Interview: The B-52's

This "tacky little dance band" from Georgia has everybody moving to a brand-new beat. But what makes them tick?

B-52's performing live on stage at the Greek Theatre ,Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland,Hollywood, CA, 1979 Credit: Donna Santisi/Redferns/Getty

Everybody goes to parties
They dance this mess around
They do all 16 dances
Do the Coo-ca-choo
Do the Aqua-velva
Do the Dirty Dog
Do the Escalator
— "Dance This Mess Around"

The Crowd crammed to capacity inside the Greek Theater, a 4,700-seat amphitheater nestled in the hills above Hollywood, looks like it'd be more at home at some bizarre, early-Sixties fashion show than at a rock & roll concert. Take, for example, the three girls sitting a couple of rows in front of me. They couldn't be more than about fourteen years old; they're so young, in fact, that one of their fathers is along as a chaperone. Each girl is wearing a brightly colored miniskirt — one's fire-engine red, another's fluorescent orange, the other's indigo blue — and their faces are piled with scads of makeup to match. Then there are their hairdos: One has little pigtails sticking straight out each side of her head like TV antennas, another has a braided ponytail hanging down to the middle of her back, and the other has her hair puffed up bouffant style.

In this crowd, though, those three young ladies don't exactly stick out. The aisles are full of kids, mostly of junior-high and high-school ages, dressed in equally out-of-date garb. There're plenty of baggy trousers and miniskirts, lots of oddly shaped sunglasses and conservative sports shirts. One thing's for sure: A good portion of the people here didn't show up solely to see a concert — they showed up to be seen. And to dance.

Already, as Talking Heads' new album, Remain in Light, blasts from the PA, several fans are up out of their seats and dancing. When the houselights finally go down, the crowd goes gaga. The response — the cheering, the yelling, the clapping — is so manic, one could easily be led to believe the Beatles had re-formed and were about to walk onstage. Instead, the five musicians who do take the stage — to the wacky accompaniment of a taped African tribal trumpet solo that sounds like the incessant honking of twenty Toyotas in a Tokyo traffic jam — are the B-52's, the self-proclaimed "tacky little dance band" from Athens, Georgia.

And what a wonderfully ridiculous-looking band they are. At stage left is vocalist-bongo player Cindy Wilson, twenty-three years old, wearing a multi-colored, floor-length strapless wrap. Her dark hair is bundled into a mound on top of her head, and a ponytail hangs down almost to her waist. Next to her is her brother, Ricky Wilson, the group's twenty-seven-year-old guitarist, who has on a black-and-white checkered sports hat, an orange plaid shirt and pale-blue slacks. At center stage is twenty-eight-year-old Fred Schneider. With his short-cropped hair, white sports shirt with rolled-up sleeves and tan Sta-Prest pants, he looks like Mr. Collegiate U.S.A., circa 1962. Next to him, standing behind the keyboards and dressed in a bright-red cocktail-waitress dress and black nylons, is thirty-two-year-old Kate Pierson. Her red hair is done up in a perfect bouffant, and her red purse is sitting on top of the organ. Finally, back behind the drum kit and dressed all in black, is twenty-seven-year-old Keith Strickland.

As Strickland pounds out the opening beat to "Lava," from the band's first album, and Ricky Wilson and Kate Pierson join in on guitar and keyboards, the stage is suddenly transformed into a go-go-style dance floor. Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson romp back and forth, one minute doing the pony, the next minute the frug. And Kate Pierson, tending to her keyboards with her left hand, throws her right hand into the air and sways up and down and from side to side with robotlike precision.

Out in the audience, the fans are doing their best to follow the band's lead. Before almost every song, Schneider drolly reminds the crowd that "this is a dance tune." And, in fact, almost all fifteen numbers in the set are dance tunes — relentless, rhythmic songs built around Ricky Wilson's scratchy, one- and two-chord guitar riffs, Kate Pierson's throbbing keyboard bass lines and Keith Strickland's propulsive drumming, which has wisely been given a dominant place in the group's live sound mix. Layered on top of all that are the band's goofy lyrics and trademark vocals: Schneider's detached, monotone proclamations and Cindy and Kate's alternately sexy and shrill singing and shrieking.

