The B-52s (styled as The B-52's prior to 2008) is an American new wave band formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1976. The original line-up consisted of Fred Schneider (vocals), Kate Pierson (vocals, keyboards), Cindy Wilson (vocals, percussion), Ricky Wilson (guitar), and Keith Strickland (drums, guitar, keyboards). Ricky Wilson died from AIDS-related illness in 1985, and Strickland switched from drums to lead guitar. The band also added touring members for albums and live performances.
The group evoked a "thrift shop aesthetic", in the words of Bernard Gendron, by drawing from 1950s and 1960s pop sources, trash culture, and rock and roll. Schneider, Pierson, and Wilson sometimes use call and response style vocals (Schneider's often humorous sprechgesang contrasting with the melodic harmonies of Pierson and Wilson), and their guitar and keyboard-driven instrumentation composes their trademark sound which was also set apart from their contemporaries by the unusual guitar tunings used by Ricky Wilson in their earlier albums. The band has had many hits, including "Rock Lobster", "Planet Claire", "Private Idaho", "Legal Tender", "Love Shack", and "Roam".
1976–1979: Formation and early yearsEdit
The B-52's were formed in 1976 when vocalist Cindy Wilson, her older brother and guitarist Ricky, keyboardist and vocalist Kate Pierson, original drummer and percussionist Keith Strickland and cowbell player, poet and lead vocalist Fred Schneider held an impromptu jam session after sharing a flaming volcano drink at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Georgia. When they first jammed, Strickland played guitar and Ricky Wilson played congas. They later played their first concert (with Wilson playing guitar) in 1977 at a Valentine's Day party for their friends.
The name B-52's comes from a particular beehive hairdo resembling the nose cone of the aircraft, which Pierson and Cindy Wilson wore in performances throughout the band's first decade. Other names the band considered were the "Tina-Trons" and "Fellini's Children." Strickland suggested the name after a dream he had had one night, of a band performing in a hotel lounge. In the dream he heard someone whisper in his ear that the name of the band was "the B-52s."
The band's quirky take on the new wave sound of their era was a combination of dance and surf music set apart from their contemporaries by the unusual guitar tunings used by Ricky Wilson and thrift-store chic.
Their first single, "Rock Lobster," recorded for DB Records in 1978, was an underground success, selling over 2,000 copies in total, that led to the B-52's performing at CBGB and Max's Kansas City in New York City. Both this version of "Rock Lobster" and its B-side "52 Girls" are different recordings from those on their first album, and the early version of "52 Girls" is in a different key.
The re-recorded version of "Rock Lobster" was released as a single. In the UK and Germany it was backed with an instrumental version of "Running Around," a non-album track. (A vocal re-recording of this would appear on their second album, Wild Planet.) The buzz created by the record in the UK meant their first show in London at the Electric Ballroom was packed, and attended by UK pop stars including Sandie Shaw, Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, and Joe Jackson. In Canada, released on the Warner Bros. label, the single went from cult hit to reach the No. 1 position in the RPM-compiled national chart on May 24, 1980.
1979–1982: The B-52's, Wild Planet, and MesopotamiaEdit
In 1979, the B-52's signed contracts as they flew over to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas to record their debut studio album, with Island founder Chris Blackwell producing. The band was surprised by Blackwell's recording methods; he wanted to keep the sound as close as possible to their actual live sound, so he used almost no overdubs or additional effects.
Released on July 6, 1979, The B-52's contained re-recorded versions of "Rock Lobster" and "52 Girls", six originals recorded solely for the album, and a cover of the Petula Clark single "Downtown". The album was a major success, especially in Australia, where it reached number three on the charts alongside its three singles "Planet Claire", "Rock Lobster", and "Dance This Mess Around". In the United States, the single "Rock Lobster" reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while the album itself was certified platinum by the RIAA. In 1980, John Lennon called the B-52's his favorite band, and specifically cited "Rock Lobster" as an inspiration for his comeback with Double Fantasy.
In April 1980, The B-52's returned to Compass Point Studios to record their follow-up album. Several of the songs for the new album had been concert staples since 1978; the band consciously did not record them for their first album since they already had too many tracks and they wanted a strong second album, knowing that their live performances would make fans look forward to it. Rhett Davies co-produced the album, with more emphasis put on slick production; the album has a slightly more psychedelic and even paranoid sound than that of their debut.
Released on August 27, 1980, Wild Planet was well received by critics, most of whom regarded it as a strong second album following the success of their first; many fans consider it their best album. The album reached number eighteen on the Billboard 200 chart in 1980 and was certified gold; "Private Idaho" became their second Hot 100 entry. On January 26, 1980, The B-52's performed on Saturday Night Live; they also performed at the Heatwave festival (which was promoted as the "New Wave Woodstock") in Toronto, Canada in August 1980, and appeared in the Paul Simon film One Trick Pony. In July 1981, Party Mix! was released, a six-song collection containing songs from their first two albums remixed and sequenced to form two long tracks, one on each side.
