Most people who have heard of the B-52’s know them as a dance band from a couple of decades ago, the group behind “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.” Their music is often regarded as lightweight and disposable, made memorable only by its quirkiness—Fred Schneider’s shouted or chanted vocals; Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s outrageous wigs and luscious harmonies; the signature licks of guitarists Keith Strickland and Cindy’s late brother, Ricky Wilson. But this group of friends from Athens, Georgia, who named themselves after the local slang expression for a beehive hairdo, are icons who were once iconoclasts.
As recently as 1996, I knew nothing at all about the B-52’s. I was vaguely aware that there was a band by that name, but I had no idea what sort of music they played and couldn’t name a single one of their songs. Then a friend loaned me one of their CDs and I was immediately hooked. I thought it was the cleverest and most inventive music I had heard in a long time—funny, articulate, and very, very strange.
Detour Through Their Minds
Most of their music is upbeat and danceable, but not the kind of cookie-cutter pop produced by many of their peers. It might be called “alternative,” except that it doesn’t take itself as seriously as most alternative music. The thing that makes it alternative is that the music has never been about fitting into a mold. For the B-52’s, music is all about having fun. B-52’s songs were generally group efforts that sprang from stream-of-consciousness jam sessions. It turned out that audiences had as much fun listening to their unusual music as the band did creating it, and their commercial success was largely accidental. In their music, as well as their costumes, videos, and concerts, the band presented an unabashed “different is OK” attitude. Music wasn’t serious business; it was about enjoying yourself and the company of your friends.
Even so, their songs show tremendous creativity and musical skill. The subject matter is sometimes absurd, yet the lyrics always sound like they were crafted with great care to produce the maximum artistic (or comedic) effect. This is perhaps best shown on the band’s 1986 Bouncing Off the Satellites album. This album never got much recognition, because Ricky died just before it was released and the band could not bring themselves to promote it. But the tunes on that album showcase the best of the B-52’s: intelligent, quality music that works because the band’s only concern is being who they are.
The B-52’s—all four surviving members—are still around and still touring. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to see them in concert three times in the past six years. In concert, they still please the crowds, if not quite the same way they once did. Keith seems strangely ageless, and to watch him play, you could believe he’s still 30. But Fred is certainly not as energetic as he once was, and Kate and Cindy—who can no longer hit all those high notes—have, shall we say, supplemented their formerly svelte figures considerably. More importantly, the performance appears almost rote—they just sing the old songs the same way they always have. The band acts almost like a parody of themselves, doing the same “Rock Lobster” dance they did 20 years ago.
Songs for a Future Generation
A year and a half ago, I wrote about the B-52’s here, saying that although I love them dearly, they seemed to have lost their mojo. I said this not because of their uninspired concert performances but because they appeared not to be innovating anymore. They weren’t writing new songs together or pushing the envelope of style or creativity as they once did. And their recording career had stalled. The group’s last real album was 1992’s Good Stuff; the last one with Cindy was Cosmic Thing in 1989; and the last one with Ricky was Bouncing Off the Satellites in 1986. Since 1992, they’ve released only compilations and remixes, except for two songs (“Debbie” and “Hallucinating Pluto”) the quartet recorded for their 1998 Time Capsule collection. And those two songs—critically praised though they were—don’t have the original spark, don’t show the group having fun the way they used to.
Now comes the news that they’re actively working on a new, full-length studio album, for release in summer, 2005; they also plan a tour to support the new album. I can hardly wait; but then, only time will tell if the band’s latest effort lives up to the standard they set when they were much younger.
I missed the B-52’s during their heyday, and I miss them still, even when I’m listening to them in concert. I wish I could experience the freshness and novelty of the band as it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s; I would love to see more creativity from the people who created “Theme for a Nude Beach” and “Channel Z.” And now, finally, perhaps I will. I’d like to think there’s still time for the B-52’s to recover their mojo and give us more of that Good Stuff. —Joe Kissell