I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale and we’re headin’ on down
To the Love Shack
I got me a Chrysler, it seats about 20
So hurry up and bring your jukebox money
--From “Love Shack” by the B-52’s
The B-52’s’ irresistible party hit of the fall is a spirited, sultry salute to the days when the band members and their friends passed their time drinking flaming volcanoes and dancing away their youth in their Athens, Ga., enclave.
“There was a club outside of Athens called the Hawaiian Ha-Le,” guitarist Keith Strickland reminisced. “Great soul bands would play, people would go there and dance.
“The Love Shack was also an image in our minds, a place that would be out in the country in the middle of a field. A little like ‘The Color Purple,’ the club scene. A place where people just go to have fun and get down and they’re not all concerned with how they look. Hot and sweaty.”
If there was ever a group qualified to be the house band at this mythical dive, it’s the B-52’s themselves, a band of four gyrating vegetarians and cultural cut-ups whose return to the big party is one of the rock decade’s more surprising comeback sagas. The band caps its year of the rebound with a New Year’s Eve show at the San Diego Sports Arena, then opens a four-night stand at the Universal Amphitheatre on Tuesday.
“It’s also a bit like parties we would go to out in the country,” Strickland continued during a recent interview in his West Hollywood hotel room. “Somebody would have a keg on the porch. The music would just be blasting and everybody’d be dancing. Everything from Ramones to Patti Smith to James Brown, Jr. Walker.”
“Perez Prado,” interjected Kate Pierson, half of the ’52’s’ high-profile female vocal twosome. “We had a conga line once where we had an alarm clock: DA-da-da-da-DA-RIING! and we’d set of the alarm. . . . The party would spill out to outside. The doors would be open. Cars and dogs in the yard. . . .”
Strickland and Pierson’s nostalgic mood is much like the one that possessed the B-52’s when they were writing the songs for “Cosmic Thing,” the album where the celebratory “Love Shack” follows some richly-textured, wistful reveries that summon those impossibly ideal days.
While those songs--notably “Dry County” and “Deadbeat Club"--help make it the band’s most musically substantial and emotionally rounded album, “Love Shack” has helped make it by far their biggest. It’s already joined their first two LPs as a million seller and reached No. 6 on the charts. “Love Shack,” their first mainstream hit single ever, made it to No. 3.
They’ve moved into America’s heart not merely from the underground, but from career oblivion and the darkest of tragedies.
Ricky Wilson, the B-52’s’ original guitarist and the brother of Pierson’s vocal cohort Cindy Wilson, died of AIDS in October, 1985, at age 32. His death deprived the group of its musical catalyst and emotionally ravaged the close-knit band.
“It was very difficult,” said Strickland, whose serene demeanor and open manner suggest a new age mystic more than a party rocker. “We went to high school together and we had been very close. We were musical partners for years, so I lost someone I loved. We all did.”
Pierson attributes much of the new album’s maturity and depth to their reaction to Wilson’s death.
“When you come out of that situation it is like being reborn,” she said. “You can sort of get a spiritual reawakening from it, or you can really slide downhill for a while. But I think creative forces are definitely strengthened after a while.”
Added Strickland: “I think we also realized the preciousness of life and what we had together. I think that’s why a lot of the Southern imagery and themes kept re-occurring in the new songs. In the back of our minds we kept thinking about when we were together and what we had together.”
It’s ironic that death would strike a band whose press clips were dominated by the words zany and wacky .
The B-52’s shimmied out of the same college town that later produced R.E.M., crashing the seriously serious punk/new wave party with snappy, minimalist dance anthems like “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around.” With their astounding, junk-store duds and the girls’ sky-high beehive hairdos (popularly known as B-52’s, hence the group’s name), the band brought a Day-Glo sensibility to the scene’s gray and black color scheme.
The whole thing grew organically from the Athens way of life. Strickland and the two Wilsons were friends from high school, and New Jersey natives Pierson and lead singer Fred Schneider had gravitated to town independently. Then it was just a matter of time.
“Basically I met everyone at parties,” recalled Pierson. “In Athens everyone meets everyone. I remember one party, a friend of mine pointed and said, ‘See that guy over there? He has the best collection of shirts in Athens.’ That was Fred. . . . He wanted to have a garden, so he used to come out to my place and hoe. I had this beautiful old farmhouse for $15 a month. It was just a beautiful place. Some blackberry wine stowed under the house.
“So that was the thing that really brought us together,” she continued, recalling the circle of friends the band would enshrine more than a decade later in “The Deadbeat Club.”
