The artist: The B-52s’ debut single, “Rock Lobster,” not only blew the minds of American radio listeners when it was released in 1978, but also prompted John Lennon to return to the studio for the first time in half a decade. Although The B-52s went quiet for a few years after the 1985 death of guitarist-songwriter Ricky Wilson, the band returned in 1989 with Cosmic Thing, which became the most successful album of its career. Although the B-52s’ last studio album was 2008’s Funplex, the group continues to tour regularly and has just released its first live effort, With The Wild Crowd, which features selections from almost every album in the band’s discography.
The B-52s, “Rock Lobster” (from 1979’s The B-52’s)
Kate Pierson: Fred [Schneider] started with the lyrics. He had gone to this disco… I think it was called the 2001 Disco, and he saw these crustaceans that were projected onto the wall, saw a rock lobster, and… I guess he wrote some lines about it. [Laughs.] And then we were sitting around at Bradley Peterson’s house—we always called it Bradley Peterson’s house, even though Ricky and Cindy [Wilson] had moved into his house after he moved—and that was the first place we jammed on “Rock Lobster.” Keith [Strickland] came over, and Ricky was just sitting there, grinning with his guitar in his lap. Keith said, “What are you smiling about?” And Ricky said, “I’ve just written the stupidest guitar line you’ve ever heard.” And it was… [Imitates the guitar line.] And Keith just flipped out. He said, “That’s the best. That is just the greatest guitar line.” So when we jammed with that, Ricky and Keith developed the rest of that—well, mostly Ricky, really—and Fred laid down the classic lines he had written, then Cindy and I added our harmonies and our fish sounds at the end. And that’s how it came about. I can still vividly remember us sitting in that room, coming up with the sound and just kind of working out the parts as we were jamming on it.
The A.V. Club: What was your reaction when you heard that John Lennon had credited the song as his inspiration for returning to the studio with Yoko Ono?
KP: Oh, I can’t even say what big fans we all were of John Lennon and The Beatles. We all grew up with that music, of course. It was part of the fabric of my youth or whatever. But he especially was my idol. In fact, I still have this button that I had when I was a pre-teen, and it was a lenticular thing that had his face on it, and you turned it and it said, “I Love John.” So we were just so thrilled. He was so respected by everyone as a musician, and when he said, “Come on, Yoko, if they can do it, we can do it…” [Laughs.] And we loved Yoko Ono, too. It was actually Fred who turned me on to Yoko. I went to the record store there—I can’t remember it was Wuxtry or not—and got some early Yoko albums on vinyl and just started playing, playing, playing them. All of us really loved her, so it was definitely an inspiration when Cindy did her vocal part [imitates the Yoko-esque part of “Rock Lobster”] and some of the background parts. Those were definitely Yoko-inspired. And we truly loved her as an artist. It wasn’t, like, a joke or anything. We just thought she was a genius. I still think she’s a genius.
The B-52s, “Planet Claire” (from The B-52’s)
KP: When we first started writing songs together, we wrote collectively, and we still do. Some songs in the beginning were individually written by Ricky or a collaboration between Ricky and Fred, like with “Rock Lobster,” although we all added our bits. But “Planet Claire,” the riff, I believe Ricky came up with that, but Ricky and Keith had this collaboration that was seamless. You never knew who did what, really. [Laughs.] We didn’t differentiate very much. It was for the good of the whole, so nobody said, “Oh, I wrote that line.” Years later, you might think back and be, like, “Wait a minute, I think I wrote that,” but you never really knew. I guess there’s debate about who came up with this title or whatever, but in those days, we didn’t really think that way. And I don’t think we really do now. I think that’s one of the secrets to our success: We share everything. There’s no group leader, much to the frustration of business people. [Laughs.] There’s no one person they can talk to that makes decisions, and it drives people crazy, but we have to have a summit meeting for every decision. In writing that song, Keith and Ricky came up with that riff, and Ricky came up with that guitar part, the incredible kind of clashing sounds. It’s a really interplanetary guitar riff. When we got into the studio at Compass Point, I think Keith wanted to come up with a more formalized melody, so he came up with that sort of Fellini-esque, Nino Rota-inspired melody line on the keyboard. I sang along with it, but the only thing is… I’m really glad there’s now a live album with that song on it.
