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Band members include Cindy Wilson (lead vocals, percussion, guitar), born c. 1957, in Athens, Ga., daughter of a fireman and a factory worker, married Keith Bennett (an advertising executive); Ricky Wilson (guitar), born c. 1953, in Athens, Ga., brother of Cindy Wilson, died 1985 (one source says 1986) of AIDS (one source says an AIDS-related illness); Kate Pierson (vocals, keyboards, guitar), born c. 1948, in Weehawken, N.J.; Fred Schneider III (vocals, keyboards, guitar), born c. 1952, in Belleville, N.J.; Keith Strickland (drums, percussion), born c. 1954, in Athens, Ga., son of bus station managers. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros. Records, Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505.
The B-52's have been a presence on the new wave music scene since 1979, when their hit "Rock Lobster" started people jumping on dance floors all over the United States and Great Britain. The band, composed of Cindy and Ricky Wilson, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider III, and Keith Strickland, quickly became known for their wacky lyrics and bouncy music. They followed "Lobster" with a string of popular 1980s dance tunes, including "Planet Claire," "Private Idaho," and "Quiche Lorraine." After a three-year dry spell and the loss of Ricky Wilson to AIDS in 1985, the B-52's re-emerged with the 1989 album Cosmic Thing and its smash hit single, "Love Shack."
The Wilsons, who were brother and sister, and Strickland grew up in Athens, Georgia. Schneider and Pierson also lived in Athens for a long time, but are natives of New Jersey. The five became friends in Athens during the mid-1970s and, after an outing together at a Chinese restaurant late in 1976, decided to form a band. Though all had instrumental talent, they had varied levels of experience: the Wilsons had never played with a band before, Strickland had been in a high school rock group, Pierson had worked with a folk group called the Sun Donuts and played classical piano, and Schneider had been in bands with whimsical names like Bridge Mix and Night Soil. Taking their name not from the military airplane but rather from Southern slang for outrageous bouffant hairdos--which the women in the group wore during performances--the B-52's premiered at a friend's Valentine's Day party in 1977. They played for free at this gig and many others in and around Athens, not having the money to buy equipment for professional stints at the time. Until the group felt confident about their ability, they recorded their music before a performance and played it back on tape, miming their instruments--the only live part being the vocals. Apparently this worked all right except for the time someone accidentally pulled the plug on the tape player in the middle of a show.
Eventually the B-52's improved to the point where they decided to press a few of their own records, notably the song that would later become their first big hit, "Rock Lobster." They distributed the disc to reviewers and sold them to the fans at local appearances. The band received sufficient praise for "Lobster" to convince them to try their act in New York City. Late in 1977 they performed at audition night at Max's Kansas City, a Manhattan club where singers such as Patti Smith and Blondie had made their debuts. Schneider recalled for Michael Small in People: "There were only 17 people. We made 17 bucks."
By 1979 the B-52's were making more lucrative club appearances in New York, and had landed a contract with Warner Bros. Records. In that year, they released their first album, titled simply The B-52's. On the disc, they re-recorded "Rock Lobster," and the song received wide exposure for the first time. Another cut from the album that became popular in dance clubs was "Planet Claire." As Parke Puterbaugh in Rolling Stone put it, the B-52's had "unleashed" these "kitschy classics on a world that had no idea how badly it wanted to have some danceable, unselfconscious fun." The band followed their debut with 1980's Wild Planet. Though the singles from that album, "Private Idaho" and "Quiche Lorraine" did not match the success of "Rock Lobster," they were still featured numbers in discotheques.
But even with "Rock Lobster," the B-52's had not received much airplay on mainstream radio stations. As Small explained, "the ... quintet had an eccentric musical style that only the underground truly appreciated." He elaborated in a different People article that the group sounds "as if they might be the illegitimate offspring of [futuristic cartoon character] George Jetson and [early 1960s pop group] the Shirelles." Schneider had a different response: "Radio stations wouldn't play us," he told Small, "because the people who listened to us didn't buy $30,000 cars."
When Michael Tearson reviewed Bouncing Off the Satellites in Audio, the B-52's 1986 album, he noted that it seemed "subdued." If it was, it might have been because while the group was recording it, Ricky Wilson was dying of AIDS. Shortly after the studio sessions for Bouncing were completed in 1985, the band's lead guitarist passed away. As Puterbaugh reported, "his death devastated the members of the band," and the remaining B-52's did not work together again for about three years.
But, as Pierson confided to Puterbaugh, "it was really a healing thing to get together and be creative again." In 1988, they decided to compose and record a new album. Pierson talked of their composition techniques to Small: "We go into a creative netherworld where you don't monitor yourself. In jam sessions, we're all singing at the same time, bouncing off each other." Further, Strickland explained to Puterbaugh that the album that was released as Cosmic Thing in 1989 was a low-pressure activity: "We unanimously agreed that we wanted to have fun with this record and not worry about what was on the radio or what was current." As Puterbaugh pointed out, however, "ironically, radio has been extremely receptive to Cosmic Thing, " and Schneider believes it is due to the fact that the professional disc jockeys of the late 1980s were working in the college stations that used to play the B-52's music when they first became popular, and still like the band. At any rate, "Love Shack," a single from the album, has proved the B-52's most mainstream, and therefore best-selling hit so far. The title track was featured in the motion picture "Earth Girls Are Easy," and another single, "Roam," has received a great deal of airplay on pop stations.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Formed group in 1976; recording artists and concert performers, 1979--.
- Albums; on Warner Bros./Reprise
- The B-52's (includes "Rock Lobster" and "Planet Claire"), 1979.
- Wild Planet (includes "Private Idaho" and "Quiche Lorraine"), 1980.
- Bouncing Off the Satellites 1986.
- Cosmic Thing (includes "Cosmic Thing," "Love Shack," and "Roam"), 1989.
- Also released the albums Whammy and Mesopotamia.
- Audio, January 1987.
- People, August 21, 1989; December 11, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, July 13, 1989; November 30, 1989.
- Stereo Review, January 1987.
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