“Athens is a big dance party town, so we would go and be a party terrorist gang. We just danced wild and we all became a clique. . . . A bunch of people that would all hang out together and go cruise parties. . . . We had kind of dead-end jobs. There was a little lull there. We used to hang out and drink ice tea. It was kind of like European cafe society, only in Athens, Ga.”
The five eventually got around to playing together for fun, and they made their public debut at a Valentine’s Day party in 1977. When it looked like it might become a career rather than a lark, the B-52’s relocated to New York and released “Rock Lobster” as in independent single in 1978. They were signed by Sire Records and released their debut album in ’79.
After taking the pop world by storm for a couple of years, the band bottomed out in ’86.
“Bouncing off the Satellites,” the last album that Ricky Wilson played on, came out in 1986, shortly after his death. The record wasn’t up to the band’s standards, and, with Ricky gone, they couldn’t tour to support it. It went virtually unnoticed beyond their core audience, and the B-52’s were widely presumed dead.
“Well, you know,” said Strickland with a shrug, “when you disappear for three years and people don’t hear from you. . . . I mean, we felt like this was the conclusion of the band. But we never said, ‘This is it, it’s over, we’re not doing anything anymore.’ We just left it open ended.”
Added Pierson, “We were friends to start with, so it’s not like we didn’t see each other. We kept hanging out together and we finally felt like making music.”
The first impetus came in 1987 when the band agreed to emcee a benefit concert in Washington for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). There they detected some real interest from fans in hearing the ’52’s again.
“We realized, ‘Gosh, people still really want to see us,’ ” Strickland said. “We thought how great it would be to perform at such benefits and get more involved with helping out in different areas, such as PETA and the environment and AIDS. Those are the three causes that we’re most involved with at this point. That was a big motivating factor in getting the band back together.”
They convened early in 1988 in their New York rehearsal space and re-established their old methodology: Strickland--working without Wilson for the first time--brought in a backing track, and everyone jammed on melody and lyrics until the song formed. The first product was “Junebug,” one of “Cosmic Thing’s” Southern-themed songs.
“It’s real stream-of-consciousness-oriented,” Pierson said of the process, “and we bounce off each other and we let the doors of the collective unconscious open and we kind of get into a state where we jam and let it all flow out. When we started writing the songs a theme developed, this kind of Southern theme. We didn’t realize it either until after like the third song.”
When they finally had the right balance of introspective and upbeat material, they recorded with producers Nile Rodgers and Don Was. Strickland, originally the drummer, had assumed Ricky Wilson’s guitar role, and hired drummers played on the record (on stage, the basic quartet is augmented by three touring musicians).
The goals on the record: enthusiasm, a live band sound, and a sharper focus on the social and environmental causes the band had previously propagated in more metaphorical terms.
“We did want the political concerns in the band to come out more,” Pierson said. “We’ve always been involved and conscious of things that were happening in the world, and we’ve been involved with different environmental groups and we’ve joined a lot of groups. . . . It’s such an emergency situation now that it was really in the forefront of our minds and we really wanted it to be more overt. The subliminal way it came out in former songs just wasn’t overt enough.”
That side of the band has always been overshadowed by the wacky image--"The ‘W’ word,” they call it with mock horror. But Pierson thinks even that side of the B-52’s had a serious aspect.
“People would always know where we stood by the way we looked. We really stood for being different--it’s OK to be different and to accept other people’s differences and be the way you are, however far out you might be. We get a lot of people writing and telling us that they felt like weirdos when they were in high school or wherever, they felt like outsiders, and we really struck a chord. They zeroed in on us immediately as a group that made them feel more inside, or made them feel good about being different.”
But the band’s unmistakable look has also been misunderstood.
“I think in the beginning too much was made of the whole ‘60s thing,” Strickland said. “We weren’t really trying to be nostalgic. I think how we were putting it all together was very different.”
“I think the wigs cast a long shadow on the music,” Pierson said. “The image wasn’t that thought out, but it definitely was meant to be ironic. More a Fellini-esque image than ‘60s or ‘50s retro. It was more like fantastic Fellini archetypal male and female, giant eyelashes and huge hair, high heels. Kind of exaggerated.
“There’s also a sort of a ‘might as well laugh as cry’ look at things like polyester. Like the ugliest polyester suit, the ugliest shirt. When we started out, we would wear things that we thought were sort of ugly but funny and amazing at the same time. It would never disintegrate on the Earth in our lifetime, so you might as well wear it.”