The B-52s: Mission Accomplished

How did the kings of kitsch survive years of indifference and the death of a band member to stage such a stunning comeback?

The B-52's perform in the U.K. circa 1990. Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

FOLKS, WE HAVE A DILEMMA here, because we're tearing down the house — literally. The plaster's falling off the balcony. So people in the balcony, if you would, don't dance."

Strange words, coming from the mouth of Fred Schneider, whose band, the B-52's, has spent its entire career encouraging people to do just the opposite. But the 5000 fans in the aging Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis are shaking their cosmic things so vigorously that the balcony is bouncing a good twelve inches up and down, and large shards of plaster are falling into the crowd below. So serious is the situation that the show's promoters, fearing that the whole balcony might collapse, had to send someone onto the stage to ask the band not to play its certified barn burner "Rock Lobster."

Fortunately, as the B-52's launch into their encore, "Planet Claire," the crowd upstairs happily obeys singer Kate Pierson's request to "dance in your minds," or at least shimmy in place. But down onstage, the action is anything but tranquil: Pierson, in a fringed red satin outfit and gigantic au-burn wig, whirls like a genie, while Schneider unveils a host of new dances, including the hai-karate, the game-show winner and the panty fling. Guitarist Keith Strickland hangs back as always, and singer Cindy Wilson does a saucy cakewalk, to the obvious delight of the guys in the front row. As the band rocks out, a couple jumps up onto the lip of the stage, then twirls off like a spinning firecracker.

The B's omit a second encore, but everybody goes home happy, having seen a very danceable, upbeat and surprisingly rocking band in peak form. A few people even carry away bits of the balcony's plaster, cherishing them as if they were chunks of the Berlin Wall. Yet backstage, in the catering room, Schneider says dismissively, "Oh, that was our light set."

A YEAR AGO THE SCENE AT THE UNIVERSITY of Minnesota would have been unimaginable. To most people in the music business, the B-52's were a thing of the past, having gone the way of skinny ties, theories of devolution and most things New Wave. The band hadn't had a hit since 1981's Party Mix, an EP of remixes, and it hadn't even released an album since 1986's ill-fated Bouncing of the Satellites.

But in the past six months the B-52's have staged a stunning comeback. Their latest album, Cosmic Thing, has climbed all the way to Number Five on the charts; at press time, it was selling 200,000 copies a week, with projected sales of 4 million copies. The single "Love Shack" shot up to Number Three and was expected to sell at least a million copies. The current single, "Roam," is headed for similar success, and the band's tour — which began at San Francisco's 1300-seat Fill-more Auditorium and graduated to 14,000-seaters, including four sold-out nights at the Universal Amphitheater, in Los Angeles, and three at Radio City Music Hall, in New York — has taken them through more than fifty cities in eight months.

The first inkling that there might be a change in the B-52's' fortunes came at a Warner Bros. Records marketing meeting last spring. Instead of dismissing Cosmic Thing as a lost cause, four of the label's vice-presidents vehemently argued about which of five songs should be the first single. They eventually selected "Channel Z," which they first promoted to college radio, long a supporter of the band's music. The song soon topped the college charts (helped along by Buzz Bin airplay on MTV), and the album began to sell. But it was "Love Shack" that put Cosmic Thing over the top.

The song was a throwaway, recorded as an after thought during sessions in Woodstock, New York, with Was (Not Was) mastermind and producer Don Was. The B-52's' first choice to produce the album was Nile Rodgers, the former Chic guitarist who had previously produced both Madonna and David Bowie and who had been behind the board when the band recorded the song "Cosmic Thing" for the soundtrack to the movie Earth Girls Are Easy. (In typical B-52's fashion, Kate Pierson gave a psychic a list of potential producers. The psychic responded by asking: "Who is this Nile guy? The spirit gods really love Nile." The choice was obvious.) But Rodgers was tied up, so the B-52's decided to spend a month with Was.

The original plan was to record three songs. When the band and its producer finished early, Keith Strickland pulled out a rough tape of "Love Shack" and played it for was. The band then tried recording vocals, but it didn't work, and Was was ready to scrap the song. They gave it one last shot the next day and nailed it on the first take.

