Party Way Out Of Bounds

by Pete Crigler

The B-52's were once one of the most exciting, almost revolutionary bands of the entire New Wave era. Now they’re the type of band that one can see on retro bills alongside the rotting corpses of Blondie, A Flock Of Seagulls and numerous others. Their career started off with a bang and nowadays it’s a bit of whimper. But the trajectory in between is really something to behold. What the hell happened, you might ask? Well, read on and you’ll hear quite a story.

Forming in Athens, Georgia in the mid-‘70s, the band – guitarist extraordinaire Ricky Wilson, his sister Cindy on vocals, Keith Strickland on drums, the always outrageous Fred Schneider on vocals and Kate Pierson on vocals and keyboards – was dynamic right out of the box with all these amazing musicians. With Schneider’s off-kilter singing and Cindy and Kate’s mile-high beehive hairdos, the band was definitely eccentric and different, but it was the music that really set the group apart. Surf guitar mixed with spacey keyboards and out-of-this-world lyrics about girls, crustaceans, and everything in between.

After several 7-inches became popular around the South, the band signed a deal with Warner Brothers in the late ‘70s and began working with producer Chris Blackwell to craft their debut album. Upon arrival in 1979, their self-titled debut was one of the most eye-opening musical blasts in the entire new wave movement. When “Rock Lobster” hit the airwaves, people couldn’t believe what they were hearing. This herky-jerky rhythm with surf guitar and wild, almost Ono-esque vocals wailing about beaches and weird ass crustaceans was almost too crazy to believe. Needless to say, it became a massive hit and is still a must for any ‘80s dance party. The band capped off their touring with a debut appearance on “SNL” with one of the definitive versions of “Rock Lobster.” Watching these freaks from Georgia with their weird hairdos and pawn shop instruments, one could say they were definitely watching a musical revolution.

It was during this time that John Lennon, then living in exile in New York City, became a huge fan of the band and was instantly inspired by what he heard. It’s been rumored for years that it was hearing the catatonic dance chaos of the first album that inspired Lennon to jump back into music and create what later became Double Fantasy.

Meanwhile, the band was trying to strike while the proverbial iron was hot, and so they returned to the studio with Blackwell to make album number two. Released at lightning quick speed, Wild Planet came out in 1980 with the same eccentricity of its predecessor but with a more polished band coming through the speakers. “Private Idaho,” which is probably my favorite thing the band has ever done, became another immediate hit and the band thought the rocket ride would never come down.

After touring and racking up gold and platinum records, the band decided it was time for a change and entered the studio with David Byrne of Talking Heads producing. Many people thought this would make a great pairing, but as the sessions went on, the band found themselves at odds. Basically forced to create new songs, the band was grasping at straws and had friction with each other and with Byrne, who was being pulled in too many directions to aim his focus solely on one thing. The result was the mini EP, Mesopotamia, released in 1982. Critics were taken aback at the sound of the record; in fact many songs, including the title track, sound like Talking Heads and the B’s sound combined in a blender. The EP wasn’t very well received and so the band, licking their wounds, retreated to the studio to work on a proper follow-up to Wild Planet.

Finally, Whammy was released in 1983 and it sounded like a lot of the same. “Song For A Future Generation” was one of the weirdest tracks the band ever recorded, featuring just the guys and gals talking about their favorite items and what signs they were. Amazingly, this became one of the main singles of the record. The best song on the record, the title track sounded like B-52’s of old and still sounds great today. The album’s mediocre reception dampened the band’s spirits but things were about to get much worse.

After finishing touring in support of Whammy, the band settled in to work on their forth full-length. During the early months of 1985, guitarist Ricky Wilson became very ill and the band decided to close ranks. Continuing to work on their record, the band stayed silent until Ricky had to be hospitalized that summer. In October, Ricky Wilson died of complications from AIDS. The shattered band, having lost the heart and soul of their sound, went their separate ways, unsure if they wanted to continue.

After some uncertainty, the band came back together sometime in 1986 to finish work on Ricky’s final songs. The album, titled Bouncing Off The Satellites, was released about a year after Ricky’s death. The album’s only single, “Summer Of Love,” ended up becoming a fan favorite, but the record was the band’s poorest seller and the band retreated. Warner Brothers, fed up with the band’s lack of enthusiasm, declined to further promote the record once the band made it clear they wouldn’t be doing any touring.

Over the next couple of years, the band was on hiatus. The future of the band was up in the air for a time until the four surviving members decided that they wanted to continue on. Deciding it would be easier than finding someone new, drummer Keith Strickland moved over to take Ricky’s slot, filling the drum slot with session players like Sterling Campbell and Zac Alford. After deciding to come out of hiatus, the band reentered the studio with the production dream team of Don Was and Nile Rodgers.