The members of the audience love it all. Not only do they wildly applaud the opening notes of the group's best-known songs — "Rock Lobster," "Dance This Mess Around," "Planet Claire" and "Give Me Back My Man" — but they greet every number as if it were an anthem. And on certain key lines — like when Fred says, "Then I'm gonna kiss your pineapple" during "Strobe Light," or when Cindy pleads, "Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no Limburger" during "Dance This Mess Around" — the audience's cheers almost drown out the music.

By the end of the hour-long show, I'm convinced of one thing: like them or not, the B-52's certainly have tapped some nerve in the rock marketplace.

Who's to blame when the parties really get out of hand?
Who's to blame when they get poorly planned?...
Who's to blame when the situations degenerate?
Disgusting things you'd never anticipate
People get sick
They play the wrong games
You know, it can ruin your day
— "Party out of Bounds"

There's Something I have to tell you," B-52's manager Gary Kurfirst says, pulling me aside. "These guys are really quiet. I mean, they barely talk at all. I've been managing them for nearly two years, and even I don't know them. And they're not very comfortable doing interviews. They're extremely shy, private people." It's three days after the first show at the Greek Theater, and the B-52's have just finished a concert at the Palladium, a Forties-era ballroom in the heart of Hollywood. The band has played to roughly 18,000 people over the course of its four L. A. shows — and the response at each has been at least as enthusiastic as that first night at the Greek.

Having served me his warning, Kurfirst — who at one time managed Mountain and who now also guides the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Holly and the Italians — leads me into a small backstage dressing room, where four of the band members are slumped on chairs. The missing musician is Kate Pierson, who's out conversing with some fans.

After exchanging cursory hellos with me, the musicians chitchat with Kurfirst, who informs them that the baseball team from their adopted hometown, the New York Yankees, lost a third straight game to Kansas City, giving the Royals the American League pennant. After listening to Kurfirst describe some of the game's highlights, the band members express hope that Houston, the lone contender from their native South, will beat Philadelphia in the National League playoffs.

As I take in the conversation, I realize that Kurfirst's earlier warning was no joke. In fact, it seems impossible that the four people quietly talking in this room are the same zany individuals who were dancing up a storm onstage only minutes ago. Fred sits passively on a chair next to me, his head cupped in his hands. Ricky has slipped off to a corner, where he talks with Keith Bennett, who is Cindy's boyfriend and keeper of Ricky's guitars. Cindy is curled up on a couch, sipping a beer, and Keith sits silently across from me.

Eventually, the conversation gets around to the night's show, and Cindy asks if it'd be possible to get an oxygen tank backstage, because the extreme heat onstage makes it difficult to breathe, much less sing. Kurfirst says he'll look into it, then Cindy asks if "there's any way we can get some fans onstage."

"It looked like you had quite a few up there tonight," Kurfirst says with a laugh.

"Yeah, it got a little wild up there," Fred says, lifting his head up from his lap. "Near the end, those security guards started to get a little rough. You can almost see it in their eyes when they start going after those kids. It gets to the point where you get so distracted by the people getting pulled out of the audience and the people passing out that it's sort of eerie."

"Yeah, it sure was hard to concentrate," Cindy agrees. "There were a couple of guys down there who kept yelling dirty things to me."

"Some guy was throwing shoes up at me to get my attention," Fred says. He sits quietly, then finally adds: "Yeah, it really was a 'party out of bounds.'"

Actually," Ricky Wilson says, "the name came to Keith in a dream."

"Yeah, I was having this dream one night," Keith Strickland explains. "It was about this lounge band that had a woman keyboard player, and she introduced the band as the B-52's. I sprang up out of bed and said, 'That's it! The B-52's!'" The moniker was fitting, since B-52's also happens to be Southern slang for bouffant hairdos.

The five members of the B-52's are seated around a butcher-block table at the Casa Linda, a restaurant that's just off the beach in the wealthy coastal resort town of Santa Barbara. They made the two-hour drive up from L.A. in a rented station wagon this afternoon, but arrived too late to take advantage of the still-hot early October sun. For the past half-hour or so, we've been drinking Margaritas — "Actually, we don't have a liquor license," the waiter explained, "so they're made of white wine rather than tequila" — and eating Mexican food, most of which has been vegetarian, since Cindy Wilson is the only band member who eats meat.

