Break out your glitter and head to the Atlanta Freeway – the B-52s are embarking on their final dance party!
After 45 years together, the B-52s have announced they are unplugging and unplugging for their final tour of the United States. “No one loves throwing a party more than we do, but after nearly half a century on the road, it’s time for one last blast with our friends and family…our fans,” said Fred Schneider.
Who knew that an impromptu jam session in 1976 in the American college town of Athens, Georgia, would be the foundation of a 45-year career?
The innovative band that formed in 1976 originally consisted of Cindy Wilson (vocals and guitar), Kate Pierson (vocals and keyboards), Fred Schneider (vocals), Ricky Wilson (guitar) and Keith Strickland (drums) .
The worldwide introduction to the B-52s was the nearly seven-minute song Rock Lobster. An unexpected hit, this uplifting musical concoction features a baritone-tuned Mosrite electric guitar riff interspersed with stabbing Farfisa organ accents and an array of vocal interactions with jazz-esque backing vocals. .
These are interspersed with Pierson’s dolphin-like vocal sounds, while Schneider’s unique vocal delivery features lyrics about a crustacean. The accompanying video featured a mix of pop culture past with 1950s cartoonist hair styles, surf culture, combined with unique erratic choreography, but musically there are elements that disturb pop music. .
Rock Lobster reached number one in Canada, three in Australia, 37 on the UK charts and 56 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Influences and scene
The band’s influences draw from a variety of pop culture sources, such as B-grade movies, Captain Beefheart, ’60s dance moves, Dusty Springfield, comic books, cartoons, composer Nino Rota (Fellini films ), pulp science fiction and Yoko Ono. .
This is perhaps best illustrated in song Planet Clear (1978) which opens instrumentally with intermittent radio frequencies fading to a central guitar riff derived from Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme, then bongos and keyboard strokes, and Pierson’s haunting unison singing (chromatic long notes) with the DX7 keyboard part. This is followed by witty and wacky lyrics with an abundance of sci-fi references: satellites, speed of light, Mars.
The B-52s emerged from the New Wave (rock) scene of the 1970s with their own combination of non-threatening post-punk and alternative surf rock musical aesthetics. The subversion was in the form of less musical dissonance and less density, more freedom, more harmonies, more playing. Less aggressive, more diva, with infectious enthusiasm.
They carved out their own niche that was unmistakably southern and mostly broke new ground as LGBTIQ+ icons, instilling an uncompromising camp and queer sensibility into pop culture.
From 1979 to 1986, the group recorded four studio albums which were best known for their dance grooves, featuring Schneider’s distinctive vocals using sprechgesang (a style of spoken singing attributed to Humperdinck in 1897 and Schoenberg in 1912), Pierson’s highly experimental vocal approaches, Wilson’s growls and harmonies, and Strickland’s surf guitar riffs.
They made new choices of instrumentation: toy pianos, walkie-talkies, glockenspiels and bongos, coupled with the innovative use of upcycled clothing and costumes evoking individuality and liberation.
The exception was the EP Mesopotamia (1982) produced by David Byrne, a significant departure from their previous song production. Most notable is Mesopotamia’s slower tempo, 119 beats per minute (BPM) compared to Rock Lobster’s (1978) 179 BPM and Private Idaho’s (1980) 166 BPM. Mesopotamia features additional synthesizer parts, polyrhythmic rhythms (the combination of two or more different rhythms following the same pulse), and world beat influences.
At first glance, the B-52’s lyrics could be misconstrued as merely comical or nonsensical, but there are deeper lyrical meanings that speak for the marginalized, referencing the band’s political ideology: environmental causes, feminism, LGBTIQ+ rights and AIDS activism.
Late 1980s and early 1990s
Bouncing Off The Satellites ran for three years and was released in 1986. Sadly, Ricky Wilson died of an HIV/AIDS-related illness in 1985 shortly after the recording sessions ended. The B-52s reshaped the band with Strickland switching from drums to lead guitar. Later, the band also added touring members for studio albums and live performances.
The B-52’s most commercially successful album was Cosmic Thing (1989) co-produced by Don Was and Nile Rodgers. The single Love Shack, went double platinum, reached number 1 for eight weeks and sold 5 million copies.
The song opens with engaging drum sounds at an infectious dance tempo of 133 BPM (beats per minute). Schneider’s distinctive voice enters, then the bass and guitar parts. The arrangement places the brackets at the start of the song, with chorus vocal parts in fourths.
Adding to the infectious groove is the sound of the live band with a real horn section, bass guitar and a bluesy guitar riff with crowd noises in the background. The seductive backing vocals on the lyrics “bang, bang, bang, on the door baby” are clearly reminiscent of the Batman TV theme music.
In the 21st century
In 2008, the band reappeared after a 16-year absence from recording with the 11-track album Funplex. There are notable changes to the B-52’s signature sound. Funplex is not the frenetic, spontaneous party music of previous albums. There are also some vocal adaptations, with a change of roles with lyrics by Wilson and Pierson.
The band toured each summer, with a variety of other bands on the circuit, the Tubes, Go-Go’s, Psychedelic Furs and KC & The Sunshine Band, building new audiences.
Their appeal is still wide. In 2020, Rock Lobster was used in Australia for a Announcement Optus. The farewell tour billed as “their final tour of planet Earth” begins in August of this year in Seattle.