53 Miles West of Venus: The Enduringly Queer Legacy of the The B-52s
T. Cole Rachel • Pitchfork Review • Issue 5 / Winter Issue
In 2012 I had the opportunity to sit down and interview The B-52s about Funplex, their first new album in 16 years. As a young gay man growing up in the American South the groups first two albums Wild Planet and The B-52s were not so much records as they were designs for life. Having the chance to interview all four surviving members of the band together was an intense, full-circle moment for me as a journalist. After working my way through a series of necessarily rote questions about their new album, I took a moment to thank them for the gift they had given me: their band being one of the first things I ever remember seeing that made me think: "That is gay." The B-52's came into my adolescent life at a time when I didn’t really know what ‘gay’ was—or even that I was gay—but I felt a kinship with their music that I hadn’t felt before. Their music gave me assurance that the ideas and feelings I was trying to articulate actually had some rightful place out in the world. The band responded with much kindness and the offer some fruit from the room service trays. A few minutes later I wandered out of the interview profoundly moved but still wanting to know what I had always wondered: How on earth did you manage to get away with it?
Three decades earlier The B-52s were one of America’s preeminent new wave outfits. Self-described as “The World’s Greatest Party Band,” they'd been responsible for putting Athens, Georgia on the musical map with their trailer park style and kaleidoscopic grasp of all things camp. The band were part of a unique lineage that has its roots in the histrionic, outré performance style first made popular by the likes of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or fellow Georgian Little Richard. Even though their aesthetic remains singular, The B52s general sensibility—a kind of mannered quirkiness mixed with subject matter often either obliquely or specifically queer—is something that would influence the next several generations of rock bands trailing out of the American South. The band’s sound—surf rock meets post-punk meets a hysterical girl group on acid—would not only make the band famous, it would crack open the door for a variety of bands from then-locals R.E.M. to contemporary bands like Deerhunter. The B-52s exemplify the ability to turn one’s weaknesses into charms, to both embrace and subvert traditions and turn them into revolutionary art.
In Athens, Georgia in the early 1970s approximately nothing was happening. “It was deadly dull,” explains B-52s front man Fred Schneider, “which required that you just make your own fun.” Despite Athens being a college town and a moderately liberal enclave for that time, there were no rock music venues, only a handful bars and no discernible culture for music. With that setting in mind, the story of The B-52s begins something like this: childhood friends Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson, along with Ricky’s younger sister Cindy, befriended Athens transplants Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson in the mid 1970’s. Fred worked in a health food store. Kate lived in a shack out in the country with no running water and an abundance of goats. One night in 1976 the five friends shared drinks at a Chinese restaurant and decided to start a band just for fun.
“We came out of a very tiny community of artists,” explains Strickland, “But there wasn’t a music scene at all. It was very liberal group of people we were friendly with—gay and straight. Nightlife just entailed someone throwing a party and there being a keg out on the front porch. Everyone dressed up crazy and we all listened to R&B, since that was the best music for dancing. Our initial inspiration for the band was just to create something for our friends and as a way to entertain ourselves. We had no money and a lot of free time.”
A couple of months later, on Valentines Day in 1977, the band played their first show at a friend’s house party. “We had no idea whatsoever that what we were doing that night would change our lives forever” says Strickland. “As soon as we started playing everybody in the room started dancing, so it felt like we were doing something right. When we finished people started yelling, “Do it again! Do it again!” We only had six songs, so we just played the same set over again. We didn’t know how to play any other songs.”
“Cindy and I wore these white fun-fur wigs for that first show,” recalls Pierson. “Actually, they were pocketbooks covered in white fun fur. I bought one and I took it with me to see Cindy, who was working at a luncheonette. She said, “Get me one!” so I went and got her an identical one. We just teased them up and put them on our heads like wigs. We wore all black and then had these purse “wigs” on our heads. Somebody hung some Barbie dolls from the ceiling. It felt very punk to us. So much of our look in the band was inspired that way—by picking up whatever you could find laying around and just wearing it.” “We created thrift store chic,” says Schneider about the band’s aesthetic. “Though, to be honest, we didn’t intend to. We just had no money. Pants were fifty cents! Shirts were a dollar!“
For a band operating out of a sleepy college town, it took a surprisingly short amount of time for the world to come calling. Frequent gigs around Athens and Atlanta eventually led to playing shows in NYC. “Ricky and Cindy would borrow their parent’s station wagon so we could drive to NYC to play shows at CBGBs and the Mudd Club,” recalls Pierson. By 1981 the band—now two albums deep into their career-- had pulled up stakes and moved to New York, having been convinced by their their management that it would make it easier for them to tour and so that they could begin work on what would become the David Byrne-produced Mesopotamia EP. (“In hindsight, I wish we had never left.” says Pierson) Still, their status as local legends in Athens was more than secure by that point. That they had managed not only to thrive—but to simply exist—for so long in the very conservative latitudes of Georgia, not only says something about their fortitude, but also a little something about the Southern love of eccentricity.
