The Bouffants That Broke The Box Office: A Boffo Success Story by Cynthia Rose
BRINGING KICKS FROM THE STICKS of Hicksville, Georgia, to the jaded musical demi-mondes of New York, Europe, and Japan had already made The B-52s the Dance Band Most Likely To at the beginning of last year. Fashion-conscious folks in the States were making themselves feel chic by buying up copies of ‘The B-52’s’ like hotcakes — and it bit into the American hot hundred when the music was still attracting only a miniscule amount of airplay.
Then late last winter the B’s filled the live music spot on America’s prime-time cult comedy show Saturday Night Live with renditions of ‘Rock Lobster’ and ‘Dance This Mess Around’.
“It was incredible luck,” recalls frontman Fred Schneider. “Just that one appearance changed everything. The album did better than it had all the previous six months and went right into Rolling Stone’s top twenty.” Suddenly the B-52’s were one of the biggest bands in America. When they returned to Athens, Georgia, their birthplace as a band, B-girl Kate Pierson heard ‘Planet Claire’ blasting out of a college fraternity house. “When we lived in Athens,” she marvelled, “that place would have had bricks thrown at it.”
Before their TV stint, the B’s had sent their one video (a year-old effort made in Holland on the set of an old science fiction film) out to Australia, for Molly Meldrum’s two-hour long, twice weekly rock video show. It gave them what Fred calls “amazing exposure”, as did the “really good” radio situation Down Under. While ‘The B-52’s’ sat it out in the upper reaches of the American charts, the band toured Australia — “having a great time”. After that came the recording of Wild Planet.
“Between the album and all the travelling,” says Kate, “we’ve only been home a few months at a time. We feel FRAYED COMPLETELY; we’ve just toured nine weeks and played almost every night, which hasn’t left too much time to bop.” (Kate gigged again five hours after delivering this assessment and was last sighted the following morning at 4am on the dance floor of London’s Kilt Club.) But the B’s have been able to catch a few favourites on their travels: James Brown (“phenomenal!”) and James Blood Ulmer in New York; lggy Pop at Bookie’s 870 in Detroit; fellow Athenians Pylon and The Method Actors back home. They’re also extremely fond of two acts who supported them on tour during 1980: Kid Creole and Japan’s Plastics.
Now managed (like half of Manhattan’s properties) by Gary Kirfirst, the B’s would have evolved into a press agent’s dream. There was so much to take pictures of, so much to describe. ‘Wild’, ‘wacky’, ‘tacky’, ‘kitschy’, ‘camp’, ‘cultish’, “60s-derived’, ‘a-go-go’…
All their improvisations — musical, sartorial, conversational — just seemed so right for 1980. Into an atmosphere where the party seemed over, the B’s brought their own candles and lit them all over again.
YET NO ONE seemed interested in the idea that their music might actually be holding up because they were something other than a deliberate caricature. “We said it a million times,” Fred shrugs now. “But we have always dressed this way. We don’t try to capitalise on our clothes any more than on some sort of ‘60s thing. We’re just concerned with getting people up on their feet.”
“We’re more likely,” says Kate, “to go out thrift shopping, all buy high heels, and end up having a soccer game in the mud. Clothes you don’t have to care about… I had this dress called ‘LOOK-CAN-DRESS’ which came in a can and you could squash it all up in a ball without it getting wrinkled. Only my mother ironed it and it melted. That’s the kind of clothes I like.”
“They’re even cheaper than buying paper clothes,” adds Fred, whose good friend Robert Molnar back in New York has just patented paper panties and dresses you can wear fifty times and then throw away. “You pay a quarter for a Goodwill shirt, wear it ten times, and throw it away. It’s kind of recycling — you know, we don’t dress up in minks and tuxes and then get onstage to perform partly for political reasons.”
Ah! The second consistent feature of most B-52’s write-ups: a dismissal of their work as partytime escapism, presumed by definition to be ‘apolitical’. In person the affable, ex-activist B’s have always waxed so eloquent and knowledgeable about real human politics that this particular adjective sets off mini-shock waves of incredulity in most who’ve really talked to them. “Well,” says Fred thoughtfully, “we certainly have our views and we talk about them when people ask us. And we have a lot of hidden political references in the songs, even if we’re basically trying to entertain.” “We all have definite political ideas,” says Kate firmly, “without trying to tell anyone what to think. Someone recently asked me if we were a subversive political group ‘underneath it all’ and…”
Fred: “We are.”
Kate: “I said yes. But I didn’t tell him much more. You see, people are always hitting us with this ‘American trash aesthetic’ — and we won’t take it. I mean, we don’t use that term and the supposed ‘trash’ that we’re interested in is good trash!”
Fred: “Things everywhere are so trashy that you can either constantly complain or try and laugh it off.”
Kate: “You can use it; try to make your life better by using rejected things, not just be surrounded by it and let it pull you down. I mean, without being too pretentious, you can look at a K-Mart Shopping Centre as a modern cultural museum and learn something from what’s there and what that means.”
