The first of many acts to cement the college town of Athens, Georgia, as a hotbed of alternative music, and one of the first American new wave acts to fuse retro-styled rock & roll with dance-friendly rhythms, the B-52s took their name from the Southern slang for the mile-high bouffant wigs sported by singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, a look emblematic of the band's campy, thrift-store aesthetic.
The five-piece group, which also included vocalist Fred Schneider, guitarist Ricky Wilson (Cindy's older brother), and drummer Keith Strickland, formed in 1976 after a drunken evening at a Chinese restaurant; the bandmembers had little or no previous musical experience, and performed most of their earliest shows with taped guitar and percussion accompaniment. In 1978, after gaining enough confidence to venture into a recording studio, the B-52s pressed up a few thousand copies of the single "Rock Lobster," which became a modest hit on the nascent alternative rock circuit. The B-52s soon traveled to New York City, playing their first paying gig at the famed rock club Max's Kansas City.
Subsequent appearances at CBGB brought the group to the attention of the New York press, and in 1979 the B-52s signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. for the United States and Island for the U.K. and Europe; Island founder Chris Blackwell flew the band to the Bahamas, where they quickly recorded their self-titled debut album, a collection of manic, bizarre, and eminently danceable songs that scored an underground club hit with a reworked version of "Rock Lobster." The following year, they issued Wild Planet, which reached the Top 20 on the U.S. album charts; Party Mix!, an EP's worth of reworked material from the band's first two proper outings, appeared in 1981. Hoping to expand their musical approach, the B-52s recruited friend and fan David Byrne to produce their third album, but by all accounts, the bandmembers (and their record labels) were not happy with the results, which emphasized a darker, funkier sound and minimized Ricky Wilson's guitar and the group's playful side.
Ultimately, Byrne and the B-52s walked away from the project, and six completed tracks were released as an EP, 1982's Mesopotamia. After a Schneider solo LP, 1984's Fred Schneider & the Shake Society, the group returned to the studio to record 1986's Bouncing Off the Satellites. While the album tried to put a brave face on a difficult situation, Ricky Wilson was seriously ill while recording the LP, and on October 12, 1985, Ricky died; originally his death was attributed to natural causes, but it was later revealed that he had succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. In light of Wilson's death, the B-52s found it impossible to promote the new album, and they spent the next several years on hiatus. In 1989, the B-52s finally returned with Cosmic Thing, which became their most commercially successful effort to date. Marked by Strickland's move from drums to guitar and club-friendly production from Don Was and Nile Rodgers, the album launched several hit singles, including the party smash "Love Shack," "Roam," and "Deadbeat Club." In 1990, Cindy Wilson retired from active duty, leaving the remaining trio to soldier on for 1992's Good Stuff.
A year later, dubbed the BC-52s, they performed the theme song for the live-action feature The Flintstones. In 1996, Fred Schneider released his second solo album, Just Fred, produced by Steve Albini and featuring accompaniment from members of the Didjits, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Six Finger Satellite, and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Cindy Wilson returned to the group for a tour supporting the release of the 1998 hits collection Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation. Four years later, the double-disc compilation Nude on the Moon: The B-52's Anthology would dive deeper into their catalog by featuring rare tracks, live recordings, and remixes along with the hits. In 2008, after 16 years away from the studio while the band toured periodically, the B-52s returned with a new album; released by Astralwerks, Funplex was a slick, synthesizer-driven effort produced by Steve Osborne. Meanwhile, Fred Schneider recorded a handful of singles and EPs with his side project the Superions, and in February 2015, Kate Pierson issued her first solo album, Guitars and Microphones. In April 2015, the B-52s released a digital-only archival release, Live! 8-24-1979, recorded as the band opened for Talking Heads just six weeks after their debut album was released.
By Jason Ankeny