“We really did get away with a lot,” recalls Pierson. “We did get called names sometimes—mostly the guys—and once I remember these frat boys threw bricks at us, but it was because we were all wearing wigs. I mean, we were never not wearing a wig back then. Then the very next year we heard “Planet Claire” blasting out of a frat house.” Keith Strickland laughs and offers this, “As long as there are dance clubs and gay bars, we know there will always be a place for us. That’s always been where we call home.”
“Punk rock often has a lot to do with class—or rather, with poverty,” says REM's Michael Stipe, a musician whose band, perhaps more than any other, came to benefit from The B-52s’ success. “Punk rock was about taking whatever you can find around you and really creating some DIY thing out of it. It wasn’t so different in spirit than the punk stuff that was happening in New York, they just developed their own aesthetic for it. One of the best things about The B-52s was that they made it OK to dance,” recalls Stipe. “Before that if you were punk rock and you danced it had to be, like, hardcore pogoing or it had to be ironic. If you listen to early recordings of R.E.M. we always encouraged people to dance. Pylon too—they were very influenced by The B-52s. During the early days of R.E.M. whenever we would go on tour we always began our set by announcing that we were from Athens, Georgia. The only reason that meant something to anyone was because of The B-52s. We wore that badge proudly.”
On January 26th, 1980 The B-52s performed on Saturday Night Live; it was the band’s first ever television appearance. It was also the event that would elevate them from the ranks of college rock cult faves and place them into the realm of something approaching stardom. Though the band had just released their second album, 1980’s Wild Planet, on SNL they would play two songs from their first album—“Dance this Mess Around” and “Rock Lobster.” During the performance of the latter song both Fred and Cindy would fall down and play dead. Kate Pierson wore a giant, cone-shaped wig.
“We confused people,” says Pierson. “There was a rumor when our first record came out that Cindy and I were drag queens and that we all actually were from England. A lot of people didn’t get it. I think the major reason was because we had a sense of humor. I mean, The Ramones had a sense of humor and so did The Talking Heads, but ours was pretty overt. We were fun and danceable. Unfortunately, It’s hard for people to take something too seriously when it’s just constantly being described as "wacky"--and we were pretty wacky. There were reviews that said all our songs were basically lists and we couldn’t really play, but there were some really great critics like Robert Christgau that appreciated what we were doing. We weren’t necessarily trying to deconstruct the culture, but we were serious. We loved B-Movies and things that were tacky and trashy, but we also loved Fellini. We’d actually considered calling ourselves ‘Fellini’s Children’ at one point."
“People thought it was the one of the strangest things they’d ever seen,” recalls Schneider of the band’s SNL debut. “[Show host] Terri Garr was horrified by us. She went on The Tonight Show the next night and talked about it—And there was this crazy band wearing these crazy wigs!—which I thought was hilarious. Everything really changed after that.” For folks back home in Georgia, seeing the band perform—wigs and all--on network television was watershed moment. The performance introduced them to the wider world, but most importantly a generation of future musicians. What the group's visibility meant to Southern artists coming in their wake--particularly the queer ones--can’t be understated.
