HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

The B-52s

Tue, 1st January 2008

Was it like The Monkees? It was more like The Shining. I don’t think a band should ever live together.”

One of the pitfalls of playing a show at a 414 year-old German fortress is that, back in Renaissance times, no-one could have foreseen what this building would eventually go on to be used for. As a result, there are no dressing rooms at the Berlin Citadel – just a series of curtained-off areas where bands are expected to change. All of which explains why, even though, B-52’s vocalist Fred Schneider has yet to emerge, it doesn’t take long to establish his precise whereabouts. “How long till showtime? I’ll be out in a second,” he says, to no-one in particular. Before you even meet the 57 year-old Schneider, you realize that having the same speaking voice when conveying mundane everyday information as the one you use on your records must be something of a curse. You keep expecting him to declaim, “LOVE SHACK, BABY!” at the end of everything he says.

Worst of all, you suspect he knows it too. He’s the last of the band to appear – and when he does, he initially seems circumspect and, well… rather serious. Seated around a table with his bandmates of 32 years, he can afford to be. The rest of them – Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland – struggle to keep a straight face through the entirety of the next hour. Next week, they land on British shores for their first UK tour since their reformation nine years ago. A life spent oscillating between lucrative corporate events and greatest hits shows has been rejuvenated by the appearance, four months ago, of Funplex – their first studio album since their early 90s commercial peak. As comebacks go, it was a clever one. Not only did they locate what Pierson calls the “surreal suitcase” of ideas which yielded Love Shack, Planet Claire and Rock Lobster – but reclaimed a little of the initiative from some of the bands they’ve so clearly influenced in recent years. Listen to Eyes Wide Open and Love In The Year 3000 and it’s hard to ignore a sense that The B-52s are taking back what they prepared and gift-wrapped to the likes of Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior the first time around.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the world has long since caught up with the thriftstore “pop Dada” aesthetic which set them aside on the release of their eponymous 1978 debut. When Pierson sported a beehive on the cover of that album, it must seemed bizarre. By the time fellow Athens Georgia habitué Michael Stipe wrote his own B-52s homage Shiny Happy People and asked Pierson to sing on it, that beehive (not on show today) had become iconic.

That was never part of the plan, but then, as The B-52s are wont to remind you, no plan in the world could have got them to this point, 30 years later. “We owe it all to serendipity,” beams 54 year-old guitarist Strickland, who, with his shorn hair grown out, could be mistaken for a tanned, camp Teddy Sheringham. Legend has it that the band arose from their shared enthusiasm for gatecrashing house parties. “That came later,” says Strickland, “Before that though, I went to a street dance at the University of Georgia, all glammed out, dressed in a David Bowie/Marc Bolan sort of way. I’d had a huge bag of foam – like the bits they stuff pillows with – and I was sprinkling it over everyone like fairy dust. Anyway, I saw Fred with a Hawaiian shirt on, dancing a little oddly, and I thought, ‘Well, he looks like a fun person.’ And that was it, really.”

The climate of pre-Aids positivism blazed a disco inferno through New York. But in the artier university town of Athens Georgia, it makes sense that the same positivism created the preconditions (and a ready audience) for The B-52s. United by a love of magic mushrooms and a rum-based cocktail called a Flaming Volcano, it was full of both that they returned to a friend’s house after an evening at a Chinese restaurant and happened to tape the song that they improvised that evening. “That was all just an extension of our lifestyle,” says Strickland, “We would go out to the University of Georgia where they had this agricultural department and they had all these cow pastures – and one summer’s day, we got word that the mushrooms were sprouting. So everyone drives out to these pastures…”

“With shopping bags!” interjects the New Jersey-raised Schneider, “It was like a social thing, you know? You could go and meet all your friends, bagging ’shrooms. Then, that night, we’d all be tripping.” Presumably, many of those early songs were written on substances? Take, for instance, the lysergic anti-logic of Rock Lobster’s narrative. “I think it was mostly pot,” recalls Schneider. “I smoked pot for a long time. Not so much now – although Deviant Ingredient from the new album is a pot song. And you can kind of tell, I think.”

