The Superbly Original, Gloriously Weird B-52's Say Farewell to the Road

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Leroy N. Soetoro

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Aug 25, 2022, 3:41:40 PM8/25/22
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https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/arts/music/b-52s-final-tour.html

When the B-52’s played “Rock Lobster” on “Saturday Night Live” in January
1980, a few months after releasing their debut album, it was a lightning-
strike moment for a generation of young misfits and oddballs.

The band’s uninhibited dancing, statuesque wigs and absurdist lyrics
embraced the ecstatic, and its kinetically rhythmic guitar, precise
drumming and bursts of Farfisa organ ensured a good time. Many of their
campy, catchy songs celebrated people who seemed to be happily dislocated
or disconnected from known dimensions (“Planet Claire,” “Private Idaho”).
Several of the band’s members were queer and all five considered
themselves “freaks.” Over a period of decades, as they grew from a cult
band to one with Top 40 hits — most notably “Love Shack” in 1989 — they
discovered how many others identified the same way.

“This eccentric, downright lovable quintet,” John Rockwell of The New York
Times wrote in 1978, “provides about the most amusing, danceable
experience in town.” The B-52’s sustained that vigor through seven studio
albums and an EP, as well as the 1985 death of Ricky Wilson, one of rock’s
most inventive guitarists. Their spirit can be heard in the work of a wide
range of artists who followed, including Deee-Lite, Le Tigre, LCD
Soundsystem and Dua Lipa.

Culture made by and for misfits and oddballs is now a billion-dollar
industry, but it wasn’t when the B-52’s played their first gig in 1977, in
their Athens, Ga., hometown. Maybe that’s why, 45 years after they first
played for a small number of friends, they’ve announced a farewell tour,
which starts Aug. 20 in Vancouver and wraps with a three-night stand in
Atlanta in November. It took a while, but the weirdos have won.

In late July, the singers Fred Schneider, 70; Kate Pierson, 74; and Cindy
Wilson, 65, gathered in a SoHo hotel suite for an 80-minute free-for-all
punctuated by raucous laughter, as well as somber reflections. Schneider
dispensed deadpan punch lines, Pierson spoke with hippie beneficence and
Wilson talked movingly about the death of her brother, Ricky. Keith
Strickland, 68, a drummer and guitarist who stopped touring with the band
in 2012, added his thoughts in a phone interview later.

“I call this our Cher-well tour,” Pierson said, a reference to the singer
Cher, who has staged one “farewell” tour after another. “Never say never,”
she added and shrugged.

To her right, Schneider looked aghast and resolutely whispered a single
word: “Never.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Why did the band decide to quit touring?

PIERSON We’re not quitting — we’re just moving on to the new phase of our
lives, which is a documentary. We’ve worked hard on uncovering archival
material, like Super 8 footage and photographs.

SCHNEIDER We’ll still do shows, but no more touring. I love being onstage,
but I got tired of people with cellphones not paying attention and
blocking everyone behind them.

PIERSON All in all, the digital thing was good for us. Having videos on
YouTube exposed us to a new audience of young people. On “Rock Lobster,”
they go nuts, freak-flag flying, crazy dancing, tearing off their clothes.

SCHNEIDER I don’t know if I want them to tear off their clothes. Maybe
just the younger ones.

PIERSON The old ones too! Let’s see it all.

If I told you in 1977, right before you played your first show, that in 45
years you’d be doing a farewell tour, would you have believed me?

WILSON I know. That’s insane.

STRICKLAND A band was just something to do, because in Athens, there was
nothing else to do.

SCHNEIDER It was a hobby. We’d jammed once or twice. We didn’t even have
the money to buy guitar strings.

