“We didn’t have a goal of what we wanted to sound like when we started out,” says Keith Strickland, the multi-instrumentalist behind some of the B52’s biggest hits. “We just knew we wanted it to be fun.” And fun is an understatement when it comes to this Athens, Georgia-based band’s music and lively concert performances. Their music is infectious; it compels the audience to dance. It’s most often the sound of unbridled joy, yet at times anger and frustration seep through. While the band wore their punk influences, and was labeled “New Wave” in the 1980’s and 90’s, their sound was different than so many acts that emerged in the decade, and it has stood the test of time. “We didn’t really consider ourselves punk, but we knew that we were going to be a part of that. We didn’t really call ourselves “New Wave.” I remember we got called that when we started playing the clubs in New York” said Strickland.
This is one of the blessed acts whose perfect debut album established an identity for each member and for the songs that would follow through the next decade. The lineup would not change into the mid 80s – Cindy Wilson & Kate Pierson on lead vocals (Kate adding keyboards) joined Fred Schneider who was a type of lead vocalist; a raconteur, mascot and all around party starter. Ricky Wilson (guitar) and multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland rounded out the five-piece band. Every member of the group was unique, each bringing their talents and fresh attitude to their dance extravaganza.
Released in 1979 and simply titled The B-52s, the debut album included tracks the band played consistently in concert over the last 40 years, including the demands-you-dance “Rock Lobster” and the slightly sinister “Planet Claire.” On the latter, Cindy Wilson established herself as the true lead single of the band. Though mates Fred and Kate both have led many of the B-52s hit songs, it’s Cindy whose voice is so joyous, yet at times so haunting. Though the lyrics are often playful and childish, the way Cindy delivers them can break your heart. “Why don’t you dance with me, I’m not no Limburger!” indeed.
In 1980, Wild Planet continued the party started as night fell on the 70s. It was followed in 1982 by their most experimental, artful album Mesopotamia, made with The Talking Head’s genius David Byrne. Though creative differences kept this from being a full-length release, it sports Cindy’s absolute greatest vocal work on the sweet and sour “Loveland.” Finally, 1983’s Whammy firmly established the band as one of the best from the fertile period of the early 80s.
A tragic turn of events unfolded when Cindy’s brother, guitarist Ricky Wilson contracted and passed from the then-incurable insidious disease AIDS in 1985. The assembled potpourri Bouncing off the Satellites was released in 1986 and the band went on hiatus without a supporting tour.
Their inevitable return to form, Cosmic Thing (1989) will be remembered by many as their best effort, closing the 80s with a well-rounded collection of songs that punctuate every aspect of their sound. Songs like the contagious “June Bug,” and mature “Dry County” snuck in between mainstays like “Love Shack.” “Channel Z,” and “Roam.” The album was an instant hit, reaching the top 10 in the US & UK and number one in Australia and New Zealand. Strickland sums it up with “There was something magical about that album, how it all came together. We sequenced it in a way that we felt told a story. I don’t know if anybody’s ever noticed it, but one song leads into the other in a nice way. It tells a story from beginning to end.” The album brought the 1980s to an ecstatic close.
The tour for Cosmic Thinglasted from July 1989 into 1990, ushering in a new decade that would see Cindy take a second break from the band. The US dates kicked off with three wild nights at the San Francisco Fillmore the 28ththrough 30th that July 1989, and ended with several dates “down under.”
Somehow I never had the chance to catch the B-52s live until their excellent January 7 1990 performance at the Santa Barbara Events Center at UCSB. It was everything one would hope. Lacking just a bit of the edge from the band’s early days, the rejuvenated band nonetheless gave exceptionally spirited performances, tearing through a succession of hits, keeping the tempo fairly even with clear, pitch-perfect vocals and Fred’s call-response brilliance coloring it all. The near-perfect set list was finally captured on a live CD now included with the re-release of Cosmic Thing. The tracks played in Santa Barbara were:
- Cosmic Thing
- Give Me Back My Man
- Lava(Private Idaho at Fillmore)
- Dry County
- Dance This Mess Around
- Private Idaho(Lava at Fillmore – so the two switched order)
- Strobe Light
- Summer of Love
- Love Shack
- Planet Claire(Party Out of Bounds at Fillmore)
- Rock Lobster
- Whammy Kiss(not played at the Fillmore)
- Channel Z
The B-52s continue to tour at the time of this writing, playing list of songs that do not stray far from the Cosmic Thingset, the height of their popularity. The B-52s deserve a place at the top rung of 1980s acts, emblematic as they were of the ability of new wave music to bring light colors to salve the darkness.