Chris Blackwell was producing the album, and he’s really a genius, the way he produced the first album, because he wanted us to sound exactly like we do live. And we thought, “Oh, we’re really going to sound enhanced. It’s going to sound better.” ’Cause live, I played all the bass parts and the keyboard parts, so I was doing all that and singing with it. But he said, “Whatever you play onstage is what I want you to play on the record.” So that’s what we did. And we heard it, and we were like, “Oh God, it sounds just like us.” [Laughs.] But in retrospect, that was really a genius move, because it was such an iconic sound that he didn’t want us to mess it up. The only thing that I was disappointed about was that the engineer, Robert Ash, he decided to really put a lot of effect on my voice, which made it sound like a synthesizer. Some people don’t even realize I was actually singing that part. So anyway, I’m gratified now that our live album, With The Wild Crowd, has come out, because live, it sounds like a vocal with the keyboard part. Which I think is pretty cool.
The B-52s, “Private Idaho” (from 1980’s Wild Planet)
KP: That’s another one where Fred came up with the title. He started out with “You’re living in your own private Idaho,” and I came up with, “Underground like a wild potato / Don’t go on the patio / Beware of the pool.” [Laughs.] It’s all sort of dark and mysterious—and silly, too, in a way. But the play on words with “Private Idaho” was pretty genius, because we just played recently in Idaho, and it is a strange place. It was a really cool gig—it was outside—but there’s always something, I don’t know, a little mysterious and scary about Idaho. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I guess it’s because it just seems unknown or something. Sort of vast and flat and unknown. But where it talks about “watch out for signs that say ‘Hidden Driveway’” and then the pool, I guess it’s really kind of a reference to the subconscious being like living in your own world.
There’s a reference to a radium clock in there—when Fred says, “Swimming ’round and ’round like the deadly hands / Of a radium clock at the bottom of the pool,” and it’s kind of an obscure reference, but there was a clock factory in Athens. They had glow-in-the-dark dials, and these women were dying of cancer, and I don’t know when this was, exactly, but I remember it was in the news about how the women who were painting the radium onto these dials, they were licking their brushes before they dipped the brushes into the radium. So that was a reference to that, and kind of a reference to, I guess, environmental pollution and toxic things. So it has this dark feeling, in a way. And yet we sing it with such glee. [Laughs.]
AVC: So what was the deal with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho? I know he thanked you guys in the credits, but did he call you beforehand and say, “Hey, I’m doing this movie, I’d like to borrow one of your song titles”?
KP: No, I don’t believe he called. He just used it, and then he put in the big credit, “Thank you to the B-52s.” But you can’t copyright a title like that, so I don’t think he had to ask.
The B-52s, “Mesopotamia” (from 1982’s Mesopotamia)
KP: Strangely enough, Chris Blackwell didn’t want to put “Mesopotamia” on Mesopotamia. [Laughs.] He thought the song was weak. I don’t know why. He just thought it wasn’t strong enough. Actually, we wanted to write more songs. We weren’t really ready to put out this album, and [our manager] Gary [Kurfirst] had suggested working with David Byrne, but we hadn’t written all the songs out. He said, “You gotta put another record out!” He was one of those managers who was, “Ya gotta do this! Ya gotta do that!” So he kind of forced us. He said, “Well, just put out an EP. Don’t make it a whole album.” But we hadn’t even finished. “Cake” wasn’t really finished. “Deep Sleep,” I just kind of stuck that lyric on in the studio in one take. It was just not finished. We sometimes think, “Wow, if only we could go back and finish Mesopotamia.” [Laughs.] But “Mesopotamia” was actually a finished song, and we’re like, “Chris doesn’t want to put ‘Mesopotamia’ on Mesopotamia?” I still think it’s one of our best songs. And despite what Chris said, we never hesitated about putting in on there. We never thought, “We’re not putting this out.” We were always, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re putting ‘Mesopotamia’ on Mesopotamia.” A funny thing about the song: A DJ in Detroit—The Electrifying Mojo—started playing “Mesopotamia” on an African-American station, and we got a great crossover audience and a big following in Detroit through that song. We still get a big cheer whenever we play “Mesopotamia” there. By the way, the line “meet you by the third pyramid,” there was some translation of the song into Japanese where it became “meet you by the fur pyramid.” I always thought that was genius. [Laughs.]
