 33, AUS no. 97), released in April, marks ‘a move into electronic territory.’  Steven Stanley produces this disc.  Synthesisers and drum machines figure in the sound of the album.  “At this point, Keith [Strickland] didn’t want to play drums anymore,” explains keyboardist Kate Pierson about the musical tone of the time.  ‘Whammy Kiss’ gives the album its title.  ‘Whammy Kiss’ is a group composition as is ‘Song For A Future Generation’ (UK no. 63).  Propulsive and futuristic, the latter coos, “Let’s meet and have a baby now!”  Each of the group members introduces themselves in ‘Song For A Future Generation’ together with their astrological sign and their likes.  Perhaps the most amusing is Cindy Wilson’s offering: “I like Chihuahuas and Chinese noodles” – presumably not together.  The B-52’s buddy Robert Waldrop contributes the lyrics for ‘Legal Tender’ (US no. 81), a slice of synthetic robo-funk in which Kate and Cindy sing a story that’s apparently about printing counterfeit currency.  ‘Don’t Worry’ has lyrics penned by Yoko Ono.  However, conflict with Yoko leads to ‘Don’t Worry’ being removed after initial pressings and replaced by ‘Moon 83’ – a remixed version of ‘There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon)’ from the group’s first album.

It is during the recording sessions for ‘Whammy’ that Ricky Wilson learns he has AIDS.  He confides in Keith Strickland, but keeps his illness from the rest of the group.  Even Ricky’s sister, Cindy, is kept in the dark: “Ricky didn’t tell me what was going on.  I can’t tell you what was in his mind…He didn’t tell anybody else but Keith Strickland and that was his choice,” she says.  Kate Pierson suggests that Ricky kept his illness secret because he “did not want anyone to worry about him or fuss about him.”

‘Fred Schneider & The Shake Society’ (1984) is a solo album by The B-52’s’ frontman.

On 21 April 1985 Cindy Wilson marries Keith Bennett.  The art student she met back at The B-52’s gig on Valentine’s Day in 1977 became a guitar technician for Cindy’s brother Ricky Wilson and then an advertising executive, but is still described as an ‘artist/musician.’  Cindy and Keith have children but are very private about their offspring.  So far as can be ascertained, they have a daughter named India (born 1990) and a son (born 1999).  One account has it that there is a third child.  This may be true but no supporting information has been found.  (Note: Cindy’s daughter is named after India Wilkes.  This character is the sister of Ashley Wilkes in the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939).)

Ricky Wilson dies on 12 October 1985 from complications related to AIDS.  He was 32.  “When Ricky passed away in 1985,” explains Kate Pierson, “a decision was made by Ricky and Cindy’s family – her uncle wanted to protect their father, and so he said, ‘Let’s not mention that Ricky had AIDS.’”  So his death is initially attributed to lymph cancer.  This may well be more accurate since the nature of AIDS is to weaken the immune system; the secondary cancer infection may have been what was truly fatal.  Cindy Wilson notes, “It kind of threw me for a loop when all of a sudden I got a phone call from the hospital saying, ‘Your brother’s dying.’  And then I never did get to say goodbye to him.  So it really screwed me up.”

‘Bouncing Off The Satellites’ (1986) (US no. 85, UK no. 74, AUS no. 73) is completed before Ricky Wilson’s death but, since it is not released until 8 September 1986, it comes out after his passing.  The album is produced by Tony Mansfield.  ‘Summer Of Love’ (US no. 90) draws some attention and ‘Wig’ (UK no. 79) celebrates their hairpieces.  Cindy Wilson handles the solo vocal on ‘Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland’.  This tumbling piece of funk has nothing to do with the 1964 bossa nova song ‘Girl From Ipanema’ by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz.  ‘In light of [Ricky] Wilson’s death, the group finds it impossible to promote [this] album, and they spend the next few years in seclusion.’

‘Dance This Mess Around: The Best Of The B-52’s’ (1986) (UK no. 36) is a compilation album created for the U.K. only.

‘Fred Schneider and Other Unrelated Works’ (1987) is the second book of poetry by The B-52’s vocalist.