“They were everything,” says Atlanta native Larry Tee. During the 1980s Tee and his friends would take inspiration from The B-52s and form The NOW Explosion—a Southern-fried experimental pop group that owed much of it’s own funky, thrift-store aesthetic to The B-52s. “[Seeing] The B-52s it made me want to start my own group,” says Tee. “When I saw them play on Saturday Night Live my life changed forever. Suddenly disco didn’t mean anything to me anymore. People would say, “Oh, they can’t even play their instruments correctly, anyone could do that!” but when you saw them—when you saw Kate and Cindy singing those harmonies—you realized, “Oh no, not just anyone can do that.” It was so special. They kind of embraced this idea that you didn’t necessarily have to be a great player, you just needed to have great ideas. So many of us Atlanta queers--Me, Lady Bunny, RuPaul [who'd later appear as a dancer in the “Love Shack” video]—wouldn’t have probably existed without The B-52s. They made all of the stuff we were doing possible."
As the 1980’s began to unfold, The B-52s existed in the frothy netherworld between successful new-wave cult band and the kind of pop band that, given the right push from still fledgling Mtv, might flirt with mainstream success. The band’s contemporaries, acts like Blondie, Talking Heads, and REM had generally courted larger success with very art-conscious and increasingly serious work, while The B-52s had remained steadfastly mostly just like themselves—a kind of cosmic satire of pop music with increasingly big hair. It was a time when other now seemingly obvious queer pop stars were largely silent—or at least ambiguously reticent—about addressing their sexuality. Elton John was still simply just your wacky English uncle with a predilection for wearing goofy glasses, George Michael was on the path to becoming a stubble-faced heterosexual heartthrob, and megastar Boy George—essentially a golden-voiced drag queen—eschewed sex in favor of a cup of tea. Freddy Mercury was just Freddy Mercury The Technicolor landscape of mid-80’s pop music should have ostensibly been the perfect place for The B-52s, but widescreen success would elude them for much of that decade. Fred Schneider’s aggressive feyness—a kind of shameless evisceration of male front man posturing—still felt a little too ahead of the curve. And while female pop stars were becoming blankly hypersexualized and the hair-sprayed misogyny of hair metal was becoming the norm, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s bouffantalized, camped-up version of femininity was not only at odds with 80’s sexuality, it was actually a savvy critique. As top 40 radio increasingly came to the reflect the hedonism of the early 80’s (being alternately about sex or simply about nothing) the alternative—what would still be considered punk rock or the burgeoning world 120 Minutes-friendly “college rock”---was becoming increasingly political, angry, or joylessly dour. As had so often been the case, The B-52s seemed to be orbiting in their own private universe. At a time when everyone else railed against Reaganomics or suddenly got We Are the World-style earnest, The B-52s were singing about the moon, dancing, big bird, and turning out Yoko Ono covers—things that seemed almost anathema to what was happening in punk rock, but were actually more punk in a way because it was so unrepentantly queer and joy-filled and so much about not giving a single fuck. In 1984 one imagines that, had the stars aligned a little more perfectly, The B-52s could have finally become true pop stars—or at least make their own Speaking in Tongues kind of critical/commercial breakthrough—but the band’s trajectory would be thwarted in the most brutal and tragic way. As AIDS began to decimate the cultural landscape and forever alter what would become the narrative of the 1980s, crafting songs about the importance of fun would become a much tougher proposition.
In 1985 Ricky Wilson—the genius guitarist and creative heart of The B-52’s—died from AIDS. It was a loss that would not only nearly end the band, but would forever color the rest of their history together. A perfectionist who, as Pierson recounts, once created a “five year plan” for the band’s future, Wilson’s passing came just before the release of the band’s 1986 album, Bouncing Off The Satellites, and devastated the band. The cultural climate of the mid-80’s was rife with stigma and confusion regarding just how to even speak about AIDS; the epidemic was just beginning to come into focus. People were only just beginning to have an inclination of just how devastating it would ultimately be. Subsequently, Wilson’s death was reported quietly and his immense talents were not celebrated as they should have been. Eventually Wilson would be remembered as a kind of wily genius—a guitar player whose open-tuned style of playing would influence countless other musicians. After his passing, The B-52s would essentially close up shop for the next two years.