The B-52s, “Whammy Kiss” (from 1983’s Whammy!)
KP: At this point, Keith didn’t want to play drums anymore, ’cause he really collaborated with Ricky on guitar, and sometimes he would play guitar in the studio. We’d sometimes use those Brian Eno cards, so we’d pull one out and it’d say, “Everyone switch instruments,” or “Everyone put their instrument on their head,” or “Play the xylophone” or something. [Laughs.] But Keith and Ricky truly cross-collaborated sometimes. Keith would play the guitar or come up with guitar parts—he played multiple instruments—and at this point, he didn’t want to play drums anymore, so Whammy! featured drum machines and some synthesizers. It was kind of a big change in sound, which I wasn’t really for very much. I didn’t really like the drum machine. It was a different sound, but Whammy! was very much based around that, so there were lots of [imitates drum machine] and lots of click-click-click sounds and everything.
I think Fred probably came up with the title “Whammy Kiss” and the whole “I need to refuel / I need your kiss.” And then, you know, we had our usual interplanetary references: “On Planet X, it won’t be long now / I got a light year to get to the phone.” Cindy and I came up with those, but I don’t know if it was Cindy or me or both of us. But the message was definitely involving an interplanetary kiss. [Laughs.] A kiss to another planet! That comes through so many of our songs, trying not to write just a standard love song. It’s this kiss that sends you out of this world, I guess. Another one that came out of a jam, but it felt so different having that drum machine. Such a different sound. It was kind of shocking, actually. And when we did the tour, some of the songs we did with a drum machine, but half of the set, Keith played drums. Otherwise he’d be on keyboards or whatever. So it was a mixed-up thing, but it worked. But it was definitely a transitional album.
William Wegman did the cover, and he dropped that powder on the floor. We were just not even conscious when we were doing that that it might be referenced as cocaine, but then with the title of the album …we just thought it was supposed to be fairy dust or something. Which I guess makes it sound even more like it was supposed to be cocaine. [Laughs.]
The B-52s, “Song For A Future Generation” (from 1983’s Whammy!)
KP: That one was hilarious. It’s kind of ridiculous, but it plays on our futuristic propensities, and we kind of threw everything but the kitchen sink in there, from our astrological signs to our likes and dislikes. To me, it’s this great thing, because Ricky was there, and it was this introduction of all of us. Just the image of Ricky in the video, sitting on this modern chair. [Laughs.] It was one of those videos that we did in, like, 24 hours, so by the morning, Cindy was stammering and was like, “I have to go home.” It was around the 23rd hour when we did the dance in the video, and then my bit was the very last thing we did. I look perky, but I wasn’t. Sometimes I’ll see that dance and just remember how tired we were as we were doing this little shuffle-y dance. But I love that song. The band Chicks On Speed did a great cover of it.
AVC: I would argue that Cindy’s line “I like Chihuahuas and Chinese noodles” is among the best-delivered in pop music.
KP: [Laughs.] Well, she still loves Chinese noodles. And she has a Chihuahua! One of my all-time favorite lines in the song is still “Let’s meet and have a baby now.”
AVC: I’ve never heard it said definitively, but did you retire the song from your live sets after Ricky’s death?
