The B-52’s are to quirk as James Brown is to funk. Gaudy outfits, ungainly dances, kitchen-sink New Wave segueing into pop, squawked and spoken vocals — all floated into a Southern soup that made the B-52s into the twenty-five-years-and-counting anomaly they are today. The two-disc compilation Nude on the Moon — which captures the band from its late-Seventies weirdo roots through its late-Eighties commercial peak — was released today by Rhino Records, and the band will celebrate its silver anniversary with a February 4th show at New York’s Irving Plaza.
Complemented by the harmonies of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, singer Fred Schneider’s dead-pan vocals are the signature sound of a band that has made a living out of living on the fringe.
The B-52’s tenure as a band began with informal jam sessions. What were those like?
We had drinks at a Chinese restaurant and then we went to a friend’s house and jammed. We did this song called “Killer B’s” because at the time killer bees were escaping from Brazil. Of course, now, they’re all over the U.S. too. It goes to show it was a while ago. Athens was not a music place like it is now, so there was nothing else to do, so we thought we’d try again. We had a good time. Then when we did it the second time I thought, “This is fun. Maybe I’ll move back from Atlanta.” So I moved back to Athens and we played a Valentine’s party, and then it took off from there. It was our own thing. We just played whatever came out.
What was the environment like in Athens at that time?
It was a college fraternity town. There was a really small New Wave punk scene, but basically people bought records and listened to them — it wasn’t like where people gathered dressed in punk gear or anything like that. We listened to that music along with every other kind of music, from mamba to James Brown to funk. Guitar rock — not typical guitar rock, but whatever made a dance party happen — was played. We danced to everything from the Ramones and Sex Pistols to [James Brown’s] “Get Up Off That Thang.”
How did your sound evolve?
I was influenced by surreal and Dada-type writings and things that were a little off the wall. We all had different melodic ideas and things. We didn’t try to sound like other bands; even though we found other bands inspiring, we weren’t really influenced by them. In the beginning we were pretty prolific so we came up with all these different songs. We would also jam and jam for hours, and if things got a little stale we would do our own TV shows and radio shows that were like off-the-wall talent shows and we’d try to make each other laugh. We each had our own personality and creativity, and then we got on a similar wavelength. It was just a natural progression over the years. The early songs were pretty rough and our shows were pretty rough, and that’s how we liked it, but it evolved. Even with “Love Shack,” I would go to radio stations while the band did sound checks and we would literally have to force the radio station to play it. We thought it was the most accessible thing we’d done. We were told it was just too weird. Thank God we proved them wrong. It’s everywhere. College stations and alternative stations played it, but even then things were evolving more towards grunge.
Ten years ago, Cindy told Rolling Stone that when the B-52’s wrote the song “June Bug” on Cosmic Thing she knew the band could go forward after Ricky’s death. [Original guitarist Ricky Wilson, Cindy’s older brother, died in 1985 of complications of AIDS.] What gave you the confidence to continue?
After Ricky’s death, it really affected the band deeply, and [drummer turned guitarist] Keith [Strickland] and Cindy didn’t think the band could go on. Kate and I understood so we sort of didn’t work for a couple years, and then Keith felt like he was ready to do music and then Cindy wanted to give it a try again. Kate and I were both ready to give it a try and we collaborated. Keith had music and we all jammed on it and structured it. It was a very collaborative effort. We did one song at a time and [“June Bug”] was the first one we did. We didn’t set out saying, “Well, this could be our next album.” We just wanted to see if we could do enough things. We finally put the record out, and “Channel Z” was the first single. It got a little bit of attention, but then we started doing shows and wound up doing an eighteen-month tour and “Love Shack” went through the roof. We were up against Milli Vanilli and the other person who was accused of not singing her song — Paula Abdul. We only made it to Number Three, but that was after the record going up and down the charts all over the country because people were afraid to play it.
Did you have a sense that Cosmic Thing would be big when you were working on it?
We thought it would be good, but we didn’t know how good. We don’t really set out saying, “Oh, this is going to be commercial,” or “This is going to be this or that.” We just wanted good songs, and we thought the songs were really good. We were pretty shocked, because we didn’t expect it to go that big. The success of it brings problems because it’s really hard to do tours. I’m not one to want to go tour at all, but to do eighteen months is like torture. You just get offers that are really good and you’re going to New Zealand and Australia and all over Europe, and it’s pretty exciting. It all went way beyond what you’d think.