The B-52's - Biography
By Audra Wolfmann
Despite the fact that the B-52s have been the undeniably indispensable secret ingredient to any successful dance party since 1976, have racked up gold and multi-platinum records, and charted hit after hit internationally; they defy classification. New Wave, Post-Punk, or even the ever-mysterious category of Dance Rock all hardly seem fair when taking into account the retro-kitsch art school sensibilities of this quirky band from Athens, Georgia.
Formed by five friends (with nominal performance experience) after a night of drinking exotic cocktails at a Chinese restaurant, the B-52s mixed equal parts performance art, absurdity, and nostalgia to form a party band that put Athens on the map as an alternative music Mecca. Vocalists Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, and Cindy Wilson, guitarist Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s brother), and drummer Keith Strickland named themselves after the beehive wigs Pierson and Cindy Wilson preferred to wear on stage. Their campy costumes, wacky lyrics, interweaving male and female vocals, and on-stage antics propelled the band from the Athens party circuit to the New York art scene of the late 70s, where they quickly accumulated a cult following.
In 1978, the B-52s pressed 2,000 copies of their epically long and goofy single “Rock Lobster” on their friend’s label Boo-Fant Records. The 7” sold out immediately and caught the attention of Warner Bros. In 1979, the group released their debut album, The B-52's (1979 Warner), which charted at #59 on the Billboard 200 and went gold the following year. The infectious and original sound of the B-52s is fully formed and saturates every track on their debut: retro organs played by Pierson and Schneider are paired with Ricky Wilson’s primitive and rhythmic guitar hooks, while the sing-song Sprechgesang of Schneider punctuates Cindy Wilson and Pierson’s soaring, acrobatic vocals. The B-52's produced three hit singles – “Planet Claire,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and “Rock Lobster” – that hit #24 on the Billboard Club Play Singles. “Rock Lobster” also hit #56 on the Pop Singles chart.
For a first album, The B-52's had quite a lasting impression. The music television network VH1 has named it the 99th greatest album of all time and Rolling Stone magazine placed it at #152 on their list of the 500 greatest albums. But their debut was hardly the apex of their career. In 1980, the group released their second album Wild Planet (1980 Warner), which outsold their debut and was certified gold soon after its release. Perhaps helped by their appearance on the popular TV show Saturday Night Live prior to the album’s release, Wild Planet hit #18 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and its three singles – “My Own Private Idaho,” "Give Me Back My Man," and "Party out of Bounds" – each charted as high as #5 on the Billboard Club Play Singles.
Considering that they were still a relatively young band, the B-52s’ next career move was an odd one; they released a six-song collection of remixed hits from their first two albums and called it Party Mix! (1981 Warner). Odd choice or not, the 12” managed to chart at #55 on the Billboard 200. Each side of the record contained just one continuous track of each song leading straight into the next, however CD version that was later released breaks the songs into separate tracks.
In 1982, the B-52s headed into the studio to record their third full-length album with Talking Head’s David Byrne as their producer. Byrne, seeking a fuller sound, brought in outside musicians including Ralph Carney (veteran brass man for Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) on sax and himself on a variety of instruments. The project was abandoned, but six of the surviving songs were released on the EP Mesopotamia (1982 Warner), which features a painting by Cindy Wilson on the cover. Although some believe the EP is lacking in the B-52s’ trade-mark wackiness, it charted at #35 on the Billboard 200 and scored three singles: “Mesopotamia,” “Deep Sleep,” and “Cake.”
Finally getting back to a full-length album, the band released Whammy! (1983 Warner) the following year. The New Wave affectations of drum machines and synths fill many of the tunes, displacing the lo-fi savageness of their first two albums. Whammy! was not as popular as Wild Planet with fans or critics, but it still produced three singles that hit #9 on the Billboard Club Play singles: “Legal Tender,” “Whammy Kiss,” and “Song for a Future Generation.”
Fred Schneider struck out on his own in 1984 with his first solo album Fred Schneider & the Shake Society (1984 Warner, re-released 1991), which included participation from Pierson and Ricky Wilson. In 1985, the B-52s regrouped to record Bouncing off the Satellites (1986 Warner), but before the album could be completed Ricky unexpectedly died at the age of 32. His fellow band members (including his sister Cindy) were stunned to learn that he had contracted AIDS. Bouncing off the Satellites was completed and released the following year, but the band did not tour or promote the new album. Cindy sunk into a severe depression and it would be almost three years before the B-52s made their next move. Despite their non-activity, Bouncing off the Satellites still managed to chart at #85 on the Billboard 200 and the song “Summer of Love” hit #3 on the Billboard Club Play singles – their highest charting song to date, matched only by their 1994 movie tie-in hit “(Meet) The Flintstones” for Steven Spielberg’s film The Flintstones.
In 1988, the B-52s reformed with Strickland moving from drums to guitar and Sara Lee (Gang of Four) taking over on drums. The new line-up recorded "(Shake That) Cosmic Thing" for the movie Earth Girls Are Easy. The following year they released Cosmic Thing (1989 Reprise), an album that not only was the B-52s most commercially successful album (achieving a multi-platinum status and charting at #4 on the Billboard Top 200) but also signaled a creativity re-birth for the band. The songs are as manic, irreverent, and fun as anything from The B-52’s or Wild Planet. Each of the album’s four singles had compelling and colorful videos, which insured MTV saturation. “Love Shack,” their raucous party hit about a secret rendezvous spot, was their first song to reach #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Rome,” another single from Cosmic Thing, was the second to achieve that status.
Cindy Wilson left the band in 1990 to start a family. The B-52s continued to tour, replacing Cindy with Julee Cruise (of David Lynch soundtrack fame). In 1992, Pierson, Schneider, and Strickland went on to release Good Stuff (1992 Reprise) as a trio. Proving they could do no wrong after the success of Cosmic Thing, Good Stuff charted at #16 on the Billboard Top 200. Two years later, the trio temporarily called themselves the BC-52s on their single about the pre-historic family the Flintstones for Spielberg’s live-action adaptation of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
In 1998, the band once again became a quartet when Cindy returned for the release of Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation (1998 Reprise), career-spanning “best of” that includes two previously unreleased songs recorded just for the collection. The B-52s continued to record songs for film and television, including a parody of “Love Shack” called “Glove Slap” for the TV show The Simpsons and a commissioned song ("Orange You Glad It's Summer") for a Target commercial, featuring all things the mega-store had to offer in orange.
A second and more comprehensive “best of” anthology was released in 2002. Nude on the Moon: The B-52's Anthology (2002 Rhino) is a two-CD set of 35 tracks recorded between the years for 1979 and 1998. Named after the infamously cheesy 1961 intergalactic nudie film by Doris Wishman, Nude on the Moon is a B-52s fan’s wet dream with its 50-page booklet crammed with photos, interviews, and other tidbids of arcane band knowledge.
Sixteen years after their last full-length original album Good Stuff, the B-52s came back with Funplex (2008 Astralwerks). Producer Steve Osborne was chosen for the project based on his work with New Order’s Get Ready (2001 Warner). The result is a slick, synth-heavy pop album that sounds almost air-brushed, but still somehow manages to retain the personality and sense of humor of the original quirky band from Athens. Funplex landed at #11 on the Billboard Top 200 and Top Internet Albums charts, thus making it the second-highest charting B-52’s album yet.
Decade after decade the B-52s manage to prove that they are still the life of the party, proving that partying is serious business.