The B-52s: We ‘never sought to change people’s lives, but that’s how it goes’
When the B-52’s “Love Shack” first started playing on MTV, it wasn’t like the others on rotation. “Well, it didn’t fit the mold of what mainstream radio was playing,” band member Fred Schneider said.
But the mainstream has spread. “Love Shack”, released in the summer of 1989, became the band’s biggest hit.
“There was a great groove, there was a great story,” Pierson said.
“And it was different,” added Cindy Wilson.
To watch the B-52 perform “Love Shack”, click on the video player below:
They could describe their own group. Wilson, Pierson, Schneider and Keith Strickland never tried to fit in. According to Schneider, “The mainstream radio had a list: If you like, you know, Eagles, your friends drive Mercedes. And then downstairs, if you like B-52s, they borrowed their friends’ cars. !”
The band formed after Schneider and Pierson moved from New Jersey to Athens, Georgia, where Strickland and Wilson grew up.
Correspondent Kelefa Sanneh asked, “Was the connection instantly a musical connection between you?”
“No, we were friends; we were hanging out together,” Strickland replied.
Pierson added, “We never really intended to start a band!”
That changed in the mid-1970s when Strickland broke a guitar string: “Sometimes I’d sit around playing guitar, and I’d break a guitar string, and I wouldn’t change, you know, I’d just retune it . .”
The next day Strickland’s best friend Ricky Wilson started playing it, missing the string and everything. “And he said, ‘I just wrote the dumbest guitar riff you’ve ever heard! “” Strickland laughed.
It will become “Rock Lobster”, the group’s first song… then, in 1979, its first single, with Ricky Wilson on guitar, Strickland on drums, Schneider on vocals, and Pierson and Ricky’s little sister, Cindy Wilson, in harmony.
Schneider said, “It’s a hobby that just skyrocketed in career. I was still washing dishes at a local restaurant.”
“And I was a waitress at the Whirligig,” Cindy Wilson said.
Looking at a 1980 portrait of the band by Lynn Goldsmith, Sanneh asked, “You can kind of see how the band got its name.”
“Yeah, because B-52s are another slang term for a big, you know, bouffant that looks like a nose cone,” Pierson said. “Keith found the name.”
Hailed as a “breath of fresh air”, their debut album inspired John Lennon’s latest. In what would be his final interview, Lennon told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott: “[‘Rock Lobster’] sounds like Yoko’s music. I thought, ‘Time to pull out the old ax and wake up the woman!'”
Sanneh asked, “Were you shocked when you heard that?”
“Yeah,” Strickland replied. “We were big Yoko fans for a long time.”
Appearing on “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, the band looked and sounded like something from another planet:
Of their “SNL” appearance, Schneider said, “That’s actually what made us. We’ve never done TV like this.”
Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl saw it individually. “And they said it blew them away,” Pierson said. “We had no idea and never looked to change people’s lives, but it just happens.”
The five band members have released three more albums. “Bouncing Off the Satellites” in 1986 will be their last. Cindy’s guitarist and older brother, Ricky Wilson, had AIDS, at a time when many people with AIDS were ostracized; he died at age 32. “I suspected it, but he wasn’t ready to tell me about it,” she said.
Strickland said: “There was so much fear around AIDS at the time. There was so much we didn’t know. … And Ricky was a very private and a very shy person. And he wasn’t quite sure how. handle that either.”
The B-52 story seemed over. Strickland said, “We couldn’t imagine doing it without Ricky.”
“We also started losing so many friends,” Schneider said.
Pierson said, “It was just devastating what followed, and yet, in counterpoint to that, I think a lot of people tried to find joy in music.”
Including Strickland, who had lost his best friend and collaborator.
Sanneh asked, “You suffer this incredible setback, you lose a true visionary. And so, you find a way to regroup?”
“I didn’t really consider myself a guitarist,” Strickland said. “but I was writing songs with guitar and keyboard.”
Strickland, Pierson, Schneider and Cindy Wilson started meeting and writing again. “It was a really consoling thing for us to do, to be together,” Strickland said. “I mean, we spent hours talking, even though we were writing songs.”
The result: “Cosmic Thing”, released in 1989. The album felt like a party and it attracted a new generation of fans, thanks to songs like “Love Shack”, “Roam” and “Deadbeat Club”.
Strickland said, “While writing the music that became ‘Deadbeat Club’, I thought a lot about Ricky, and it was one of the songs where I imagined him sitting next to me playing.”
Pierson said, “‘Cosmic Thing’ was really written to heal us, but like magic it healed a lot of other people who heard it. Being strangers or gay or whatever, they felt different, and I guess our message was, it’s always, it’s good to be different.”
“It’s always been that way,” Schneider said.
Sanneh asked, “Have you ever thought in those years what Ricky would think to see that kind of success?”
Strickland replied, “Yeah, I don’t know how Ricky would have reacted. Ricky was so talented, so incredibly talented, and yet at the same time he was unmotivated. Like, he had so many other interests.”
Since “Cosmic Thing”, the group has only released two more albums of original music. They spend a lot of their time on tour playing for the fans who still line up to hear the hits.
But for the past 10 years, Keith Strickland has stayed home. “Touring with the band for over 35 years, I just felt it was time,” he said.
This summer, Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider are embarking on what’s called the band’s farewell tour.
Scrolling through the wall of promotional photos from the 80s, Sanneh asked, “What do you remember about those people in those photos?”
“I think I was still thinking about Ricky,” Cindy Wilson said.
Schneider said, “I don’t have any skills, so I was happy, you know, to be in a band!”
And Pierson said, “All I know is my face says we’re going to make it!”
For more information:
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Publisher: Mike Levine.