Update: The B-52s

ARE THE B-52s now America’s most popular un­signed “new wave” band? Not on the West Coast perhaps, where the group has yet to tour and where the Screamers, Readymades, et al reign supreme. But in New York, the group’s following has grown beyond the legal capacities of most area clubs.

Their only single, ‘Rock Lobster’ b/w ’52 Girls’, has sold an astonishing 10,000 copies throughout the U.S., England and Europe. (This figure comes from Dan Beard, a close friend of the group, the proprietor of an Atlanta record store, and the man in charge of the single’s distribution and promotion. It was confirmed by Phil Page, promotion man for JEM Records, who added, “It’s one of our biggest-selling singles right now.”) A&R men from the hipper independent and British-based labels like Virgin, Sire, and Radar have already put in their bids – and been turned down. Major-label interest is sure to come; it’s only a matter of time.

Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, Ricky Wilson, Keith Strickland and Dan Beard dropped by the palatial of­fices of New York Rocker on a rainy Tuesday after­noon in March for an informal chat about the past, present, and future of the B-52s. The previous Satur­day, hundreds of angry fans had been turned away from the group’s one-night stand at Hurrah, where a capacity crowd had already filled the club to its limits for the 52s’ two sets. (Police were eventually called to break up the turmoil outside.) And the next Wednes­day and Thursday the B-52s would appear at the tren­dy Mudd Club on White Street; advance tickets (at $5 each) were going fast.

“We really had no notion that so many people would show up (at Hurrah). I really felt sorry for the crowd,” said Kate Pierson. A fully-equipped student film crew from New York University had added to the crowding, confusion, and disgruntlement of paying customers: “We thought that it was gonna be just one guy in a corner, and instead it turned out to be this whole crew.” And Keith Strickland added: “We had enough trouble just getting through the crowd to the stage. We couldn’t know what was happening on the floor, or outside the building.”

I suggested that these were the kind of hassles that managers exist to deal with. But the B-52s recently broke off business relations with close friend and manager Maureen McLaughlin. Maureen, also in New York during March, says she doesn’t “really know why” the group decided to part with her. (Throughout the month she visited the city’s various clubs and saw a great many bands, but has no definite future plans at this writing.) When pressed for their side of the story, Keith says simply: “We’re still friends…But we didn’t come to talk about managers. We can’t say anything…until we decide among ourselves. We’re managing ourselves at the moment.” Adds Kate: “Hurrah was supposedly flooded with calls that day from people claiming to be our managers!”

Among the interested record label heads, Andrew Lauder of Radar and Illegal’s Miles Copeland were the most keen on leasing ‘Rock Lobster’ in the U.K. and Europe. But although Lauder is described as “a really nice guy” (no dollar figures are mentioned), the B-52s say they simply decided to “keep the single for ourselves.” The record has received considerable airplay on John Peel’s national British radio show, leading to feature stories in both Melody Maker and New Musical Express – and a steady stream of fan mail from England and France.

But back in Athens, GA. “we’re no big deal,” says Cindy. “It’s nice to be able to go back there after all this.” (Fred Schneider, lead singer and lyricist, is the only “B” to move to New York. He wasn’t available for this get-together.)

Surprisingly, the band has done virtually no recor­ding – not even demo tapes – since the sessions that produced ‘Rock Lobster’. They’ve spent most of their time on the road; between the Mudd Club shows and their March 23 and 24 dates at the Irving Plaza (Club 57), the B-52s packed ’em in at the Paradise Club in Boston; Philly’s Hot Club; McVann’s in Buf­falo; and the Edge in Toronto. They’ve also played sporadic dates in the Midwest (“Minneapolis was great, Chicago is great” – Kate) and down home in Atlanta and Athens (with other promising locals like the Fans, the Brains, and the Tone-tones). The group has some new songs to play, too: ‘Dirty Back Road’, ‘606-0842’, ‘Living In Your Own Private Idaho’.

The obvious next step is a recording contract. And as modest, naive, and “country” as the B-52s may seem on stage and off, they exude pride and con­fidence in their music, and the sense of community that comes only through a collective creative process and the rigors of frequent live performances. Cindy may admit that “I hate it when it’s too much business,” and Kate Pierson may say that many group decisions are made “by intuition,” but the B-52s are clearly unwilling to settle for less than a serious commitment from a major record company capable of selling a great many B-52s albums. At the same time, “we’re looking for the company that’s the most excited about us” (says Kate) – and that’s a feeling measured in more than dollars and cents.

The subject of producers comes up, and a few names are half-seriously bandied about: Chris Kinsey (the engineer of Some Girls), disco master Hamilton Bohannon. Back home, the B-52s are listen­ing to Talking Heads’ More Songs…, Siouxsie & the Banshees’ The Scream, and albums by XTC and Suicide.

What’s ahead for the B-52s? Cindy Wilson is kid­ding (I think) when she says, “We’d like to do a tour of the beaches.” (That’s a reference to the resort areas of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas, and – in­directly – to the “beach music” that is a perennial favorite in these areas: vintage sounds by the Tams, Coasters, Drifters, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs.) It’s more likely that the band will continue its progress through the nation’s rock ‘n’ roll clubs, waiting for the right offers from both new management and major record companies. There’s no doubt in this observer’s mind that, given a proper recording budget and the right producer, the B-52s could surpass on vinyl even the peaks of their live performances. I wasn’t easily converted, but I know now what everyone’s been raving about. They’re that good – and if you don’t know it by now, you will. Very, very soon…

© Andy SchwartzNew York Rocker, April 1979

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