“We just didn’t really talk about it publicly very much,” says Pierson. “That might have made people think we had some kind of shame about it or something, which was not the case. We just wanted to be respectful of Ricky’s family--it was 1985. It was so different then. Literally no one ever asked us about it at the time.” According to Strickland, the band’s silence on the topic also had to do with the media’s reticence at the time. “Not until 1992 did someone ask us about being gay,” he recalls. “It was almost more subversive that we didn’t talk about it. We were just trying to be ourselves. Being gay was just a part of it. That’s really how we wanted the world to be, you know? You just do your thing and your sexual orientation is just a part of it. I think it was kind of more revolutionary because of that. People either related to us on that level or they didn’t. Some people got it, some people didn’t, but we certainly never tried to hide it at all. Our music and our image kind of stood for itself—that was the statement—and we weren’t really self-aware enough to think that we needed to say anything else about it. We were saying it was OK to be different by just living it.”
For Michael Stipe, The B-52s handling of their sexuality never seemed that odd. “Their queerness operated on the same level as, say, Little Richard or Freddie Mercury,” he says. “I was a huge Queen fan. I’d go in stand in the front row at Queen concerts and nearly be trampled to death so I could take pictures of the band. It never once occurred to me then that Freddie Mercury might be queer. Never once! Can you imagine? The B-52s were kind of like that. They were just being themselves and if you liked them you sort of just accepted it at face value. Now looking back, well…”
For a great many of us, The B-52s very existence was life saving. Though the band never actually talked explicitly about their sexuality, for anyone paying attention (or for anyone like me who was convinced that songs like “Dirty Back Road” were really about the love that shall not speak it’s name), the band’s rather fluid sexuality and overall message of self-acceptance was a lifeline. That they are currently praised as queer icons by fans is, as Pierson says, “kind of the icing on the cake for us. To be able to have helped someone while doing something you love is really an honor and a privilege.”
For others, The B-52s were not only a source of gay-spiration; they provided a different kind of model for what a band could be. As the band’s music slowly changed in timbre and atmosphere over the years—the spiky, garage-friendly minimalism of The B-52s and Wild Planet giving way to the more overtly pop leanings of Whammy and Mesopotamia, the latter albums embracing synthesizers and ubiquitous 80’s-sanctioned drum machines—the band’s unusual live arrangement of three vocalist singing both harmonies and shouty call and response lyrics remained utterly unlike anything else that was happening in rock music.
“I don’t really believe in naming favorites, but if you were to ask me who my favorite band is I would say The B-52s,” says Deerhunter front man and Georgia native Bradford Cox. “If you were to ask me who one of my heroes is I would say Ricky Wilson, both because I love him and the band but also out of a sense of patriotism to my local geography. The B-52s first album is probably my favorite album of all time. Hearing Cindy Wilson shrieking, “Why won’t you dance with me?” over those totally minimal guitars in “Dance This Mess Around” is, in my opinion, high art. There is something so stark about their early recordings that really define their sound, but also their ‘Southernness’ in some weird way."
The influence of the band might be, in some ways, purely a spiritual thing for some queer artists, but their literal footprints are all over the back catalogs of their admirers. Listening to a band like The Gossip (another ragtag crew of Southern queers), the influence of early B-52s can be heard in the minimalist DIY funk of a song like “Listen Up.” Meanwhile, Deerhunter tracks like Cryptograms’ “Lake Somerset” or the raucous, tambourine-filled rave up of “Monomania” seem infused with the same kind of messy enthusiasm (and “stark” guitars) that made B-52s tracks like “Runnin Around” and “Private Idaho” legit garage-rock masterpieces. Elsewhere, at least half the artists to ever release albums on New York’s famed DFA label—i.e. The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, Prinzhorn Dance School, Hercules and Love Affair, and old Athens comrades Pylon—owe debut of gratitude (if not royalties) to The B-52s mid-80’s fusion of punk and synthy dance music.
“The B-52's were the first "neo"-anything band I ever encountered,” says Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair. “They were employing an honestly self-aware sense of cultural reference in their music, as well as looking/playing to the past--something that would be important in my own art. They offered a musical link between the square beach blanket bingo world of the 50s and 60s and the punk spirit of their time. It was something also played around with by other punk artists and new wave/no wave artists like the Ramones and Devo, but The B-52s had a really lighthearted and fun take on it all. They made the shimmy cool.”
