After 45 years together the B-52’s have announced they are unplugging and de-wigging for their final US tour. “No one likes to throw a party more than we do, but after almost a half-century on the road, it’s time for one last blowout with our friends and family… our fans,” said Fred Schneider.
Who was to know that an impromptu jam session in 1976 in the American college town of Athens, Georgia, would be the foundation of a 45-year career?
The innovative band that formed in 1976 originally consisted of Cindy Wilson (vocals and guitar), Kate Pierson (vocals and keyboards), Fred Schneider (vocals), Ricky Wilson (guitar) and Keith Strickland (drums).
The world’s introduction to the B-52’s was the almost seven-minute song Rock Lobster. An unexpected hit, this uplifting musical concoction is comprised of a baritone-tuned Mosrite electric guitar riff, interspersed with stabbing Farfisa organ accents, and an array of vocal interplay with jazz-esque backing vocal parts.
These are interspersed with Pierson’s dolphin like vocal sounds while Schneider’s unique lead vocal spoken delivery offers lyrics about a crustacean. The accompanying video presented a mixture of pop culture’s past with 1950’s cartoonist hair styles, surf culture, combined with uniquely erratic choreography, but musically there are elements that serve as a disruption to pop music.
Rock Lobster reached number one in Canada, three in Australia, 37 on the UK singles charts and 56 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Influences and scene
The band’s influences draw from diverse sources across pop culture, such as B-grade movies, Captain Beefheart, 60’s dance moves, Dusty Springfield, comic books, animated cartoons, the composer Nino Rota (Fellini films), pulp science-fiction and Yoko Ono.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the song Planet Claire (1978) which opens instrumentally with intermittent radio frequencies that fade to a central guitar riff derived from Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme, then bongos and keyboards stabs, and Pierson’s mesmerising unison singing (chromatic long notes) with the DX7 keyboard part. This is followed by witty, farcical lyrics with an abundance of sci-fi references: satellites, speed of light, Mars.
The B-52’s emerged from the 1970’s New Wave (rock) scene with their own combination of non-threatening post-punk and alternative surf rock musical aesthetics. Subversion was in the form of less musical dissonance and less density, more freedom, more harmonies, more play. Less aggressive, more diva, with an infectious enthusiasm.
They created their own niche that was unquestionably southern, and importantly broke new ground as LGBTIQ+ icons, by infusing an uncompromisingly camp and queer sensibility into pop culture.
From 1979 to 1986, the band recorded four studio albums that were best known for dance grooves, featuring the distinctive vocals of Schneider using sprechgesang (a spoken singing style credited to Humperdinck in 1897 and Schoenberg in 1912), the highly experimental vocal approaches of Pierson, growls and harmonies by Wilson, and Strickland’s surf guitar riffs.
They made novel instrumentation choices: toy pianos, walkie talkies, glockenspiels, and bongos, coupled with the innovative use of up-cycled fashion and costumes evoking individuality and liberation.
The exception was the EP Mesopotamia (1982) produced by David Byrne, a significant departure from their previous song production. Most noticeable is the slower tempo of Mesopotamia, 119 beats per minute (BPM) compared with Rock Lobster’s (1978) 179 BPM and Private Idaho’s (1980) driving 166 BPM tempo. Mesopotamia features additional synthesizer parts, poly-rhythmic beats (the combination of two or more different rhythms following the same pulse) and world beat influences.
On the surface the B-52s lyrics could be misconstrued as merely comedic, or nonsensical, however there are deeper underlining lyrical meanings that speak for the marginalised, referencing the band’s political ideology: environmental causes, feminism, LGBTIQ+ rights, and AIDS activism.
Late 1980s and early 1990s
Bouncing Off The Satellites took three years to complete and was released in 1986. Sadly, Ricky Wilson died from HIV/AIDS related illness in 1985 just after the recording sessions were complete. The B-52s reshaped the band with Strickland switching from drums to lead guitar. Later, the band also added touring members for studio albums and live performances.
The B-52s album with the greatest commercial success was Cosmic Thing (1989) co-produced by Don Was and Nile Rodgers. The single Love Shack, went double platinum, reached number 1 for eight weeks, and sold 5 million copies.
The song opens with engaging drum sounds at an infectious dance tempo of 133 BPM (beats per minute). Schneider’s distinctive vocal enters, then the bass and guitar parts. The arrangement places the hooks at the front in the song, with chorus vocal parts in 4ths.
Adding to the infectious groove is the live band sound featuring real brass section, and bass guitar and a bluesy guitar riff with crowd noises in the background. The alluring backing vocal parts on the lyrics “bang, bang, bang, on the door baby” are clearly reminiscent of the Batman television theme music.
Into the 21st century
In 2008 the band re-emerged from a 16-year recording absence with the 11-track album Funplex. There are notable modifications to the B-52s signature sound. Funplex is not the frenetic and spontaneous party music of previous albums. There are a few adaptations vocally too, with a change of roles with spoken word from Wilson and Pierson.
The band has toured every summer, with a variety of other bands on the circuit, the Tubes, Go-Go’s, Psychedelic Furs and KC & The Sunshine Band building new audiences.
Their appeal is still broad. In 2020, Rock Lobster was used in Australia for an Optus ad. The farewell tour billed as “their final tour ever of planet Earth” commences in August this year in Seattle.