Artist Spotlight: B-52’s

One of the things I love about Artist Spotlights, and about the Avocado in general, is how we personally relate to our pop culture totems. There’s an intimacy to how we talk about our influences and loves, a sense of history and context, and the stories about our favorite artist/song/movie/TV show allow us to know each other more fully. I love the B-52’s. They have an energy that’s embraceable, and they create a party atmosphere where everyone is welcome.

I first encountered The B-52’s in music video form. I was in the juniors section of a department store (Fashion Bar’s Stage, for any Denverites out there), uncertain in my adolescence and fretting over which clothes would help nerdy little me blend into the background of junior high. Just a couple of years after the debut of MTV, it became unbearably cool to have videos playing in juniors section, and the offbeat exuberance of “Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland” was arresting and exhilarating.

They were weird, which I deeply understood, but they were confident, which I desperately wanted to figure out. It would be overstating things a bit to say my life changed in that department store, but it’s one of many little moments I remember with crystal clarity. Their unapologetic ownership of their idiosyncrasies, distinctive style, and high-spirited sense of fun helped undo the pressures of adolescent conformity, and nudged me closer to my own path.

The B-52’s formed in the late 1970s, in Athens, Georgia. They applied their campy, retro sensibility to a single that took the alternative music scene by storm. Rock Lobster was their calling card in the New York club scene. The song charted at #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, and ranks as Rolling Stone’s #147 greatest song of all time. Not too shabby for a band that was born from a drunken jam session fueled by flaming drinks and Chinese food. Formed by Cindy Wilson (vocals, percussion, guitar), her brother Ricky Wilson (guitar), Fred Schneider (vocals, organ, keyboard, bass, guitar), Kate Pierson (vocals, organ, keyboard, bass, guitar), and Keith Strickland (drums, percussion), and sharing writing duties, they became an alternative mainstay that blended post-punk, new wave, pop, dance, and surf. The harmonies of the ladies contrasted in an appealing call-and-response with Schneider’s staccato delivery. Jangly, rhythmic, and irresistible, their self-titled debut was produced with the intention of maintaining the raw energy of a B-52’s live show. It’s impossible to pick a favorite track, but I do really love how the album kicks off with Planet Claire. The long intro makes it seem like we’re in a craft heading to a different world. The lyrics are sparse and strange, the music borrows “Peter Gunn.” It’s one of my all-time favorite band mission statements.

Their 1980 follow-up Wild Planet avoided the sophomore slump and offered delights such as “Quiche Lorraine”, “Private Idaho”, and “Give Me Back My Man.”

The Mesopotamia EP was the result of a production collaboration with David Byrne that the band wasn’t happy with. Although they scrapped a lot, and reworked some songs to salvage an album, one of my very favorites of theirs is the title track. Must be the history enthusiast in me.

Whammy! was a return to their roots, as “Butterbean” shows.

Using synthesizers and a drum machine (for Strickland, who wanted to transition from drums to guitar), it’s a likeable and fun album.

Bouncing Off the Satellites has the unfortunate distinction of marking the loss of Ricky Wilson to AIDS. His death devastated his sister, fellow B-52 Cindy Wilson, as well as the rest of the band. Work on this album was already underway when Wilson passed, and their continued use of synths and a drum machine was augmented with session musicians. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a coherent effort, but there are standouts. “Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland” and “Wig” are my favorites, and I have an explicable fondness for “Housework.” The opening “Summer of Love” offers a promise that has turned to something more wistful and melancholy by the closing of “She Brakes for Rainbows.”

That might’ve been the end of The B-52’s. Cindy Wilson ostensibly left the band, and they didn’t tour or do much to promote Bouncing Off the Satellites. But, all four remaining members returned in 1989, four years after Ricky Wilson’s death, with Cosmic Thing. Most surprising was that this was a commercial hit-monster in their own particular style, aided by production from Don Was and Nile Rodgers. I made the pen and ink drawing in the header image, in art class, when Cosmic Thing came out. It’s their most dynamic cover; instead of stagey poses, they each have an instrument or microphone, and they’re engaged with the music rather than the camera. Cosmic Thing is a warm and expansive album, full of positivity and joy, best expressed I think by “Topaz.”

Like their first album, it’s hard to pick a favorite, and most of the tracks are alternative classics. It’s not just their resilience that’s so striking, it’s that they came back as strong as they had ever been, while amping up their sound and taking over commercial airwaves.

Bona fide college radio superstars, they started branching out. Kate Pierson appeared with Iggy Pop on his “Candy.” The bell-like clarity in her line “I’ve had a hole in my heart for so long” kills me.

Pierson also guested on several R.E.M. tracks. Band members started doing soundtrack work. Fred Schneider released a solo album, which gave us the silly but charming “Monster.”

The B-52s recorded Good Stuff without Cindy Wilson, who took a break in 1990. Seeming to reflect changes in the band and socio-political uncertainty, it’s an underwhelming album that sounds like a 90s copycat of themselves. “Revolution Earth” isn’t bad, it’s just not distinctive – especially compared to “Topaz” or “Channel Z.”

In the intervening years, they increased their touring. In 2008, all four members returned with Funplex. Still embracing a danceable party sensibility, it updates their sound within a mainstream pop framework.

I gravitate to their classic period, but I am delighted that they kept going. Strickland announced he will no longer tour, and it doesn’t seem there’s much more studio material in them. But that’s okay. After nearly 40 years, they’ve earned the right to sit back at the party. They were the retro garage weirdos in the 70s who became alternative royalty because they kept doing what they loved. Their unique hybrid sound made an indelible mark on music, and on fans.

I was pretty disappointed the B-52’s didn’t make it onto our original Album Poll. I thought we were weird, but I guess we’re only cool. Just for reference, on my ballot, I had their self-titled debut at #33, and Cosmic Thing at #63.