"When we handed it in," says Was, "I don't think there was a single person who said, 'Hah! That's the hit the B-52's have been needing for the past twelve years!' "

After "Love Shack" was finally released as a single, the biggest thrill for Strickland was actually hearing it on the radio next to the likes of Billy Joel and Warrant. "I was in a car when I first heard it," says Strickland, "and I just cranked it up and enjoyed the moment."

The success of the song, which was nominated for a Grammy, has also helped the B's feel somewhat vindicated. "Now maybe people won't be saying we're a novelty band," says Strickland. "It's nice that we're finally being recognized as actually having something."

"I ADORED MY BROTHER. HE WAS MORE than a brother — he was a mentor. He was the coolest person alive. He had the greatest sense of humor and uniqueness about him. He really had a vision about him. He was one of the strongest elements of the B-52's in the beginning, the conception. He was everything."

Cindy Wilson is sitting backstage at Braden Auditorium in Normal, Illinois, where the B-52's are about to go onstage. She rarely does interviews by herself (she prefers to team up with Fred Schneider), but she's agreed to talk about her brother Ricky, who died of AIDS-related cancer in October 1985. He was thirty-two.

Ricky Wilson was the B-52's' master planner and main songwriter. His unusual approach to the guitar, using only four strings and special open tunings, went a long way toward defining the band's unique sound. "He was really a character," says Schneider. "He was very quiet, shy — real shy. But once you got him laughing, he wouldn't stop."

Wilson had become ill during the recording of Bouncing off the Satellites in 1984. Intensely private, he denied anything was wrong. "I wasn't aware of what was happening," says Schneider, who had known Wilson since 1972. "I thought that he'd been so nervous — we were under so much pressure, he was losing weight and ... He was fine one week, and then the next week I found out he was gone."

The members of the band were devastated. Keith Strickland had been Ricky Wilson's best friend since their high-school days in Athens, Georgia, where they would don outrageous outfits and go to concerts in Atlanta together. But it was Cindy Wilson who was hardest hit. "It's funny how the human mind works when you're in shock," she says as the sound of the opening act's music pounds through the cinder-block walls. "You go through denial, and you go through so many phases. The brain secretes this drug, and you kind of feel numb, and then that happens for about a year. You're crying every day, but then the real sorrow comes the second year when you realize, 'Hey, he's not just gone away on a trip. He's never coming back.' The third year it gets a little better, but you're still trying to come to terms with the practical side of what's going on. It's just a long ... it's been awful.

"If it hadn't been for my husband, forget about it, I'd have been gone. I'd have killed myself or something. I was just so out of it and depressed. I couldn't function, and there was so much to do, business to take care of, like Ricky's estate, and just everything to deal with, and I was just completely gone — it was like 'Hey, anybody there?' I couldn't deal with it.

"I needed a religion or some kind of belief system when Ricky died, and I had a hard time, because nothing fit. I was waiting for some kind of spiritual relief, and nothing came. The Christianity thing didn't happen for me. I was praying I'd get relief. It's just hard."

OFFSTAGE THE B-52'S AREN'T CARTOONISH party animals — although they're just as endearing. If there is any band that still believes in the ideals of peace, love and understanding, it's the B-52's. "They're like flower people or something," says Nile Rodgers, who ultimately produced six of the ten tracks on Cosmic Thing. All the members of the band except Cindy Wilson are vegetarians, and their vibe is infectious. Even tour bassist Sara Lee, a former member of the Gang of Four, who usually dresses in dour black, has loosened up and often wears a skirt, a Day-Glo sweater and flower-patterned shoes. Nearly everyone associated with the band, from road crew to management, claims to have been affected by the B-52's' spirit.

Because the band members were friends before the B-52's existed, there is no leader. "There's a very collaborative, collective attitude," says Kate Pierson, a devotee of crystals and homeopathic medicine. "That's a very female principle. We try to nurture that aspect of the band."

"An astrologer I know said that the reason we work so well together is because of our signs," says Strickland, a Buddhist for seven years, who radiates what can only be described as inner peace. "Cindy is a Pisces and I'm Scorpio and Fred's Cancer — those are three water signs — and Kate is a Taurus, an earth sign, so supposedly because that's earth and water, we're very compatible."