For as many people got into music because of The Cure or The Smiths and felt a deep brooding kinship with their music, there were also people like me--kids who grew up in the pre-Internet age in decidedly un-fabulous places like Hydro, Oklahoma—that latched on to The B-52s because they showed us that just being yourself was more than enough. The band’s prevailing vibe wasn’t just the antidote for homophobia and sexism and cynicism, it’s served as a fantastic cure for boredom. I myself was plenty bored. The B-52s provided some much-needed levity to my otherwise determined sense of gothy teen miserablism. Listening to “Deadbeat Club” in my friend Ginger’s station wagon at lunch made our status as junior high black sheep feel almost romantic (rather than a death sentence). If our chances for fitting in were nil, we might as well celebrate our outsider status. The band’s lyrics told me that there were other weirdos out there waiting for me to find them, while their take on surf rock and disco and soul music was a kind of prism through which the drabness of the everyday might suddenly be viewed in Technicolor. Theirs remains a message so goofy and altruistic that it’s easy to take for granted how genius is really is. Now, as an only slightly less misanthropic adult, it’s lovely to know that I wasn’t the only one being transmitted those messages.
“Cosmic Thing came out when I was in the 6th grade and I became obsessed with them,” says Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters. “I didn’t know I was gay yet, but they were kind of this beacon of light…they were sending me this message that life was fun and that there was lots of joy to come. I fantasized about meeting them. I had these elaborate fantasies that we would go out to lunch. It’s amazing to think about how their weirdo music managed to make it onto Mtv and reach kids like me—an 11 year-old living in a suburb of Phoenix. I mean, they were on the cover of Rolling Stone! I can’t think of another band that’s has more of an influence on me than they have.”
“One of my favorite B-52s stories—which I’m sure maybe isn’t true, but it doesn’t matter—is about their early days in Athens,” recalls Bradford Cox, “Growing up in Georgia, I heard all kinds of stories about them. As it was handed down to me, one night back when the band was first starting they were approached by a bunch of frat guys outside of a bar in Normaltown (which is a pretty self-explanatory name for a certain section of Athens). These guys wanted to beat up Keith and Ricky for looking too gay, but before they could do anything Kate and Cindy pulled switchblades out of their wigs and fought them off. To me that’s the ultimate combination of queerness and feminism and punk rock and sticking up for yourself and self-preservation. That’s everything I ever aspire to right in one story. That’s why they are a totally mythic American rock band.”
Whether they are remembered as post-punk trailblazers, queer icons or for the sheer indomitability of "Love Shack"--The B-52s legacy is secured in much more tangible, undeniable ways. “Just after I had moved down to Key West I was out riding my bike one night and I heard “Love Shack” somewhere off in the distance,” recalls Strickland. “I knew it wasn’t our recording of it, but I couldn’t tell exactly what it was or where it was coming from. So I rode around until I found that it was coming from this Karaoke bar. All the window were open and I could see that there were about five or six women on stage singing the song, but also everyone else in the bar was also singing it. I was across the street on my bike observing it and it just totally blew me away. This is their song, now. This is their folk song. It was beautiful. To have people out there singing your songs with their friends. That’s a cool legacy, regardless of what anybody else thinks.”
“There have been several incarnations of The B-52s, but that original lineup was the Real McCoy. What Ricky brought to the band…that was everything. That was the foundation. When we first met in high school he invited me over to his house. He had a two-track reel-to-reel tape machine and he’d already been recording some of his own songs. We were both 16 years old—Cindy was 12!--and I’d never known anyone to wrote their own music. Some of his songs were very beautiful, almost like Donovan. He loved folk music. He wrote a lot of the iconic vocals in B-52 songs. Our friend Jeremy Ayers wrote the lyrics to “52 Girls”, but Ricky wrote the melodies and arranged the vocals. The music and the melody is Ricky…and that to me is the quintessential Ricky Wilson style and song. He had this innate, unusual sense for putting a song together. I knew right away that he was greatly talented.”
-Keith Strickland on the genius of Ricky Wilson
“We didn’t know if it would even work after Ricky died. We created most of our songs by jamming and everyone had a part in the process. Ricky was so important to the sound of the records and he was the one who had the vision for the band. We took all of this time off after he died, but eventually we realized that we really missed each other. Getting back together was a kind of healing this for us…and also a way to honor this thing that was so important to him. I remember when we wrote “Deadbeat Club” and most of the song just naturally came together in this one jam session. It was so easy. A lot Cosmic Thing was about remembering our early days in Athens together and in that way a lot of it just became this kind of sweet ode to Ricky. We didn’t care a thing about having a hit song—which is probably why that record is so good. We were just doing it for ourselves. It was truly from our hearts.”
