Initially, the gleefully eccentric party music of the B-52's —stripped-down, off-kilter funk, topped by chirpy vocals and lyrics crammed with 1950s and 1960s trivia —garnered such a large following at dance clubs and colleges that the band's debut album sold 500,000 copies despite minimal airplay. Named for the tall bouffant hairdos worn onstage by the two female members, the group claims that it originated in a jam session under the influence of tropical drinks. Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Keith Strickland had minimal previous performing experience; the Wilson siblings had none. The B-52's debuted at a Valentine's Day party in 1977 in the college town of Athens, Georgia; they originally performed with taped guitar and drum parts, but they preferred the sound when someone accidentally pulled the plug on the tape recorder.
Their first "official" gig was at Max's Kansas City. They soon attracted a New York cult, partly thanks to their stage image: miniskirts, go-go boots, toy instruments, and demonstrations of such dance steps as the Camel Walk and the Shy Tuna. They pressed 2,000 copies of the single "Rock Lobster," which sold out rapidly, before signing in early 1979 to Warner Bros. Their debut album sold steadily as the band toured the U.S. and Europe. Wild Planet, which hit #18 in 1980, was even more successful, and songs from it reappeared in remixed, more danceable versions on the Party Mix EP. For 1982's Mesopotamia EP, the B-52's collaborated with producer David Byrne of Talking Heads, who brought in backup musicians to broaden the sound. Whammy! was a Top 30 LP, boosted by the singles "Legal Tender" and "Song for a Future Generation." The accompanying videos captured the group's trademark retro American style. Drummer Ricky Wilson's death from AIDS in 1985 made it impossible for the group to tour or promote Bouncing Off the Satellites.
Nearly four years passed before the B-52's returned with their most successful release, the double-platinum Cosmic Thing (#4, 1989). With Keith Strickland moving from drums to lead guitar, the B-52's seemed to strike the perfect balance between their stylistic idiosyncrasies and a four-on-the-floor drive with "Love Shack" (#3, 1990); other hit singles from the Don Was–and Nile Rodgers–produced LP included "Roam" (#3, 1990) and "Deadbeat Club" (#30, 1990). In 1990 Cindy Wilson started a family and left the group (Julee Cruise filled in on tour), which continued as a trio on Good Stuff (#16, 1992). Concurrently Kate Pierson appeared on Iggy Pop's hit single "Candy." (She had previously sung on R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People.") Calling themselves the B.C. 52's, the band recorded "(Meet) the Flintstones" (#33) for the 1994 film version of The Flintstones. Cindy Wilson returned for the ensuing concert appearances.
Time Capsule contained songs spanning two decades of the B-52's' existence, as well as two new tracks. A tour with the Pretenders followed. Schneider, who had previously recorded a campy, cheerfully smutty album with the Shake Society (its delightful single "Monster" warned of what lurked inside Fred's pants), released his second solo album in 1996. Just...Fred, produced by ex–Big Black noise master Steve Albini, was a radical departure, featuring aggressive surfabilly backing by members of such indie grind-punks as the Didjits, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Tar.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies