“Y’AHL WANT gumbo?” Kate Pierson peers around the kitchen door, tea-cloth slung across a sunburnt shoulder. Her deep southern accent tells us ahl that her deep southern dish is ready.
Ricky is asleep on the sofa, Keith is reading, Fred is upstairs resting his back, Cindy is drying her hair and gazing at the ocean. The ocean is not responding. This is almost a tropical latitude, where dusk falls still and the evening air subdues the citizens. Nobody even stirs.
The bright, modish furnishings of the Delaporte Beach house where The B-52s have been staying for the past three weeks are conspicuously tidy. On the table are copies of National Enquirer, OMNI, and a book of Dylan Thomas’ stories, offering between them: frontier technology, mystical annointment, and the real truth behind Charlie’s Angels. Piled in the corner is some black snorkelling equipment, and some pink snorkelling equipment; a big gaudy beach ball is slowing deflating on the sideboard. The only casualty is the sofa, which has collapsed at one end, and the only luxury is Keith’s portable compact tape system, still going strong.
Native African top 40 music beats out a tattoo in the night. Heady stuff. Kate and Cindy both agree that this is one of Keith’s best tapes. The mode – black church music – is familiar but the drums and the patois are strange and hypnotic.
I let my bare feet rub the deep pile in appreciation.
One more time…
“Y’ahll want some gumbo?” Here it is.
KATE WAS born at 9.30 on a Tuesday in Hackensack, New Jersey, and grew up in a house whose senior offspring dug the folk protest scene: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger. They gave her a Bob Dylan album for her 14th birthday.
On her 18th birthday she left New Jersey for the first time ever, to go to college, a fruitless episode, followed by a two-year odyssey in Europe, sampling life in the underbelly, working menial jobs for the thrill of new experience.
Nowadays she lives in a tennant house on a farm outside Athens in Georgia, a rough homestead she shares with two goats, Angie and Sapho. “I had to build a drip-tank to catch rain-water on the roof because I grew tired of fetching my water from the well every day.”
Kate is resourceful, petite, polite, but secretly very sharp. She sings and plays organ, keyboard bass and second guitar with the B-52s, a neoteric pop group. She likes to dance and swim, and apart from African top 40 and James Brown records, she is also fond of Ima Sumac, Nino Rota and music of the upper Amazon. She hopes The B-52s get to tour South America so she can visit the (vanishing) equatorial rain forests.
Her favourite sound is the sound of “insects at dusk”. She remembers “dreaming I was terrorised by the jolly green giant as a small child.”
Cynthia Leigh Wilson also lives in Athens. She is bongo player and vocalist with The B-52s. Born, bred and educated in Georgia, Cindy possesses the kind of sassy southern lilt that adds ‘h’s rather than drops them, a complement to her blonde belle looks and vivacious personality.
Her hobbies are raising chihuahuas, dancing, and improving her posture. The place she would most like to be found is in a bathtub in the tropics. Cindy likes James Brown too, but her favourite record is The Jackson Five’s greatest hits.
Says Cindy: “When I was a kid I saw two hairy beings walk down the hall. At the time I thought they were the famous Boogie Men…Now I don’t know what they were.”
Keith Strickland, sometimes known as Bam Bam, plays the drums with The B-52s. His parents run the Greyhound bus station in Athens, where Keith used the work with Cindy’s brother Ricky, The B-52s soft-spoken, self-effacing guitarist.
Keith, in contrast, is robust and cheerful. It was he who named the group. “We thought for months about what we were going to call ourselves, and finally I suggested B-52s because that’s the name of a bouffant hairdo and the girls had started going on with their hair all teased up.”
Then there’s Frederick W. Schneider III. Fred sings and plays toy percussion with the B-52s. Without the moustache, his features resemble an anaemic Kenneth Williams, and like that comic his tone is permanently dry, almost despondent, and unwittingly funny.
He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and went to Athens to attend the University of Georgia, more or less, he admits, as a means of evading the draft. “It obviously didn’t do me any good, I almost had a nervous breakdown. But I met my friends and I learned a lot after dropping out.”