‘Cosmic Thing’ (1989) (US no. 4, UK no. 8, AUS no. 1) in June signifies the return of The B-52’s.  With this release, the group migrates to Reprise Records.  The B-52’s are now managed by Steven Jensen and Martin Kirkup.  ‘Cosmic Thing’ brings together songs from two different recording sessions.  Six of the ten tracks are produced by Nile Rodgers (of Chic) while the remaining four fall under the supervision of Don Was (of Was (Not Was)).  Without Ricky Wilson, former drummer Keith Strickland moves over to guitar.  Although the songwriting is still credited to the group as a whole, Strickland says, “I write the individual instrument parts and arrange the instrumental compositions myself.”  The first single from the album is ‘Channel Z’ (UK no. 61, AUS no. 145), which Strickland describes as, “our environmental anthem.”  ‘Love Shack’ (US no. 3, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1) is a song about a makeshift rural dance venue and it is warm and funny.  “There was a place in Athens [Georgia] called the Hawaiian Ha-Le that…was kind of the model for the Love Shack,” advises Kate Pierson.  It is “one of the happiest songs and [most] successful songs we did,” notes Cindy Wilson, who yells out the strange line, “Tin roof…rusted!” in this song.  ‘Channel Z’ and ‘Love Shack’ are both from the Don Was sessions.  Nile Rodgers produces the other two singles pulled from this set: ‘Roam’ and ‘Deadbeat Club’.  ‘Roam’ (US no. 3, UK no. 17, AUS no. 11) is an ode to travelling.  It benefits from one of this album’s innovations.  The close harmony vocals of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson are now more tuneful and conventional.  Long-time friend of The B-52’s Robert Waldrop pens the lyrics for ‘Roam’.  “I don’t want to call it nostalgia,” says Pierson, “because I don’t think we were maudlin or anything [but] we started thinking about early times in Athens, like ‘Deadbeat Club’, [after Ricky Wilson died].”  Indeed, ‘Deadbeat Club’ (US no. 30, AUS no. 73) seems autobiographical, recalling the early days when they were “Wild girls and boys going out for a big time” and finding themselves dancing “In torn sheets in the rain.”  The best of the rest of the album are probably the hyperactive title track ‘Cosmic Thing’ and the more laid-back sway of ‘Dry County’, both produced by Nile Rodgers.  Cindy Wilson concludes that, “While we were doing ‘Cosmic Thing’ it was a healing exercise as much as anything else and who knew it was going to be a big hit?”

Although Keith Strickland switched from drums to guitar with ‘Cosmic Thing’ it was only part of a larger musical shift.  When Ricky Wilson was alive, the group compensated for their odd musical configuration with equally unusual musical arrangements.  Now, a more traditional structure is embraced.  On ‘Cosmic Thing’ the following musicians contribute: Keith Strickland, Nile Rodgers (guitars); Tommy Mandell, Keith Strickland, Philippe Saisse, Kate Pierson, Richard Hilton, Sara Lee (keyboards); Sara Lee (bass); Steve Ferrone, Sonny Emory, Charlie Drayton, Leroy Clouden (drums); Fred Schneider (percussion) and the Uptown Horns – Chris Cioe, Paul Literal, Arno Hecht, Bob Funk, Carl Beatty – on ‘Love Shack’.  In practice, in subsequent times The B-52’s are augmented in the studio and in concert by: Nick Lashley (guitar); Paul Gordon (keyboards); Pat Irwin (guitar, keyboards); Sara Lee, Tracy Wormworth (bass); and Zachary Alford, Stirling Campbell (drums).

In 1990 vocalist Cindy Wilson leaves The B-52’s.  Although she soldiered on to make ‘Cosmic Thing’ after the death of her brother, Cindy states, “I got burned out by the stress of losing Ricky [Wilson]…I was devastated.”  She moves to Atlanta and starts a family.  In retrospect, Cindy regrets leaving the group (“It was a bad decision”) but acknowledges the good that comes from the move (“I’ve got two children and that’s beautiful”).

In 1990 Kate Pierson duets with Iggy Pop on the latter’s single ‘Candy’ (US no. 28, UK no. 67).

The solo album ‘Fred Schneider & The Shake Society’ (1984) is rereleased under the title ‘Fred Schneider’ (1991).  Fred also releases the 1991 solo single ‘Monster’ (US no. 85).

Kate Pierson duets with R.E.M. on their 1991 hit ‘Shiny Happy People’ (US no. 10, UK no. 6, AUS no. 19).  Like The B-52’s, R.E.M. hail from Athens, Georgia.

‘Good Stuff’ (1992) (US no. 16, UK no. 8, AUS no. 36) is co-produced by Nile Rodgers, Don Was and Russ Titelman.  On this disc, The B-52’s are reduced to the trio of Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland.  The title track, ‘Good Stuff’ (US no. 28, UK no. 21, AUS no. 56), is a strong funk piece with a more rock-oriented guitar line.  It urges, “Take me down where the good stuff grows / Love you nice, tickle your nose.”  Regular co-conspirator Robert Waldrop provides the lyrics for ‘Revolution Earth’.  Other notable tracks on this album are ‘Tell It Like It T-I-Is’ (UK no. 61), ‘Is That You Mo-Dean?’ (UK no. 78) and ‘Hot Pants Explosion’ (UK no. 78).  ‘Good Stuff’ is described as The B-52’s ‘most overtly political album.’

