THEY may be in their fifties and discussing bad knees, but after a long break the B-52s and their big wigs are back – and with a new wave of material, writes MARC SPITZ.
A HARSH wind is blowing around the four members of the B-52s as they view Lower Manhattan from a seventh-floor observation balcony at the New Museum. From this height, they can see every newly opened bar, caf and boutique. "The neighborhood didn't look anything like this," says guitarist Keith Strickland, 54, referring to the late 1970s, when these new-wave pioneers first conquered the city's downtown rock scene. "I walked out this morning and said, 'Where am I?'"
A few minutes earlier, the band – Strickland, Kate Pierson, 59, Cindy Wilson, 51, and Fred Schneider, 56 – had travelled a few short blocks south from the retro-chic Bowery Hotel, which opened on the site of a former petrol station last year. Along the way, the four passed the shuttered storefront of CBGB, the punk club, now defunct, where fans in Fiorucci dresses and vintage sharkskin suits had lined up to hear the band's primal yet lyrically futurist dance-rock. "Oh, CBGBs," Wilson says mournfully.
"Kiss it for luck," Strickland says to Schneider.
"I'm not kissing that," he replies with a mock shudder.
On the eve of the release of Funplex, the band's first studio album in 16 years, the B-52s are reckoning with a new frontier that barely resembles the one they imagined on optimistic tracks such as their 1983 single Song for a Future Generation.
"We have to jump back into the void we left behind," Schneider says. "We've gone through three different types of music eras or styles since we put out our last album. People watched MTV. Now everyone's on the In-ter-net."
New Wave's most unapologetic loons, the B-52s crashed the Billboard chart with their self-titled debut in 1979. On the album cover, the female members wore beehive wigs; Schneider dressed like an oily used-car salesman, complete with pencil moustache. "It wasn't like we said, 'We need an outrageous look,'" Pierson says. "That was what we wore to parties."
While most rock fans were listening to Billy Joel and REO Speedwagon, the B-52s were harmonising about giant lobsters, headless space invaders and Jacqueline Onassis. Onstage the band did extinct dances like the mashed potato. Some people got it. Many did not. Occasionally, students pelted the members with garbage. But the B-52s' unusual mix of the avant-garde (they cite John Cage and Yoko Ono as influences), 1960s fashion (Diana Vreeland is another hero) and party-friendly pop (girl groups, garage rock) eventually struck a nerve, winning fans including John Lennon and a young Kurt Cobain. And every few years they enjoy a high-profile rediscovery. Most recently their first hit, Rock Lobster, was the soundtrack for the drunken conception of a baby in the film Knocked Up.
By definition, new wavers should never become oldies acts, but the B-52s have been touring on and off since the late 1990s.
While many of their reactivated contemporaries, like the Police, have not recorded new material, the B-52s were growing tired of playing the same songs every night and wanted a fresher set list. "I don't wanna rehash the past," Pierson and Wilson sing on the new Eyes Wide Open. "I just want release."
To that end, Funplex has a much more modern sheen than its predecessors. The band's twangy guitar riffs used to be accompanied by cowbell, organ and a steady backbeat. Now songs such as Juliet of the Spirits have a shimmering electronic feel too. And, Schneider said, the group moved on to singing "about the year 3000".
But one thing will never change: Wilson and Pierson will be wearing their trademark wigs, lest the audiences riot. "There are times when I wish we could just be like the Indigo Girls," Pierson says with a sigh. "But we've got to maintain the hair."
"I used to think the importance of the band gets lost, or overshadowed, by the hairdos and the outfits," she adds. But now she realises, she says: "Our most important legacy is that people had fun. They come up to us and say, 'You got us through high school."
The first song the band wrote was about killer bees. Their best song was about a beach party gone bloody. By 1977 the band scored a short gig at Max's Kansas City in New York, where some people in the crowd assumed that the women in the band were drag queens.
"We were nervous as hell," Schneider says. "Everyone was standing there with their arms folded." They were convinced that they'd bombed, but the booker invited them back. By the time Rock Lobster was released as an independent single in 1978, the B-52s were drawing the likes of William S Burroughs, David Bowie and John Cale to their Manhattan shows.
Punk was evolving into the much more marketable and accessible New Wave, with bands like the Cars and Talking Heads enjoying hit debuts. A major-label bidding war ensued; the band signed with Warner Brothers and released its debut album, The B-52's, in 1979. The album went gold and the follow-up, Wild Planet, cracked the Top 20 in 1980. In 1982 the group even performed the song Private Idaho on a soap opera called The Guiding Light. "That inspired a whole generation of actors," Schneider quips. "Angelina Jolie became an actress after seeing it."
Their next few albums had only marginal success, which was partly related to the band's grief over Wilson's brother, the band's co-founder and guitarist, Ricky (who died of Aids in 1985) at 32. So for Cosmic Thing, the group's sixth album, released in 1989, the band enlisted as co-producer Nile Rodgers, who had worked on hits for David Bowie and Duran Duran.
"I had them do things on that album that they'd never done before," said Rodgers, which included painstaking multiple tracking of Wilson and Pierson's trademark harmonies.
"I remember, when I finished, calling the record company and saying, 'I hope you do the right thing here, 'cause you got a smash on your hands.'"
He was right; the record sold four million copies and spawned the B-52s' best-known hits, Love Shack and Roam. But the band, whose members still considered themselves outsiders at heart, "wasn't ready for the bigness of that record," Rodgers said. By 1992, when Good Stuff was released, the group was floundering.
"We had not had that kind of success before, and everything changed," Strickland said. "For me it got too heavy. It just had to stop."
What was supposed to be a brief break from recording lasted well over a decade.
Strickland suggested the title Funplex for the new album after a word he'd seen in a newspaper. For the first time, the band's lyrics are highly carnal. "I am now an eroticist," Schneider sings on Deviant Ingredient, "I am a fully eroticised being. I have no neurosis." On Ultraviolet he sings: "There's the G spot/Pull the car over," which will surely end up in the museum of groaners some day.
"It surprised me," Strickland says of his bandmates' lyrics. "Little did I know they were going to get all sexy" in their fifties."
But the B-52s have always celebrated music's power to "make you feel a lot better", as the early song Dance This Mess Around proclaims. Its lyrics list 16 dances, like the "shy tuna," "the hyp-o-crit," and the "escalator". The band traditionally performs them live, but as the members get older they admit that it's getting harder and harder to get them right.
"We can't do all 16 anymore," Strickland confesses during a coffee break in the band's hotel suite. "I danced in bad shoes so my knees are a little shot," Schneider says.
"We've entered the phase in our life," Strickland says sarcastically, "where we're talking about our knees." There is a moment of quiet group contemplation, followed, as usual, by peals of laughter.
• Funplex is released on Monday