I will confess and give away my age such is my adoration for the band. I went to Rock In Rio to see them. I was toasted that on the same night there was Queen, but it was The B-52’s (at the time with an apostrophe) that I was dying to see live. I was not disappointed. In 2008, when they passed through Rio, I saw them once more. Again, spectacular. And I still thank them for getting an Apple iPod ina. poll when it was still new just to know the city where the R.E.M. was from. I love Mike Stipe, of course, but what I knew was that “R.E.M. was from the same city as the B-52s, that is, Athens, Georgia”. Did you understand the feeling?
Well then, for no reason, in particular, this week I missed this band “futurist of futurism”, “whacky” and that for me has never ceased to be synonymous with originality. Even John Lennon was a fan. It was thanks to listening to Rock Lobster that he gave up his retirement from music, as he revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone three days before his death.
“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda. Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard the B-52’s ‘Rock Lobster‘ for the first time. You know? It sounds like Yoko [Ono]’s song,” he said of Cindy Wilson‘s scream at the end of the song. “I said to myself, ‘It’s time to grab the old ax and wake up the wife!’ Thus Double Fantasy was born. Which deserves a separate post, of course.
The trajectory of The B-52s was marked by pain, success, criticism, and resilience. The group formed in a small town in the interior of the southern state is like nothing before or after it.
In the late 1970s, Athens was, in the words of Kate Pierson, who arrived there with her “future ex-husband”, “a town of farmers: there was a hardware store, a feed store, and a seed store. I had this place for 15 bucks a month in the middle of a field, a funky old shack – it was the love shack! I used to live there and we formed our own group of freaks: 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 wreak havoc. I once took a garden hose into the house and sprayed it. Luckily they were my friends, and it was a rented house.” That is a Party out of Bounds in a Love Shack.
Of course, the group of eccentrics included brothers Ricky and Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, and Fred Schneider. They got along so well that the idea of forming a band soon came up. All after an improv session when they shared a flaming drink at a Chinese restaurant. The first show (with Wilson on guitar) was in 1977, at Valentine’s Day party for his friends. “We are all huge music fans. Fred had a huge record collection. We listened to Perez Prado and Kai Winding, soul music, soundtracks from B movies, and Nino Rota. There was no internet at the time, so we were looking to encyclopedias for inspiration,” Kate recalled in an interview with The Guardian.
The band’s name, contrary to what was said at the beginning, is due to a 1960s beehive hairstyle, which referred to the nose of the B-52 aircraft and that Pierson and Cindy Wilson used in presentations. They even considered names like Tina-Trons or Fellini’s Children, but Keith dreamed up the name B-52s.
With no musical training, the visual creativity – with thrift store clothes – and the good humor of his lyrics soon stood out. Their sound defined the new wave movement, with a combination of dance, surf music, and rock, with different guitar riffs created by Ricky Wilson. Their originality soon took them to the punk heart of New York, the CBGB, and also to the well-known Max’s Kansas City. The first single, Rock Lobster, landed him a record deal and an album that sold half a million copies.
“Fred was really inspired when he was at a nightclub and saw these crustaceans projected on the walls. At first, the success of Rock Lobster was a complete surprise. We were saying to each other, ‘This is so weird; who will hear this?” When we played our first party in Athens, our friends all danced: that’s a great sign. We knew we were on the right track,” Katie recalled.
With the second album, Wild Planet, came worldwide recognition and classics like Private Idaho. They were produced by David Byrne and were rising when personal tragedy came. Ricky Wilson, leader, and songwriter of the group’s hits, suddenly became ill during the recording of Bouncing Off the Satellites. “He just couldn’t handle the whole group jam. I was fragmented and I felt alienated, as I think Fred does too,” recalls the singer.
It is now admitted that Ricky died of an AIDS-related illness, but at the time the illness was kept a secret from all his bandmates, even his sister. The only one who knew the truth shortly before his death was Keith. “We watched Ricky lose weight and we asked, ‘Are you okay?’ 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 is in the hospital and could die.” It was the most shocking thing. It felt like we, especially 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,” Katie confessed.
Ricky died a few months before the show at Rock in Rio and it was Keith who raised the group, leaving the drums and taking over the guitar. “He was the catalyst. It was a healing thing. We felt like, in honor of Ricky, we had to do this.”
There were moments of separation. Cindy left the band and Fred and Katie tried solo careers, but the B-52s never got to “break up”. After a hiatus of almost 15 years, in 2008 B-52s released the excellent album Funplex, with which he returned to Brazil and showed the same energy 23 years after having performed in the country for the first time. Honoring Felinni (Juliet of Spirits is one of the songs on the album, in reference to one of his films), the group was still in the quartet that conquered the world. It was amazing.
Although they’ve varied between not always wearing the wigs and costumes of the early years, Katie and Cindy keep having fun. “Cindy and I, from the beginning, didn’t dress for beauty. We wore crazy wigs and crazy clothes. So we were never trying to be glamorous. But we didn’t have a leader and we all contributed equally,” Katie laughed.
To overcome the pain of loss and the challenge of time takes a lot of affinity and love, something that clearly still unites the band members. Keith has stopped traveling, but Fred, Cindy, and Katie are still with the band. “We are still friends, which is a miracle after 40 years of touring. We also took a lot of breaks and didn’t make as many records, so we took the pressure off. We’re friends enough to give each other space, and we know what pushes each other’s 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, eat together and party together. It’s kind of miraculous, that we love each other,” explains Katie. And we love them. Ever.