Combining an infectious collision of ‘60s pop, surf, dance and spiky new wave flavors, The B-52s emerged on the music scene in the late ‘70s looking and sounding like no other band. More than 40 years since they formed, the band, led by founding members, lead vocalists Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider, are still bringing the fun delighting concertgoers with their zany intergalactic brand of party rock.
We spoke with Kate Pierson during a short break in the group’s headlining tour with Boy George and Culture Club.
Rock Cellar: In a business that cannibalizes its artists, what’s the secret for The B-52’s longevity, 40 + years and counting?
Kate Pierson: Wait a minute, don’t add any years, (laughs) 40 years is enough! (laughs) We really started our first jamming session in 1976 and our first performance was Valentine’s Day 1977 and then we put out our first single in 1978.
Rock Cellar: Unless you’re all good fakers, it seems that the bond of friendship is still going strong with you, Cindy and Fred.
Kate Pierson: Yes, absolutely. That’s true. We still can make each other laugh and we still hang out together, not every minute but after the show we’ll have a drink or gather at the bar. We still have a good camaraderie. We’ve been having fun on this tour with Culture Club and Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins.
Rock Cellar: How did being an Athens, Georgia band and being a part of the scene shape the group’s aesthetic?
Kate Pierson: Well, Athens is a place where we started and it was really a farmer’s town; there was a farmer’s hardware and there was a seed and feed store. That’s the reason I went down, which was to do a back to the land thing. I had goats and I had a big garden. I had a little love shack that was $15 a month, it really was a funky old shack in the middle of a field.
We had to make our own fun, and I think there was also something going on in a lot of small towns like Akron, Ohio and just other places where there was this punk thing happening, even in some sleepy small town with nothing going on. Athens is a university town, but the university was kind of separate and southern boogie music was still happening, stuff like The Allman Brothers. So when we started there was no place to play in Athens and nothing happening, so we just had to make our own fun.
We heard the Sex Pistols and some other bands, early early punk stuff. We started jamming one night after having this flaming volcano drink and the rest sort of set the template there for how we write. We write collectively by jamming.
Rock Cellar: Is “Deadbeat Club” about the band’s formative days in Athens?
Kate Pierson: Yes, after Ricky (Wilson) passed in 1985, part of what happened was we thought, forget about radio play, let’s just do this to heal. It was just a healing process. It helped conjure Ricky’s spirit back into the mix and we felt that when we were jamming together. When we were playing together we realized how priceless it was that we still had each other and we had this great music and we could still do it. A lot of the Cosmic Thing album, I wouldn’t say it was nostalgic, but it just recalled life back in Athens. We were writing about our life back then when we just started and we were just hanging out.
We had no aspirations at all. We called ourselves “The Deadbeat Club.” We didn’t have much money so we just hung out and jammed and wrote songs.
Rock Cellar: Cosmic Thing has a beautiful vein of evocative lyrics and melodicism with songs like “Deadbeat Club” and Roam.”
Kate Pierson: “Deadbeat Club” came out of one jam. Some of our songs, like “Love Shack,” went through multiple jams and a couple of different changes but “Deadbeat Club” went through one jam and we took some parts out of that to make the song. Keith (Strickland) took over on guitar playing Ricky’s parts. It became more of a thing where Keith would write a track, sometimes he would just jam while we were singing but with a song like “Deadbeat Club” I think he came in with some music already finished. I thought that sparked a more melodic line for “Deadbeat Club.”
I think the way Ricky played guitar was self-propelling, it lent itself to more of a chanting way of singing and the way Keith supplied melodic instrumentation inspired a more melodic approach.
Rock Cellar: When did you realize The B-52s were gonna make it and everyone could quit their 9-to-5 jobs?
Kate Pierson: I love that part in “Deadbeat Club” in the beginning where we go, “Get a Job? What for, I’m trying to think!” (laughs) Fred was a waiter at a local health food restaurant and he also had a job doing Meals On Wheels delivery; he was the driver and he loved that job. I remember seeing him wearing these crazy bell bottoms when he was working as a waiter in the health food restaurant.
Cindy worked briefly at this really cute restaurant, it was like a little counter in a five and dime store: I think it was a Woolworths. Anyway, I worked at the Athens Banner Herald in the paste up department; we had exacto knives and we were cutting up the copy. I had a journalism degree. Anyhow, we started going up to New York City. We couldn’t have done it without Ricky and Cindy’s parents loaning us their station wagon, which we named “Croton”. The first time we brought a tape up and presented it to CBGB’s and they rejected it. But then we went to Max’s Kansas City and they accepted it and said, “Yeah, come up and play.”
When we started going to New York I had to quit my job and we all sort of had to stop working. Ricky and Keith worked at the bus station because Keith’s parents ran the local bus station so they had jobs there but we all quit. We just figured we’d get along somehow. I think it was when we started going up to New York City where we really couldn’t have a job anymore because we were starting to do more playing around; we did a tour. A friend of ours, Maureen McLaughlin, took over as manager. She booked a little tour for us, we went to Toronto, Canada, we went to Minneapolis and we went to Philadelphia. We had a van that Ricky and Cindy got for us, they let us borrow it. We couldn’t have done it without their help.