In 1981, the band collaborated with Talking Heads' David Byrne to produce a third full-length studio album. Reportedly due to differences with Byrne over the album's musical direction, recording sessions for the album were aborted, prompting the band to release Mesopotamia in 1982 as an EP. In 1991, Party Mix! and Mesopotamia, the latter of which had been remixed, were combined and released together on a single compact disc. It was also in 1982 that the band appeared at the inaugural US Festival. They performed on the first day of the festival alongside Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, and The Police.
1982–1987: Whammy!, Bouncing off the Satellites, and death of Ricky WilsonEdit
In December 1982, the band began recording their third album, Whammy!. According to Pierson, Strickland no longer wanted to play the drums, so the band switched to drum machines for this album, with Strickland and Ricky Wilson playing all the music on that album, and the rest of the band providing vocals only. Having originally played guitars, organ, bass guitar and synthesizers, Pierson switched to a mainly vocal role in the studio, but remained behind the keyboards on tour. The band also began experimenting heavily with the synthesizers during this period.
Released on April 27, 1983, Whammy! reached number 29 on the Billboard 200 chart. "Legal Tender" reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart, as well as the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Singles chart alongside "Whammy Kiss" and "Song for a Future Generation". For the Whammy! tour, some tracks featured Strickland on the drums while others used a backing track so that Strickland could come forward and play other parts. This also freed up the vocalists (now sometimes not playing instruments) to perform some simple choreography. Copyright issues with Yoko Ono led to the cover song "Don't Worry" being replaced by "Moon 83" — a rearranged version of "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)" from their debut album — on future pressings of Whammy!.
In January 1985, the band performed in Brazil at Rock in Rio, their largest crowd ever. Having taken a one-year break, the band struggled to write new material for their next album. They all lived together in the same house, and felt that collaboration was not working. They decided to try to write songs separately, and began recording in July 1985, again using drum machines and extensive synthesizers. During the recording, guitarist Wilson had been suffering from AIDS, though none of the other band members were aware of his illness except for Strickland, as he "did not want anyone to worry about him or fuss about him." On October 12, 1985, Wilson died from his illness, at the age of 32.
When the band returned to the studio, Strickland had learned how to play the guitar in Wilson's unique style and switched permanently to the new instrument, leaving session players to complete the rhythm section. The results were released on September 8, 1986, as Bouncing off the Satellites, a mixture of solo efforts and group efforts. Because of Wilson's death, the band did not tour to promote the album. A music video was made for "Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland" and the band appeared on some UK television programs but then took a two-year hiatus.
Cindy Wilson was devastated by her brother's death, and her bandmates were depressed about Ricky's passing. The band went into seclusion and did not tour to promote their album. This was the beginning of an extended hiatus from their musical careers. In 1987, they released a public service announcement in the style of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover on behalf of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.
1988–1992: Comeback, Cosmic Thing, and Good StuffEdit
Strickland had been composing in 1988. After he played some of his new music for the other band members, they all agreed to try writing together again, with Pierson, Wilson and Schneider contributing the lyrics and melodies. In 1989, the band released Cosmic Thing, their mainstream breakthrough, released on Reprise Records worldwide. The single "Channel Z" from the new album became an alternative and college radio hit, hitting number one on the U.S. Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, receiving significant airplay on MTV's modern rock show 120 Minutes. They then embarked on the Cosmic Tour.
The next single, "Love Shack", with its party vibe and colorful music video, became their first top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, ultimately reaching No. 3 in November 1989. That peak was matched in March 1990 when their follow-up single, "Roam", also reached No. 3. In Australia, the country that had most embraced the band a decade earlier, "Love Shack" stayed at number one for eight weeks.
A fourth single, "Deadbeat Club", which reminisced about the band's early days in Athens and whose video was shot on location and featured a cameo by fellow Athens artist R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, reached No. 30. Cosmic Thing climbed into the U.S. top five and earned multi-platinum certification. it also had huge international success reaching No. 1 in both Australia and New Zealand and No. 8 in the UK. The group had a hugely successful world tour to support the record, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in March 1990. In 1990, the B-52's were nominated for four MTV Video Music Awards including Video of the Year. They won two awards, Best Group Video and Best Art Direction.
Pierson sang on Iggy Pop's song "Candy", which gave him a top 40 hit. In 1991, Schneider's solo record was repackaged and re-released, resulting in his first Hot 100 single when "Monster" climbed to No. 85, and Pierson again guest-starred on a popular track, R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People", which reached No. 10 in September 1991. Pierson also appeared on two other songs from R.E.M.'s chart-topping album Out of Time, "Near Wild Heaven", and "Me in Honey", as well as the outtake "Fretless".