With the exception of Kate and Cindy, who are not wearing their bouffant wigs or thrift-shop dresses, the musicians look pretty much the same as they do onstage. And though they are a bit more talkative than they were last night, they still are rather soft-spoken. Right now, the subject of our conversation is how the group got its start in Athens, Georgia — the home of the University of Georgia — which is located about sixty miles east of Atlanta and has a population of about 50,000 ("20,000 of those are college kids," Fred says).

Ricky, Cindy and Keith all grew up in Athens. Ricky and Keith (who also plays bass, keyboards and guitar) met in high school in "'69 or '70, and we immediately started working on music together." After graduating — Ricky in 1971, Keith in 1972 — they bummed around Europe together for a year, returned home, went back to Europe for another year and then finally came back to Athens, where they worked in the local bus station run by Keith's parents.

Kate was born in Weehawken. New Jersey. After attending Wheaton College, then getting a journalism degree from Boston University, she, too, traveled around Europe ("I was a barmaid in Newcastle"). She returned to the U.S. with a male friend from Manchester, and when he couldn't find a job in Boston because he didn't have the proper papers, a friend promised him work in Athens. "So we moved there," Kate says, "and lived on a farm outside the city." Kate raised goats and earned a living as a paste-up artist in the type shop of the local newspaper. "It was horrible," she recalls. "I had to work nights. I missed seeing the Sex Pistols in Atlanta because of that crummy job."

Fred's also from New Jersey; he was born in Newark, then lived in Belleville. He wound up in Athens when he decided to attend the university there. "I was interested in wildlife conservation, and I chose Georgia because they supposedly had a good forestry school," he says. "I figured it might be easier to get good grades there, too, because a lot of Southern kids would come up to school in New Jersey, and they'd always be a little behind, so I figured maybe I wouldn't have to work so hard. But forestry was a little strange, so I switched to journalism, then dropped out. I stayed in Athens because I liked the town a lot."

Talking to the B-52's, one gets the idea that Athens isn't exactly your typical strait-laced conservative Southern town. In fact, "It's real liberal," Cindy says, "mainly cause of the college."

"It's such a loose town," Fred agrees. "You know, it's just the wilder, the better. I mean, I would dress crazier for work than I do onstage."

The band members met each other at "street dances and stuff," Fred says. "It was the early Seventies, and the whole Woodstock-whatever thing had finally hit Athens. Everybody'd just hang out and have a good time, get crazy and stuff."

It was on one such night, in October 1976, that the B-52's were born. "It was sort of just like this," Kate says. "We were all at this Chinese restaurant — what was the name of it?"

"Hunan," Ricky replies.

"Yeah," Kate says. "Not like there's too many Chinese restaurants to choose from in Athens. And we had this flaming volcano — you know, one of those big tropical drinks with about six straws in it...."

"We got real tipsy," Fred adds.

"So after the meal we went over to this friend's house," Kate continues. "And we just started playing these instruments."

The song they wrote that night was called "Killer Bees." "It's about a bus being chased by killer bees," Ricky explains. "It runs off into a river, and all the people get eaten by piranhas. And then the killer bees swarm into a theater, where these people are watching a movie, and they attack them. It's a true story."

The method of composition the band used that night — Ricky and Keith jamming on a musical idea and Fred, Kate and Cindy improvising lyrics — is the one the B-52's still employ. The jams, which often last several hours, are recorded on tape, and then Ricky arranges the material into a three- or four-minute song after studying the recorded havoc. "It's like stream of consciousness," Fred says. "Sometimes we have a couple of verses or ideas, but mostly we just jam on whatever comes to mind."

Inspired by that first session, the B-52's began rehearsing, occasionally at Kate's farm, but more frequently in a bloodletting room in an old funeral home behind the El Dorado restaurant, the vegetarian eatery where Fred worked as a waiter. "It was awful," Cindy says of the bloodletting-room-turned-rehearsal-hall. "It had these drains in the floor...."

"And there were roaches and stuff all over," Kate adds.

"And pigeon feathers," says Fred. "We never saw the pigeons, but there were feathers all over."

After playing a couple of parties in Athens, the band decided to try its luck in New York City. "A friend of ours who had done the murals or something at Max's Kansas City said, 'Y'all sound at least as good as some of the bands in New York,'" Fred explains. "So we drove up there with this tape we had made in someone's living room, and they let us play on audition night with two other bands."

"We were so nervous," Cindy says of the Max's show. "We kept our backs to the audience the entire time, and I stayed behind the curtain."

