Growing Old Disgracefully – The Return Of The B-52s

Along with REM, they put Athens, Georgia on the map and had a part in the rise of College Rock. With a new album on the way, Finbarr Bermingham caught up with B-52s founding member Cindy Wilson to talk about the past, present and of course, the Love Shack..

Athens, Georgia: population 175,085. A mid-sized Southern city that 30 years ago was famous for, well, not very much. Now though, to anybody with even a passing interest in the history of contemporary American rock music, the words ‘Athens, Georgia’ immediately jump off the page. Towards the end of the 1970s this sleepy college town became perhaps the most fertile and important outpost in music, the centre of the burgeoning post-punk universe. Spearheaded by New Wave bands like REM, Widespread Panic and the B-52s, the creative hubbub of Athens showed the rest of the USA that you didn’t have to be in New York or LA to make it in a band. So integral was it to the evolution of indie music stateside, they’ve taken to calling it the “Liverpool of the South”.

Cindy Wilson was just 19 when she helped form the B-52s (this year they decided to drop the apostrophe from ‘B-52’s’: “it’s just a little change, it doesn’t have much significance,” Wilson explains) alongside her brother Ricky, who died in 1985, and 22 when they made it big with Private Idaho and Rock Lobster. When The Skinny speaks with Wilson, now 51, it seems somehow fitting that she’s cruising down the freeway in her sister’s car, on her way to the beach. Over the years, the B-52s have for many symbolised a sunnier, fun alternative to the moodiness often ingrained in much popular music, even within the alternative. Wilson explains: “It was all a bit heavy at the time. To tell you the truth, when we first played outside of Georgia, in New York, they didn’t know what to make of us. It was totally the opposite of what was going on there, it was dark, and there was no dance scene.”

The vigour and zest they brought to the erstwhile largely colourless scene is what has come to define the band: loud, brash and even shamelessly cheesy. It is easy to forget that under all the fluorescent layering and caricature branding, there is hiding a band of massive influence and innovation. “It’s really cool people kind of thank us and tell us that they are inspired by The B-52s, that’s always great,” admits Wilson. She nominates Scissor Sisters as the latter day pretenders to their throne, and the camp New Yorkers are certainly heavily indebted to Wilson and co. But their inspiration runs deeper than that. Their pioneering dance rock / call-and-response songwriting and sprechgesang vocals of Fred Schneider is audible all over the place, perhaps most notable within the likes of The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem and even newer compatriots such as The Boggs.

The danger that exists when bearing such a brazen shell is that the contents will be overlooked. The B-52s of their often brilliant early albums is habitually overshadowed by the B-52s that appeared in the god-awful Flintstones movie (as the B.C. 52s) and that recorded the theme tune to Rocko’s Modern Life. Wilson insists, though, she is not bothered with misperceptions. “We were never the kind of band to take ourselves too seriously,” she shrugs, coming perilously close to stating the obvious. “We just have a good time, there’s a lot to be said for being able to laugh at yourself.”

Out of this carefree attitude was borne their biggest hit: Love Shack from 1989’s Cosmic Thing. A celebration of free love and the party lifestyle the B-52s adopted, it propelled them to the top of the charts almost a decade after they burst on to the scene. A news story ran a few years back claiming that the Love Shack about which the song was written had burned down. Cindy, though, is philosophical about the roots of the song. “That certainly did make for a good news story, that place was actually Kate (Pierson’s, the other female singer in the B-52s) old house in the country. We did have a lot of parties there, but I don’t think that was the Love Shack. We had Love Shacks all over the place if that was the case. The Love Shack, I guess, is in everyone’s head. I think everybody has their own personal Love Shack!”

As their old friends REM celebrate a return to form with their new album Accelerate, The B-52s are anticipating the release of their first studio album in 16 years. Funplex doesn’t try anything new. In fact, it seems to be an album slightly bereft of ideas. Wilson claims she is “just as excited about Funplex as I was about The B-52’s all those years ago. It is great, modern music, and I think it is up there with our best work.” Whether it compares favourably to their eponymous debut, for example, is debatable, but with their influence ostensible in so many more positive avenues, The Skinny is sure the legacy of The B-52s will stay with us even after their own quality wanes.

This piece was originally published in The Skinny in April 2008

Video: B-52s – Love Shack

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