PIERSON The miracle, to me, is that no one ever said, “Let’s start a
band.” We just hung out with a group of friends who were —

The Journey to Mainstream Success of the B-52’s
New wave’s most unapologetic loons conquered fans with their unusual mix
of the avant-garde, fashion and party-friendly pop.
Their Early Days: “What distinguishes the B-52's is the sheer, driving
danceability of the music,” The Times wrote of the band in 1978.
‘The B-52’s’: Their debut album helped bring punk to the suburban kids.
Here is a close look at the nine songs in it.
‘Cosmic Thing’: With their seventh album and its hit single “Love Shack,”
the group finally moved beyond cult status.
Return of the Rock Lobsters: With “Funplex,” the band’s first studio
release in 16 years, the B-52’s experimented with new sounds. One thing
didn’t change: their trademark wigs.
SCHNEIDER Freaks!

PIERSON We’d go to a local disco, dress up and drive everyone else off the
dance floors, flailing around and just being punks. People would clear
away from us.

SCHNEIDER After our first show, friends started asking us to play at their
house. Finally, we played at Max’s Kansas City in New York. I guess anyone
can play on a Monday night in December. [Laughter] We got $17.

PIERSON Danny Beard, who put out our first 45, came to New York with us.
He said, “Did you ask if they want us back?” So we ran upstairs and asked
the booker, Deer France. She said, “Hell yeah.”

SCHNEIDER Because we were like nothing they’d ever seen.

PIERSON In the beginning, we were terrified. We looked fierce because we
were so scared. We were each responsible for setting up onstage. I did the
patch cords between the guitars and amps.

SCHNEIDER I plugged everything in. [Laughter]

PIERSON Fred would stand there and say, “Where’s the outlet?” until
someone came and helped him.

Soon after you started, a bunch of other great bands came out of Athens:
R.E.M., Pylon, Love Tractor. Was it the cheap rents that allowed lots of
Bohemians to flourish, as they did in New York?

PIERSON Living in Athens was free and easy. We had jobs, sort of. I lived
out in the country and had goats.

SCHNEIDER I was meal delivery coordinator for the Council on Aging. You
could rent an apartment in Athens for $60 a month. I think Kate paid $15 a
month.

PIERSON I was a paste-up artist on the local newspaper, and Cindy worked
at the Whirly Q luncheonette counter. We started getting written up in all
the magazines — New York Rocker, Interview — and we couldn’t afford to buy
the magazines. We’d buy one copy and share it.

At what point did you start to think, “Maybe this band is more than just a
hobby”?

PIERSON I knew something was happening when we played Hurrah in New York
[in March 1979]. Ricky looked out the window and said, “Why is there such
a long line outside?” They said, “That line is for y’all’s show.” What?

What was so different about you?

SCHNEIDER Everyone in New York was standing against the wall in their
leather jackets, smoking cigarettes. We were a blast of color. No one
would dance. We wanted to entertain people, and we kept it positive and
fun.

PIERSON People thought Cindy and I might be drag queens.

SCHNEIDER When we played Max’s, someone yelled, “Is this a queen band?” I
misheard, and I said, “Yes, we’re a clean band.” I guess nobody wore wigs
in New York.

PIERSON They thought we were from England, because they couldn’t imagine a
band coming from Athens. But this was happening all over the country, in
little towns. “Let’s start a band,” even if — well, we could play our
instruments. People have a misconception that we couldn’t. I played
keyboard and bass, and played guitar on two songs.

SCHNEIDER I played keyboard bass on two songs. But I didn’t know which
keys I was supposed to hit, so they put black tape on the keys. [Laughter]

When most people start out singing, they imitate someone. I don’t think
you guys did.

WILSON I was trying to be Patti Smith.

SCHNEIDER I wish I could sound like Wilson Pickett. But mostly, I was
reciting. I talk-sang.

PIERSON None of us were self-conscious.

WILSON Because we were doing it for fun. It was kind of half-joking.

PIERSON And Cindy and I just locked into our harmonies. We never said,
“Oh, let’s try this interval.”

STRICKLAND Cindy’s voice can be beautiful, but it has a primal quality at
the same time. I used to tell Ricky she reminds me of John Lennon.


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