Since when he has worked for a meals for the elderly service, which he quit because of the low standards involved, and was also a waiter at the El Dorado vegetarian restaurant. Otherwise…”a career of loafing, so to speak”.
He mostly likes just soul and Tamla, and his all time favourite record is ‘Dancin In The Street’.
Fred, the eldest of the group, is adamant when he says that the ’60s were more alive than the ’70s. The others aren’t so sure, but they all seem to share the legacy he carries from that decade of a strong ecological awareness. Nukes and “bad attitudes” provoke his ire.
“When that Harrisburg thing happened most Americans just didn’t realise what was going on. They think you can put a blanket around a baby’s head and that will keep radiation away. In Philadelphia there were official warnings to close windows to keep the radiation out. Close windows? That’s the sort of level of awareness.”
His favourite film stars are Jayne Mansfield and Wilma Flintstone. One of his hobbies is comparitive grocery shopping and he remembers once shaking hands with Pope Paul.
“Ah jus’ love gumbo.” Cindy wipes her bowl clean.
“Mmm-Hmm.” Keith is too busy eating to talk.
Gumbo is a Creole regional special: rice, sweetcorn and okra cooked in tomatoes and hot peppers.
“I just love tomatoes, ” Kate declares, “anything with tomatoes. And they’re so easy to grow. I grow them all the time back home.”
Tomatoes are easy to grow. They are also, incidentally, the third biggest industry in the Bahamian islands to which the B-52s have come to make their debut album. The second biggest is fishing and the biggest is tourism. These figures exclude any offshore banking business facilities this tax haven might have to offer. Not that The B-52s are in any position to benefit…
To come to Nassau, the capital, on a small island seven miles wide by 20 miles long, they had to pool all the money they had between them, a total of $600.
It is only the second time that The B-52s have ever been inside a studio. Nine months ago they spent a day and a half recording two of their songs, ‘Rock Lobster’ and ’52 Girls’, because a friend of Kate’s offered to lend them the money and it seemed a good idea at the time. The album they are making with Chris Blackwell and Robert Ash at Blackwell’s Island Records studio will eventually cost the group somewhere around ten grand.
Now, in Nassau, as at all resorts, there is a curious sense of ennui: a mood of abstract boredom created by the desperate pleasure-seeking of tourist life rubbing up against the slow even measure of the island’s real life while the hot sun burns down on the dry scrubland.
You can hear it in the way people here greet each other; a jive-talk “Wa’s Happenin’?” answered in kind but never directly.
The question just hangs there, like the heat dancing on the roads. “Heey! Wa’s Happenin’?”
THE B-52s. That’s what. Ask any rock culture vulture the news and they’ll tell you The B-52s. They might even add that they bought ‘Rock Lobster’, oh, ages ago, before they’d read anything about them, and isn’t it great? One of the best singles of last year… Aside from which, The B-52s are an unknown commodity, assigned hot property and so hip that it hurts.
At the end of July, or perhaps in August, Island will release their first album, the contents of which will promptly eclipse ‘Rock Lobster’ (really one of their lesser songs) and will generally surprise everybody with its wit, style and variety. Then they will tour. That is certain.
Beyond that…There is a great deal of confidence. The B-52s seem to have inspired the people around them. The producers’ faces beam with a kind of conspiratorial pride as the rough mixes are slowly worked into their proper shape.
“I’m looking for something I can sell all over the world,” states Blackwell, talking about the difference between cult and mass appeal.
“Obviously. I don’t think I would have signed them otherwise…” But I think he would.
So would a lot of other companies, given the chance, because though the B-52s are by no means a straight commercial gambit, they do have something.
“We had offers from all over,” recalls Kate. “All these people from the companies were taking us out to dinner at expensive restaurants. Chris just came backstage after one of our shows looking like a playboy who had just stepped off a yacht. He said ‘I’d like to make you an offer’. Simple as that. I think it was his smile that did it.”
