The B-52’s at 35: Rockin’ Over to PBS

It’s fitting that the B-52’s, the Athens, Ga., party band marking its 35th anniversary this year, the group came out of a Flaming Volcano.

It was a drink.

“We went to Hunan’s Chinese restaurant, and it’s like a kava bowl with five straws,” purple-tressed singer Kate Pierson explained at the TV Critics winter press tour, where the band was presenting its upcoming pledge program concert and played a short set for the scribes. “They would light it. We didn’t have money for food, so we drank.”

A party was at the center of their music that celebrated space, arcane culture and artifacts of their native shack, like their famously tin-roofed “Love Shack.”

So it was fitting that the band grew out of early gigs at house parties.

“We never really set out to, like, try to do what other people were doing,” says Fred Schneider, the laconic chanter who stands between the singing female voices of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, whose elaborate early bouffants lent the band its name. “It started out sort of just as something to do in Athens, Georgia because Athens wasn’t the musical hotbed it is today.”

“We were all friends, and one night we got together, and we were all creative in our own ways, and it just all gelled, and we decided to do music as just a pastime,” says Schneider.

“The very first time we performed for our friends, we were very surprised that they liked it,” says Keith Strickland, who moved from drums to guitar after Ricky Wilson died early in the band’s history.

Their first gig was a Valentine’s party.

“Then people who went to that had us play at their parties,” Schneider says. “We developed we worked harder and harder on our writing skills, music skills and ideas and just kept going.”

At their heart were twangy, danceable weirdo tunes like “Rock Lobster” and “52 Dances.”

“We have the most unconventional way of writing, and I think the hardest way of writing, but it yields really, really interesting things that would never come up in a traditional way of writing,” Pierson says. “We write collectively, and there’s a whole process involved, but basically it’s a jam. We can all elaborate on that, but it’s kind of a long process of jamming. It’s almost like a collage.”

“I’ll come in with a backing track,” says Strickland. “Then Kate, Fred and Cindy will improvise. They will just ad-lib over it, sing different things. It’s kind of like turning jazz into rock and roll. It’s a lot of improvisation, freeform stuff, and then we go back, and that’s with the lyrics and their melodies, and then we’ll sit together and we’ll listen. We will record those sessions, jam sessions. And we’ll listen to the jams and pick out different parts, you know, different we’ll find lyrics that we like or we’ll find something that’s “Oh, that’s a good hook. That’s a good chorus,” and then we’ll sort of center on that, and then we sort of branch out.”

“We come upon these really strange harmonies, and it’s it kind of reminds me a lot of times of, you know, something you would hear in the mountains in Tennessee or something,” Wilson says.

“We had our influences,” says Pierson, listing them: “Yma Sumac, Yoko Ono…Perez Prado.”

“The cycle continues,” Wilson says, declaring at another point, “Our music is I think is just as good as a lot of music.  It’s just that because of humor, people seem to think that if humor is involved, then it’s not as good. But it’s really quite intricate and very creative, and it thrills me when we write.”

The music has endured, as has the band. And this year marks the 35th anniversary of the band, to be celebrated with the pledge time premiere of a concert performed last year in Athens.

It may be odd to some that The B-52’s are now in a place where 50s rock and schlocky middlebrow music usually plays. But public television played a key role in the development of the band, Strickland says.

Early on when he encountered the guitar skills of Ricky Wilson, Strickland recounts, “I said, ‘Where did you learn?’ because he could do folk finger picking style. And I asked him, ‘Where did you learn that? How did you learn to do that?’ And he watched folk guitar lessons on PBS.

And that sensibility really carried on into our music. Even though it’s not what we do is not folk, but I mean, it was a foundation.”

The B-52’s have already been influential to any number of bands – by their own count, they name Junior Senior, Scissor Sisters and the Ting Tings; you could name many more. But perhaps the anniversary concert from Athens, accompanied by a live album, DVD release and station promotions, will not only be a step up from the endless doo-wop and cheesy tenor concerts of pledge time; it may also inspire a new generation of bands.

Though Pierson may have been humoring me when she parroted back my question’s phrase, poached from their own song on the unsung “Whammy:”

“Future generations,” she says, “will learn much from this.”

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