"And after each song," Kate adds, "we'd huddle together and figure out what to do next." After the show, " we were rushing out and throwing our stuff into the car, and we didn't even think to ask if they liked us," Kate says. "So a friend of ours asked, and they said yeah, they'd like to have us back. If it had been left up to us, we would have just driven back to Athens and that would've been it."

Instead, the group began commuting between Athens and New York — "My parents lent us their station wagon," Ricky says, "and we borrowed Keith's parents' charge card" — playing regular gigs at such New Wave nightspots as Max's, CBGB's and Club 57. By the winter of 1978, the B-52's were the hottest club band in New York, their independently produced single, "Rock Lobster," was a must-have item, and record companies were beginning to swamp the group with contract offers.

"It was real strange because we were handling all the business ourselves," Fred says. "Someone from one of the record companies would call us up at Kate's farm, and we'd have to take turns doing the business. We bought these law books, and they'd send us contracts and we'd try to look them up."

While playing the New York City circuit, the band befriended the members of Talking Heads, who introduced them to Gary Kurfirst. He subsequently negotiated deals with Warner Bros, in the U.S. and Island Records in England, Europe and Japan. After this, the group, decided to relocate in New York. They scoured Manhattan, but found that everything was too small and too expensive. Finally, they settled on a large house, where they could all live and rehearse, about two hours north of the city, in Lake Mahopac in Putnam County.

They released their first album. The B-52's, in the summer of '79, and it was an immediate favorite among critics. Tom Carson, writing in Rolling Stone, said: "For American teenagers, the mid-Sixties were a kind of mythic high-water mark: a loony but epic combination of kicks, innocence, explosiveness, camp and high drama, bound on one side by the pop politics of the New Frontier and on the other by the casual surrealism of Beach Blanket Bingo and Gilligan's Island. The B-52's capture what that period was about better than anyone I can think of." But, he added, "the B-52's are a long way from nostalgia."

Though the album didn't get off to a real bang commercially, it did manage to hang in the charts — it's still in Billboard's Top 100 more than a year after its release — and is just now approaching the 500,000 (gold record) sales mark. The group's second LP, Wild Planet, came out in September. It has received equally laudatory reviews for the most part, and the consumer response was instantaneous: only a few weeks after its release, Wild Planet was in Billboard's Top Twenty, with sales nearing 300,000.

Did the band expect this kind of success? I ask.

A resounding "No!" booms out from the five members. "We never thought it would get past our circle of friends in Athens," Fred says. "We never had any expectations."

"We just took it one step at a time," says Cindy. "Like when we made our homemade record, I thought, 'Wow! This is it!'"

Adds Ricky Wilson: "It really hasn't sunk in yet, this success. I sort of don't believe it." He pauses for a few seconds. "I guess you would call it success, though."

I just thought of a new tick joke," Kate Pierson announces as she jumps into the rented station wagon parked outside the band's hotel in Santa Barbara. "What do you call the craziest tick in the world?"

When no one in the car can come up with the proper response, Kate answers herself: "A psychotic."

According to the band's official Warner Bros. bio, "As a group, we enjoy science facts, thrift shopping, tick jokes, fat fad diets, geometric exercising, discovering the 'essence from within.'" Apparently that quote is meant to be taken seriously, at least the part about tick jokes, because this band has plenty of them:

• What do you call the first tick on the moon? A lunatic.

• Why is a dog in the woods like a grandfather clock? Both are full of ticks.

• What's the largest insect in the sea? Moby Tick.

As we reach the downtown area, Kate spots a thrift store operated by the Humane Society, so we park the car and go in. She runs over to one of the racks of outdated clothing and extracts a long chiffon dress. "I think this one might look good on Cindy," she says. "She asked me to look for something for her." After a little thought, though, Kate rejects the frock, then pulls out a short orange one with sparkles across the top. This, too, is finally rejected, and we move on to the used-books section. Kate picks out two — one called The Story of Science, the other about South African tribesmen. The total cost is ninety cents.

We cross the street to another thrift shop, this one operated by the Salvation Army.

"We always dressed like this," Kate says, trying to explain the campy, kitschy Sixties look that the band's fans so love to imitate. "We always shopped at thrift stores; it was sort of a pastime. There was a whole group of us in Athens who'd dress this way. It's actually good to think that you're recycling clothes like this, too." She pulls out a dress made of synthetic fiber. "I mean, look at this new stuff," she says. "So much of it is acrylic — or worse. I think this stuff will still be around after the earth disintegrates."

