The B-52s: They Came From Behind The Luncheonette Counter!!!

The B52’s, of Athens, Georgia, are the first cult band who look like surviving the transition into a new decade – their music is individual and indescribable enough to intrigue almost anyone. It’s a heady brew: beat meets beach, Southern Gothick goes futurist. . . but it’s deft and professional in performance. En route to Japan, vocalists Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson took time off to have tea and talk tuxedoes with Cynthia Rose.

LIKE MOST PEOPLE with a genius for combining comedy and compassion, the B-52’s are absolutely serious about their art – they intend to keep it isolated from pretensions and safe from the super-impositions of other folks’ need to manufacture ‘fashion’. Most of all, they want to preserve the spontaneity and enjoyment which got them going in the first place, long before they ever expected to make records. “You know, the first place we played was a Valentine’s party,” reflects Fred, “then birthday parties; one place we played on top of a table in the kitchen, at a friend’s house. The first club we ever even played was Max’s in New York – and to us it was like ‘God! This is some thing! The Velvet Underground played here and they were big!’ We just rolled up there in out VW van and suddenly it was ‘Hey. . . wait a minute – where’s the big stage?’

The B-52’s have just bought a large, communal house in upstate New York. “A kosher house,” Cindy explains, “with two kitchens – one to cook meat in and one where you can’t.” Like their previous house in Athens (a disused mortuary “where our business room was the one with the blood-letting canal”), its roominess is important. “We need our own space,” says frontman Fred, “We each have our own hobbies and we have to keep ourselves separate. . . It’s a democracy; there’s no leader.”

Breaking as a cult phenomenon amongst New York’s proliferation of avant-le-polaroid arts, The B-52’s manage to remain interested but unspoilt onlookers. “Well, we are lucky in that our success is the sort of success we can learn from – we’re not real big, so we don’t have to do a lot of bullshit hype stuff. I just think it would be scary if we were more popular. Like anything that’s ‘in fashion’, you know, it changes so abruptly and you’re supposed to go along with it. I’d rather see people think for themselves.”

“I mean,” continues Fred, “Everyone likes to wear different clothes. . . and I’m very affected sometimes by what people say they don’t like – I might not wear something again. . . just as sometimes I’m very affected by what people say and if they criticise me I get hurt.”

“But I like to wear certain kinds of stuff – real gaudy, Goodwill, secondhand stuff – and if I like something, I don’t care if it’s ‘in’ or ‘out’, I’m gonna wear it.” Currently, many of Fred’s clothes are made by a friend in New York, Misa. For years I thought I had a 3I waist, and all the time I was just looking in the wrong place! I kept wondering why my trousers were falling down the whole time. . . then Misa told me that my waist was actually a 28. Misa’s great, he’s a great designer. You know, usually menswear is just so dull.”

Their deft approach to anti-dullness is one reason the Warholic in-crowd of the Big Apple have taken the group to their bosoms, and it’s something The B-52s put down to their smalltown origins. Fred: “Well, cities are so stark anyway; if it’s bright and sunny and you’re walking around, you can still be in the dark. Then you go home and it’s dark and you go in a club and you know it’s gonna be dark in there. . . So it’s more of a subterranean existence. I don’t think that’s so conducive to non-cerebral music. But in the South in a small town, you can still go to a club and, well, it’s Party Time! The South is such a big party area. . . I was shocked when we first played outside of there and people just seemed to want to sit and listen. Like the other night, we saw James White and the Blacks at Trax and they seemed to be playing for some sort of weekend New Jersey crowd – who just sat. Dance music gets people involved; even if you don’t like a band, if you can dance things often go so much better! Playing as a dance band is our basic premise.”

The B-52’s originated in a friend’s cellar, after a long evening’s consumption of Flaming Volcanoes, Zombies, Daydreams, Coco-Locos, and similar concoctions, for which Hunan’s Restaurant of Athens must be credited. Their name stems from a dream of drummer Keith Strictland’s: about a little group called ‘The B-52’s’, with a Lily Tolin-style lady lounge organist. The organist had a huge bouffant hairdo, and Southern slang for such “ratted hair” is the expression “B-52” (although it can also mean a vitamin, as Keith points out).

Early on, Interview‘s Glenn O’Brien quoted the band as stating that much of their inspiration came from dreams, and Fred bears this out. “yeah!. . . It’s more a musical idea will be there and it’s jammed on for hours, like a collage. Someone will have an idea, a phrase that they’ll like and we’ll work on that for hours – sometimes we’ll have miles of tape and it’s hard to narrow it down. . . We’d like to do some pure radio stuff. . .”

CINDY: “Release our Basement Tapes!”

FRED: “Yeah, we’ve got some basement tapes; they are just silly, funny. . . a lot of it was ridiculous poems set to music, six minutes long or whatever. I’d like it as much as our regular stuff but someone who wanted to go and listen to ‘a B-52’s record’ might expect something more.”

What about being expected to put out “a B-52’s record”, then; what about being expected to lead the way for the other wackos? Does the band feel those pressures?

“Well, it’s easier for us,” Fred reflects. “It’s strange, of course, because it’s really been straight from those little dumps in Athens to the stages of different cities. . . So if you wear a little disguise it puts you in the frame of mind to be more goofy and easygoing. If people are gonna try and be ‘cool’ it just never comes off. You know all that ‘you have it or you don’t? Well , it’s great to have it but only if it comes naturally, I think.”

“Actually, we don’t want to emphasise the look as much as the music. Energy and perception are the most important things to us.”

Perception the B-52’s have in spades; Fred had everyone rolling on the floor as he recalled the band’s first experience at miming for video, in Amsterdam: “we’ve seen it a couple of times and It’s as funny as hell – it was an old science fiction set and God only knows what kind of show it was. They had bubble machines, smoke machines, strobe lights, smoke, everything. . . And it just kept going – oh! And there was also a fountain in the back so every time I’d turn around I’d get hit in the face.”

CINDY: “That was the first time we lip-synched and it was extra unsettling. They had all these special effects – not one or two, they had ten or twelve!”

Perception is something The B-52’s like to share with their audiences; Fred and Cindy tell me how their first hit single, ‘Rock Lobster’ (a satire similar to Boris Pickett’s famous ‘Monster Mash’) is being used as therapy for autistic and retarded children. “Apparently it works,” Fred says excitedly, “It was bringing kids around, at the Georgia Retardation Centre, and the best way to get ‘em to deal with things is dance. Every day They would have all these dumb projects, which they were just not interested in; they’d give ‘em tests and stuff. But we’d just dance for an hour or so. . . I used soul music, real funky uptown butt music. You know, a lot of kids would only sort of jump up and down, but it was great.”

Everyone resists the way the group has been pigeonholed by their idiosyncrasies (like playing a Walkie-Talkie onstage) and their good press in fashionable places.

“I don’t mind talking about dresses or wigs, for instance,” says Cindy, “Because I do love them but I certainly might change my dresses now because of all this ‘you’re a 60’s band’ thing. The way we dress on stage is just what we wore to parties, just what we like. If I get a headache onstage, I take off the wigs anyway. . .”

“But I don’t have a case for mine, and the airlines don’t like them to have them on planes, so. . .”

FRED: “We mail ‘em! It gets hot under those things – it’s so hot onstage! And Cindy’s hair looks great when she does a French twist anyway, she really doesn’t need to wear a wig.” Fred pauses over his tea. “You know,” he said cautiously, “I think a lot of the British press expected us to be a really camp band and I think – I hope we’ve proved them wrong.”

© Cynthia RoseViz, 1980

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