Given how idyllic the early years of The B-52s sounded, it’s perhaps no surprise that the period after their eponymous debut album saw them attempting to perpetuate them. They moved into a house together in upstate New York. “Was it like The Monkees? It was more like The Shining,” recalls Pierson. “I don’t think a band should ever live together.” However, in the time it takes for Pierson to utter the words, she suddenly finds herself overcome with nostalgia. “Do you remember that time, it was just us, sitting at a table with nothing to do and Keith said, ‘I’ve got some acid. Do you want some?’ We captured it on video. We wound up doing the Hokey-Pokey for what seemed like forever.’”

If the group’s existence was predicated on chance decisions that determined the course of their life, the same could tragically be said of The B-52s’ original guitarist and Wilson’s brother, Ricky. In 1985, the group’s world momentarily halted when, aged 32, Ricky succumbed to an Aids related illness. As the band’s main songwriter, Ricky’s passing made their continued existence barely tenable. The reason, however, they are sat here – not as a tribute to their younger selves, but as a continuing entity – is Keith Strickland. It was Strickland who swapped drums for guitar and became the group’s main tunesmith. In 1989, sales of Cosmic Thing – the album that spawned Love Shack and Roam – comfortably eclipsed anything the band had created as a five piece. But just as The B-52s re-established themselves, they found themselves frozen out by a new musical weather front. It can’t have been much fun being a B-52 at the height of grunge. “It was strange,” recalls Schneider, “because we really loved what Nirvana were doing. But it would have been preposterous if we were seen as in any way attempting to join in.”

So they didn’t. Save for a money-spinning turn as The BC-52s, recording the theme to The Flintstones movie, they explored other avenues. Schneider became a radio DJ. Wilson, the group’s sole heterosexual, became a mother. Most famously of all, Pierson put her name to a new business venture, Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel in Woodstock. “I just drove one day and saw this beautiful property and decided it would be an easy investment.” If you haven’t already inferred from Pierson’s hair and wardrobe what Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel looked like once it was finished, then the website doesn’t disappoint. Leopardskin upholstery, post-war fixtures and Frigidaires seem to be the order of the day. However, to some holidaying B-52s fans, appearances have proved deceptive. Key the motel in the search field of to www.tripadvisor.com and several posts suggest a little too much shack and not enough love in Pierson’s enterprise. “When we got there,” writes Amber, “Many of the things we had asked about were just not there. The kitchen with adequate pots and pans for cooking? …Oh, and the phone in the room did not work.” Another poster makes similar complaints about the phone, as well as “a fridge with stale milk, a single saucepan… and three unanswered pages to their ‘emergency’ number.”

Pierson seems unfazed by the criticisms. “People come out to the country and they think it’s going to be a deluxe hotel, and it’s a rustic kind of place.”

“They want Kate behind the desk,” says Schneider, before Pierson continues: “People in the city get freaked out by little things… someone complained because there was a ladybug in their room.” If a certain set of brand values can be attributed to every artist, it seems that Pierson has found hers and created a business out of them. For Schneider though, being mistaken for the music to which you put your name isn’t always a good thing. Reading reviews for Funplex, he says he struggles to grapple the way his band are sometimes perceived. “Sometimes it’s a complimentary interview and they still get it totally wrong. It’s like they want to write [that we’re] ‘the campest, nuttiest this or that.’ I mean, camp means that you’re unintentionally funny and I feel…” His voice trails off.

Surely it’s not all bad, though. I notice that, over on the merchandising stall, a potential albatross has been turned into a commercial opportunity.

“What was that?” says Schneider.

I tell him that I’m referring to the cuddly lobsters – €25 each. “Well, people are bringing their… I mean, we’ve had everything from two year-olds to 200 year-olds. Everyone’s invited to our party.”

And if they throw them at you, it doesn’t hurt.

“That’s right. It doesn’t hurt. And we can just put it back on the merchandise table.”