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The B-52’s

+ {Fred Schneider} + {Kate Pierson}

No house-party was out of bounds when the bizarro B-52’s were running around at the turn of the 80s – and beyond. Sporting a kitsch/futurama image of bouffant and boots borrowed from the doo-wop/rockabilly era, Kate and Cindy (plus the guys Fred, Ricky and Keith) played to a backbeat of 60s retro and 70s new wave that turned their world – and ours – day-glo. When Scotland’s first pop-punks, The REZILLOS (and London’s X-RAY SPEX) faded into the musical ether, in came American cousins The B-52’s to add a bit of class and technicolor into an otherwise morose and increasingly dour alternative-pop world.
Straight from the get-go, taking their moniker from the beehive hairdos derived from the Boeing bomber aircrafts, The B-52’s were on a mission from Mars (or indeed Athens, Georgia) when they formed in late 1976. Instigated by singer Cindy Wilson and elder brother Ricky (guitar), plus friends Kate Pierson (vocals/organ), Fred Schneider (vocals/percussion) and Keith Strickland (drums/percussion), an impromptu jam at a local Chinese restaurant gave them the inspiration to duly perform in front of a select guest list at a Valentine’s Day party.
Fast-forward a year or so and The B-52’s were celebrating the release of their first 45, `Rock Lobster’ (`52 Girls’ on the B-side); the initial 7” selling out its limited print-run for Danny Beard’s local DB Records. Whilst drawing the attention of Island Record’s Chris Blackwell, the quintet were signed up almost immediately after playing a residency at Max’s Kansas City; they’d also performed at the Big Apple’s other staple punk venue, the CBGBs. On the strength of a re-vamped UK (summer ’79) hit re-issue of the surf-pop `Rock Lobster’ (complete with all sorts of fantastical sea creatures), they were wooed by Warner Brothers to ink a Stateside deal. The marine madness of the aforementioned ditty eventually climbed into the US charts early the following year, by which time the eponymous, Blackwell-produced the B-52’s (1979) {*9} debut album almost cracked the UK Top 20. Even JOHN LENNON was a fan, the former Beatle surprisingly admitting that the group were one of a few who inspired him to start writing again.
From the opening Henry Mancini-addled riffs of the cosmic `Planet Claire’ (a British hit several years on when coupled with a re-issue of `Rock Lobster’) to a kooky karaoke catch of PETULA CLARK’s `Downtown’, the set showed off the vocal trio and angular rhythms/musicianship of the players. A near 7-minute serving of the “Lobster” platter matched the shout-y `Dance This Mess Around’, `52 Girls’, `Lava’ and retro-kitsch of `There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon)’, although there was no call up to the charts for flop, `6060-842’.
Returning from high spirits in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, 1980’s WILD PLANET {*8} was just the ticket to see the group in both Britain and America’s Top 20. Although only gleaning a minor hit from these countries (`Give Me Back My Man’ and the whooping `Private Idaho’ respectively), The B-52’s still managed to excite fans of all age-groups with fantastical tales of fish, candy and the likes. As camp as any Freddy, Schneider was in his “Telstar”-esque element on `Quiche Lorraine’, while cool sing-a-longs came courtesy of `Party Out Of Bounds’, `Dirty Back Road’, `Running Around’ and `Strobe Light’.
During a lay-off from activities in which the PARTY MIX! (1981) {*3} mini-set helped to destroy any credibility the band had built over the previous few years, Kate, Cindy and Keith produced a one-off Japanese venture as “Melon”, together with The PLASTICS and ADRIAN BELEW. Duly working with top ‘Head-turned-knob-twiddler, DAVID BYRNE, critics weren’t quite so enamoured with the mildly-mannered mini-set, MESOPOTAMIA (1982) {*4}. One can definitely hear BYRNE’s indelible exotic edges throughout, and it was clear as day as to why there was conflict between the TALKING HEADS icon and record label bosses. Stripped of most of the fun and frolics, fans felt a tad short-changed in most of these `Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can’ experiments, although the title track and the SIOUXSIE-esque `Nip It In The Bud’ were as close to The B-52’s of old.
Produced by Steven Stanley and conceived in Compass Point again, WHAMMY! (1983) {*6} helped restore lost ground due to decisions outwith their control. Keith and Ricky undertook all aspects of the instrumentation, freeing up the girls and Fred to soar in their own inimitable fashion. In tone with their first two treasured albums, the trans-Atlantic Top 40 record opened with four reveller-friendly pop-rock ditties, `Legal Tender’, `Whammy Kiss’, `Song For A Future Generation’ and `Butterbean’.