“ARE YOU all sure you’re happy with that?” Blackwell scrutinises the faces gathered in the air-conditioned, hermetically sealed studio control room.
A studio, to the layman, is like a hotel bedroom: once inside you could be anywhere.
The B-52s glance anxiously at each other… “– because if you aren’t happy, now is the time to speak up. Once the record is made it’ll be too late. That’s it. It will always be The B-52s first album.”
Kate, who takes the most diligent interest in the protracted and distracting mixing process, pipes up first: “Do you think you could push Cindy’s voice up a little at the end? When she slides up the register on the real hot lava harmony…the effect is kinda lost.”
Keith also applied himself; ensuring that none of the group’s tightness is submerged. He wants to hear the guitar brought up a little. Or something.
So a new mix is made of ‘Hot Lava’, a wickedly lascivious song equating lover with Lava, and featuring Ricky’s experimental guitar tunings. Ricky has been playing guitar since he was in High School and now has an old Epiphone and two Mosrite ‘Ventures’ models tuned to exotic chords and also minus certain strings. But it’s a secret.
“Lotsa guitarists do it,” he says. “And they won’t tell either.”
He enjoys a chaotic relationship with his guitars; which, being somewhat warped and decrepit, often tend to go out of tune. “And sometimes, when I get real excited, I turn around to change guitars between songs and I can’t even remember which one to pick up!”
Ricky likes the new mix. Fred, meanwhile, is still wrestling with a conundrum. He thinks his voice sounds like a Chipmunk. Nobody else does, mind you. He looks dejected, as if he’d just become the butt of his own joke.
Fred writes most of the words to the songs, while Ricky and Keith concoct the music, and the girls supply the icing. His themes tend towards the off-beat. ‘Hot Lava’, for instance, is an extended metaphor involving lines like “Turn your lava lamp on!” and “Don’t let your lava turn to stone”.
“Well,” offers Fred, “I was looking at the ‘V’ volume of an encyclopaedia, and I saw volcano and had an idea.”
Other songs – ‘Dance This Mess Around’, ‘606 0842’, ‘There’s A Moon In The Sky’ – are less whimsical. They are essentially about people and desires and the distress that sometimes results. There’s nothing ponderous about them; they would be non-starters in any intellectual sweepstakes. But they are very sly though, full of double-entendres, and little snares to make your imagination do a double take.
It’s no great surprise to find that Fred admires Captain Beefheart’s ability to conjure so vividly with words. He is, however, overly diffident about his own achievements.
“They’re just nonsense songs,” he demurs.
Not quite. If The B-52s didn’t bring their songs alive so well they would long ago have been dismissed as a novelty, a downhome Bonzo Dog Band. Yet clearly Fred has lost some sleep over how the songs will be received, especially the more risque sections.
“We often wondered whether things in our songs would cause problems, but we just figured…so what? Lyrics like ‘606 0842’ are just, well, funny, whatever, but people are always looking for intent or message.
“And rock’n’roll lyrics have always been sorta suggestive,” adds Kate.
“Yeah, you know, puns and so forth. On the other hand, we aren’t consciously trying to load our songs with hidden meanings.”
But they do seem to feel the innuendo, which is heightened by the sexy vocalese of the two girls as they trade off Fred’s croaking deadpan. Cindy’s voice is strong and abrasive, seething with emotion, like early Patti Smith. Kate’s is more controlled, able to deftly characterise.
She says ‘606 0842’ is just…”another dirty little song.”
“It’s not dirty.” Fred is taken aback by this suggestion.
“I never thought of it as dirty, I thought it was another moon song,” muses Cindy, more than a little mysteriously.
“Heey. Maybe churches and schools will try to stop people from playing it!”
She quite relishes the thought, and its historical precedent. Rock’n’roll would always rather be the devil.
TO UNDERSTAND The B-52s’ relative cultural position and the factors which have singled them out so swiftly from the hopeful hordes requires certain background knowledge.
Like the fact that Athens is primarily a college town, with a large student population and an inevitable reputation for revelry. A few years ago Playboy voted its university the wildest campus in the US. Animal House was due to be filmed there until the Administration decided it wouldn’t exactly boost the image of a place that still holds the all-time mass streaking record.
