The B-52’s: ‘On Rock Lobster, people go nuts, freak-flag flying, crazy dancing, tearing off their clothes’

Forty-three years after their first album, the band that brought the world Love Shack begin their farewell tour

When the B-52’s played Rock Lobster on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live in January 1980, a few months after releasing their debut album, it was a lightning-strike moment for a generation of young misfits and oddballs.

Many of their campy, catchy songs celebrated people who seemed to be happily dislocated or disconnected from known dimensions (Planet Claire, Private Idaho). Several of the band’s members were queer, and all five considered themselves “freaks”. Over a period of decades, as they grew from a cult band to one with top-40 hits — most notably Love Shack, in 1989 — they discovered how many others identified the same way.

“This eccentric, downright lovable quintet,” John Rockwell of the New York Times wrote in 1978, “provides about the most amusing, danceable experience in town.” The B-52’s sustained that vigour through seven studio albums and an EP, as well as the 1985 death of Ricky Wilson, one of rock’s most inventive guitarists. Their spirit can be heard in the work of a wide range of artists who followed, including Deee-Lite, Le Tigre, LCD Soundsystem and Dua Lipa.

Culture made by and for misfits and oddballs is now a billion-dollar industry, but it wasn’t when the B-52’s played their first gig in 1977, in their Athens, Georgia, hometown. Maybe that’s why, 45 years after they first played for a small number of friends, they have announced a US farewell tour, which starts on Saturday in Vancouver and wraps with a three-night stand in Atlanta in November. It took a while, but the weirdos have won.

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In late July, singers Fred Schneider (70) Kate Pierson (74) and Cindy Wilson (65) gathered in a New York hotel suite for an 80-minute free-for-all punctuated by raucous laughter, as well as sombre reflections. Schneider dispensed deadpan punch lines, Pierson spoke with hippie beneficence and Wilson talked movingly about the death of her brother, Ricky. Keith Strickland (68), a drummer and guitarist who stopped touring with the band in 2012, added his thoughts in a phone interview later.

These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Why did the band decide to quit touring?

PIERSON: We’re not quitting — we’re just moving on to the new phase of our lives, which is a documentary. We’ve worked hard on uncovering archival material, like Super 8 footage and photographs.

SCHNEIDER: We’ll still do shows, but no more touring. I love being onstage, but I got tired of people with cell phones not paying attention and blocking everyone behind them.

PIERSON: All in all, the digital thing was good for us. Having videos on YouTube exposed us to a new audience of young people. On Rock Lobster, they go nuts, freak-flag flying, crazy dancing, tearing off their clothes.

SCHNEIDER: I don’t know if I want them to tear off their clothes. Maybe just the younger ones.

PIERSON: The old ones, too! Let’s see it all.

If I told you in 1977, right before you played your first show, that in 45 years you’d be doing a farewell tour, would you have believed me?

WILSON: I know. That’s insane.

STRICKLAND: A band was just something to do, because in Athens, there was nothing else to do.

SCHNEIDER: It was a hobby. We’d jammed once or twice. We didn’t even have the money to buy guitar strings.

PIERSON: The miracle, to me, is that no one ever said, “Let’s start a band.” We just hung out with a group of friends who were —

SCHNEIDER: Freaks!

PIERSON: We’d go to a local disco, dress up and drive everyone else off the dance floors, flailing around and just being punks. People would clear away from us.

SCHNEIDER: After our first show, friends started asking us to play at their house. Finally, we played at Max’s Kansas City in New York. I guess anyone can play on a Monday night in December. [Laughter] We got $17.

PIERSON: Danny Beard, who put out our first 45, came to New York with us. He said, “Did you ask if they want us back?” So we ran upstairs and asked the booker, Deer France. She said, “Hell yeah.”

SCHNEIDER: Because we were like nothing they’d ever seen.

PIERSON: In the beginning, we were terrified. We looked fierce because we were so scared. We were each responsible for setting up onstage. I did the patch cords between the guitars and amps.

SCHNEIDER: I plugged everything in. [Laughter]

PIERSON: Fred would stand there and say, “Where’s the outlet?” until someone came and helped him.

Soon after you started, a bunch of other great bands came out of Athens: REM, Pylon, Love Tractor. Was it the cheap rents that allowed lots of Bohemians to flourish, as they did in New York?