-Kate Pierson on the making of Cosmic Thing
“One of the B-52s biggest jams — “Rock Lobster” — was recorded in 1978 before I was even born. It's easy to forget that they'd been a band for so long, because of the way MTV had for making bands seem like they had just sprung to life the second you could see them in videos. Who doesn't remember those bright suits and beehives, the amazing eyeliner? Maybe at that age you didn't know enough to call it camp or gay, but you knew something was UP! The B52s had a lifetime's worth of hits and history before “Love Shack”, including terrible the loss of Ricky Wilson. To this day they represent one of a handful of bands with mainstream success who have had out dykes and fags collaborating- so cool.”
--The Gossip’s Beth Ditto on why The B52s are so cool
“My favorite moment from the B-52's comes from the EP Mesopotamia, which is quite untraditional in the scope of their career. “Deep Sleep" is a bizarre tropical boogie track that is mesmerizing. When I first met Kate Pierson as a waiter in a restaurant in NYC, I purposely put this track on the sound system in the place, hoping to prove how cool I really was. When I got up the courage to say I adored her, she looked at me, and mentioned that the song was an underrated favorite of hers. Mission accomplished.”
-Andy Butler, Hercules & Love Affair
“True story. On Cryptograms we had problems recording the drums originally, so we went back and used this program called Drumagog to make them sound better. The producer who was helping us asked me what kind of drum sound I liked, so I instantly said “52 Girls” by The B-52s. So he took the bass drum and the snare drum sounds from “52 Girls” and sampled them, then he replaced all the terrible sounding bass and snare drum hits that we had recorded with those sounds. So, the The B-52s (or at least some of their drum sounds) are literally all over Cryptograms…which I loved since they were so important to me. It felt like a blessing for our record in some way.“
-Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox on how The B-52s ended up on a Deerhunter record
“I went to my high school reunion recently. I was with my friend from grammar school and I hear a song start to play and at first I think, “Oh, this sounds pretty good” and then my friend is like “Uh oh Fred, they are playing ‘Love Shack.’ At first I was like, “Oh god” and people are looking at me as if I’m gonna jump up and start singing. I wasn’t about to sing, but instead we just got up and started dancing. Even people from high school that I didn’t like—and who didn’t like me—were dancing too. It was a funny moment. When everyone was dancing together it was like OK, all is forgiven.”
-Fred Schneider on hearing “Love Shack” at his high school reunion
“They were kind of frozen in my head as the original template for the kind of band I would eventually want to have. They had three singers and no real front person. There is fearlessness about them which I also associate with their gayness. Well there’s a moon / it’s in the sky / It’s called the moon / And everybody is there! To be able to be unself-conscious enough to sing what are ostensibly very goofy lyrics and make it seem really profound and beautiful. I really envy that as a songwriter. They understand how to be sublimely silly and that’s actually a hard thing to pull off. It’s much easier to be serious and dour.”
-Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters on his early B-52s obsession
“Fred Schneider and Mike D are essentially kind of the same person. Their delivery, their meter, their stage presence…it’s this clumsy, beautiful, weird “yelling guy” thing. I always thought Fred was like Mike D and Paul Lynde magically joined together.”
-Michael Stipe on the genius of Fred Schneider
“I loved The B-52s. They were a great like this amazing cartoon band and they always looked super cool. It would have never even occurred to me back then to think about any of them being gay.” –Vince
“Are you kidding? Not even with all that high hair?”-Andy
-Vince Clark and Andy Bell of Erasure on not knowing anyone in the B-52s was gay
I love The B-52s. I love them. We are lifelong friends. Cosmic Thing was an amazing experience. I think they were kind of shocked by the success of that record. My only regret is that they didn’t release “Cosmic Thing” as the third single after “Loveshack” and “Roam.” It would have truly solidified their status as the world’s greatest party band to have unleashed three monster dance songs in a row from that record. Instead, they released “Deadbeat Club” as the third single. It’s a cool song, but it aint “Cosmic Thing.”
-Nile Rodgers on working with The B-52s on Cosmic Thing