Years before R.E.M., the Elephant 6 Collective or Danger Mouse came along, it was the B-52s (Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, and siblings Cindy and Ricky Wilson) who first put Athens on the alt-rock map. And the band’s notoriously uproarious concerts prove they haven’t lost a step, even 35 years after its first live performance.
Formed after sharing tropical drinks at a Chinese restaurant, this quintessential party band was named after a beehive hairdo resembling the nose cone of an aircraft famously used as a bomber. Appropriately enough, the B-52s exploded in the underground rock scene immediately upon impact, with the 1978 single “Rock Lobster” landing them gigs at New York’s legendary CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, a record deal with Warner Bros. and a debut album produced by the influential Chris Blackwell.
The quirky quintet proved remarkably accessible, whether that’s in spite of or because of their unique twist on new wave, which combines elements of classic surf music, ’60s girl-group pop and post-punk rock with a flamboyant thrift-store fashion sense and an enthusiastic embrace of oddball kitsch.
The band’s 1979 self-titled debut received platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America, while 1980’s Wild Planet reached No. 18 on the Billboard album chart. Songs such as “Rock Lobster,” “Planet Claire” and “Private Idaho” became breakout hits and remain popular today.
The ’80s brought a mixture of tragedy and triumph. During the 1985 recording of their fourth studio album, Bouncing Off the Satellites, it was revealed that guitarist Ricky Wilson was ill with AIDS-related health issues. When he passed away, the band went on hiatus and did not record or tour for several years. It was only when Strickland switched from drums to guitar and wrote some new songs that the band regrouped to record 1989’s Cosmic Thing, with hit songs “Love Shack” and “Roam” making it their most successful album ever.
Although they’ve only recorded two studio albums since then, the B-52s remain one of rock’s most influential bands, performing 50 to 60 shows a year. Whether it’s closing last year’s Montreal Jazz Festival or performing an anniversary show at Athens’ Classic Center (recently released on DVD/Blu-ray as With the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA), their concerts are always like a party out of bounds.”
Bret Love is the founder of ecotourism/conservation site GreenGlobalTravel.com; the national managing editor of INsite magazine; and music editor for Georgia Music Magazine. He freelances for more than a dozen other national and international publications, and performs on numerous improv teams with Jackpie at Relapse Theatre.