KP: You know, I don’t think we ever did play it after Ricky died. Sometimes I think that now that they have holographic images, we could. [Hesitates.] Actually, that would be pretty weird. But I guess there’s a Michael Jackson show they’re doing where they were talking about using holography. But no, I guess we’re not going to be doing that one. But it does hold a special place for us, because Ricky’s part in that is one of the few singing/talking parts that he ever did on one of our songs.
The B-52s, “Wig” (from 1986’s Bouncing Off The Satellites)
KP: Bouncing Off The Satellites was the last album Ricky was on, and he worked on the entire album before he died. I mean, it was really finished. And the record company, this was the first time they ever had said to us, “Just go back and write a hit.” The first time they ever messed with us at all or said anything. They just took everything we did as-is, because who could categorize us, you know? We were just so weird. [Laughs.]
“Wig” was an old idea we’d had. We’d started wearing wigs right from the beginning. The very first gig we did, on Clayton Street, there was this store called the Diana Shop, and they had these fake-fur pocketbooks. And Fred said, “Oh, I saw these weird pocketbooks in the window,” so I ran down and I bought one. And Cindy was working at the Whirly-Q counter at Woolworths, and I said, “Look at this pocketbook! We can wear these things as wigs!” And she said, “Well, get me one!” So I went and got the other one. They were white fake fur, and they had a chain, so we cut the chain off and it was like a big white afro. [Laughs.] So we just teased them up and wore them for the first gig. Part of it was because we were kind of shy when we first started playing. We were terrified! So the wigs really helped us. Keith and Ricky wore hats that practically covered their whole heads, and Cindy and I had these big sky-high wigs on. When we first started, we had a hairdresser in Athens, Laverne, and she just teased up Cindy’s and my hair so big, she said, “Honey, when you make love, you hang your head over the edge of the bed, your hair’s not gonna move.” [Laughs.]
When we did that song, we’d been rattling around that title for a long time, so we did it in a jamming session and kind of elaborated on it. The whole “wig! wig! wig!” thing, it’s just very silly. All those jokes were meant to be very bad jokes. “Fred didn’t want toupee.” [Laughs.] Just the worst jokes. When we started doing it live, there was always a moment when we were doing those jokes where we were, like, “Is the audience going to laugh, or are they going to groan?” And they were groan-worthy jokes, but it was always an odd part. We just recently added “Wig” back to our set—well, we’re not doing it right now, but it comes in and out, and it’s been really fun to do. We started the set with it, and, you know, Fred just screams, “What’s on your head?” “A wig!” It’s just so fun to do. And there are so many people in the audience with wigs on! We started a whole thing with people coming with wigs. I’m surprised the whole audience isn’t wearing them at this point.
The B-52s, “Love Shack” (from 1989’s Cosmic Thing)
KP: There was a place in Athens called the Hawaiian Ha-Le that was kind of like the juke joint in The Color Purple, and it was kind of the model for the Love Shack. We had this larger sort of bohemian group that we used to hang out with. It wasn’t just us, it was Jeremy Ayers and Robert Waldrop and a whole bunch of other people that we’d hang out with. Athens was very much like the classic farmer’s town, but then the University of Georgia was there, so you’d have cheerleaders and sorority and fraternity guys and football players vs.—in a way—the bohemian element, because there was an art school there, and a whole bunch of hippies. The hippie thing filtered down there later, so it was still lingering even in the mid-’70s. [Laughs.]
Another real jam. We just came up with our parts, and there was a point when we were working with Don Was on recording the song, and in the chorus where we go, “The love shack is a little old place,” that originally only happened once in the song, and I guess Fred and I had this debate over it. I said, “This has got to repeat.” And when we got in the studio, Don Was said the same thing. Fred and I knew in some way this was a hit, but I guess Keith also felt like it wasn’t finished, and it wasn’t. So Don Was kind of helped us, and we worked with him, playing all the songs live in Dreamland Studio in Woodstock and working it out, kind of getting a groove going so that we could record. And that was a great thing, because we hadn’t played the songs live. We’d only just finished writing them. So he really helped us structure that. I think if we hadn’t done that, it probably wouldn’t have been the hit it was. But it’s just such an iconic song that everybody just feels this joy. It’s played at weddings, it’s sung at karaoke—it’s one of the biggest karaoke songs, in fact. And when we play it, everyone just lets their inner freak out. [Laughs.] “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster,” people just tend to go crazy.
