The B-52s: When Your World Falls Apart…

Fate dealt a sobering blow to the plastic-shoed party terrorists from Athens, Georgia: their principal songwriter died when they were on the verge of worldwide success. But the B-52’s returned with their biggest-selling album to date, and with a new-found concern about the welfare of our planet. And they blame it all on “a psychic”. Knock twice if you’re there, Mat Snow.

IF YOU are the sort of person who reads album liner notes, then the name Elaine Ault may be familiar. It is she who heads the list of special thank you on Cosmic Thing by the B-52’s, by far the most successful LP of their career.

Elaine Ault is the mother of a friend whom B-52 Kate Pierson visits every winter. She is, moreover, a psychic, so when the band couldn’t arrive at a decision about who should produce this, their comeback album, Kate consulted Elaine on who the punters in the great hereafter considered a good choice.

“We thought, let’s give it a shot,” Kate straight-faces. “Now Elaine doesn’t know anything about music producers, not a clue. I read to her the names of about 12, and she kept coming back with, Who’s this Nile Rodgers? I’d say, But what about so-and-so? No, no, she’d say, the spirit guides say no. But the spirit guides just love this Nile – who is this Nile? So we decided to wait for Nile, even though he was booked up for six months. Meanwhile we recorded some songs with Don Was, who we’d met and liked — and the spirit guides favoured him too.”

Nor was that all. Via Elaine, the spirit guides further informed the B-52’s that they needed two more songs: “She said, I’ll give you two words – topaz and footprints. Take it from there.”

And they did. Their occasional lyricist Robert Waldrop had just furnished the band with the lyrics for ‘Roam’, which seemed to tally with “footprints”. As for “topaz”…

“We had been working on this song, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” recalls Keith Strickland, musical mainman of the B-52’s. “And I was driving home from New York to Woodstock listening to the tape, when all of a sudden I heard this really great part which sent chills up my spine. I thought, Oh, maybe there is something here. And right as I heard it, I passed a billboard advertising a car, and it said ‘Topaz: the right choice’. I told the others, and we changed this harmony in the chorus so it would say the word ‘topaz’, and it seemed to pull it all together.”

Spooky. And what is ‘Topaz’ about?

“It’s like a mythical, Utopian city,” enthuses Kate. “lt’s how we envision the future – where man, woman and nature live as one. Before, when Elaine told me, I thought, topaz?!? I just couldn’t imagine how we’d use it. But now we’ll send her a gold record…”

The B-52’s entered the ’80s singing and dancing in celebration of American trash culture. Ten years later the emphasis has changed slightly; today they celebrate the recycling of the fads and gimmicks that the rest of America throws away. We are long familiar with the beehive wigs, flower-power shirts, toreador pants, hula-skirts, stiletto shoes and other bric-a-brac that not only rocketed the band to the forefront of new wave hipness but glamorised a thrift-store chic that thrives to this day. What is – or perhaps merely seems – new is the greening of the B-52’s.

As the band embark on their summer tour of America’s 15-25,000 capacity “shed” circuit, punters will run the gauntlet of stalls canvassing support for a whole raft of eco-friendly organisations. And on the level of the band’s life on the road, environmentally unsound products are no longer welcome. The tour schedule will include regular stops at the nearest bottle-bank, and this morning at the BBC Television Centre, where the band are miming the single ‘Roam’ for Top Of The Pops, the hapless tour manager Tom is sent scurrying hither and thither for decaffeinated coffee served not in objectionable styrofoam cups but in the acceptable paper equivalent.

Like many popsters of late, the B-52’s have come out in favour of global consciousness — yea, life itself. They are – whisper it soft – New Agers. And it seems they always were, but it took a decade of career upheaval and a tragedy in the ranks for the band to place the weighty concept of life itself at the top of their priorities.

In 1973, New Jersey girl and Boston University graduate Kate Pierson hitched round Europe working as a barmaid in Wallsend near Newcastle (“some experience!”), and fetching up in Ireland where she met her “future ex-husband”. Inspired by the books of Carson McCullers, they decided to settle in the American South, and so arrived in the college town of Athens, Georgia, to start raising goats. Nearby, fellow New Jerseyite Fred Schneider was studying forestry and working in a vegetarian restaurant. Native Athenian Cindy Wilson, meanwhile, was a milkshake specialist at the Whirly-Q Lunchette, and over at the bus station her brother Ricky and his high school friend Keith Strickland were helping out with the bags.

