The Guide to Getting into the B-52s, Pop's Most Surprising Party Starters
Their uncanny mix of surf guitar riffs, funk-influenced rhythms, quirky vocal tics, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics goes far beyond "Love Shack."
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Everyone knows the B-52s' signature song, “Love Shack,” which the band even parodied on The Simpsons as “Glove Slap.” It’s a blessing and a curse; "Love Shack" is quintessential B-52s: exuberant, unique (who else would climax a middle eight with the pay-off line "tin roof... rusted!"?), and a little bit silly. But "Love Shack" could suggest to novices that silliness is the band's sole raison d'être—and that’s a real shame, because the B-52s are not a novelty act.
According to their website, the band formed in Athens, Georgia in October 1976 when Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, and siblings Cindy and Ricky Wilson shared a fishbowl cocktail at a Chinese restaurant and channeled their alcohol rush into an impromptu jam session. It worked, so they named themselves the B-52s after a Southern slang term for a kind of super-bouffant beehive hairstyle. When the band’s two female singers adopted the ‘do, it gave the B-52s an instant visual stamp. The band's third vocalist, Schneider, didn't so much sing as develop his own kind of Sprechgesang best described as a dry, campy bark. Guitarist Ricky Wilson and drummer Strickland provided the band's distinctive, danceable rhythms; the B-52s had such a hot groove, they dubbed themselves "The World’s Greatest Party Band."
As their breakthrough single "Rock Lobster" was becoming an underground hit in 1978, they'd take road trips to New York City to perform at now-legendary venues such as CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Their kitsch thrift store aesthetic stood out next to tougher-looking punk bands who seethed and sneered. The B-52s were also different because they were largely queer. (Cindy Wilson is the only band member not to identify as LGBTQ). Though they wouldn’t speak explicitly about their sexuality until years later, gayness radiated from the band’s stage presence and subject matter. “Don’t feel out of place, ‘cause there are thousands of others like you,” Schneider told us reassuringly on early song "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)."
Recalling their first gig at Max’s Kansas City, Schneider told The New York Times in 2008, "We were nervous as hell. Everyone was standing there with their arms folded.” But the B-52s won over punk crowds with their energetic performances and unpeggable sound, an infectious mix of surf guitar riffs, funk-influenced rhythms, quirky vocal tics, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. “Rock Lobster,” with Schneider’s seemingly random checklist of marine life (“there goes a narwhal!”) punctuated by Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s unselfconscious sound effects, felt so fresh it inspired John Lennon to start writing songs again.
Released in 1979, the band's self-titled debut is widely recognized as the best encapsulation of their early sound; it regularly appears on all-time greatest album lists. The euphoric "Dance This Mess Around," sci-fi-influenced "Planet Claire," and sexually suggestive "6060-842" remain staples of their live set today. But 1980's Wild Planet is almost as enjoyable, especially when the B-52s turn into gatecrashers on "Party Out of Bounds" and really cut loose on "Devil in My Car." The album's biggest hit, "Private Idaho," later inspired the title of a cult River Phoenix movie.
By 1983’s third album Whammy!, the B-52s were souping up their sound with synthesizers and drum machines, which paid off when fraudster’s fantasy “Legal Tender” cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But 1986’s fourth effort Bouncing Off the Satellites looked like the end of the road. Completed before Ricky Wilson died from AIDS, but released several months afterwards, the band were too grief-stricken for promo duties and it became the first B-52s album not to go gold.
What happened next could be the most remarkable part of the B-52s’ story. The band regrouped with Strickland switching from drums to guitar, and recorded their most successful album, 1989’s Cosmic Thing, home to the hits “Love Shack,” “Roam,” and “Deadbeat Club.” With production duties split between Nile Rodgers and Don Was, Cosmic Thing had a slicker sound than previous B-52s albums, but didn’t sand away their natural campiness: the sassy title track has Schneider commanding: “Shake your honey-buns!” After 1992’s Good Stuff replicated the Cosmic Thing formula to diminishing commercial returns, the B-52s settled into life as a popular summer touring band. Their only studio album since then, 2008’s Funplex, has several moments of unmistakable B-52s magic.
Asked last year what she’d like the B-52s’ legacy to be, Pierson said that “being a band that’s mostly gay and has women in it,” they’re sometimes taken less seriously than “male icon bands” who are seen as more “heavy-duty.”
“Not that I want people to be serious, but to be serious about us as a legitimate band,” she told the Huffington Post. “We were one of a kind. I think for that reason also, it’s kind of hard to understand us. We can’t really be put in a category. I hope our legacy will be enduring and that people think of us as an important band. But I think Ricky’s guitar playing, our style of writing, the fact that we had men and women in the band and gay and straight. I think it’s an important band and the way we wrote by jamming, we really had a different approach.”
When you delve deep into their catalog, it’s difficult to disagree with her.
So you want to get into: Party Time B-52s?
This playlist has to be bookended with "Rock Lobster" and "Love Shack" because they're both deathless classics (although the real-life love shack actually burned down a few years ago). But in between, first album stomper "52 Girls" is a classic, and sadbanger "Dance This Mess Around” did the whole dancing-on-my-own thing before Robyn was even born. "Party Out of Bounds,” memorably used in an episode of Queer As Folk, is another early B-52s song that helped them earn their “World’s Greatest Party Band” tag. The same applies to “Private Idaho” and “Mesopotamia,” the offbeat title track from a 1982 EP produced by David Byrne.
“Wig,” from 1986’s relatively unloved Bouncing Off the Satellites album, is a joyous fan favorite that showcases the band at their most deliciously kitsch. Whenever I’ve quoted the song’s “What’s that on your head?” hook, and received the correct response—“a wig!”—I know I’ve found someone I want to be friends with.