“And after that, nothing happened.”
Fred doesn’t know why.
“It’s become very conservative in the fraternities and sororities.”
Another section of the town’s society, meanwhile, had different ideas. Before The B-52s became The B-52s, they and their friends operated some sort of loose alliance called the Bon-Vivant Society, dedicated to most of the usual vices and sub-divided in to small mobile units…
“There was the Waitress Club, The Waiters Club, The Roller Skating Society, The Laundry Club…There was a Laundromat that had a juke box and everybody could get together and go dancing while they did their laundry. There was a liquor store nearby too.”
It appears that the primary form of social action in Athens is the ‘dance party’. Dig this: James Brown and Ray Charles grew up in Georgia; Little Richard and Wilson Pickett were born there. The records played at these parties were “lotsa dance music; soul, people like Junior Walker and James Brown.
“When the first Ramones album came out everybody heard it and started to ‘Pony’ intensely. It was a whole different thing of course, but it was very popular at the time. So was Patti Smith’s first album.”
The B-52s never really gave a thought becoming the B-52s back in February ’77. According to Cindy…”we just jammed. It was for parties. It was this girl’s Valentine’s party at an old rented country club – a dance party – and we just thought it’d be fun.”
So Ricky and Keith made a backing tape of guitar and drums and everybody jammed. “I hid behind the curtains. Ricky played with his back turned. We all talked between songs. Once the tape came unplugged. But people thought we were the neatest thing. They were fascinated. They didn’t care.”
A few parties and six months or so later they discarded the backing tapes and went live, though they still use tapes for rehearsing and for sharpening up their superior song arrangements, honing them to the bone.
Because, make no mistake, they play for dancers. And everybody, these days, wants to dress up and jump back.
“Seems like people would always be in the mood to dance if there was something there to dance to,” Kate conjectures. “Except if it was really out of vogue and they were afraid.”
“There was a time when dancing really went out,” adds Fred, “but I guess it’s because there wasn’t much to dance to. It’s hard for us to play at places where people can’t move around. We’re a dance band basically. We always try to have a dance floor. When we went to New York they said people don’t dance up there and I just couldn’t picture it.”
“But we played and they started dancing.”
Their reputation preceeds them. In the year that they’ve been playing the US clubs they’ve accrued a fanatical following. People like to get down low and do a lot of screaming when The B-52s get into town.
“And dancing too…It’s impossible not to dance at some places when it’s really packed because everyone else is moving around so much,” says a friend of the band. “And they’re completely different on stage – not at all the relaxed people they are off it.”
As a group of people The B-52s seem to enjoy a cordial existence. As a band they are remarkably indivisible.
“It’s strange,” thinks Chris Blackwell, “but they don’t have an obvious leader. Most bands have someone who seems to become the spokesman. But not them.”
You can hear it in the music. There’s no slack at all. Everybody contributes as much as each other, though perhaps in different ways and the sum of the parts has given some pundits problems – they’ve had to find them a brand new bag.
“I think it’s because people don’t know exactly what we are,” opines Kate. “It’s hard for five people to identify…to put their finger on the same thing. We do have a certain image – what we do on stage – but it’s not easy to translate that into the mass media.”
“We were lucky though,” Fred admits. “All the companies said they’d let us do whatever we want. We wouldn’t work any other way.
“We were worried and they might want to change the arrangements and things,” says Ricky.
But if anything is going to sell The B-52s it’s going to be themselves. It would be foolish to tamper.
“We didn’t know if they’d realise that. They might have wanted to make us a bit less unusual.”
“Or try to build up an image and sell it,” interrupts Fred. “We sort of dread being the next camp band; being blown up into something awul and artificial.
“I try not to be a ham. It would kill me if I ever thought I was a ham. I’d stop playing.”
Then what would you do?
“I’d probably get another job.”
“I’d go jump in the ocean.”
© Paul Rambali, New Musical Express, 9 June 1979