Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Fresh Cuts/ 12 o’Clock High: B-52’s Flight Talk

Photo by Catherine Karnow

Speaking with the B-52’s after their Oct. 16 performance at Brown’s Alumnae Hall was very enlightening. For one thing, I managed to pierce the veil surrounding the identity of their favorite breakfast cereals.

Such a fact won’t seem so off the wall if you’re at all familiar with the B-52’s music. Lyrically the 52’s rocket back to the mid-1960’s, gazing through their 3-D glasses at the so-called “trash” culture, while solid, driving dance rhythms propel tunes built around basic riffs and engaging if simple fills. Referential as the group may be, they still manage to retain a vitality that in concert is positively electrifying.

Two major factors in the B-52’s stage appeal are the girls in the band: Kate Pierson (who likes Trix and Sugar Pops) and Cindy Wilson (who likes Wheateena). As witnessed last Tuesday, these two are capable of stunning vocal and visual dynamics. Cindy, dressed in a silver and black knee-length dress, tore into “Hero Worship” with a breathtaking vocal performance; Kate, garbed in bright purple, was no less awesome on “52 Girls” and “Dance this Mess Around.” Both girls frugged their wigs off.

Fred Schneider, central figure of the group, handled most of the vocals, lending his comic atonality to transcendent versions of “There’s a Moon in the Sky Called the Moon” and “Lava.” His herky-jerky stop-go stage movement provided a focus to the band’s presentation, off of which the girls played counterpoint.

The unquestionable instrumental fulcrum of the band’s performance was Ricky Wilson (Cindy’s sibling) on guitar. Featuring a twanging, “vertical” style (he usually carries two or three lines simultaneously), Ricky is one of the truly distinctive and innovative guitarists in rock. Wilson and drummer Keith Strickland are the most visually static members of the B-52’s, but they provide the real force of the band’s drive.

The others provide dynamics: Fred, Cindy and Kate handle any number of instruments—such as guitar, keyboard, bass (the group has no bass guitarist), smoke alarm, tambourine, bongo drums, and walkie-talkie. The B-52’s are not master technicians, but they play with real flair and spirit.

The B-52’s formed close to three years ago to play at a friend’s party; at the time, they were all living in Athens, Georgia. Pleased with their group “sound,” the band decided to make a more serious enterprise out of what began as a party band.

The 52’s have remained a party band, but have risen rapidly in the rock echelons, from a small-town Georgia dance band to one of the most visible new bands in the country. The biggest factor in the ascension of the B-52’s was the success of their spring ’78 independent single “Rock Lobster”/“52 Girls,” which sold out its original pressing of 1000 copies, and the second pressing of which (last winter) has become the largest selling independent 45 of the year.

Late last year the B-52’s quickly became the hottest act in New York City (they were also prominent on the West Coast and in Europe); naturally, several record companies with attractive offers approached the band. Signing to Warner Brothers, the group was rushed into the studio to record their first LP, The B52’s, with producer Chris Blackwell. The album captures their live sound fairly accurately but suffers from lack of the drive and spontaneity that make the B52’s such a great live band. Their sound on the record is loose and unfocused and rarified in comparison to their single (on which “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls” are given much better treatment) and live performances.

All in all, however, the record is a good one. “Planet Claire,” the best track, like so much of the rest of the album, is great dance music with a twist, the twist being the slightly perverse subject matter. From the flat tone cover to the lyrics within (which deal with topics ranging from beach parties to headless aliens to female 1960’s media stars), The B-52’s refers back to the sci-fi/early psychedelic/“trash” culture of a decade and a half ago. Yet the B-52’s reject any direct identification as a “camp” band, pressing the fact that their music is spontaneous, not consciously derivative.

It is precisely this question of influence and approach which was the focus of our discussion after the Alumnae Hall show. The band were all very friendly; our conversation was amiable. Over Michelob Lights we got right down to breakfast cereals and then moved on to more mundane topics, beginning with the band’s method of composition. Fred stressed the spontaneity of the process: “We all bring different ideas into the group and just react to each other; we’re usually on each other’s wavelength—or in each other’s hair.” When asked about the group’s influences, he replied that they had rather inspirations than influences—but he admitted a basic link to groups such as the Cramps and Contortions who employ sonic and lyric conventions from the 60’s; the B-52’s see themselves and similar “new wave” bands as the vanguard of a “back to energy” movement in rock currently picking up momentum. The benefit of the new wave, according to Kieth, is the opening up in the biz to new bands, grassroots bands, with a fresh approach to the music.

Fred encourages everybody to get involved: “The best thing to do if you’re listening to the radio is to call up and tell the DJ to play new music—good music.”

Current projects aside from touring include an appearance as an up-and-coming new wave band in the latest Paul Simon film (however, Paul will not be replacing Fred in the band as had been rumored). The 52’s will begin recording a new album in February which will feature the portion of their repertoire not recorded for their first LP (e.g. “Devil in My Car” and “Runnin’ Around”).

After that, they’ll go to the beach and bake some potatoes.

– 30 –

First published in the alternative weekly Fresh Fruit (October 24, 1979)


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