The B-52's' official line is that the members are all "thirtysomething"; actually, Wilson is thirty-three, Schneider is thirty-five, Strickland is thirty-six, and Pierson is forty-one. The group has fallen prey to spreading waistlines, a couple of wrinkles here and there, a few gray hairs, a receding hairline or two. "Yeah, we've mellowed out a little bit," admits Schneider, "but we still want to shake it when the time comes — which is about every other song!" And freed from her keyboard bass, Pierson actually dances more than she used to. She claims not to feel an age gap, and clearly neither do the B-52's' new fans, many of whom were in short pants when the band first rattled the walls of downtown-New York clubs like CBGB, Hurrah and the Mudd Club in the late Seventies.

The group was formed in 1977 in Athens, a college town that has also nurtured acts like R.E.M. and Pylon. Kate had been playing in "a little folk protest band" called the Sun Donuts while raising goats and tending her garden outside of Athens. Fred was studying forestry at the University of Georgia and working in a vegetarian restaurant called the Eldorado. Ricky and Keith were working at the local bus station, which was managed by Strickland's parents, and Cindy was making shakes at the Whirly-Q Lunchette.

Legend has it that they all went out to a Chinese restaurant and shared a gigantic tropical drink called a Flaming Volcano. A bit pixilated, they moved on to a friend's house and jammed on his instruments. It was so much fun they formed a band, with Keith and Ricky writing music and the singers coming up with lyrics. Naming themselves for the bouffant hairdos Cindy and Kate still wear, they set out to make what Fred Schneider calls "positive, surreal dance music." (Don Was calls it "a folk music indigenous to an exotic land.")

The B-52's made their debut at a house party on Valentine's Day that year. Later they went up to New York with their friends the legendary Atlanta cult group the Fans and dropped off a tape at the nightclub Max's Kansas City. Max's liked the tape, and the B-52's made their debut in New York on December 12th, 1977, in front of seventeen people, including Kate Pierson's future companion, artist Tim Rollins, and the band's current tour guitarist and keyboard player, Pat Irwin.

"When we first played Max's," says Pierson, "people thought Cindy and I were drag queens — we wore these gigantic wigs that sort of his our faces." The B-52's quickly became the toast of the New York club scene, perhaps because they had the nerve to wear Day-Glo when everyone else was dressed in angst-ridden shades of black. The B-52's' quirky retro fashion sense almost single-handedly started the Salvation Army school of style that lasted throughout the Eighties, and their music celebrated a whimsical style of absurdist camp, inspired by cheap sci-fi, beach movies and Fellini.

"We have always appealed to people outside of the mainstream," notes Pierson. "Constantly we get people coming up to us and saying, 'I was just the freakiest one in high school, I was the only one who kept playing the B-52's.' I think more people feel like they're outside of the mainstream these days — there's more people who are doing their own thing, feeling that it's not bad to be a weirdo and respecting other people's differences. And all that kind of goes into the big ol' B-52 philosophy."

As the B-52's' popularity grew, a bidding war broke out among record labels. After signing with Warner Bros., the band issued its first album, which became a New Wave classic on the strength of such songs as "Rock Lobster," "Dance This Mess Around" and "Lava." The second album, Wild Planet, which included "Private Idaho" and "Party Out of Bounds," did even better, hitting Number Eighteen on the charts. By this time, the members of the band had moved to a big house in Mahopac, New York, a little more than an hour north of Manhattan. But plucked out of the benign, anything-goes environment of Athens, they began to feel alienated, and their neighbors didn't dig their communal lifestyle or the fact that they rehearsed in the garage.

Musical tastes were also starting to change, and when their third album was delayed because producer David Byrne of Talking Heads was preoccupied with his score for The Catherine Wheel, the B-52's' popularity began to wane. They released Party Mix to buy some time, but when Mesopotamia, the Byrne project, finally appeared, it was blasted by the critics and made it to only Number Thirty-five. Whammy, released in 1983, didn't fare much better, as the band, floundering in the wake of MTV-friendly haircut bands, recycled riffs and unsuccessfully dabbled in drum machines and synthesizers.

When Bouncing off the Satellites was released, a year after Ricky Wilson's death, it was greeted with an almost total lack of interest. Much of the album had been sampled and played on a Fairlight keyboard, giving it a cold, mechanical sound. But more important, the B-52's seemed to be splintering — the full band had played on few of the tracks. "We had started to drift apart," admits Schneider. "Everybody was doing their own songs because we were finding it harder and harder to jam and agree on things."