The Salvation Army store doesn't seem to offer much — everything's too big — so we walk a few blocks down the street to a store we'd seen the previous night. I ask about the hairstyles. Did she and Cindy always wear bouffants, too? "Well, yeah," Kate says. "We started wearing them to parties — it was like the clothes. It wasn't a conscious decision to re-create the Fifties or Sixties or anything. It was just for fun."

As we arrive at the Alpha Thrift Shop, Robert Waldrop — a friend of the band's, lyricist for a couple of their songs and designer of the Wild Planet album cover — comes running out. "This store's the one," he says jubilantly. "Look at this!" He holds up a khaki-colored wind-breaker that's embellished with a tacky red, green, yellow and white design. "Fred's already found the store, too."

Sure enough, as we step inside, Fred Schneider is rummaging through the racks of clothes that line the store. Walking down one of the aisles, Kate spots a pair of size-six red sneakers. She tries them on, and they're a perfect fit. "Great!" she exclaims, moving on to the dresses. I ask if she thinks the band will ever change its appearance.

"Yeah, I think we'll change. We already have, sort of. Now we've got these wig boxes, so we can carry two or three different wigs on the road. Before, we weren't so together, and we'd have to tease our hair up and stuff. It was awful, and it just ruined our hair, so we had to get it cut." Indeed, offstage, Kate and Cindy have relatively short, not-quite-shoulder-length tresses.

Once again, Kate walks over to the book section, this time finding a copy of National Geographic that has space shots of Mars. She decides to buy it. I decide that maybe the bio wasn't joking about the science facts, either.

As the B-52's take the stage at Robertson Gymnasium on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, the audience responds with by-now-predictable wild enthusiasm. Though the crowd here is slightly older than those in L.A. and there aren't quite as many people imitating the band's style of dress, almost everyone is dancing.

But this show — my fourth in six days — makes me realize that as much fun as the group's live set is, there are also a few problems. For one thing, the band has played exactly the same set every night — the same twelve songs, the same encores — and they've said virtually the same lines between songs and used the very same moves. Fred Schneider's incessant reminders that "this is a dance tune" become tedious and overly affected after a while, and his so-called poll — in which he asks the audience, "How many of you have ever been bitten by a scorpion? How many of you have never been bitten by a scorpion?" — seems unnecessarily silly and contrived. This lack of spontaneity threatens to lead to some less-than-inspired performances in the future.

"They're just this year's Devo," one writer friend commented to me upon learning of my assignment. "They're a novelty band, a gimmick act. They'll be gone by next year." Though that assessment may be unnecessarily harsh, it is worth wondering if the B-52's have become trapped by their "dance band," Sixties-camp image, and if they will be able to exhibit any growth as a musical unit.

The latest album, Wild Planet, doesn't provide many answers. Five of the LP's nine songs — including two of the best, "Devil in My Car" and "Strobe Light" — were written before the first album was recorded. And though Wild Planet sounds better technically, it shows little musical progress. The lyrics don't seem as good as the first record's, if for no other reason than, as Los Angeles Times critic Richard Cromelin pointed out, there are no lines as "devastating as last year's 'Why don't you dance with me/I'm not no Limburger.'"

But a more disturbing omen is the report in the New York Rocker that the band's, management tried to order a photographer not to publish pictures he'd taken — with the group's consent — of Cindy and Kate sans wigs. As Rocker writer Richard Grabel noted, "By using such tactics ... the B-52's risk becoming the Kiss of dance-oriented rock."

I raised some of these questions with the band members, to varying responses. Fred Schneider rejected the Devo-novelty comparison, mainly because "we're not trying to do satire." He said he thought the group would continue doing much the same type of material, but "we don't plan to keep everything the same, for sure." His goal? "Just to be entertaining, that's all I want."

Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland, the group's musical directors, seemed a bit more concerned. "I really do feel trapped," Ricky said. "Gary [Kurfirst] was talking about our next album, and I mentioned that it might not be a dance record, and he was so shocked by that idea. It's shocking to me that people really do expect that of us now."

But then again, maybe not everyone does expect that. As Frank Rose said in his Rolling Stone review (RS 329) of Wild Planet, "The next B-52's record might not be a party album at all." In a way, I hope he's right. And I hope that the B-52's can pull it off.