In 1989, the band emerged from their three-year hiatus with Cosmic Thing. Preceded by the single “Love Shack,” the album became the band’s most well-loved song and biggest hit since “Rock Lobster.” This was the turning point for the band, where they stopped being so eclectic and became one of those dance bands that turned to pop songs in order to stay relevant. So the band was back on top; Cosmic Thing ended up going multiplatinum and spawned two more massive singles, “Channel Z” and “Roam,” the latter of which became one of their most loved songs and still gets played on the radio today alongside “Love Shack.” The band even made a return to “Saturday Night Live” where they did an outstanding version of the title track, backed by their killer band: Zac Alford on drums, Sara Lee (ex-Gang of Four) on bass and Pat Irwin (ex-Raybeats) on keyboards/rhythm guitar.

Unfortunately, this was when the band began to change. “Love Shack” is one of those songs that goes down as either one of the greatest or worst songs ever to come out. To me personally, it feels like “Ice Ice Baby” or the ultimate cheese, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. The song just lacked any real bite and it was missing the group’s trademark kookiness and charm; it just felt forced and unnatural. “Roam” felt more like a pop song and while it was still decent, it’s not like “Channel Z” or the title track, which have the classic old-school feel.

On top of the world, the band continued touring until the end of 1990 when they took a break. During the break, Cindy Wilson dropped a bomb and decided to leave the band. Shocked the three remaining members decided to keep going and soon returned to the studio with Was and Rodgers again behind the boards. Focusing on Schneider and Pierson on vocals, the album – eventually released in 1992 as Good Stuff – felt pale and weak compared to the previous success the band had regained. Although the disc was eventually nominated for a Grammy and the title track became a minor hit, it wasn’t long before it showed up in cutout bins all across the country. Joined on tour by vocal chanteuse Julee Cruise to fill-in for Cindy, the band put on their game faces and resumed performing to enthusiastic fans.

Over the next couple of years, the band wasn’t very active, except for one very interesting song released in 1994. “The Flintstones” live-action movie was being released and an artist was needed to redo the show’s iconic theme song. So, the B-52’s was drafted in to do the song, but they were renamed The BC-52’s for the single release in order to tie in with the film. The song became a minor hit in America but was an international smash. This was a death knell for the band. They had become a parody, something that no critic would or could take seriously anymore. Aside from that brief burst of activity, the band remained quiet, playing shows here and there and generally not doing much of anything.

In 1996, Fred Schneider decided to release a new solo album. He’d previously put one out in 1984 called Fred Schneider And The Shake Society that got some traction on the dance charts. For this new record, he wanted to do something different, so he hooked up with producer Steve Albini. Albini suggested something new: to that end, he ended up being backed by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet as well as members of Supersuckers, Tar, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on his second solo album titled Just Fred. Released in the summer of 1996, the record died a quick, nasty and Schneider returned to the road as a B-52.

By this time, the band continued touring, not really recording much and playing to rapid fans. The years went on and on and the band were stuck in the same space they’d been in since 1997 after Cindy rejoined: no new songs in the setlist and just constant touring. It’s been rumored and speculated that the long absence from the recording studio was due to a dispute with former manager Gary Kurfirst, who’d also managed Talking Heads and the Ramones, but no member of the band has ever confirmed this as true. So the band kept touring and making ends meet.

Over the years, the band’s early material was being discovered by younger generations and they were blown away by what they found. In 1997, hardcore punk band Guttermouth paid tribute to the band and their eccentric style on the track “What If.” The gist of the song was to see what it would sound like if Fred Schneider had taken over vocals for The Doors after the demise of Jim Morrison. It’s a very funny track and one to check out if you miss the early years of the B’s.

Finally around 2007(!), the band decided it was time to reenter the studio and begin work on a brand new album. The band had long since lost their Warner Bros. contract and had to find a new label. Settling with acclaimed dance label Astralwerks, the band got down to work. That year they FINALLY released a new album, Funplex, and hit the road once more. The album debuted at number 11 and garnered all sorts of critical acclaim. The band’s reputation had been rebuilt after years of neglect and they continued to ride on that wave as long as they possibly could.

The years went on and the band kept touring until finally, in 2013, guitarist Keith Strickland announced he was going to step down from the constant touring. He still intends on being a part of the band, he just can’t keep going on the road like the band has done. As of 2015, the band still tours regularly, most recently on a jaunt with the Human League. Whether they ever put out another record remains to be seen. Kate Pierson recently put out her first solo album which performed modestly and also married her partner of the last ten years.

The band seems content with the road they’ve chosen, and I suppose as long as they have an audience that wants to hear them, then they’ll still be out there playing the same old songs year in, year out. In the end, it’s just a shame that such a great band is pulling the same ol’ shtick that Billy Ocean, ABC, Bananarama and other ‘80s throwaways are doing. The B-52’s is so much better than all those other acts if they really wanted to, they could get their shit together and make one more great album before they all get too old!

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