The mid-80s were a bleak time for the band as Ricky Wilson – who’d managed to keep his illness quiet from everyone including his sister and the band – succumbed to an AIDS-related death on October 12, 1985. Indeed, the group duly struggled to capture the inspired creativity of their heyday, but went through the motions for the sake of their sadly missed buddy with the release of their final effort as a 5-piece: BOUNCING OFF THE SATELLITES (1986) {*4}. Recorded the previous July with Tony Mansfield at the mixing desk, there was airplay for `The Summer Of Love’, but understandably, no promotional tour from the band themselves, who’d decided that a long sabbatical – or split – was the best option; it took ten months for the set to be issued in Britain, where `Wig’ was released as an attendant single; session guitarist Ralph Carney took the place of Ricky, very briefly.
Re-energised by the addition of bit-player bassist Sara Lee (ex-GANG OF FOUR) and a few others in session (including drummer Steve Ferrone and extra keyboard player Philippe Saisse), The B-52’s were back in circulation with the DON WAS/NILE RODGERS-produced comeback, COSMIC THING (1989) {*8}. Containing a smorgasbord of big-hitters in the shape of homeland Top 3 entries, `Love Shack’ and `Roam’ (also dance-floor faves and hits in Old Blighty), the group found themselves the toast of the pop world, something they’d missed for nigh-on a decade. In the event, and returning a favour when Michael Stipe featured on the video for the group’s other smash, `Deadbeat Club’, Kate lent her vocal talent to R.E.M.’s `Shiny Happy People’, having already duetted with IGGY POP on `Candy’, almost a year earlier in 1990.
Trimmed to a trio following the subsequent departure of Cindy Wilson (JULEE CRUISE filled in on tour), the group and additional personnel (Pat Irwin, Sterling Campbell and Zachary Alford among them) recorded another album in the classic B-52s style: GOOD STUFF (1992) {*5}. Not terribly mind-expanding or worthy of anything bar a transatlantic Top 30 entry or a Grammy nomination, the title track and barmy exercises such as `Tell It Like It T-i-is’, `Hot Pants Explosion’ and `Is That You Mo-Dean?’, could be filed under miscellaneous pop.
When Hollywood came a-knocking on their proverbial cave doors, begging the trio to feature their yabba-dabba-do version of the `(Meet) The Flintstones’ theme, the stone-age BC-52’s (ged it!) could hardly refuse the potential of yet another major smash hit. Something of a canny pairing, Schneider’s nasal-voiced nonsense was a perfect backdrop for Fred and family’s stone age adventures.
While the singer was the only B-52 alumni to have a career outside the confines of the group; 1996’s Steve Albini-produced set JUST… FRED {*7} followed on from his 1991 re-make of the once-shelved FRED SCHNEIDER {*4} record, he was once again happy to take his position when the group re-formed to write a couple of fresh tracks to boost career retrospective, “Time Capsule: Songs For A Future Generation” (1998). Cindy had now returned to the fore, while Sterling Campbell (ex-DURAN DURAN/future BOWIE drummer) had come and went by 2000; worth searching out was their tribute to `Debbie’ [Harry].
It was indeed only a matter of time before the apostrophe-less The B-52s returned to make another album, having respectively supported CHER and The ROLLING STONES in 2004 and 2006, while numerous guest appearances on TV slots kept their profile reasonably high. Co-produced by Steve Osborne (known for his work with NEW ORDER), FUNPLEX (2008) {*6}, sold enough copies to just miss out on a Top 10 place. Augmented by the aforementioned Campbell and other past associates Tracy Wormworth (bass) and Paul Gordon (keyboards), the dance-floor appeal of the title track and `Juliet Of The Spirits’, pleased fans old and new. The obligatory CD/DVD package was unleashed by in 2011 by way of the homecoming title, WITH THE WILD CROWD! LIVE IN ATHENS, GA {*6}, a place to hear all their greatest tunes under one roof – the Classic Center venue to be exact.
Outwith The B-52’s adventures, KATE PIERSON – going on 67 but looking at least twenty years younger – finally delivered her long-awaited debut set GUITARS AND MICROPHONES (2015) {*5}. Co-penned alongside Sia Furler at Kate’s Lazy Meadow enterprise at her Catskills Mountains residence near Woodstock, it was no surprise she took the pop route; think The GO-GO’S for best bits `Bottoms Up’, `Pulls You Under’ and `Mister Sister’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2014-Feb2015

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