The B-52s are rocking along with Cyndi Lauper

[16 June 2008]

By Michael Hamersly

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The rejuvenated B-52s - Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson - are still dancing this mess around 30 years after their deliriously wacko hit “Rock Lobster” shook up common notions of what rock ‘n’ roll should, and could, be.

The band from Athens, Ga., skyrocketed to stardom as the late-‘70s rolled into the ‘80s with their mix of surf guitar, bizarre lyrics and beehive hairdos.

Now, on the strength of the critically acclaimed 2007 album “Funplex,” its first studio effort in 16 years, the group is joining Cyndi Lauper on her True Colors Tour, along with outspoken comedian Rosie O’Donnell, Deborah Cox and The Cliks.

Wilson talked to The Miami Herald about The B-52s’ beginnings, the 1985 AIDS-related death of her big brother and founding member Ricky Wilson, and just where the Love Shack might be.

Q. What inspired you to participate in this tour?

A. Cyndi Lauper asked us to participate last year, but we were recording our record and couldn’t do it. So she asked us again this year and we thought it would be a great idea, especially with this being an election year.

Q. Why is it important?

A. Well, you know most everybody in the band is gay, and my brother was gay and a lot of our fans and friends are gay (Cindy is the only straight member of The B-52s), and it’s just an important thing to do. It’s been a wonderful experience to see all these artists participate - the spectrum is just amazing - and it’s really been a great energy.

Q. How did the B-52s begin? How did you all meet?

A. We went out to a Chinese restaurant and had this mystical lava drink, everybody with their own straw, kind of a ceremonial thing. We conjured up this magic and went back and just started jamming just for fun. And it was a hoot - we were rolling on the floor. Kate and I were doing these wild girl sounds and Fred was reciting some of his poetry and Keith was on the congas and Ricky was on guitar. And from the moment we all got together it was enormously creative. So we said, “Let’s keep doing this; let’s play our friends’ parties” - and that’s how it all started.

Q. Was your performance on” Saturday Night Live” in 1980 sort of the breakthrough moment for you guys?

A. It certainly was important, but I think the moment that really made me feel like, “Uh, oh, something’s happening” was when we released a 45 with “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls” - that was our independent single. And we sent it around to stores and record companies, and we had been playing at Manhattan rock clubs CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and we booked a place called Harrah’s ... the next step up from CBGB’s and Max’s. And we looked out the window and there was a line around the block to get in. And we freaked… and we were courted by many record companies.

Q. When you really made it big, did it change you?

A. Not really - I’ve made it a point to try to keep it real. It was really exciting, but I was really in the band for being with everybody and having fun.

Q. Who were the band’s musical influences?

A. It was diverse - with Ricky being my big brother, I got to listen to everything he listened to. When he was younger, he was the biggest Beatles fan I’ve ever seen. He had tons of Beatles stuff all over his room. And then when he got older he started listening to Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop. And I was listening to 45s - my mother would buy Petula Clark and I loved that. I got an allowance and I liked going to the store and spending my dollar on a 45.

Q. When did you realize that you and Kate could harmonize so well together?

A. It was that first night - we worked well together right away. When we started rehearsing, we came up with “52 Girls” and we sang in unison a lot, and naturally went into harmonies and played around with it and it became natural.

Q .Has Athens always been a hotbed for musical creativity?

A. Yeah, it’s a university, liberal town in the South, and it’s very easy to live there and it’s cheap and creative. It has all the right elements. You go to parties and share a lot of ideas. I think with us, we kind of started a big snowball, and it kept going.

Q. Do all of you bring equal amounts of quirkiness to the group, or is there kind of a ringleader?

A. One of the great things about it is it’s all very democratic - everybody has a chance to contribute. We’re all in the studio writing and jamming, and we’ll stop and pick out parts, and it becomes a collection of everybody’s input.

Q. How did you come up with the mix of surf guitar and dance music in midstate Georgia, hundreds of miles from any beach?

A. It was the brainchild of the Strickland man (laughs). He was in charge of the music, and was always trying to listen for the new sound for us, and what would work and still be modern.

Q. When your brother passed away, did you think The B-52s were over?

A. Yeah, of course - it was a big vacuum. Ricky was so important personally and to the rest of the band. But he was my big brother and my mentor ... so when he was gone I just totally lost my sense of everything, reality, what was what. So it took me a long time to, besides mourn Ricky’s loss, to figure out who I was.

Q. Was it a tough transition for Keith to take over on guitar?

A. Absolutely. Keith and Ricky wrote together anyway. It took a few years, but Keith stepped up to the plate - he’s an amazing artist. To me it took a superhuman kind of person to be able to do what he did, with all the fear and pain.

Q. Is” Love Shack “inspired by a real place?

A: Yeah, in our minds. I think it’s a collection of different things, different ideas of places in our own heads. But Kate lived on a goat farm outside of Athens, and it burned down a couple years ago and it got enormous press, which was phenomenal: “The Love Shack burned down!” It was funny.

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