B-52s: War in the hair

LAST YEAR was none helluva year for singles. Ones that graced the airwaves like ‘Hong Kong Garden’ and ‘Rhythm Stick’. Ones that were just a touch too hard for the radio like ‘White Man’ and ‘Orgasm Addict’. Ones that appeared on the plethora of cottage-industry labels like ‘Damaged Goods’ and ‘Suspect Device’. And one that had this information on the sleeve: Correspondence, c/o El Dorado Restaurant, 199 Washington Street, Athens, Ga. 30601 — ‘Rock Lobster’, the almost startlingly assured debut by the B-52s.

It all but popped out of its picture sleeve and announced “Hi, I’m a cult, buy me if you can”. With only 2,000 originally pressed and a mantle of greatness wrapped round it by American rock critics, it was never the easiest of singles to track down.

But its tale of an underwater dance party — ‘Walrus And The Carpenter’ with wandering Farfisa — seemed to work on that wonderful theory put forward by one of Nixon’s aides — “Get ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds follow naturally”.

Within a very short time, it seemed that if you asked anyone what was happening in New York, they’d tell you the B-52s are what’s happening, that’s what. One problem — the B-52s weren’t based in New York and only played there occasionally. The cult thickens.

When they did play New York, the audience looked like an animated version of the kind of list of “names” the less imaginative PRs phone us up with every Friday night hoping to get their otherwise uninteresting band in Jaws.

HURRAH, THE uptown “new wave disco” and everyone from Robert Gordon to Chris Spedding, every New York scene-maker, everyone who likes to get an early sniff of the future, is there to feast their eyes on the mess of sensations that is the B-52s.

Hurrah itself is a typical mess of confusions. One scribbled notice by the street door. Then up a flight of unfinished stairs and into the club itself — a large open space with a long bar, low-level, heavily-padded chairs along the walls and a tiny, low stage in one corner. Low lighting but coloured spots.

This mix of styles seems suited to the B-52s themselves. Imagine a rock band of the future invented by Harlan Ellison (the cocky little genius who wrote nearly all the best Star Trek scripts and whose short stories are hereby recommended without reservation) and you’re beginning to picture the B-52s in person.

They look like they picked up their clothes in an Acturian Oxfam shop. Their music is light and witty with discordant shafts of trembling organ or rumbling, manic rhythm guitar. Bo Diddley’s a time-traveller, yeah.

A music for kids of all ages. A vision for kids of all ages. Cindy Wilson in a pink bouffant so high you could use it to sweep the ceiling in most houses. Kate Pearson in what looks like a blue lurex bouffant so high you could she’d topple over. Fred Schneider in a blue shirt and a darker blue bow-tie looks like an intelligent and healthy Robert Gordon.

Props and gadgets onstage, like a toy piano and a telephone — Fred grasps it and starts normally enough (“Is that you baby”) but ends up swinging Mr. Bell’s finest around like it was an odd-shaped yo-yo.

I can’t help thinking that they look a little like Deaf School (and remember what happened to them), only they’ve got smarter, sharper, more succinctly focussed songs.

The flip of ‘Rock Lobster’, ’52 Girls’, might be nothing very memorable but ‘Strobe Light’ (the one that features the phone as lasso) is probably even better than that first single — you can sing along, you can smile to it, you can dance to it and you can probably construct sociological theories around it — what more could you ask from a rock ‘n’ roll song?

Qkay, at times they did seem like they were being almost willfully “arty” — which is something they denied but my notes do indicate that one song sounded like ‘London’s Burning’ as played by Devo — a group they’ve never seen but admire on the strength of their TV appearances.

And they did play that kitsch classic ‘Downtown’. Even better, they left the stage to a tape of the Shangri-Las’ ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’. As Liam Sternberg said, “THAT is the ultimate, the Shangri-Las are what you judge all other art by”. Well, maybe but you get the idea.

Although on previous trips to New York they’d played Max’s and CBGB’s they were sticking to Hurrah this time because, as they put it, “A lot of our fans don’t like to go down to CBGB’s. A lot of people have been getting stabbed around there lately. It’s in a real seedy area. So…”

They were staying even further uptown, far enough so that it starts getting seedy again, with an old friend from Georgia.

In this decade where a peanut farmer vindicates one of the American Dreams by becoming president what more appropriate place for a rock ‘n’ roll band to come from the big white chief’s home state. But unlike Phil Walden and the Allmans they’re no buddy buddy friends of JC.

WHEN I TALKED to them, they were rehearsing in a funeral parlour. The bloodletting room to be precise. Now they’re sorting things out in Bermuda under the beady eye of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. Last year’s hicks become this year’s jet-setters. Sha la la, maaaaaaan.

Nice work if you can get it though — especially when you started out so broke that you couldn’t afford instruments.

Fred: “For a lot of that period we were just experimenting, we weren’t performing. At first we didn’t play our instruments live. We had everything taped except the voices.”

Ricky Wilson (guitar and musical inspiration): “And I’d play something on guitar over it… I think I mimed it a couple of times.”

Apart from the odd party though, Athens, Georgia was no hotbed for live gigs. The B-52s debut before a paying audience was in fact up in New York City. Audition night at Max’s for the magnificent sum of seventeen bucks. They only lost fifty dollars doing it.

Up until shortly before I met them the B-52s were still working at full-time jobs. Cindy as a waitress in a luncheonette. Fred as a waiter in a vegetarian restaurant. Keith and Ricky carrying cases at a bus station and Kate as “a paste-up artist on the local rag”.

By the time they were almost filling Hurrahs they even had a manager. Sweet tongued Maureen McLaughlin with a Scarlett O’Hara accent that could charm the peaches from all those golden Georgia trees. “Mah biggest clay-um to fay-um is that I whuz the first puh-sun to day-unce to thuh Beeeee Fufty-Twos”.

But it wasn’t her that talked Tom Verlaine into using Keith’s guitar prowess on some solo work. Tom had never seen him play, but Fred Smith had caught up with them down at CBGB’s and obviously relayed the message about Keith’s unorthodox guitar.

“I’ve got one guitar with only four strings on but the other has five. It started ‘cos I only had four strings so we’d tune it to when it would sound to be in a chord or some strange tuning and the songs just came out of that… they wouldn’t sound right if they had six strings. As it is I get lots of texture on guitar, different sounds and stuff.”

Now, after assiduous courting by numerous record companies (Sire were after them; Radar had unfulfilled ambitions to issue ‘Rock Lobster’ in this country), they’ve plighted their troth with Warners in the States and Island here, at this very moment recording in Bermuda and will probably get the big boost later this year. Their only problem seems to be the name. Why name yourself after a nuclear bomber?

“Oh no it’s not that. A B-52 is a Southern name for a big bouffant hair-do. We don’t wanna have anything to do with bombers.”

© Peter SilvertonSounds, 26 May 1979

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