For over 40 years, the B-52s have been bringing their new wave dance party to clubs, ballrooms, theaters, and arenas around the country
"We just like to keep the energy high, get the audience on their feet and having a good time," says singer Fred Schneider. "I've never heard any complaints about our live show. Never. People usually stand up anyway. We're not a sit-down band."
That's because the B-52s' quirky combo of dance and surf music is irresistibly danceable. That sound, Schneider says, came from the combination of elements brought by each member of the original B-52s lineup: himself, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson with Cindy's brother Ricky and Keith Strickland on guitars.
"Keith and Ricky were very original musicians," Schneider recalls. "Ricky had three strings on his guitar, sometimes four. He was very creative. He liked Joni Mitchell a lot and used open tuning. He was really admired by a lot of guitarists. Keith plays a variety of instruments and he's amazing at it.
"I wrote poetry in high school and college that was sort of surreal and humorous. I brought that aspect to the lyrics. Kate liked folk music and played guitar. Cindy liked to sing. She's a creative poet too. We all brought that together."
They came together in Athens, Georgia, in 1976, jamming for the first time after sharing a flaming volcano drink at a Chinese restaurant.
"I was visiting from Atlanta," Schneider says. "I was really bored living in Atlanta. I decided, after we jammed and saw all my friends, to move to Athens. Then we got together to jam [regularly]. There was actually nothing to do in Athens.
"There was no scene whatsoever. We had to play the folk club. They didn't want us until we sold out."
The quintet's first gig happened on Feb. 14, 1977.
"I had some friends who were having a Valentine's party and they asked me if we'd play it," Schneider says. "We didn't even have a name yet. I told them, 'We have a gig if we want it.' We took it and played the same set twice."
Taking their name from a 1940s beehive hairdo that resembled the nose cone on the B-52 bomber and dressing in thrift-store chic, the group played in Athens and Atlanta. From there the B-52s ventured out to, among other places, New York, where they played legendary clubs CBGBs and the Mudd Club, becoming the first Athens band to get national attention.
"When record labels started coming to Athens and Atlanta trying to get us to sign their crappy contracts, we knew something was going on here," Schneider says. "Once we signed with Warners, it was 'Here we go.' We've had a good run and we're still going strong."
In the middle of that run – 1989, to be precise – came "Love Shack," the band's biggest hit and a song that Schneider saved from being abandoned during the recording process.
"I wouldn't let it go," he admits. "They were sort of giving up on it. I thought, 'We've got to do something with this.' Don Was [producer] came up with the idea of putting two parts together. It wasn't anything brilliant. But it worked."
Indeed, it worked. But "Love Shack" was far from an instant hit.
"Radio wouldn't take it at first except for college and independent, which is why we always have time for college and independent now," Schneider says. "I don't think our record label knew what to do with it. We had to beg radio stations to play 'Love Shack.' Now you can't get away from it."
Schneider can't escape "Love Shack," "Roam," "Rock Lobster" or any of the B-52s' classics. That, however, doesn't bother him.
"I spend more time thinking about stage patter than I do about whether I like this song or not," he says. "I want to say something that can get people to go 'What is he talking about?' And then come out with a song." Confusion never sounded better.