Who They Are: A deeply eclectic pop-party group spawned in Athens, Georgia, and later based in the lower reaches of Upstate New York, originally featuring a quintet line-up of guitarist Ricky Wilson, drummer Keith Strickland, and vocalists Kate Pierson (who also played keyboards and bass), Cindy Wilson (ace bongo player and occasional guitarist), and Fred Schneider. Ricky Wilson was a tragic early casualty of the AIDS era, and after his passing, Strickland shifted to guitar, with the group backed by session rhythm section players from that point forward. Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s sister) left the group for several years after his death, but not before completing her epic vocal work (think “Tin roof . . . rusted!”) on the B-52’s commercial breakthrough album from 1989, Cosmic Thing. After one album recorded and released by a Strickland-Pierson-Schneider trio, Cindy returned for their last studio album, Funplex (2008). In 2012, Keith Strickland announced his retirement from live B-52’s performances, though he nominally remains a member of the group in its studio incarnation, should they ever choose to release new material in that format.
When I First Heard Them: In the summer of 1979, digging their quirky alt-radio hit “Rock Lobster” on the epic free-form WLIR (92.7 FM), while I was living at Mitchel Field on Long Island. I remember them as a key part of what then seemed a strange radio phenomenon involving female-fronted groups bending the rock music rules in marvelous New Wave ways, with Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number” and The Flying Lizards’ “Money” also standing strong in my memory as defining tunes of the times. In very early 1980, as “Rock Lobster” was gaining traction as a dance-floor classic, The B-52’s appeared on Saturday Night Live, and blew my mind with their performances of “Lobster” and (most especially) “Dance This Mess Around.” It wasn’t quite as life-altering a television experience as Devo’s appearance on SNL had been, but it was darned close, with loads of “What the hell was that?” moments spread across their brief appearance. I was hooked for good after that unexpectedly wonderful Saturday night, remaining happy to acquire whatever The B-52’s wanted to offer us audiences from that point forward.
Why I Love Them: I listen to a lot of dark and dour music (no surprise to regular readers here), and The B-52’s are always a delightful palate cleanser against that trend, offering light and love and joy in pretty much everything they do, even as they have contended as a group with some seriously heavy stuff over the years. While they traffic in goofy and kitschy tunes, their songs arrangements are often surprisingly sophisticated and strange (Ricky Wilson defined their guitar sound with a custom four-string, open-tuned axe, for example), appealing to both the higher and lower function facets of my music-processing brain housing group. While Fred Schneider is without question one of the most unusual front-men in rock music history, the real vocal magic of The B-52’s occurs when Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson sing together. They’re both extraordinary vocalists, with big voices, and Kate’s pure-tone belt and Cindy’s scratchy Southern drawl combine to make a heart-melting sound that’s simply unparalleled among the many other artists in my rather-large collection of tunes. While I’m not generally a shallow fellow who forms unrequited emotional attachments to famous people who I don’t actually know personally, I will confess to having had a big teen-age crush on Cindy Wilson way back when, smitten by her stage presence and singing, swoon! And having confessed that, I’m now deeply embarrassed, so I will get on to listing my fave B-52’s songs below, noting that there is nothing to see here, keep it moving right along, never mind the old man behind the curtain getting woozy with nostalgia for more innocent times.
#10. “Revolution Earth,” from Good Stuff (1992)
#9. “Song for a Future Generation,” from Whammy! (1983)
#8. “52 Girls,” from The B-52’s (1979)
#7. “Wig,” from Bouncing Off The Satellites (1986)
#6. “Roam,” from Cosmic Thing (1989)
#5. “Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland,” from Bouncing Off The Satellites (1986)
#4. “Legal Tender,” from Whammy! (1983)
#3. “Party Out of Bounds,” from Wild Planet (1980)
#2. “Dance This Mess Around,” from The B-52’s (1979)
#1. “Give Me Back My Man,” from Wild Planet (1980)