The B-52s look to turn Penn's Peak into a "Love Shack"
JOSEPH CULTICE/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS The B-52s (from left, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson) will perform at Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe on Thursday.
Nowadays, The B-52s are well-established as prime purveyors of party music for their danceable rhythms and campy songs.
They have also registered their share of quirky hits along the way, including "Love Shack", "Roam", "Rock Lobster", "Private Idaho" and "Channel Z".
There was a time, however, when the band's offbeat approach landed it right in the vanguard of the burgeoning New Wave scene of the late 1970's.
"We've always sort of stradled in between being accepted and not accepted," said B-52s guitarist Keith Strickland in a phone interview from Williamsburg, Virginia on the band's summer tour, which includes a stop at Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe on Thursday. "We have had a foot in both worlds.
"There were people who thought this was a novelty act, and here we are, 34 years later."
The B-52s originated out of Athens, Georgia, playing their first gig at a friend's house on Valentine's Day, 1977. The band took its name from Southern slang for exaggerated bouffant hairdos.
"When we first started, we didn't imagine we were starting a career," said Strickland. "We did it to entertain ourselves and our friends."
The B-52s were originally a quintet. At the beginning, Strickland played drums and Ricky Wilson was the guitarist. Cindy Wilson, Ricky's sister, was on vocals, as were Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider. The band's unique use of instrumentation (including farfisa organ, toy piano and even walkie talkies) and do it yourself attitude fit in with the punk and new wave sounds that were on the outer edge of pop music.
Eventually, The B-52s made weekend trips to New York City to play at clubs such as CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, where the new wave scene was growing, although their genre-defying sound was much different from other bands lumped in the same movement.
"There's not a lot of bands left from the old CBGB's," noted Strickland. "Patti Smith is still around, and we still do some shows with Blondie, but there aren't a lot of others from that period."
The B-52s' self-titled first album, produced by Chris Blackwell, was released in 1979 and featured many of their now-familiar signature tunes: "Planet Claire", "52 Girls", "Dance This Mess Around" and, of course, the new wave surf classic "Rock Lobster".
As The B-52's gained popularity, some still didn't know what to make of the band.
"When we first started, 'Rock Lobster' got a lot of airplay. Rock radio felt it was too strange, but the DJs loved it and it got a lot of exposure," mentioned Strickland. "We have eclectic influences across the board, but we just love music."
The B-52s continued to ride the alternative wave into the new decade of the 1980's with Wild Planet, Mesopotamia (produced by David Byrne of The Talking Heads) and Whammy!
Tragedy struck the band in 1985 when Ricky Wilson passed away from AIDS, just after the sessions were completed for the Bouncing Off the Satellites album. Ricky's death clouded The B-52s future in uncertainty.
"We pretty much closed up shop," recalled Strickland, who had worked with Ricky on most of The B-52s music. "We released Bouncing Off the Satellites, but we told them we couldn't tour. Cindy lost her brother and was devastated. I lost my best friend, and Kate and Fred lost a friend and collaborator. We couldn't imagine doing it without him."
The band didn't perform for two years, but Strickland eventually warmed up to writing more music. At this point, he switched from drums to guitar as the band carried on as foursome.
"When Ricky and I worked together, I'd often play guitar and he'd play bass, and we did write together as a team," Stickland mentioned. "It was a change not to have Ricky with me, because he was a great teacher. He had a great innate ability as a writer and musician. He was a huge natural talent.
"I hadn't performed guitar live before, so that was the big leap. Switching to guitar in performance is a very different animal."
The following album, the Don Was/Nile Rodgers co-produced Cosmic Thing, was released in 1989 and became the most commercially successful of The B-52s career.
"When I was writing the music for Cosmic Thing, I'd sit and imagine that Ricky was playing along," said Strickland. "It was quite comforting. It was a way for me to deal with his death. He was still living on in my imagination and my mind.
"It was very bittersweet that it was our biggest album. When I listened to it I found that it conjured up a lot of imagery from our past in Athens. It's not a nostalgic album, but it is inspired by our past and it kind of told the story from our past to some imagined future."
"Love Shack" became a huge hit and is now a pop radio staple, but Strickland noted that it was first considered outside the norm for many playlists at that time.
"It ('Love Shack') is considered a standard now, but when it was released as a single, radio wouldn't play it," remarked Strickland. "It wasn't until MTV picked it up that it became a hit. Now it's in every karaoke bar and it's played at weddings. It's just a mainstream song."
The B-52s' latest album, 2008's Funplex, is an update of their sound but still contains the instantly recognizable vocal performances of Fred, Cindy and Kate.
Strickland explained that he composes the instrumental tracks for the music and brings them to the rest of the band members, who write lyrics and add their own touches.
"A friend once described our writing process like three songs being written at once," he remarked. "It's just a free for all, really, but interesting things happen. It's a big collaboration, and a lot of ideas come out in one song. It can be frustrating, if someone's favorite part gets edited out, but it is also rewarding."
On the current tour, The B-52s are performing 5-6 songs from Funplex as well as their hits. "We have some old songs, some new songs and we've added some songs we've never played live before," said Strickland.
If The B-52s have a legacy, it is for producing some of the craziest dance music to emerge from the new wave era.
"This is music that is meant to be enjoyed. It is party music," stressed Strickland. "It is part of the celebration of life, but in a spiritual, mystical sort of merry making.
"I hope we will be remembered for being about self-expression. It's about being true to your self, and thinking for your self, but not selfishly, and just enjoying life."
Tickets for The B-52s and opening act Supercluster at Penn's Peak on Thursday, July 15 are $47 for the Pit (standing room only) and $42 for reserved seating. Doors open at 6 p.m. with showtime at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.ticketmaster.com, at Ticketmaster outlets, the Penn's Peak box office and Roadies Restaurant. Call (866) 605-7325 for information.