Elsewhere, the title tracks from Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff both bang, as does “Debbie,” a song recorded for a 1998 greatest hits album that’s often overlooked because it’s not on Spotify. “Every day, every day, just a little bit wilder,” Pierson and Wilson sing wistfully as they recall the band’s formative days on the punk scene. Its title is an homage to Blondie’s Debbie Harry, a longtime friend of the band, which makes it even sweeter.
Playlist: "Rock Lobster" / "52 Girls" / "Dance This Mess Around" / "Devil In My Car" / "Private Idaho" / "Mesopotamia" / "Wig" / "Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland" / "Cosmic Thing" / "Good Stuff" / "Debbie" / "Love Shack"
So you want to get into: Sci-Fi B-52s?
The B-52s always explored sci-fi and futuristic themes with a playful sense of humor. First album favorite "Planet Claire" is trippy and silly in equal measure. "Planet Claire has pink air, all the trees are red, no one ever dies there, no one has a head," Schneider deadpans over a beat that borrows from legendary composer Henry Mancini.
The band's 1992 album Good Stuff sometimes sounds as though it's trying too hard, but it definitely peaks with the extraterrestrial pop gem "Is That You Mo-Dean?" A song about being abducted by a UFO, it begins with Schneider telling us he’s "goin' to the store for hot dogs and wine," and ends with a choir chanting "Astral projector! Astral projector! Astral projector!" It's ridiculous, brilliant, and the sort of thing only the B-52s could come up with.
The band also predicts the future on 1983's "Song for a Future Generation," which kind of anticipates genetic engineering and the rise of online dating. All five band members deliver what would in 2019 be the start of their Tinder bios. “My name is Ricky and I am a Pisces. I love computers and hot tamales,” Ricky Wilson tells us. It's the only B-52s song to feature vocals from the late guitarist; and presumably for this reason, they never play it live.
Playlist: "Planet Claire" / "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)" / "53 Miles West of Venus" / "Is That You Mo-Dean?" / "Love in the Year 3000" / "Song for a Future Generation"
So you want to get Into: Sexy B-52s?
Sexual innuendo was always a key ingredient of the B-52s' campy side. "My love's erupting like a red hot volcano," Schneider winks on debut album cut "Lava." The same record's "6060-842" is edgier and feels inherently queer: it’s about a woman named Tina who’s tempted by a phone number on a bathroom wall offering a "very nice time." Could it be a song inspired by cruising?
But interestingly, the B-52s' lustiest album is their 2008 comeback, Funplex. "In an unseemly display of decaying flesh, these nutty kids turned DOR nostalgia act make their first album in 16 years their sex album. Eeyew, say today's normal kids. 'Bout time, says anybody old enough to know that one lure of the flesh is that it's always decaying," Robert Christgau wrote at the time. Thanks to New Order producer Steve Osborne, the B-52s sound as lithe as their libido on Funplex as they sing about everything from a "deviant ingredient" to (ahem) a “hot corner.”
Playlist: "Lava" / "6060-842" / "Strobe Light" / "Whammy Kiss" / "Hot Pants Explosion" / "Pump" / "Hot Corner" / "Ultraviolet" / "Deviant Ingredient"
So you want to get into: Sort-of-Social-Commentary B-52s?
Though they often looked as though they came from another planet, the B-52s were certainly concerned with events on earth. Cosmic Thing's "Channel Z" rallies against "laser bombs" and "ozone holes," while Whammy!’s "Legal Tender" has them lamenting the fact that "prices have shot through the sky." Funplex's fantastic title track offers a sassy jab at shallow consumerist culture: when Schneider barks "your peace sign T-shirt could cause a riot,” he's referencing a 2003 news story in which two men shopping at an Albany mall were told to take off tees protesting the Iraq war.
Playlist: "Legal Tender" / "Queen of Las Vegas" / "Cosmic Thing" / "Channel Z" / "Funplex"
So you want to get into: Melancholy and Affecting B-52s?
Right from the start, Cindy Wilson tended to deliver the B-52s’ most emotional moments. Her gutsy Southern vocals drive two standouts from their debut, the desperate and defiant "Give Me Back My Man" and growling, grinding "Hero Worship," a proto-Stan's anthem that's been called "perhaps the first Riot Grrrl song ever sung."
Wilson is equally devastating on “Ain’t It a Shame,” a Bouncing Off the Satellites deep cut sung from the perspective of a woman neglected by her partner. “I liked your color TV,” she sings with weary resignation. “But you looked at that color TV more than me, more than me.” Just try not to well up.
Schneider has some vulnerable moments, too, especially when he kisses off a shitty ex on “Dancing Now” and mourns a missing dog on the fabulously melodramatic “Quiche Lorraine.” "Revolution Earth," a Good Stuff highlight sung by Pierson, is a lovely folky ode to companionship and being at one with nature.
Then there are some reflective B-52s tracks led jointly by Pierson and Cindy Wilson. Cosmic Thing’s second huge hit, “Roam,” which like “Love Shack” peaked at #3 on the Hot 100, is a classic example. Its optimistic message of embracing life, love, and wanderlust —“roam if you want to, roam around the world”—would be touching at the best of times. From a band still grieving a member stolen by AIDS, it’s almost unbearably poignant.
Playlist: "Hero Worship" / "Give Me Back My Man" / "Quiche Lorraine" / "Ain't It a Shame" / “Summer of Love” / "Topaz" / "Deadbeat Club" / "Roam" / “Revolution Earth” / "Dancing Now"
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