Sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Ga., Fred Schneider and company started a band that was unlike any other in existence.
Wearing colorful thrift-store outfits, with two female singers in Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson who wore beehive hairdos, The B-52s, rounded out by Schneider, Cindy’s guitarist brother Ricky and drummer Keith Strickland, were like aliens sent to earth to party. They had very little in the way of musical training or abilities, but it was the mid-1970s, and punk was about to prove that none of that mattered.
“Well, we didn’t have enough money for food, because nobody had a good job,” recalls Schneider. “So we bought one or two drinks called Flaming Volcanos, and then we went to a friend’s house, and he was in a band. And we went into his basement and just jammed, and we came up with a song about killer bees, because killer bees had just arrived in Brazil — talk about the stone age.”
Schneider rememebers Athens not being such a “happening place” at the time.
“We just started [the band] because there was nothing to do in Athens,” says Schneider. “There was no music scene. There were no places to go, except a folk club and a place that had … well, anyplace that had 25-cent beer night, we were there (laughs).”
And they showed up for their first show, one that Schneider agreed to without the others’ consent. The rest of the band wasn’t sure they were ready.
“My friends were having a Valentine’s Day party and I said, ‘Oh, I’m in a band. Do you want us to play?” says Schneider. “And they said, ‘Sure.’ So I went back to everyone and I said, ‘Guess what? I got us a gig.’ And they go, ‘What?’ Because we didn’t even have a name, I don’t think. We were just, like, getting together and jamming.”
Rehearsal space being sometimes hard to find, the group couldn’t afford to be choosy.
“It was the bloodletting room of an old funeral parlor,” says Schneider. “No heat. And back on the old African-American vaudeville circuit, it was part of a theater that was famous back in Bessie Smith’s times. And they’ve re-done it.”
With a band like The B-52’s, none of that should be surprising. Reveling in all things kitsch, The B-52’s have always followed their own day-glo muse, from the time of the skittering, off-kilter madness of “Rock Lobster” on through the bizarre sci-fi tale “Planet Claire” and barreling forward to the band’s watershed, one of the biggest-selling albums of 1989, Cosmic Thing.
That willingness to be a little out there made The B-52’s a breath of fresh air in places like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City.
While punk acts were trying to be tough and the art-rock crowd was taking itself too seriously, the B-52’s just wanted to party.
“We played Max’s and then CB’s hired us, and we were the only band they would allow to play both clubs on different weekends, ’cause we would sell out,” relates Schneider.
It was a good thing they did, because the road trip from Athens to New York City wasn’t cheap.
“We’d all pile in Ricky and Cindy’s parents’ station wagon, and we’d all take turns driving, and [we’d] bring all of our equipment, plus our opening act, which was a woman who did a sort of baton-twirling routine to ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking,’ which was definitely something novel to punks and pre-New Wavers,” laughs Schneider. “So we just did our own thing, and we got signed and people liked it and we got signed to Warner’s.”
Playing those Gotham clubs was a dream come true, but at first, The B-52’s didn’t attract much of a crowd.
“We were excited because Max’s was … we loved the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, so it was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to play there? This is the big time,’” says Schneider. “And I think there were only like 18 people there, or 17, because we made $51, ’cause I think it was $3 a head or something. And there were two other bands. And they hadn’t seen anything like us, and then as we were leaving, we didn’t even think to ask if they wanted us to come back. Because we were like, ‘Wow. We’ve played Max’s Kansas City,’ and we were paralyzed with fear because it was our first public, like really public, gig.”
It wouldn’t be their last. Word of mouth and the reaction to their independently released single, “Rock Lobster,” ensured they would be asked back.
Their much-beloved debut, The B-52’s, came out in 1979, and with the manic energy of “Rock Lobster” catching on, they were on their way. A year later, they released Wild Planet, which cracked the U.S. Top 20 album chart and yielded “Private Idaho.”
Then came the problematic Mesopotamia, unveiled in 1982. Not as giddy as previous releases, Mesopotamia started out with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne producing. He wasn’t around to see its conclusion. Schneider isn’t quite sure why.
“Well, I was only on two songs,” says Schneider. “One of the songs Cindy sang. I wasn’t in the studio that much. I’m not a studio hound. I would be there for everything I needed to be there for … and [Byrne] was working on The Catherine Wheel, so I think we were sort of like playing second fiddle to whatever he was doing. “
Whammy! was much more in line with The B-52’s fans had come to know and love, even though it dabbled a bit more in electronica than previous efforts.
“Oh yeah, Ricky and Keith wanted to experiment more with electronics, and we were all up for it,” says Schneider. “So we just did that, but the thing about that, we’d do it onstage and back then, keyboards were a lot more primitive. Sometimes, the keyboard would start without anybody even going near it.”
That would wind up being the least of The B-52’s worries. On Oct. 12, 1985, Ricky Wilson died of AIDS.
“It was just so shocking to lose a friend so young to a disease nobody really knew anything about,” says Schneider. “It was just scary, and Cindy losing her brother, it was just devastating, and you know, him and Keith, they’d been friends since childhood and [had] worked together. So we just didn’t do anything for a couple of years.”
The inactivity eventually ended when Strickland contacted Cindy to see if she had any musical ideas she was kicking around. Jam sessions commenced, and out of them came Cosmic Thing, and a string of hits in “Love Shack,” “Roam” and “Deadbeat Club.”
With the help of producers Nile Rodgers and Don Was, The B-52’s had danced their way back into the limelight. But Cosmic Thing didn’t immediately take off.
“To be honest, radio and even the record label did not get the album,” says Schneider, who would go with the label’s A&R representative to radio stations to “beg” them to play something off Cosmic Thing.
“But finally, it started taking off at different times, in different places in the country, and then gradually, it went up to #3. But it might have been #1 if everything had happened at once. It was over almost the period of a year, kept off the top by Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul, and then they got accused of not singing their material. But we didn’t care. We were just so proud of everything we did.”
Since then, The B-52’s have occasionally popped up on the pop-music world’s radar. In 2008, they returned with the dance-oriented Funplex, and recently, Schneider has taken up with an electro-pop trio called The Superions. A new EP from Schneider’s latest project is due out in January, with the single “Who Threw That Ham At Me” being released in December. As for The B-52’s, they toured this fall, and someday, there may be a vault-clearing the likes of which could shock and awe all who follow them.
“We have miles and miles of tape of us, ’cause we used to jam all together, and so we have songs that we never put out that were just really funny,” admits Schneider. “And then we also have miles of tape of us doing fake morning shows and just random stuff on cassette. We need to put it on to CD, because it’s all probably going to disintegrate. But it is like that, you know — try to just come up with anything. Of course, I can come up with anything, except a #1 smash hit.”