The B-52s originated as a New Wave rock band formed in Athens, Georgia, United States, in 1976. The B-52s' sound is marked by the vocals ??? the female harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, and the generally spoken-word or sprechgesang male vocal counterpoint of Fred Schneider, Ricky Wilson's surf style guitar and Keith Strickland's go go beat drumming. The resulting unique "guy vs. gals" vocals, sometimes used in call and response style (as in their songs "Private Idaho" and "Good Stuff"), are a trademark of the band. Presenting as a positive, enthusiastic, slightly wacky party band, the B-52s have focused on songs telling tall tales ("Rock Lobster", "Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland"), glorifying wild youth ("Love Shack", "Deadbeat Club"), or celebrating wild romance ("Strobe Light", "Hot Pants Explosion"), all set to a danceable New Wave beat.
The band's name comes from a particular beehive hairdo resembling the nose cone of the aircraft of the same name. Keith Strickland suggested the name after a dream he had one night, of a band performing in a hotel lounge. In the dream he heard someone whisper in his ear that the name of the band was "The B-52s." During their early years, wigs of that style were often worn by the band's female singers Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson. The correct name for the band had long been "The B-52's", but in 2008 they dropped the apostrophe, with their official website and Funplex album and single covers reading "The B-52s". In a June 2009 interview with the Arizona Daily Star Schneider said that band will hereafter be known without its apostrophe.
Cindy Wilson (vocals), her older brother Ricky Wilson (guitar), Kate Pierson (organ, vocals), Keith Strickland (drummer), and Fred Schneider (cowbell, vocals) formed the group in an impromptu jam session after sharing a tropical Flaming Volcano (sometimes reported as a Scorpion Bowl) drink at a local Chinese restaurant, and played their first gig in 1977 at a Valentine's Day party for friends. The band's quirky take on the New Wave sound of their era was a combination of dance and surf music set apart by the unusual guitar tunings used by Ricky Wilson. Their costume thrift-store chic set them apart as well. During the Mesopotamia tour, the band's famous wigs were under the care of Jackie Slayton, one of Athens's leading artists and long-time friend of the band.
Their first single, "Rock Lobster", recorded for DB Records in 1978 (see 1978 in music), was an underground success that led to the B-52s performing at CBGB's and Max's Kansas City in New York City. "52 Girls" was the B-side. 2 versions of the single were released in the United Kingdom that featured the B-side "Running Around". The buzz created by the record in the UK, meant their first show in London at the Lyceum in the summer of 1979 was packed in anticipation, with many U.K. popstars such as Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Joe Jackson and others in attendance.
Their debut album, The B-52s, contained re-recorded versions of "Rock Lobster" and "52 Girls", along with six more originals and a remake of Petula Clark's classic "Downtown". It was eventually certified platinum. The album had greater success internationally, especially in Australia, where it hit #7 on the back of three hit singles: "Planet Claire" (#43), "Rock Lobster" (#3) and "Dance This Mess Around". "Rock Lobster" gave the band its first entry on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
The follow-up, Wild Planet, reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart in 1980 and was certified gold. "Private Idaho" became their second Hot 100 entry. On January 26, 1980 the B-52s on Saturday Night Live. They also performed at the Heatwave festival (billed as the "New Wave Woodstock") in Toronto, Canada in August 1980.
Party Mix! was released next, a remix album that took tracks from the first two LPs and presented them in extended forms.
In interviews before his death, John Lennon cited Rock Lobster as an inspiration for his comeback.
Although recording sessions with David Byrne (of Talking Heads) were aborted before a full album had been produced, the recordings were released as the Mesopotamia EP in 1982 (Party Mix! and Mesopotamia would later be combined and released together on a single CD). According to The B-52s fan club newsletter, c. 1982, "Song for a Future Generation" took a full 24 hours straight to record at A&M Records (Herb Alpert's then-company and site of the former Charlie Chaplin Studios in Los Angeles).
The Whammy! album in 1983 brought the band into electronic and drum machine experimentation, much to the chagrin of some of their early fans. "Legal Tender" became their third chart single, while the album broke the Billboard 200. After the initial pressings of Whammy! were released, copyright issues with Yoko Ono led to the song "Don't Worry" being pulled and replaced on future copies of the album with a new track called "Moon 83", a variation on "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)" from their debut album.
1984 brought a solo album from Fred Schneider (Fred Schneider & the Shake Society) with contributions from bandmates Kate Pierson, Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads, Keith Haring and RuPaul appeared on the video clip for "Monster", a song about the "monster" in Fred's pants.
That year, the B-52s re-formed to record Bouncing Off the Satellites. But on , 1985, Ricky Wilson died at age 32 of what was originally reported as cancer but was later revealed to be AIDS-related illness. Devastated, the band went into seclusion and did not tour to promote the album. Nevertheless, Bouncing Off the Satellites eventually reached 85 on the Billboard 200. Cindy went into a deep depression after her brother's passing, while Keith retreated to Woodstock, New York, and Kate and Fred stayed in New York City. The band felt that it would be impossible to continue without Ricky.