Two years in the making, Bouncing off the Satellites had been the B-52's' most expensive album to record, and with little royalty money coming in and no chance of a tour, the band fell into financial straits. "We really had to tighten our belts," Schneider says. "We were just barely staying afloat, living off our catalog."

The members of the band were forced to break into the pension fund they had set up, and Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland had to sell the house they had bought in Manhattan. Pierson also had to sell her apartment; luckily, Tim Rollins was beginning to find some success. Schneider wrote a book of poetry illustrated by New York artist Kenny Scharf, and Strickland moved to Woodstock, a five-minute canoe ride across the pond from Pierson's house. "I knew I had to get closer to a natural environment," he says. "I found that very healing."

The band members continued to see one another socially in and around New York, but there was no talk of making music. The B's seemed to have reached the end of their road.

IRONICALLY, IT WAS RICKY WILSON'S DEATH THAT eventually helped the B-52's regroup. "Everybody relied on Ricky to make a lot of decisions," says Robert Waldrop, an old friend of the band's who wrote the lyrics for "Roam." "Once he was gone, they pulled through and started making those decisions themselves. Something broke and they got together and mended it."

"We came up from the very bottom on this one, we really did," says Cindy Wilson.

Early in 1987 the members of the band decided to try to write a few songs again. It was difficult without Ricky, but as Schneider says, "We always felt like he was watching us and giving us inspiration." The first song they came up with was "Junebug," a track that appears on Cosmic Thing. After that, things got progressively easier — though Cindy, still mourning her brother's death, admits she was "probably pretty difficult." "I was having these emotional flare-ups," she says. "I wasn't that easy to get along with sometimes. But they were great — and very patient."

Looking for a fresh start, the B-52's parted ways with their longtime manager, Gary Kurfirst, who they felt was responsible for many of their problems. (Kurfirst, however, still gets a hefty percentage of their album royalties.) They then signed on with new managers — Martin Kirkup and Steve Jensen, who also work with Bryan Ferry, Joe Jackson and others — new accountants and a new booking agency. The band also switched to the Warner Bros. Reprise label, which has a good track record with alternative bands, garnering gold records for everyone from the Replacements to Erasure. Still, says Cindy Wilson, "we had to prove ourselves to the record company. It seemed like a lot of people thought we were a joke."

There was also the problem of finding a guitarist to replace Ricky Wilson. In true postpunk spirit, Strickland, who had been playing drums, decided to do it himself. "I wanted to keep some connection with what Ricky had done," he recalls. "He was a very key ingredient in our sound, and I just didn't want that to disappear. I knew that once we started playing live, there'd be older material to play, and if we got somebody else, I'd have to be there giving them a lot of hints, like the tunings and everything. So I figured I'd just do it myself. I knew enough that I thought I could do it. Well, I was hoping I could do it."

Strickland didn't stop there. He also took on responsibility for writing the band's material. To get into a B-52's frame of mind so he could compose, he would crank up the volume. "I'd have to get a beat where I would actually physically dance in the room, where I was grooving," he says. "I'd actually start sweating." He had played guitar before, but not this intensively, and learning was a sheer act of will. When composing, he would simply work until he could play what he heard in his head.

Strickland faithfully duplicates Ricky's unorthodox tunings on the old songs, and according to Don Was, he's a hell of a guitar player. "Keith was very impressive," says Was. "He's really good, and he gets great guitar sounds, and he absolutely knows what he's doing. He's a very good keyboard player, too."

"It took a lot of gumption and a lot of strength to do what Keith did," says Cindy Wilson. "It's amazing. I think it was really scary for him."

The first piece of music Strickland wrote eventually turned into "Deadbeat Club." "When I brought it to the band, we started jamming, and Fred, Kate and Cindy all started singing about Athens and all the things we used to do," says Strickland. That autobiographical theme would grow to define Cosmic Thing, which recalls the carefree days in Athens.