PIERSON: Living in Athens was free and easy. We had jobs, sort of. I lived out in the country and had goats.

SCHNEIDER: I was meal delivery co-ordinator for the Council on Aging. You could rent an apartment in Athens for $60 a month. I think Kate paid $15 a month.

PIERSON: I was a paste-up artist on the local newspaper, and Cindy worked at the Whirly Q luncheonette counter. We started getting written up in all the magazines — New York Rocker, Interview — and we couldn’t afford to buy the magazines. We’d buy one copy and share it.

At what point did you start to think, ‘Maybe this band is more than just a hobby’?

PIERSON: I knew something was happening when we played Hurrah in New York [in March 1979]. Ricky looked out the window and said, “Why is there such a long line outside?” They said, “That line is for y’all’s show.” What?

What was so different about you?

SCHNEIDER: Everyone in New York was standing against the wall in their leather jackets, smoking cigarettes. We were a blast of colour. No one would dance. We wanted to entertain people, and we kept it positive and fun.

PIERSON: People thought Cindy and I might be drag queens.

SCHNEIDER: When we played Max’s, someone yelled, “Is this a queen band?” I misheard, and I said, “Yes, we’re a clean band.” I guess nobody wore wigs in New York.

PIERSON: They thought we were from England, because they couldn’t imagine a band coming from Athens. But this was happening all over the country, in little towns. “Let’s start a band,” even if — well, we could play our instruments. People have a misconception that we couldn’t. I played keyboard and bass, and played guitar on two songs.

SCHNEIDER: I played keyboard bass on two songs. But I didn’t know which keys I was supposed to hit, so they put black tape on the keys. [Laughter]

When most people start out singing, they imitate someone. Did you?

WILSON: I was trying to be Patti Smith.

SCHNEIDER: I wish I could sound like Wilson Pickett. But mostly, I was reciting. I talk-sang.

PIERSON: None of us were self-conscious.

WILSON: Because we were doing it for fun. It was kind of half-joking.

PIERSON: And Cindy and I just locked into our harmonies. We never said, “Oh, let’s try this interval.”

STRICKLAND: Cindy’s voice can be beautiful, but it has a primal quality at the same time. I used to tell Ricky she reminds me of John Lennon.

Ricky told Keith he had Aids, and asked him not to tell anyone else. Cindy, did you have any anger toward Keith for not telling you?

WILSON: Not at all. Both Keith and Ricky were in this horrible hell, you know? Ricky and I were living together, and he was away a lot. I thought, oh, he’s sick of living with his sister.

STRICKLAND: Hearing that breaks my heart.

WILSON: A hideous thing happened a day or two before Ricky passed. I got a phone call from a nurse in his doctor’s office. She was smacking gum, and said, “Did you know you’re living with a man that has Aids?” It was the first time someone had said those words to me.

STRICKLAND: It was very difficult. I kept telling him, “You’ve got to tell Cindy.” He was a very private person, and I don’t think he knew how to deal with it. He’d gone into a coma in the hospital, and Cindy confronted me. I knew I couldn’t hide it any more.

WILSON: After he died, I had a nervous breakdown. Keith moved up to Woodstock and became a hermit.

STRICKLAND: Ricky was my best friend — we were like brothers. I thought the band was finished, but writing music was a way to console myself. I wrote on the guitar, and I imagined Ricky sitting across from me. One of the first pieces I wrote became Deadbeat Club, and there are two guitar parts; I played the chords, and in my head, I imagined Ricky playing the other part.

PIERSON: I lived in a house across the pond from Keith, and I’d canoe over to his house. He played me a couple of things, and then we all got together. We said, this is for us, for our healing, and this is for Ricky. It was kind of miraculous that we came back together.

The first album you did after Ricky died, Cosmic Thing, had your first hit singles, Love Shack, Roam and Deadbeat Club. Why was that the breakthrough album?

PIERSON: When we wrote Cosmic, it turned out to be an autobiographical album.

WILSON: But how could it not, you know? And we didn’t write the album to be a hit.

PIERSON: Yeah, and the songs just came together in a sort of story. It came really directly from the collective heart of the band. And it just poured out, all this stuff about the innocence we had in Athens.

SCHNEIDER: We had to beg radio stations to play Love Shack because it was unlike anything. Once it went to number one on college and alternative radio, that’s when mainstream radio picked it up. And once that happened, it’s like, oh, my God.