Cosmic Thing and mainstream success
During the 2-year hiatus that followed Wilson's death, Strickland switched from drums to guitar and began writing music. After Strickland played some of his new music for the other band members, they all agreed to try writing together again, with Pierson, Wilson and Schneider contributing the lyrics and melodies. Their song "(Shake That) Cosmic Thing" was a centerpiece of the soundtrack to the movie Earth Girls Are Easy.
In 1989, the band released Cosmic Thing, their long-anticipated mainstream breakthrough. "Channel Z", a single from the new album, became an alternative and college radio hit, hitting number one on the U.S. Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, receiving significant airplay on MTV's modern rock show 120 Minutes.
The next single, "Love Shack", would become the band's signature tune. With its party vibe and colorful music video (featuring a cameo by a then-unknown RuPaul), "Love Shack" not only became their first song to hit the U.S. top 40, but went on to peak at number three. That peak was matched in early 1990 when "Roam" also hit number 3. In Australia, the country that had most embraced the band a decade earlier, "Love Shack" stayed at number one for eight weeks.
A 4th single, "Deadbeat Club", which reminisced about the band's early days in Athens and whose video was shot on location and featured a cameo by fellow Athens artist R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, became a U.S. top 30 hit. The Cosmic Thing album climbed into the U.S. top 5 and earned multi-platinum certification. The group had a hugely successful world tour to support the record, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in March, 1990.
Pierson lent her vocals to Iggy Pop's song "Candy", which gave him a Hot 100/top 40 hit. 1991 saw the repackaging and re-release of Schneider's solo record and gave him his first Hot 100 entry when "Monster" climbed to number 85, and Pierson again guest-starred on a popular track, this time it being fellow Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People", which hit the U.S. top 10. Pierson appeared on another song from the band's chart-topping album Out of Time, "Me in Honey".
In 1990, Cindy Wilson took time off from the band, with Julee Cruise filling in for her parts on the eventual tour. As a trio, the B-52s released Good Stuff in 1992, which gave them another top 40 hit with the title track. The album made it to number 18 in the U.S. It is also the group's most overtly political album, though they had been activists and fund-raisers for environmental, AIDS and animal rights causes for many years. Subsequent singles were not as successful and the album did not sell as well as Cosmic Thing.
The band had its next chart entry in 1994 when, as The BC-52's they appeared in The Flintstones live-action movie and sang the title song. When released as a single, it reached number thirty-three in the U.S. and number three in the UK. In 1994, the B-52s also performed the theme song for the Nickelodeon series Rocko's Modern Life from the 2nd season on. In the 1990s, ex-Duran Duran drummer Sterling Campbell joined the band, but left in 2000 to tour with David Bowie and was replaced that year by Zachary Alford.
A career retrospective, Time Capsule: Songs For a Future Generation, appeared in 1998 along with 2 remix maxi singles ("Summer of Love 98" and "Hallucinating Pluto"). Cindy Wilson rejoined the group on 2 of the new songs and a major tour (with co-headliners the Pretenders) to promote the collection. "Debbie", another single from the album (a tribute to Blondie's Debbie Harry), placed 35 on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks. In 1999 they recorded a parody of "Love Shack" called "Glove Slap" for an episode of The Simpsons. They co-headlined another major tour in 2000 with the Go-Go's. Also in 2000 they recorded the song "The Chosen One" for the movie Pokemon 2000.
A more extensive anthology, Nude on the Moon: The B-52s Anthology, appeared in 2002. The B-52s recorded the song "Orange You Glad It's Summer" for a Target commercial that aired in spring/summer 2002. Target also used the song "Junebug" in a TV spot in 2007.
In late 2004, the band opened for Cher a couple of times on her Farewell Tour. In March 2006 they opened for the Rolling Stones at a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. They had three remix EPs released by Planet Clique: Whammy! in 2005, Mesopotamia in 2006 and Wild Planet in 2007. During this time span they appeared on many television shows including The L Word, V.I.P., The Rosie O'Donnell Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, The Arsenio Hall Show, Saturday Night Live, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Today Show, Good Morning America and numerous times on VH1.
Funplex, the band's first original album in sixteen years (since 1992's Good Stuff), was released on , 2008 by Astralwerks. Talking about the record's sound, Keith Strickland noted, "It???s loud, sexy rock & roll with the beat turned up to hot pink." The album is produced by Steve Osborne, who was asked to work on the album based on his work with New Order on the album Get Ready. With this album, the band dropped the apostrophe from their name and became The B-52s.
The album debuted at #11 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., immediately making it the second-highest charting B-52s album ever. The band toured in support of the album as well as making television appearances on talk shows, including The Tonight Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and performing on The Today Show on Memorial Day 2008. They also participated in the True Colors Tour 2008 with Cyndi Lauper and embarked on a European tour in July.
The first single from the album was "Funplex", which was released digitally on to the iTunes Store in the U.S. The second single lifted from the album was "Juliet of the Spirits".
2009 CMT Awards
The B-52s recently performed their hit track "Love Shack" with Sugarland at the 2009 CMT Music Awards.
Main article: The B-52's discography
Side projects, solo albums and collaborations