14th August 2021
From the moment I heard the B52s song Planet Claire I was hooked. When I saw a photo of the band I was in love. The B52s may not be the world’s greatest musicians but, in my eyes, they do deserve the accolade of one of the world’s greatest party bands. While I kind of liked some Punk music I found it alienating and pretty one dimensional. They cleverly took elements of Punk, Surf Rock, Rock n Roll and their own style of Art Pop trash-glam and turned it into something that was 100% fun.
Brother and Sister Ricky and Cindy Wilson along with long-time friends Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland all attended The University of Georgia, the oasis of progressive thinking in an otherwise conservative state. After a night involving many flaming volcanoes (that favourite of student libations) they decided to form a band
The fact that Ricky and Keith were the only two that could play an instrument didn’t daunt them and they set to work writing songs for the fledgling band. When they got to a stage where they could perform more than just an extended jam session they gave their first official performance on Valentine’s Day 1977. Those first performances saw Ricky and Keith playing along to pre-recorded backing tracks while Cindy, Kate and Fred shared vocal duties. One of the tricks to their particular sound was thanks to Ricky removing the middle two strings of his guitar to get an edgier feel.
They decided on the band’s name after rejecting the alternatives of The Tina-Trons and Fellini’s Children which I think is quite fun, but might not have had the same impact as B52s, named after the nose cone of the bomber aircraft and (of course) the bee-hive hair-do style of the early 60s.
The band eventually saw Kate on vocals while simultaneously playing a keyboard bass left-handed and a Farfisa organ with her right hand. I have personally tried this and found it the equivalent of rubbing your stomach while patting your head, so well done Kate! What they may have lacked in musical ability was made up in enthusiasm and they built up a strong cult following of devoted local fans.
A local record store worker who had started the fledgling DB Records offered to help them record a single and so it was that ‘Rock Lobster’ first saw vinyl in February 1978. The song resonated through America’s burgeoning underground new wave scene and became one of the first independent hits of the time selling over 20,000 copies without major label involvement – but the offers soon came in thick and fast.
1979 saw the friends flying to the Bahamas to record their first studio album with Island Records. Island’s founder, Chris Blackwell, produced the album and wanted to keep the feel as close as possible to their live sound. The band was surprised at how few overdubs or effects he used, but it worked, and when ‘The B52’s’ was released on 6th July 1979 it was an immediate success and had reached platinum status by 1980. The three main singles from the album were, of course, ‘Rock Lobster’, ‘Planet Claire’ and ‘Dance – This Mess Around’
My opening musical choice? Definitely the song that got me hooked – ‘Planet Claire’. It is one of those songs that like The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’, I find it hard to sit still as soon as that opening hook begins.
Island Records wanted another album fast which wasn’t a problem for the forward thinking friends. Several of the songs were already concert favourites that the band had consciously decided not included on the first album, but had kept for a strong follow-up album, knowing that their live performances would make fans look forward to it.
Wild Planet was released in August 1980 and has been considered by some as their finest album and it’s single ‘Private Idaho’ among their best songs. The planned third album that was to be collaboration with David Byrne from Talking Heads unfortunately fell apart for numerous reasons which is a great pity. I think it would have been an interesting listen with Byrne and Fred Schneider’s vocal delivery being so similar.
The third album was Whammy! And saw Keith Strickland moving from a drum kit and the introduction of drum machines. He and Ricky Wilson played all the instruments with the others providing vocals. This is when they also started experimenting with synthesizers. It was released in April 1983 and after touring the album they took a break for a year.
They struggled with material for their 5th album and it was during the recording that founder Ricky Wilson died from AIDS. He had kept it a secret from all except Keith Strickland as he “didn’t want anyone to worry or fuss about him”. He passed away at the age of 32 on the 12th October 1985. The death hit the band hard, especially his sister Cindy.
When they returned to the studio Keith Strickland learned how to play in Ricky’s distinct style and switched to guitar permanently, using various session musicians to complete the rhythm section. The resulting album was Bouncing off Satellites which the band decided not to tour out of deference to Ricky’s passing. They made a few TV appearances and a video for the album single ‘Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland’ before taking a two-year hiatus.
Time for some music. The second choice of track jumps forward a little to an album I’ll mention shortly, but in the meantime here’s ‘Roam’
Keith Strickland had spent his hiatus time healing from his friend’s death and writing new material. After playing some of the new work to the remaining band mates they decided to give writing together another shot. 1989’s Cosmic Thing was the result and was their first mainstream breakthrough on Reprise Records. They embarked on the successful Cosmic Tour to promote the album.
Two tracks from the album made serious waves. The bouncy, fun and infinitely danceable ‘Love Shack’ which was their first Billboard Hot 100 hit and peaked at #3, as did the second single ‘Roam’ (our previous listen) a few months later. ‘Love Shack‘ was lapped up by the Australians and the song spent a whopping 8 weeks at top spot. Cosmic Thing earned the B52s multiple-platinum status and garnered two MTV Awards for Best Group Video and Best Art Direction.
In late 1990 Cindy Wilson took time off from the band to start a family and was replaced by Julie Cruise (of Twin Peaks soundtrack fame) for touring purposes. They released the album ‘Good Stuff’ as a trio in 1992, the only album that doesn’t feature Cindy. Although the band had always been activists in the area of both LGBTQ issues and animal rights, this was their most politically overt album.
1994 saw their next chart entry with the soundtrack for The Flintstones. It was a surprise hit reaching #3 in the UK. ‘Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation’, a career retrospective, was released in 1998. Although they didn’t release any new material over this period they remained busy with various band members collaborating with an assortment of artists.
Their second ‘anthology’ was released in 2002 to coincide with the bands 25th anniversary. ‘Nude on the Moon: The B52’s Anthology’ saw a series of concerts with artists like Yoko Ono (a big influence of Cindy’s), Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (Talking Heads) as guests artists. The anniversary also saw the release of the officially authorised biography, The B-52’s Universe: The Essential Guide to the World’s Greatest Party Band.
No B52’s article would be complete without listening to ‘Love Shack’. Before I examine the next stage of their career, here it is.
For those who may be wondering why I refer to the band as both the B52’s and the B52s, it is that they decided to drop the apostrophe in 2008. This was also the year that saw the first album of new B52s songs in 16 years. Keith Strickland announced that the albums sound was “loud, sexy and turned up to bright pink”
‘Funplex‘ had been over two years in the making and debuted at #11 on the US Billboard charts, their second highest entry of an album. They did the interview circuit while touring the album in the USA before starting their European tour in July 2008. Schneider said in an interview that the album just broke even and could be the B-52s’ last new studio album, though he later retracted the statement.
2011, and 34 years down the road, the B52s played a concert in their hometown of Athens Georgia. It was filmed and recorded and released as ‘With the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens’
In 2012 Keith Strickland announced that he would no longer tour with the band but would still remain a member. This didn’t stop their schedule and the band went on to tour the world with groups such as Tears for Fears, The Go-Go’s, Culture Club and The Thompson Twins (all 3 of them!). The last tour before COVID started to govern our lives started in May 2019 and took them across the USA and Europe.
It was great fun researching this article and I came across some lovely quotes and descriptions about the band along the way. The one that will probably stick with me comes from Bernard Gendon who wrote the academic paper ‘Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde’ for the University of Chicago. He stated that “by drawing from 1950 and 60s pop sources, trash culture and rock and roll, they had managed to evoke a ‘thrift shop aesthetic’”. I have to remember that term!
I’m closing the feature with the hit single from their last album. Here’s ‘Funplex’. Catch you soon.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021