However, the B-52’s have been on the sidelines for the latter half of this decade. It was not a conscious withdrawl. In October 1985, guitarist and key composer Ricky Wilson, brother of singer Cindy, died of AIDS, crippling the Athens, Georgia-based group both personally and professionally.
“After Ricky died we didn’t know what we were going to do because it was such a loss,” says singer-songwriter Fred Schneider in a telephone interview. “We didn’t know if we could replace Ricky and everybody was just so devastated we just put everything aside. After a while, we finally decided to get together and jam, the four of us (Schneider, Wilson, singer-keyboardist Kate Pierson and then-drummer Keith Strickland) and see what would happen. There was no way we could replace Ricky. We just wanted to see what we would come up with.”
What they came up with was the strong, infectious Cosmic Thing album, featuring the title track which also appears in Earth Girls Are Easy and ‘Channel Z’. It’s a spirited upbeat album that picks up where the band left off in the early ’80s and sends a clear signal: The B’s are back. How, one wonders, did they avoid the melancholy they so obviously felt?
“Well, we didn’t want it to be sad at all,” says Schneider of the music. “We had been through all the grief and we’re still grieving — we’re still depressed and whatever — but we didn’t want that to carry over into the music. We just let our subconscious take over; we just jammed with miles and miles of tape and then structured songs from the interesting parts on the jams.
“We have some ballads, some serious songs. I think, finally, with this album people will see all the different facets that might have been ignored by critics in the past. But we’re still going to do a real positive, upbeat, humorous, and I hope, exciting show.”
The critical line Schneider mentions refers to the B-52’s penchant for lyrical larks, musical madness and, sometimes, camp. The B-52’s women sport towering beehive wigs, the Southern slang for which is B-52; Schneider has been known to dress in, um, a tacky manner. “Nowadays,” sighs Schneider, “if you put humor in your music I guess you’re considered camp, and our style isn’t too subtle. I don’t see us as being camp, although I guess on stage we want to entertain people and make ’em laugh and we will make fools of ourselves.”
Still, Schneider — who often talks up ecological issues and who, with the other band members, recently joined other rockers and played a rain forest benefit in New York called “Don’t Bungle The Jungle” — is a bit put off when the band is perceived as lightweight. Their critically drubbed Mesopotamia mini-album was their major stab at seriousness; certain political themes waft through the Cosmic Thing effort, too.
“Once you’re labeled,” Schneider says, “you can’t get out of the label. We were pretty campy at times, but it was sort of the first step. Basically, we had no money — we were one of the brokest bands going in Athens — and we just bought clothes from the thrift store and we chose things that were loud and made us laugh. They were just so ridiculous they were great/awful. I’ll wear an awful polyester outfit that’s so horrible it’s funny… but I don’t necessarily think it’s wonderful.”
When the band decided to dip its toe back into the rock pool, they changed management, enlisted hot producers Don Was and Nile Rodgers and shifted their lineup. Strickland, who’d long played guitar behind the scenes, took over Wilson’s slot. “Since Keith writes,” Schneider explains, “it was just natural for him to do it. And once we start jamming, Keith gets more ideas — it just bounces back and forth.”
To flesh out their sound, the B’s added bassist Sara Lee ex of the Gang of Four, currently with Raging Hormones, giving the group its first bass guitarist. They also added keyboardist Pat Irwin, ex-of Raybeats, and drummer Zach Alford. “We’ve got a real powerhouse,” says Schneider. “We have such a strong rhythm section and I think our vocals have gotten a lot better.” The three supplemental musicians are part of the touring lineup; Schneider hopes to keep using them on records as well.
Sometimes, it seems, certain songs belong to a specific era. Many of the B-52’s’ songs — tunes such as ‘Rock Lobster’, ‘Dance This Mess Around’, ‘Party Out of Bounds’ and ‘Private Idaho’, to name a few — seem linked to the 1979-80 new wave boom. Schneider says they hold up now.
“You can’t date ’em,” he maintains. “I mean, they’re from that period, but we’re modifying them. And, we haven’t played in five years, so our old things haven’t gotten stale to us. ‘Dance This Mess Around’ starts out the same as it always does, but we changed the beat and made it more rockin’. We’re stretching out ‘Mesopotamia’, jamming on stage; we have this real funky middle breakdown. And the songs will evolve as we play.”
Schneider has been pleasantly surprised by the audience response. The tour stops at Citi Saturday, Sunday and Monday for three sold-out shows. “We were thinking people were just going to look at us as some group that came and went,” Schneider admits, “although we never thought in those terms. We don’t immerse ourselves in the ‘rock’ lifestyle. We’re lucky in that we’ve always had this core of fans who’ve been supportive from the beginning.”
“Somebody loves us!” he adds, allowing a laugh, one of the interview’s few. Clearly, Ricky Wilson’s death is still very close. When Schneider says “we feel like a whole new band with a whole new outlook,” his voice remains flat. This is not a new band by choice. But Cosmic Thing suggests it is a new band that will kick out the jams, old and new.
© Jim Sullivan, The Boston Globe, 10 August 1989