It was pretty early on where we had to stop working a 9-to-5 job and just dedicate ourselves to our music career. We were able to do that because I had the cheapest rent in the world (laughs). It wasn’t too long before we were making such a small amount of money that we were actually losing money playing. But Danny Beard stepped in and put our first single and that started to take off. We started selling our single, “Rock Lobster” with “52 Girls” as the B-side. I can’t recall the transition where we had no money to having some money but somehow from playing in New York we were able to scrape enough together to somehow to survive.
Then we started getting record company offers. People came down form Virgin Records. Seymour Stein came down to Athens to see us and he kind of wooed us. Our thought was, “Wow, free dinner!” (laughs) Then we were playing in New York City and Chris (Frantz) and Tina (Weymouth) from Talking Heads and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie took us under their wing and helped us a little and provided guidance. But Chris and Tina said, “You should really have our manager look after your career.”
And we met Gary Kurfirst and he said, “I’ll share management with Maureen,” but she wasn’t down with that so unfortunately we had to part ways with Maureen and that was sad but we’ve made amends now and the rest is history, Gary got us signed with Warner Brothers and Island Records and we took off on a really long tour. I didn’t know if I had enough money to buy a car. We were sharing a van and lived in this one house in Lake Mahopac, New York.
Rock Cellar: John Lennon spoke about hearing “Rock Lobster” in a club in Bermuda in summer of 1980 and caught on to the distinct Yoko Ono inspired vocalizing by you and Cindy, which made him feel the time was right for him and Yoko to throw their hat in the ring again and record a new album. Yoko was a big influence on you both, how did it feel you know it had come full circle and The B-52’s we’re responsible for John and Yoko’s return to music?
Kate Pierson: I mean it was so unbelievable. We were in Europe when we heard that; we didn’t get to read his quote but we were told about it. If there was anyone that inspired all of us it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. We were inspired by Yoko. We did the whole (imitates Yoko’s single style) and we used that in “Rock Lobster” and Cindy does it at the end and that was pure Yoko. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were the icons of icons to us and it was incredible to hear that he could have even heard of us. That was truly unbelievable to us.
Now when people come up to us how they’re inspired by us you just have to take it seriously because people really feel that. It’s not something just like, “I love our band” but it means something very deep to people and very primal when they hear your music when they’re young and it just has a major impact on them.
It’s like, wow, this is something that can change your life and it’s very moving to us when we hear that. We don’t take that for granted.
Rock Cellar: Years later, didn’t Yoko join the B-52s onstage?
Kate Pierson: We did a song with her called “Don’t Worry,” which came out briefly and we did a remake of that. Also, for our 25th anniversary show she came up and sang on “Rock Lobster” and did the Yoko sounding vocal parts at the end. It was incredible! Fred and I went to a couple of her birthday parties and we jammed with her. After we jammed with her she said, “Oh you guys really go for it!” (laughs) Fred and I really jammed away and we really had a great time.
Rock Cellar: Many of your contemporaries have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Given the band’s influence and distinctive sound and songwriting, does getting inducted into the Hall of Fame mean anything to you?
Kate Pierson: Well, you can say all you want that “I don’t care,” but it would be nice. I know it’s a political thing and you need to have a record company push to get in now, but I think we deserve to be in there for sure. There’s so many amazing people that deserve to be in there that aren’t.
But it would be nice to get in.
Rock Cellar: 36 years ago, The B-52s played in front of perhaps your largest audience ever at The US Festival. Looking back, what are your memories of playing that momentous show?
Kate Pierson: It was 120 degrees and it was so hot and dusty. We were helicoptered in. We weren’t aware of what was gonna happen and didn’t know about Apple or Steve Wozniak. All we knew is that it was a festival and it was gonna be huge. I just remember it being so hot and I remember seeing Joey Ramone in a black leather jacket just before they went onstage and he drank a hot cup of coffee. I was like, “Wow!”
I poured water all over my head from the water cooler after we did our show because it was so hot. I just remember seeing all these incredible bands like The Police. There was a backstage area but it was all dusty and hot. Someone gave the Police a vintage police car. When you’re in the moment there, I wish I had written it all down. Now I only have fleeting memories but the main thing I remember is it was hot. (laughs) We called it “The Dust Festival.”
Rock Cellar: You’ve been friends with the members of REM since they started out, tell us about how you came to duet with Michael Stipe on their single, “Shiny Happy People”?
Kate Pierson: Well, I went to one of their very first concerts in Athens. My friend, Jeremy Ayers, said, “Oh, you’ve gotta see this band” so I went down to where they were playing. I’ve been friends of them and fans of theirs ever since. I can’t remember if we played or REM played Radio City Music Hall but we were there and Michael Stipe said, “Kate, will you sing on our new record?” And I said, “Sure.” I flew out to Minneapolis to Prince’s studio and that’s where I recorded it. They just handed me the track and said, “Do whatever you like.” They didn’t micro-manage me and say, “Do a harmony here.” They just said, “Do your thing.” It was so much fun doing the video as well; it was really a blast. Michael made up the dances and everything. It just happened very organically. The thing I really appreciate is the chance to sing.
Rock Cellar: 10 years ago, the band released its last studio album, Funplex, any plans to do a new one?
Kate Pierson: Doing a new record, no. We just saw Keith Strickland. We hadn’t seen him since he retired from touring but I talk to him on the phone a lot. He came to see us when we played Miami and we discussed doing a couple of songs. He’s been writing music ever since; he never stopped writing music so we’re gonna do some jamming and see if we can come up with a couple of new songs for our box set that Rhino is putting out. I don’t know the date when it’ll be out, but it’s in the works.