In late 1990 Cindy Wilson took time off from the band, with Julee Cruise filling in for her on tour. The B-52's released Good Stuff in 1992 as a trio – the only release on which Cindy Wilson was not present – and the title track reached No. 28 in August of that year. The album made it to No. 18 in the U.S. It is also the group's most overtly political album, though they had been activists and fundraisers for environmental, AIDS and animal rights causes for many years.
1993–2007: Hiatus from studio materialEdit
The band had their next chart entry in 1994 when, as The BC-52's, they appeared in The Flintstones live-action movie and sang the title song. When released as a single, it reached No. 33 in the U.S. and No. 3 in the UK. In 1994, Pierson and Schneider also sang on the theme song for the Nickelodeon series Rocko's Modern Life from the second season on. In the 1990s, former Duran Duran drummer Sterling Campbell joined the band, but left in 2000 to tour with David Bowie and was replaced that year by Zachary Alford, who had recorded and toured with the band during the Cosmic Thing era. Pierson and Cindy Wilson recorded the song "Ain't no Stopping us Now" for the 1996 film The Associate starring Whoopi Goldberg. Wilson rejoined the B-52's the same year.
A career retrospective, Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation, appeared in 1998 along with two remixed maxi-singles "Summer of Love '98" and "Hallucinating Pluto". A major tour (with co-headliners the Pretenders) to promote the collection took place. "Debbie", another single from the album (a tribute to Blondie's Debbie Harry), placed 35 on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks. In 1999, they recorded a parody of "Love Shack" called "Glove Slap" for an episode of The Simpsons. They co-headlined another major tour in 2000 with the Go-Go's. In 2000, the band recorded the song "The Chosen One" for the movie Pokémon: The Movie 2000.
A more extensive anthology, Nude on the Moon: The B-52's Anthology, appeared in 2002. In February of that year, the band held a series of concerts celebrating their 25th anniversary. The Irving Plaza show in New York City had Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Yoko Ono as guests with Chicks on Speed as the opener. Coinciding with the band's 25th anniversary was the publication of "The B-52's Universe: The Essential Guide to the World's Greatest Party Band", the first and only officially authorized biography of the band. The book was nominated for a Lambda Lit Award and was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist. The B-52's recorded the song "Orange You Glad It's Summer" for a Target commercial that aired in spring/summer 2002. Target also used the song "Junebug" in a TV spot five years later.
In late 2004, the band opened for Cher on a few dates of her Farewell Tour. In March 2006, they opened for The Rolling Stones at a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. They had three remix EPs released by Planet Clique: Whammy! in 2005, Mesopotamia in 2006, and Wild Planet in 2007. During this time span, they appeared on many television shows including The L Word, V.I.P., The Rosie O'Donnell Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Late Show with David Letterman, The Arsenio Hall Show, Saturday Night Live, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Today Show, Good Morning America and numerous times on VH1.
2008–present: Funplex and continued touringEdit
In 2008, the band dropped the apostrophe from their name to become "The B-52s". Funplex, the band's first original album in 16 years (since 1992's Good Stuff), was released on March 25, 2008, by Astralwerks. Talking about the record's sound, Strickland noted, "It's loud, sexy rock and roll with the beat turned up to hot pink." The album is produced by Steve Osborne, who was asked to work on the album based on his work with New Order on the album Get Ready.
The album debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., immediately making it the second-highest charting B-52s album ever. The band toured in support of the album as well as making appearances on talk shows, including The Tonight Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and performing on The Today Show on Memorial Day 2008. They also participated in the True Colors Tour 2008 with Cyndi Lauper and embarked on a European tour in July.
The first single from the album was "Funplex", which was released digitally on January 29 to the iTunes Store in the U.S. The second single lifted from the album was "Juliet of the Spirits". Schneider said in an interview that the album just broke even and could be the B-52s' last new studio album, though he later retracted that statement. The B-52s performed their hit track "Love Shack" with Sugarland at the 2009 CMT Music Awards.
On February 18, 2011, the B-52s played a show at the Classic Center in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, four days after the 34th anniversary of their first-ever show on February 14, 1977. The concert was filmed and recorded for With the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA, released in October 2011.
The group continued to perform live, with a touring band including musicians Sterling Campbell (drums), Paul Gordon (keyboards, guitar) and Tracy Wormworth (bass), including the closing show for the 2011 edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival, and as the house band during the 2012 TV Land Awards. At the end of 2012, Strickland announced he would no longer tour with the B-52s, though he would continue as a member of the band. Without Strickland, the B-52's continued to tour across the world with groups including The Go-Go's, Tears for Fears, The English Beat, The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, Boy George and Culture Club and Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey. Aside from touring, the group covered the Squidbillies theme song during Season 10 of the Adult Swim series and appeared as guests in the sketch comedy show Portlandia.
During 2019, the B-52s announced a tour starting in May in the States, taking in Europe, and back to the States through the fall.
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