“Before we started the band we used to go to this disco called the Circus,” Kate recalls, “and because we couldn’t afford anything else we’d go to the thrift store and get wild clothing and ratty wigs, which happened to be ’60s stuff. It was a synchronicitv thing, because a lot of people in small towns at that moment were getting into what was to become the punk look – black and white, polka dots. It was cheap and available, not glamorous. We would pile wigs on our heads and put a high-heel on top – we were very influenced by Fellini. It was also recycling American pop culture, taking it to ridiculous extremes. Not that we sat down and philosophised about it – we just grabbed wigs and stuck them on our heads!

“We were party terrorists!” she beams. “We were a definite clique, and we’d crash parties and go dance crazy. We were considered wild – even other friends said they were afraid we would come to their parties! Someone called us the Deadbeat Club, because we just hung out and drank iced tea – a sort of underground, almost art school scene. But we were very creative – we’d have Full Moon parties out in a field where the cows would gather round, Eclipse parties – always some excuse. There was this big plantation where they’d mix buckets of psychedelic mushrooms and we’d all go skinny-dipping. lt was really great.”

One night in late ’76, the so-called Deadbeat Club happened to go to a Chinese restaurant and partake of a rum-based potion called a Flaming Volcano. Thus lubricated, they repaired to the house of a friend who happened to have lying around several musical instruments. “We just picked them up and started jamming,” Kate remembers. “It was very automatic; none of us had ever said, Let’s be in a band.” That very night the band wrote a song and taped it; by the time they debuted at a friend’s St Valentine’s Party in 1977, they had six.

“That first show was wild,” Kate’s blue eyes gleam. “It was at somebody’s house we had borrowed, and their stereo was our p.a. system. The floor was bouncing so much it nearly caved in. Cindy and I wore fake fur pocket books turned upside down and fluffed up like white beefeaters with chains hanging down teased out to look like a big white hairdo. We all wore black and had Barbie dolls stuck in the lamps.

“Keith thought of the name. He had a dream, like a vision of a little lounge band and they all played organs and had bouffant hairdos, and someone said, Look, it’s the B-52’s. B-52 was slang for a nosecone-shaped hairdo, named after the bomber. We thought, This is a great name: it’s a number and a letter, it’s really different and snappy. But now,” her brows knit, “there’s this plan to prolong the life of the B-52 bomber, and we’re lending our name to a campaign to stop it.”

Still in the grip of Southern boogie, Athens boasted no suitable venue for the B-52’s, so they looked north, to New York City, home of this “new wave” everyone was talking about. So they drove up in Ricky and Cindy’s parents’ station wagon and presented a tape to the two leading new wave clubs in town, Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Their big-city debut took place at the former establishment on December 12, 1977 – a quiet Monday night. They drew an audience of 17. Amazingly, they were asked back, and gradually the buzz started as the B-52’s alternated between the two venues on bills with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the Contortions, DNA, Suicide and the Cramps.

Athens record shop owner Danny Beard financed the band’s first single on their own Boo Fant label, ‘Rock Lobster/52 Girls’. It became a big indie hit and attracted the majors: “Chris Blackwell just dropped by with his sailing cap on and said, I really like you guys. He didn’t even make a pitch,” says Kate. “Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads came to our shows, and we were invited to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie’s house – we were so excited being over for cocktails and celery dip! Just to be in the scene! When we first performed at the Mudd Club, we played this thing called the Nova Convention. It was a benefit for Semiotext(e), which was a constructivist magazine. None of us knew what the hell a constructivist was, but we met David Bowie and Frank Zappa backstage, and a man in a giant lobster suit that was so heavy the stage collapsed. Cindy and I were in the basement, changing and half undressed, and in walks this man in a lobster suit, Frank Zappa and William Burroughs. They were very nice and enthusiastic. Burroughs came to the soundcheck and he had two people with him wearing trenchcoats, and he pulled out a piece of paper and started writing, and so did these two guys. They sat through the soundcheck, writing…”

The B-52’s signed up with Talking Heads’ manager Gary Kurfirst, who got the record company bidding war heated up. The B-52’s inked a deal split between Reprise in the US and Island in Europe, whose Chris Blackwell oversaw their first LP, The B-52’s. “He had the concept of really capturing us as we were, live in all our sparseness, and we were horrified when we heard it – it sounded too much like us! So naked! Cruelly real!” Nonetheless, despite little mainstream radio play, the B-52’s scored gold with both the debut and its successor, Wild Planet. ‘Rock Lobster’ became a fixture on the playlist of any party with pretensions to hipness. John Lennon cited it as an inspiration to his return to rocking in 1980.

