The B-52s: I Belong to Dada

TIM LOTT flies with the B-52s

FRED SCHNEIDER III says that people expect, quote, mindless fun and cute sayings, unquote, all the time from the B-52s.

Inevitably they get neither.

The B-52s are fun, but not mindless. The B-52s speak with tongues unforked, but are not cute.

The B-52s, the barons of bouffant, quite, quite exceptional, in many ways. Their music is, for want of a better word, startling and perfectly unclassifiable.

Fred, who plays “toy drums” with the band, describes it with a sort of college pomposity, that really isn’t typical of his dry as dust straight talk.

Sensibility

“We have a sort of Dada sensibility as far as being creative goes,” he says. “It’s not really structured.

“We don’t have any definite messages or any definite philosophy or theories we want to push on people. We don’t want to be didactic.”

You might not describe these quotes as dynamic, but then the B-52s aren’t exactly firecrackers as personalities. They are honest and sensible and all American. They are not what you might call into anarchy. They are into pop music, pure and not at all simple.

B-52s music is gently mocking, brilliantly thought out, and just about the most surprising dance music imaginable. Sixties Farisa mates with Captain Beefheart in his saner moments with a girlie chorus thrown in.

Weird.

The B-52s, of whom there are five — Keith Strickland, Ricky Wilson, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson — started playing together professionally about 18 months ago, after a few amateur thrashabouts at parties.

At that point, Fred, Cindy and Kate — who I have cornered in a record company cupboard in New York — were working in regular jobs, Fred and Cindy helping out in cafes and Kate in a newspaper paste-up room. They stuck these jobs until six months ago when they finally got themselves a nice fat record deal with Warner Brothers and Island Records, for a sum reputedly so bloated that at least one major company stepped down very quickly in abject amazement at the size of the stakes for such small chips.

“We’ve had to do a lot of business,” says Fred, “and we’re not businessmen. But we’re not just in this for a laugh. It’s a lot of hard work. I mean, we haven’t got serious yet, that would be too dull and boring.

“But although we don’t have great expectations, we want to be able to support ourselves. Be moderately famous, moderately successful.”

Cindy crunches cookies and Kate grins charmingly. Neither look remotely like their handouts, both bearing close resemblance now to the cameo girls next door rather than the beehive headed sirens they become onstage.

Kate is the more gregarious of the pair, Cindy being for the most part content to munch her bikkies and look peachy.

“People are expecting much more of us now than they used to,” says Kate. “People have started disliking us, think we’re snobbish. Friends’ perspectives are changing. We’re so busy we don’t really have time to socialise any more.

“It’s become more exciting, more serious… like we can’t just turn our backs on the audience any more or leave 10 minute gaps in between songs.

“I also find it irritating — the thought of people out to make a buck out of me.”

Buck

But then, as Kate happily admits, she is also out to make a buck out of those same people — “let those dollar bills roll in!” — so it’s a sort of roundabout and swings situation (ongoing) as they say out here.

When pressed about their motives in entering the big bad rock ‘n’ roll business circuit, the B-52s are self-deprecating and view the idea of being “successful” with a sort of wry contempt.

“Yeh,” says Kate, “Fred always wanted to be like Rod Stewart. And I always wanted to be like Lulu. She has a new album out, by the way.”

Kate seems genuinely stimulated by this prospect.

“We want… financial security,” says Fred. “We’ve all had terrible jobs, bumming around. The idea of being superstars is laughable.

“I think we just want to be as entertaining as possible. We’re just a dance band. As long as we’re not hams, as long as we continue to enjoy ourselves, that’s all that matters.”

Whether the B-52s are hams or not is a point for debate, but they are riding the crest of a wave. It wasn’t always so easy to have fun.

Within very recent memory they were rehearsing in the bloodletting room of a morgue in Athens, Georgia, the band’s creative incubator.

“That was the worst. It was a dark little room with one heater which we’d all take turns to play in front of.

“It would get down to 30 degrees. We were playing instruments with mittens on.”

“And there were the bees,” says Kate. “Dead bees, dropping from the 40-foot ceiling along with the pigeon droppings. And sometimes there’d be a foot of water on the floor.”

“We worked from all sorts of sources,” says Fred, who for the record is a dropout undergrad in forestry and journalism. “It’s what makes us unusual, so many different people contributing from so many backgrounds. The end result is very bizarre.

“We’re fans of anything from African music, Motown, sixties pop and even Patti Smith. And at the end of it all, I hope we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

They don’t, either, but everybody else will. I do. The B-52s album is the best record I’ve heard this year. I’m wetting myself in anticipation of their stage grossout, which I haven’t yet seen outside of monochrome stills.

And even that beautifully ridiculous spectacle is going to be glued firmly within the tramlines of moderation.

Buzzers

“We’re going to have a revolving stage, fireworks, lasers blasting, smoke and a big wig splitting in hall that the band come out of, and go-go dancers — thousands of them — and buzzers on the seats to make people stand up and dance.

“No, actually we’re going to stick to pretty much what we do know. We just dance. It’s not prepared or anything. We just want to avoid a formula, say outside the main run of things.”

Says Fred Schneider III.

Cindy doesn’t say much, but what she does is salient enough.

“I think all this,” she says, “is really romantic. I love motels. It’s just so exciting.

“It’s like one great big pyjama party.”

© Tim LottRecord Mirror, 14 July 1979

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