The group unite in citing the recent American election as a possible source for the chill breeze of xenophobia they feel is blowing through the British rock press. On election eve they were trailing dispiritedly onstage in Florida. “They had this TV set on the side of the stage and just before we went on, while Kid Creole were onstage, we were all watching along with the theatre crew. By the time we went on we knew what was happening and it was real depressing.”
“People were voting for pie in the sky!” says Fred, who spent election year dedicating ‘Party Out Of Bounds’ to the Republican Party. “People are tired of being in a messy situation but they’re gonna be in one no matter what and things are never gonna solve themselves overnight. People just convinced themselves Reagan would pull some magic strings and unveil a beautiful new nation. And he’s just for the bankers and the wealthy, not the elderly or the poor. He doesn’t care about human rights — so it’s not gonna be a good day for civil rights! The things he said in the ‘60s… ‘If the students want a bloodbath then we’ll give ‘em one’ — all that. It’s unreal.”
“He also said ‘a nuclear war is winnable’,” adds Kate. “Quote of the year!”
SUCCESS HAS meant that The B-52’s haven’t been seeing too much of the college circuit, where they say they detect a current “mood of hopelessness”. But continuous travel on an international scale has cheered them up about the future of the ‘80s; an inspired Kate bursts spontaneously into a Dinah-Shore-style ditty about ‘One World’, and says that the more the band see on their travels, the more possibilities for world unity they sense.
“Of course we’re only a band,” continues ambassador Pierson. “And I like manifestations of lost national character, regional character. The South seems to have a lot of that this year because a lot of the old buildings are being torn down.
“Before air conditioning they built porches on all the houses and people would sit out — if you drove past on a Saturday or a Sunday people would have their chairs out on the porch. If they didn’t have a porch they’d sit out under a tree, but everywhere would be whole groups of people just sitting around talking. The new houses have no porches — and you know they’re all in there with the air conditioner on high. It changed the whole social scene because everyone’s inside, isolated.”
Fred: “They have the video on, TV with the sound off and the stereo on, and they’re talking on the phone with the air conditioning going!”
Kate: “I think there’s gonna be a big swing in the ‘80s towards everyone being in couples and away from communal living and socialising. People seem more hostile towards differences, so those who feel different band together in gangs. Soon maybe it’ll be the gangs against the couples! Gangs will be the only option outside monogamy!”
Certainly the main strength of The B-52’s has been a dual phenomenon — on the one hand their own close and communal relationship has helped evolve and preserve idiosyncratic and genuinely original material; on the other (as Fred is at pains to point out) there’s no one ‘leader’ and each B has a particular individual hobby to see him/her through creative blocks.
Fred is writing a lot. Back in Athens, while working with handicapped kids at the Georgia Retardation Centre (later to use ‘Rock Lobster’ as therapy for autistic patients!), Fred published a small book of his own work. “It was real racy conversations which I either overheard or took part in.” He also writes a lot of poetry: “But what I write on my own is almost Victorian, and sort of absurd; it’s not like the band things.” (One poem, however, did mutate into the B’s ‘There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon)’.)
This year Fred’s written another book: “I decided to cut out all the trashy stuff for the second one, but I wound up with almost no material. So I went back to a point when I used to live in Atlanta and I’d meet all these amazing people in my neighbourhood. At the time I wasn’t listening to them with the intent of writing things down, but what they would tell me was so incredible I decided I had to save it and do something with it.
“I just tried to remember everything they said. I sort of felt that I might be exploitive (sic) or something… but no one knows who they are. There was this one lady who sort of… tippled every day. I’d see her down by the laundromat and she’d always be dressed up in a mini-skirt and go-go boots. She was about 55 and she was always telling me about this person who would take photos of her in coffins. It was weird because she was so naïve and genuinely didn’t know what was going on — I thought possibly it was some student doing these pictures. In the event I finally found out — but that’s the end of the story and it’s a secret for now.”
Success brings pressure with a capital P: pressure to find some place in rock for maverick individuality that is more than mere caricature; pressure to keep the music fresh and funny and double-edged but this side of camp or kitsch; pressure to placate a manager and record company already eager for that THIRD ALBUM when the best of Wild Planet hailed from the early Athens days and there are no new songs in the works at present.
For a basically laissez faire group of friends in the grip of a fame they never really expected, such pressures are considerable. But the B’s have their ‘basement tapes’ and ‘basement videos’; they have their beliefs (“word-of-mouth is still the best publicity and so far we’ve escaped the sort of real bullshit hype we’d refuse to do”); and they’ve still got what they started out with: fake furs, dreams, romance, parents, play, sex, science fiction, B-flicks, bikinis, bars, 45s, dancing shoes, and — destinations.
Have wigs, will travel.
© Cynthia Rose, New Musical Express, 3 January 1981