By the way, when we were jamming on “Love Shack,” some of the instrumentation was pre-recorded, and all of a sudden it stopped, just as Cindy was in full throttle, yelling, “Tin roof rusted!” The tape had stopped, but she kept going. And that’s actually how we got that part. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. [Laughs.] People always wondered what she was saying, and there are all sorts of interpretations, but one of the most popular is that it means you’re pregnant. I have no idea how people got that idea. I’ve never heard that particular expression, and I don’t even know how it came up, but I hear it all the time now!
AVC: Cosmic Thing is a very happy album, given that it’s the first record that the band did without Ricky Wilson. Was that a conscious effort, to make it as happy as possible in order to just kind of get back to business?
KP: After Ricky died, we didn’t think we’d keep going, but we didn’t know. Nobody ever said, “Never again.” But we knew we couldn’t tour for Bouncing Off The Satellites. Fred and I did some promotional stuff and went to Europe and did some interviews, but we couldn’t tour. It was suggested by some people in the business, “Just get another guitar player,” but we just couldn’t do that, so I think the record company just assumed “That’s it,” so they didn’t even really promote Bouncing Off The Satellites. But then “Summer Of Love” started going up the dance charts, and Steve Baker, who was at Warner Bros., told me he was running up and down the hall going, “Why aren’t we promoting this?” But they just weren’t. So when we put out Cosmic Thing, I think Warner Bros. really realized they had kind of missed something there and saw something great in this album, so they decided they were really going to promote it.
When we first got together to do it, though, it was very tentative, and we had no kind of aspirations to make this a hit or to make it happy or sad. We just thought… Well, I think we just realized how precious life is. We were devastated, and just felt like we couldn’t go on. But when we started getting together to write, we realized it was healing. Incredibly healing. But it also conjured up the presence of Ricky, and we started—I don’t want to call it nostalgia, because I don’t think we were maudlin or anything. [Laughs.] But we started thinking about early times in Athens, like “Deadbeat Club,” and things just started flowing. Keith, of course, had to take over all the guitar-playing and everything, so he went through a major transition. As I said, he’d always played guitar with Ricky and could play a lot of instruments, but to have the whole thing on his shoulders? I think it was also a challenge, one that he rose amazingly to and started just writing this amazing music. And when we jammed, things just started flowing out, because we had all this emotion and stuff that was locked inside, and it became this wonderful healing thing. We never intended to make “Love Shack” this major party song. It just came out that way. Cosmic Thing just kind of came flowing out during the jam. We kind of had to put the pieces together, like a puzzle or a collage, but when we did, it just clicked.
Iggy Pop, “Candy” (from 1990’s Brick by Brick)
KP: Don Was was producing that with Iggy Pop, so he suggested me to Iggy Pop, because he had the song written as sort of a duet. And Iggy Pop said, “Great!” So I went into the studio, and he gave me pretty much carte blanche to reinterpret the lyrics, so I changed a few minor bits in the talking part, but he had it written. For the harmony parts, he just said, “Just do your thing!” So it worked out great. He was so funny and wonderful and nice. And his son was playing in the band! It was a great experience. Needless to say, I’m a huge Iggy Pop fan, so it was just really great to sing with him. And it was a hit! [Laughs.]
R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People” (from 1991’s Out Of Time)
AVC: I guess the biggest question here is, “What took so long?” Given the tightness of the Athens music scene, it seems like there would’ve been a cross-collaboration between the B-52s and R.E.M. long before this.