In an interview with ‘Q’ magazine in 1992, Keith Strickland of The B-52’s comes out as gay.  He has a boyfriend named Mark.

Julee Cruise sings on The B-52’s’ ‘Good Stuff’ tour in 1992-1993 as a replacement for Cindy Wilson.

Cindy Wilson rejoins The B-52’s in 1994.

‘The Flintstones’ (1994), the live-action movie version of the Hanna-Barbera television cartoon (1960-1966), includes an appearance by The B-52’s…as The BC-52’s.  They also perform the song ‘(Meet) The Flintstones’ (US no. 33, UK no. 3, AUS no. 54).

The B-52’s’ vocalist Fred Schneider releases another solo album, ‘Just Fred’ (1996).

The compilation album ‘Time Capsule: Songs For A Future Generation’ (1998) (US no. 93, AUS no. 40) includes two new songs: ‘Debbie’ and ‘Hallucinating Pluto’.  Supposedly, ‘Debbie’ is a tribute to Debbie Harry, lead vocalist of fellow U.S. new wave act Blondie – the “Shellshock, supersonic blonde”.  The track sounds a bit more rock than the usual B-52’s fare, with rough guitars giving it a welcome bite.

In 1999 Cindy Wilson takes maternity leave from The B-52’s.  She is replaced on tour by Gail Ann Dorsey.

Cindy Wilson returns to The B-52’s in 2001.

Warner Bros. Records issue the compilation album ‘Nude On The Moon: The B-52’s Anthology’ (2002) (US no. 136).

In 2003 The Cindy Wilson Band provides an outlet for the original solo compositions of The B-52’s vocalist.

In 2005 Kate Pierson of The B-52’s gives an interview in which she says she has ‘been dating a woman for almost a year now.’  Kate is described as ‘wild and bisexual.’  Kate Pierson has actually been with her partner, Monica Coleman, since 2003.

‘Funplex’ (2008) (US no. 11, UK no. 73, AUS no. 93) is the first album of new material by The B-52’s in sixteen years.  Produced by Steve Osborne, the disc is released on the Astralwerks label.  According to guitarist Keith Strickland, “It’s loud, sexy rock ‘n’ roll with the beat turned up to hot pink.”  The single, ‘Pump’, seems to support this theory: “Pump it up, give it up, turn up the track / Hard kiss, love chain.”  Another of the album’s songs, ‘Juliet Of The Spirits’, is inspired by the Frederico Fellini directed film ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ (1965) (a.k.a. ‘Giulietta Degli Spiriti’).  All tracks on this album are jointly composed by the four members of the group.  ‘Funplex’ is considered ‘a slick, synthesiser-driven effort.’  In 2008 The B-52’s drop the apostrophe from their name becoming The B-52s.  (Here, when referring to the band’s history in general, the apostrophe is retained since it was present for the greater part of their career.)

In 2008 Fred Schneider starts a side project: The Superions.  This ‘comedy synth pop band’ is a trio in which Schneider works with Noah Brodie and Dan Marshall.  The Superions offer up the 2008 single ‘Totally Nude Island’.  This is followed by the 2009 single ‘Who Threw That Ham At Me’.  2010 is a busy year for The Superions with the self-titled EP ‘The Superions’, the singles ‘Those Sexy Saucer Girls’ and ‘Fruitcake’ as well as the album ‘Destination: Christmas’ (2010).  2011 brings the EP ‘Batbaby’ and the single ‘Konnichiwa’ is issued by The Superions in 2014.

In 2010 Fred Schneider outs himself as gay on the ‘Howard Stern Show’ on radio.  He explains that he came out to his mother while she was doing housework.  Apparently Mrs Schneider just said she already knew that and kept vacuuming.

On 13 December 2012, Keith Strickland retires from touring with The B-52s, but remains part of the group.  “It is the path I know in my heart I must follow,” Strickland says in the announcement.

Kate Pierson releases a solo album, ‘Guitars And Microphones’ (2015), in February.

On 3 August 2015 Kate Pierson marries her partner Monica Coleman in Hawaii.  The couple operate a pair of motels: ‘Kate’s Lazy Meadow’ in Mount Tremper, New York, and ‘Kate’s Lazy Desert’ in Landers, California.