You also used two of the best producers around, Don Was and Nile Rodgers. How did you pick them?

PIERSON: We interviewed Todd Rundgren, who said, “I have a mandate. I’m going to tell you what to do, and you’re going to do what I say.” He didn’t say it in that way, but he used the word “mandate,” and we were like, no. [Laughter]

SCHNEIDER: We go on man dates, but we don’t put up with one.

PIERSON: A friend’s mother, who’s a psychic and doesn’t know anything about music, went through the list of producers and said, “The spirit guides love Nile Rodgers and Don Was, too.” She had no idea who they were.

Why has the band recorded only one studio album in the past 30 years?

SCHNEIDER: We wanted to wait until people finally stopped buying albums and CDs. [Laughter]

STRICKLAND: The way we write is complex and time-consuming, because it’s so collaborative. And it would get contentious at times — you edit out a part and someone says, “That’s my favourite part.” We’ve never been a band that just pumps it out.

Do you think the B-52’s contributed a lot to what people call the queering of American culture?

PIERSON: We queered it. We done queered it.

SCHNEIDER: Unintentionally, to a degree. A lot of people said seeing us on Saturday Night Live, they felt comfortable with themselves, finally, even though they might live in some Podunk town where tolerance is, forget it. We hear those stories all the time. Back then, it was a stigma to even say you were gay, so I would say, “I’m a try-sexual. I’ll try anything.”

PIERSON: We not only had a gay sensibility, we also embodied it. We look different, our songs are different, so people identified us from the beginning as different.

SCHNEIDER: Everybody’s invited to our party. We always made that one of our premises. Bring your mom. Bring grandma.

Bonus Track: Keith Strickland on Ricky Wilson

“When Ricky played guitar, he sounded like two people,” Cindy Wilson said. Guitar World magazine named Wilson, who often removed one and sometimes two strings from his guitar, one of its 25 All-Time Weirdest Guitarists. In a phone call, Keith Strickland, the B-52’s drummer who took over guitar duties after Wilson died, explained Ricky’s unique style. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

STRICKLAND: Ricky and I met in high school at 16 and bonded over music. He was writing songs on guitar, very much influenced by Donovan. He was quite skilled in fingerpicking, which he learned by watching the show Folk Guitar With Laura Weber on PBS. The first time all five of the B-52’s jammed, I played guitar and Ricky played congas. But he was a better guitarist and I was a better drummer, so we switched.

On some songs, like Rock Lobster and Private Idaho, Ricky played alternating parts. He’d play the rhythm on his lower strings, and a counterpoint lead line on the higher strings. It sounds like two guitars. For me, that’s the genius of Ricky’s playing. And he used real heavy-gauge strings, because he kept breaking the thinner ones and we didn’t have guitar techs to change them. [Laughs]

He removed the G string from his guitar, which eliminates some of the midrange frequencies, and he played with only five strings. That happened by accident. When I played the guitar, if I broke a string, I wouldn’t change it — I’d just retune the other strings to an open tuning. I liked how it sounded.

One day, Ricky was annoyed because I hadn’t changed a broken string on the guitar. I said, “You should play it like that.” He scoffed it off. But the next time I went to his house, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, playing and laughing. He said, “I’ve just written the most stupid guitar riff you’ve ever heard.” And it was the Rock Lobster riff, played on five strings in an open tuning.

He and I were aware of open tunings because we were both big fans of Joni Mitchell, who used them a lot. People always say, “Really? You like Joni?” because our music is nothing like hers. Some of the chords she used were so beautiful, and they sound unresolved. Open tunings offer different colour palettes or voicings that might be physically impossible to play in standard tuning.

After Ricky died, it seemed impossible to me to find someone else that could play in open tuning. So I said, “I’ll be the guitarist.” It was pragmatic, but I also knew that if we brought somebody else in, I’d hover over them and say, “You’re not doing that right.” [Laughs] I had to learn Ricky’s parts, but I never wanted to imitate him, because I knew I couldn’t. It was a good 10 years before I was comfortable playing guitar onstage. The whole Cosmic Thing Tour, I was hanging by a thread.

Around 1983, Ricky bought one of the first Macintosh home computers, and he loved it. When I’m writing music at my computer now, using Logic Pro software, I always say, “Gosh, Ricky would’ve loved this.” I often think about Ricky. — This article originally appeared in The New York Times