Strickland sequenced the album as if it were a movie, with the title track outlining the basic theme. "Dry County" sets the scene in the rural South, while the Motown-based "Love Shack" recalls the juke joints where the B's would dance to soul music until all hours. The second side takes off into more abstract realms — the wanderlust of "Roam"; "Bushfire," with its "fire in a field of molten flowers"; and "Topaz," which Pierson says is "a place where man and woman and nature all work together in perfect harmony." The instrumental coda, "Follow Your Bliss" (a phrase borrowed from Joseph Campbell, the cultural anthropologist whose work was popularized by a recent PBS series), plays as the credits roll. It's no accident that, framing tracks aside, Cosmic Thing starts in a "dry county" and ends up in a sort of Shangri-La.

THE B-52'S HAVE SPENT MUCH OF THE last eight months fighting the monotony of the road. They travel on a customized bus equipped with two fancy stereo systems and two VCRs. The B's have personalized it a little with a portrait of Etta James; a furry red lobster named Slobby, which a fan threw onstage early in the tour; a picture of a baby gorilla; and a fan-made statue of Quiche Lorraine, an imaginary green poodle the band immortalized in song ten years ago.

There's a living-room area, a rudimentary kitchen with a fridge full of mineral water and bunks stacked three high. Sleep is a major issue on the road, and it doesn't come easily on the bus. Cindy Wilson can't sleep in the bunks, so she beds down in an inner sanctum all the way in the back. The night after the Minneapolis gig, she's watching Viva Las Vegas. The sound is barely audible above the road hum, but she's seen the movie so many times she doesn't have to turn it up.

"I'll tell you the truth," says Wilson, "the success has helped me tremendously. It's like Ricky's having some kind of effect on our whole success. It's like he's up there seeing to it." To be sure, Ricky Wilson's spirit is in the grooves. But most of all, Cosmic Thing is an advertisement for the power of fun, whether as a vehicle for putting across political issues or as a way of working through tremendous personal loss. For the B-52's, fun has become, paradoxically enough, profound.

It's a philosophy Abbie Hoffman would admire. "I had the most fun protesting," Pierson says. "I couldn't wait to get to college so I could protest. Making things better is hard work, but it should be fun, too." As the B-52's sing in "Cosmic Thing," "Don't let it rest on the President's desk — rock the house!"

Throughout the tour, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) have set up registration booths in the lobby of each venue, encouraging the B-52's' fans to become involved. The band's first comeback concert was a benefit for PETA, and instead of regular autographs, the B's give out signed copies of everything from the left-leaning journal The Nation to the newsletter of the International Primate Protection League, in the hope that fans will read them. "When the major news story is 'Can the president catch a fish?' you have to present an alternative to all the lies and misinformation," says Schneider.

"I'm having more fun, having fun with a purpose," adds Pierson. "We've been through having real success, and we've been through running out of money and having a period of unpopularity. And I feel like we've retained our bond together and our faith in the music we've done."

So seducing people into caring about the environment isn't the only reason Kate, Cindy, Fred and Keith made an uplifting record. As Robert Waldrop says: "They worked out a lot of grief through joy. You know those funerals down there in New Orleans where everybody's just waving umbrellas and playing jazz? I think this record was kind of like that."

AS THE BAND'S BUS PULLS OUT OF THE parking lot the night after the show in Normal, en route to an airport hotel in Chicago, someone notices that a fan has written I ♥ KEITH in the dust on the bus door. Strickland, whose good looks have made him the band's reluctant sex symbol, runs over and exclaims with complete sincerity, "Isn't that sweet!"

Despite all the success, the B's have maintained a very un-rock & roll attitude. Strickland explains it by saying: "We've never thought of ourselves as professionals — we're still saying, 'Are we?' Now we're realizing that we are."

Around midnight, it becomes clear just how much the B-52's still enjoy one another's company, as a little Love Shack erupts on the bus. Schneider puts some Memphis-soul tapes on the sound system, and Pat Irwin and Kate Person start dancing. Suddenly everybody's rockin', everybody's fruggin'. Tom Mullaly, the band's hard-boiled Irish tour manager, grouses a little at first — "If you're going to dance on the couch, take off your shoes!" But even Mullaly gives in to the moment and writes BUS SHACK LOVE in the moisture that begins to collect on the windows.

After some strenuous dancing, Schneider falls back onto a couch, rolls his eyes heavenward and says to no one in particular, "What a life."