KP: I know! It’s funny that all of us never really collaborated, but they pretty much started right after us in Athens. We actually saw one of their first performances. Our friend Jeremy Ayers said, “Hey, you’ve got to see this new band, they’re really cute.” [Laughs.] So we went to see them in Athens, and we knew them and followed them from way back. It was actually at Radio City in 1990, I think, when we played Radio City Music Hall, and Michael Stipe and the rest of the band were there. Actually, I can’t remember if the whole band was there, but Michael was, and there’s a big staircase at Radio City that goes down to this big area, and Michael and I saw each other there, and he said, “Will you sing on our new record?” And I said, “Yes!” [Laughs.]
Again, that was another case where he sent me the songs, and when I came to the studio, they were all just, like, “Add your harmonies and do your thing!” Nobody ever said, “Oh, try this harmony or that harmony.” So many times… well, not so many times, but a few times, I’ve done collaborations where somebody would try to say, “Oh, do this particular harmony,” and the way Cindy and I do our harmonies is completely unique. It just comes out of a feeling, you know, and we’re just kind of winging it. I think that’s the best. That’s our sound. So that was really fun to do that with R.E.M., and I loved working with those guys. I love “Me In Honey,” and I love “Shiny Happy People,” too, even though they’ve said they don’t really like that song. [Laughs.] The video was really fun to do, too. Katherine Dieckmann did that. And we did it in Athens, so our friend April Chapman’s third-grade class did the backdrops. So it was a very Athens-y collection of people.
The B-52s, “Funplex” (from 2008’s Funplex)
KP: We did so much promotion, and no matter where it was or who it was with, every single person would open the interview with, “So it’s been 16 years. Why so long?” And none of us could really answer that question properly. It was, like, “Yeah, why has it been so long?” [Laughs.] I mean, I guess we just sort of kept touring and kept busy and kept, you know, mining the old songs that we had. We’d change our set, we’d tour every year, and we toured with all these different people—Blondie, the Pretenders, Ziggy Marley—but why so long between albums? I can’t properly answer it, except to say that we were busy doing various life events and touring. So when we did Funplex, I mean, we had tried various times to get together, but because we write so collectively, it just has to be a mind meld. We have to come together and be all really in the same place and agree, “Now’s the time.” And it’s a real commitment, because we all live in different places. So everyone has to be together 100 percent and on the same page. So we met in Atlanta at the studio, and we started writing, and… Keith had been playing around with writing music, and it was a lot of pressure on him to come up with, after all these times, new songs with the quintessential B-52s song. Because he really wanted to merge this feeling of early rock ’n’ roll with a more electronica-dance sound. He had moved to Key West and had been going to clubs there and hearing more dance music. So that was the inspiration.
When we were jamming on it, we all had these different stories or characters. Cindy was a daytime waitress at the Taco Tiki Hut, I’m a pleasure-seeker with a platinum card, and Fred’s the one who’s in the mall on a diet pill. But we thought, “How can we pull this together?” And I had the idea, “Well, let’s have these characters be at the mall.” And we just kind of made it that way, like a story with these different characters in it. It was Keith who suggested the term “funplex,” just because of the idea that kids and everybody else are drawn into malls. Just the name of it, “Funplex,” is kind of a bizarre concept, that you come there to play videogames and have fun, but you go to the mall, and it’s kind of a magnet. A fun magnet. Everybody comes to the mall. You jog at the mall, you eat at the mall, you come to the mall for shelter. [Laughs.] And then there’s the consumerism theme. I love when Fred yells at the end, “The world’s going to hell!” We’ve had so many disaster songs, and it’s always a little bit of fun, kind of like when you’re in a monster movie and you’re running but you fall, and everyone in the audience is laughing and screaming, “Get up!” Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something. So when he screams “The world’s going to hell,” it’s like, sometimes there’s just so many things wrong in the world, instead of complaining about it, you sometimes just want to say, “Oh, it’s all going to hell, anyway.” [Laughs.] The mall is kind of a symbol of that. Now, we can’t claim to be anti-mall. We’re consumers, too, and we love the mall. We go shopping. So it’s not like a preaching thing. More like looking at America, and we’re part of it. We’re just looking at the absurdity of it.