Grab your love handles, put on your wig hat and snatch up some jukebox money on your way out the door. The B-52s are in town, and it’s time to get down with some serious love shackin’.
For the past four decades, the Athens, Ga., quintet founded by Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson and Ricky Wilson in 1976 has surfed the airwaves and scalded stages worldwide with their party pop. It’s a unique sound, like a karaoke party with your best friends hosted by a stone-faced ringmaster with a dead-pan delivery that nevertheless conveys a wicked sense of humor, his pronouncements decorated with guitar curlicues straight out of Captain Beefheart.
CBGB turned down the B-52s, so their first NYC gig was at Max’s Kansas City, driving straight through from their Georgia hometown. As the band told “Rolling Stone” last year, it was the first time they had played in front of anybody but friends.
It was quite a scene when the group hit New York City for the first time, alongside the rat-a-tat rhythms of the Ramones and the hard-core punk of the Tuff Darts.
“I think only 17 people showed up,” Schneider told the Stone. “All the other bands were dressed in black, and we were like a rainbow congregation.”
Asked to cut their set short, the band only played about 20 minutes before packing up and driving straight back home thinking their NYC career was over. But Max’s called and invited them back, and later they got onstage at CBGB as well, sharing the stage with Debbie Harry and Blondie. The B-52s had a name but still didn’t know how to describe themselves, not wanting to be punks but not satisfied with a new wave tag either.
But their attitude and presentation impressed Debbie Harry, who became a friend of the band. They thanked her for her friendship and support with the song “Debbie” from 1998’s “Time Capsule: Songs For a Future Generation”: Shell-shocked supersonic blonde / Hyperphonic female / Dark Sunglasses on / Everyone is here to see / Her all-girl rock band / Oh Debbie / Queen of the underground.
But it was a song about a crustacean that launched their recording career in ‘79 on their eponymous debut “The B-52’s.” “Rock Lobster” tripped some atavistic trigger for non-punk fans, and Wilson and Pierson’s vocal interpretations of seafood sounds from mystical creatures, including a sea robin and a bikini whale, captivated fans weary of serious rock.
In that same interview for “Rolling Stone,” Pierson revealed that the harmonies she and Wilson have perfected over the years have an Appalachian inspiration. The most obvious iteration of that is in “Roam,” where you can hear echoes of high and lonesome ringing in family style harmonies as the women trade parts back and forth. Another revelation from drummer-turned-guitarist Keith Strickland was that Joni Mitchell was an influence as well, “at least in terms of open tunings and the harmonies and chords she’d use,” he told “Rolling Stone.”
But Mitchell and Appalachia were left far behind for the Band’s signature tune, “Love Shack.” The band was in a slump after their original guitarist, Cindy’s brother Ricky, died in 1985. The album “Cosmic Thing,” released in ‘98, was a tribute to Ricky, and “Love Shack” was a tune that had been kicking around for a while. Schneider had the inspiration for the song based on a club near Athens called the Hawaiian Ha-Le that had the rusted tin roof that Wilson gives a shout-out to in the middle of the song. Pierson revealed last year in a “Huffington Post” interview that the song was not ready for exposure when the band started tinkering with it in the studio.
“The chorus part, ‘The Love Shack is a little old place,’ that was only happening once. I was lobbying to have it happen more,” Pierson told Huffington Post. “(Co-producer) Don Was said, ‘Well that’s the chorus. We have to have that.’ He really made it come together, and then once we put the chorus in, we had it.”
In addition to “Love Shack” the album also contained the hit “Roam,” and their first top 40 hit, “Deadbeat Club.”
Despite their renewed success, Wilson had had enough of the road, and left the band to start a family after an 18-monthlong worldwide tour to promote the album. Schneider, Strickland and Pierson put out ’92’s “Good Stuff” without her, but she returned for ’98’s “Time Capsule” and has remained.
Strickland got off the road with the band in 2013, but the remaining three original members have continued to record and tour. “Funplex” from 2008 was the last studio album, but the band has since released “The B-52s With The Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, Ga.,” a DVD/CD of a 2011 show celebrating their 34th anniversary recorded in their hometown. In April 2015, the band released a tape of a show from August 1979, opening for the Talking Heads at Boston’s Berklee Center, recorded six weeks after their first record was released.
But fans of the band don’t need to rely on recordings of past glories. As long as there’s an audience ready to throw down with a beach party or hit the woods for a love-shackin’ good time, the B-52s will be around to provide the visuals and the soundtrack to keep this party rolling.