When Ricky Wilson died in 1985, the fact that AIDS had a role in his demise was initially downplayed.  Ricky’s own sexual orientation was kept out of general public knowledge.  There is a certain irony that, after Ricky Wilson’s death, Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider revealed they are homosexual and Kate Pierson confessed to being bisexual and went so far as to marry her female partner.  This left Cindy Wilson as the only heterosexual member in the history of The B-52’s.  Since it is unlikely that her colleagues suddenly changed their sexual orientations, it is almost certainly the case that The B-52’s were always predominantly gay.  It is perhaps a measure of how society changed that what was once a taboo subject became openly discussed and acknowledged.  When Cindy Wilson said, “Watching us onstage showed [fans] it was OK to be different,” she was probably referring to the band’s unusual style of attire but, in a broader sense, The B-52’s showed it was OK to be different sexually.  Musically, ‘The B-52’s’ (1979) and ‘Cosmic Thing’ (1989) seem to be the clear peaks of the band’s career.  The B-52’s were a band that ‘settled into a cult stardom that was just this side of obscurity’ and showcased a ‘campy, thrift-store aesthetic.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 27 February 2016
  2. biography.com – ‘Cindy Wilson’ – no author credited – as at 27 February 2016
  3. Internet Movie Database – imdb.com – as at 29 February 2016
  4. metrolyrics.com as at 28 February 2016
  5. weepingelvis.com – ‘Interview: Keith Strickland of The B-52s: Putting It All Together’ by Pat Ferrise (28 April 2012)
  6. iheartguitar.com – ‘Interview: Keith Strickland of The B-52s’ by Peter Hodgson (11 November 2011)
  7. ‘Rolling Stone’ (U.S. rock magazine) – ‘Interview: The B-52’s’ by James Henke – issue 332 (11 December 1980) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
  8. biography.com – ‘Fred Schneider’ – no author credited – as at 28 February 2016
  9. Notable Names Database – nndb.com – as at 28 February 2016
  10. america.aljazeera.com – ‘Kate Pierson Talks to Adam May’(30 April 2015)
  11. biography.com – ‘Kate Pierson’ – no author credited – as at 28 February 2016
  12. ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘B-52s: The Love Shack Shakes Again’ by Robert Sandall (3 April 2008) (reproduced on telegraph.co.uk)
  13. ‘Quintessential Covina’ (U.S. television program) Public Access Channel 33 – B-52’s interview conducted by Jeff Plummer (1989)
  14. ‘The Age’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Bouffant Bombshell’ – Cindy Wilson interview conducted by Jo Roberts (27 November 2009) (reproduced on theage.com.au)
  15. ‘Atlanta Woman’ (U.S. magazine) – ‘Here’s to the Party’ – Cindy Wilson interview conducted by Mary Welch (April 2006) (reproduced on marywelchwriter.com)
  16. avclub.com – ‘Kate Pierson of The B-52s’ – interview conducted by Will Harris (1 November 2011)
  17. theb52s.com via 2 (above)
  18. ‘The B-52’s’ – Anonymous sleeve notes to the CD reissue (Warner Brothers Records, 1979) p. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11
  19. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: America’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p.576
  20. allmusic.com, ‘The B-52’s’ by Jason Ankeny as at 28 February 2016
  21. ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 191
  22. lyricsfreak.com as at 28 February 2016
  23. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 318
  24. ‘EMP: Experience Music Project’ (24 July 2010) via 1 (above)
  25. clatl.com – Creative Loafing – ‘The B-52’s: Welcome to Cindy Wilson’s Love Shack’ by Lee Valentine Smith (26 July 2007)
  26. popcultureclassics.com – ‘B-52’s Flying High Again’ by Paul Freeman (1998)
  27. ‘Cosmic Thing’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Reprise Records, 1989) p. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  28. prince.org – ‘Kate Pierson Likes the Ladies’ by Tony Giampetruzzi (6 July 2005)
  29. ‘Rolling Stone’ (U.S. rock magazine) – ‘First B-52s Album in Sixteen Years’ (24 October 2007) via 1 (above)
  30. queerid.com – ‘B-52s’ Fred Schneider is Gay!’ (2010)
  31. facebook.com via 1 (above)
  32. youtube.com as at 28 February 2016

 

Song lyrics copyright Boo-Fant Tunes, Inc. with the exceptions of: ‘Give Me Back My Man’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management); ‘Party Out Of Bounds’, ‘Song for A Future Generation’, ‘Good Stuff’ and ‘Debbie’ (all Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC); ‘Mesopotamia’ (EMI Music Publishing); ‘Love Shack’ and ‘Dead Beat Club’ (Man Woman Together Now! BMI administered by Irving Music); and ‘Pump’ (Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.)

 

Last revised 9 March 2016

 

 

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