Setting their sights beyond Athens, Georgia
On the job, the B-52’s dress up nice and silly — not gross and damaged looking, but kicky and bright. Fred Schneider, one of three lead vocalizers, sports a loud Hawaiian shirt and baggy dress pants. He looks like a young Bing Crosby on the Road to Woolworths. Fellow singer Kate Pierson is decked out in her “Queen of Outer Space” gear: puffy sleeved blouse, acetate tunic, metal-look leggings and, of course, gravity defying bouffant wig — the signature “B-52.” The rest of the group opts for raiment much like pinkpink 3-D T-shirts, Star Trek pullovers and shiny sun visors.
Next day, ordering tea in a motel coffee shop, Fred has changed his shirt. Kate’s bouffant is a smaller, au naturel concoction — no artificial fillers. The tot in attendance is fascinated with her domino stretch bracelet. The differences have obviously been dictated by convenience more than taste. Their onstage demeanor is apparently no arty contrivance — very little about this group is.
THE B-52’S WERE originally just a drunken jam, intended to top off one more tipsy night of youthful post-teen shenanigans. Fred relates offhandedly: “A lot of times it would usually wind up with the five of us getting thrown out of bars and hanging around.”
Looking up from her menu, Kate continues, “We went out dancing a lot. And we went to Chinese restaurants and drank exotic drinks, went to movies, went to parties.”
Then, according to Fred, “We just got together one night after drinking at a Chinese restaurant. We started jamming — the five of us — and we liked what we heard and decided to start a band.”
THEIR FIRST GIG was a private party at a friend’s house. The presentation was even weirder than their present one, and the sound “cruder.” “We played with a tape,” Fred remembers. “Keith (Strickland) and Ricky (Wilson) made backing tracks, and the tapes had all the instruments — the music to about half the songs we do now.”
After asking for an extra ration of half & half, Kate adds a few more details. “We had the guitar and drums. And then Ricky put a second guitar part over that and Keith played another drum part and we sang, live. It was great because it was real easy to do it that way.”
Apparently their friends enjoyed it quite a lot, because soon they were encouraging the band to move on to bigger (if not better) things.
“Someone told us we were probably as good as most of the bands that played at Max’s (Kansas City, in New York City) at the time, so we thought we’d give it a try,” Fred recalls. “So we took a tape up and they said they’d book us on the Monday audition night.”
UP TO THAT time, the band was still more a friendly conspiracy than a functioning unit. The Max’s gig provided the necessary motivation to accomplish the transformation.
“At first it was just that we found the group.” Kate absently twists an enormous, red plastic tangle dangling from her ear lobe. “It just happened that that was a good combination.” “Being all very compatible,” Fred points out.
“But then we went ‘live’ — the first time when we went to New York. We had to go underground for a while and just practice. Really, it was a big event, trying to go live.
“And it just seemed like we should have these people and then try to be efficient. We got an organ and I played the bass parts on the organ. We came up with a song where we needed a second guitar — Cindy had never played the guitar, but she learned to play that part and Fred learned the bass.”
THE RESULTANT gig in New York turned out to be a relative bust. “But luckily, the person who booked bands liked us a lot and wanted us to come back. It really started from there.”
“Then the reaction was great,” enthuses Kate. “The third time we went up we headlined.”
From that point on, the band’s rise was suitably theatrical. A self-produced single, ‘Rock Lobster’, quickly became an underground hit and soon the freakier money moguls came a-knocking. The American branch of Virgin Records was touted as the most likely prospect early on. In the end though, Warner Brothers snapped ’em up in the States and Island got ’em for the Isles — and in the studio. Island head Chris Blackwell offered to produce and was accepted, for better or (hint, hint) for worse. (“Some songs probably needed work. We were rushed, like in the mixing” — Fred.)
The B-52’s ever increasing popularity has not been contrived by industry guilt or private game plan. The whole phenomenon has been as much of a delightful surprise to them as to their devotees — right from the outset.
“I don’t think any of us really thought we’d be a band, even that day. When we went to that restaurant I had no idea we were going to go form a band. It just happened,” Kate muses dreamily. She drains off the last of her tea and looks for the waitress to order another.
Fred goes on: “I had no idea we were going to do anything afterwards, just starting fooling around. We told a friend we’d play for her party. We never planned anything beyond that because we all had jobs that conflicted and stuff.”
BUT THEY DID stay together beyond that party and grew and developed in age and wisdom before the… whoops (got carried away for uno momenta). The key to their survival and consequent success was, uh, their consequent success — immediate and decisive as these things go. In under two years they’d gone from being essentially a drinking gang to a top 20 act in Great Britain, a good club draw over here and, of course, critical darlings all over.
The British attribute their appeal to their mastery of American Trash Aesthetic, and that’s part of it. “But that’s only an aspect of our music,” Fred is quick to protest. “We’re not trying to be camp or trashy. I’m not interested in wallowing in that stuff.”
However, when grilled by the Unicorn‘s own trashmeister, Robot Hull, they do admit to enjoying innumerable trash sci fi movies, TV sitcoms commonly prized for their camp value, and so on. Kate is also a voracious devourer of: the Unesco series; tribal music; Aku pygmy music; and then Motown. The impact of all these influences is readily apparent on The B-52’s, their debut — the glitz, the weirdness, along with their delicate, essential detachment from it.
IN TRUTH, The B-52’s is no cynical romp or simple celebration, but something infinitely more subtle, complex, and in a way tragic.
Robot homed in on a crucial area, remarking that the album made a perfect soundtrack to cheap ’50s sci fi flicks like Cat Women on the Moon: eerie obtuse melodies, crackling streamlined riffs; lots and lots of references to “outer-space.”
When’s the last time you thought about “space” at all, let alone as “outer-space?” When’s the last time you thought about “the future?”
In the ’50s, when most of us were born and raised, things were quite different. The “future” was an obsession. “Progress” was conceived of as inevitable, beneficial and immediate. A lot of sci fi flicks set the gleaming “future” in the 1980s or even ’70s.
Think back and remember how your parents and teachers drilled you on keeping up with Russian school kids, preparing to be “tomorrow’s leaders,” etc. Higher education boomed — you remember about that. The training of a generation to step in and take final, authoritative charge of the “modern world” proceeded apace and with great success overall. The only thing is that this future ultimately did not arrive.
But those trained so painstakingly to run it did arrive — and they are us. By now, most people are comfortable with the realization that they have been endowed with powers they’ll never get to exercise.
THE B-52’S OFFER gentle, ironic nostalgic for that future which never came, the same thing that has made Star Trek a perennial addition — a vicarious voyeur-voyage through our lost birthright.
But while the B-52’s evoke the old-time conception of modernity and enjoy themselves immensely doing so, they also enjoy putting it into proper perspective, dismissing it with chortling glee. They are pulled by the same strings they’re pulling — and those are attached to one hell of a lot of their contemporaries.
© Howard Wuelfing, Unicorn Times, December 1979