“At the end of ‘Rock Lobster’, Cindy does this scream that was inspired by Yoko Ono,” Keith remembers. “John heard it in some club in the Bahamas, and the story goes that he calls up Yoko and says, Get the axe out – they’re ready for us again! Yoko has said that she and John were listening to us in the weeks before he died.”

*

OTHER PERQUISITES OF MIDDLE-RANKING rock stardom came the way of the B-52’s: “We played Florida when it was Joan Jett, us and then The Who,” recalls Kate. “There was this biker gang in the front row going ‘Who-ho-ho-ho’ as we played, throwing apples at us. We got a lot of letters afterwards saying, Please, we love you in Orlando – we’re not all like that, and The Who were very nice and apologetic. But we knew there’d be trouble when we saw Joan Jett getting stuff thrown at her too.”

Appearances at California’s giant US Festival and Jamaica’s World Music Festival with Toots and the Maytals and Gladys Knight and the Pips conjure happier memories, as does their cameo on the TV soap Guiding Light, wherein they advised one of the characters about his career as a would-be folk singer: “It was funny to us, but my boyfriend’s mother reached out and touched the screen,” laughs Kate. “Being on TV gave us credibility with her.”

Then came that difficult third album. The pressure was on to make a record but they had only a handful of new songs, so they compromised with a mini-LP, Mesopotamia, produced by David Byrne at Gary Kurfirst’s suggestion. Fans were disappointed. “We felt we needed to do something different,” sighs Keith. “We didn’t want to become a parody of ourselves or feel we had to write another ‘Rock Lobster’. David got a bad rap for that album, but he didn’t put this big stamp on it. It was us, our fault it didn’t work. We were in transition, and a lot of people don’t like it if you make any change at all.”

Whammy!, from 1983, was better but failed to restore the band’s eminence, though they never flagged as a live attraction. The B-52’s merely pulled in their horns a little and continued having fun. Then, without warning, on October 12, 1985, Ricky Wilson died. The cause at first was given as lymphatic cancer, but later it emerged ho was a victim of AIDS. Naturally the band especially Cindy, were grief-stricken.

“Ricky was very protective, particularly of Cindy and of his family,” Keith recalls. “At the time, 1985, people’s attitudes were of panic; people were very frightened of the whole thing and didn’t understand it at all. He died the same month as Rock Hudson, so you know where it is in the history of…things.”

The band had just recorded the LP Bouncing Off Satellites, but as they withdrew into bereavement, its release was delayed.

“For one thing, we didn’t go out on tour because of Ricky,” says Kate. “We just felt we couldn’t, musically, emotionally or spiritually. It would be a wrong thing to go out and be joyous without Ricky. There was a lot of pressure to get another guitarist and just go out to promote the album, but we made an out-and-out stand. We just stopped and had a breathing period which we had to go through. We felt maybe this was the natural end of the band, or maybe we’ll keep going. But we never said one way or the other. I’m sure that to the record company it did look like the end, so they just put the album out and didn’t really promote it, just to see what happened.”

Which was not a lot. Step forward, Keith. Phil Collins-like, he abdicated the drumstool to fill the songwriting and guitar-playing breach. “I had been playing guitar and keyboards all along. From the very beginning Ricky and I would write the instrumentation together, so I’ve always been involved in the melodies. It was a very slow process getting used to the idea of possibly continuing. But over a three-year period, events encouraged us. ‘Rock Lobster’ all of a sudden resurfaced to become a big hit again over here. Then we were asked by PETA, People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals, to play at this event in Washington DC. We weren’t playing as a band then, so we said we’d love to help out as hosts. When we walked out, the response from the crowd made us wish we’d been able to play, so we could help causes we felt strongly about – a reason outside ourselves to get the band back together.”

Gingerly, The B-52’s picked up the threads. They got new management, and started casting around for producers. The rest we know.

“We always felt together, very much a family,” explains Kate. “Ricky’s influence and spirit was so much a part of this, so it was very healing to continue. We took it one step at a time, and after a few songs we saw this autobiographical theme develop, set in our days in Athens and then moving forward to this futuristic world, like ‘Cosmic Thing’ and ‘Topaz’. We felt we were on a roll; after this tragedy there was a sense of rebirth.”

Though they all live in semi-rural New York state, the B-52’s recently returned to Athens to make a video. Hanging out with younger local bands like R.E.M. and Love Tractor, and dancing till all hours to house music revived happy memories.

“Athens is party central!” Kate, now 42, raves. “You can’t walk more than a few blocks downtown without running into someone you know, and everyone has endless amounts of time to sit and chew the fat. It’s a porch culture, and we have a lot of references to that on our new album; about a way of life where you have time for people.”

© Mat SnowQ, July 1990

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