By David Rolland
By David Rolland
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Do you positively lose your juice when "Cosmic Thing" comes on the jukebox in your neighborhood dive bar? Do you throw your hands in the air for the "tiiiiin roof... rusted!" break in "Love Shack" like you just won the lottery? Is "Rock Lobster" a staple on your "Kick Ass Party Mixx" mix tape?
Yes, the B-52's are fun -- especially since they have Fred Schneider, a guy who has, for more than two decades, provided over-the-top comic relief for the band. But does the word innovative ever cross your lips?
At the risk of inspiring hate mail from runny-nosed music geeks, the B-52's' 1979 self-titled debut album should be canonized alongside the Velvet Underground's debut and Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies as one of the most distinctive albums of all time. If you're laughing right now or experiencing spasms of indignation at such a sacrilegious reference to one of art-rock's sacred cows, listen to the album and absorb their John Waters-ready retro kitsch, the shrill screams of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson -- an art-school project gone camp.
When they formed in 1976 in Athens, Georgia, the music scene there was quite different from the one that exists today. In fact, Schneider says, it was almost nonexistent. By the time it began to pick up steam in the late '70s, the B-52's had already left for greener pastures, such as Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, where they recorded their debut with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
Atmospheric, spare, and overcast with an intangible, moody quality that's almost eerie, the album offers a distinctive blend of surfabilly, new wave, and girl-group pep that accompanied some of the quirks of the live show -- Pierson and Schneider's off-kilter call and response, late guitarist Ricky Wilson playing with the middle two strings missing. Hell, they even mimed to a tape at their first gig ever (at a friend's Valentine's Day party).
Schneider (who has, in his time, had his share of things to say about being pigeonholed) is slightly less complimentary about his band's first effort. "When I first heard it," he laughs, "I was like, 'Oh my god, we really sound rinky-dink.' There's a lot of space. Spare is... being polite."
It's not like he doesn't take the band's work seriously -- or doesn't have some shots to take at radio, whether it's the mentality of radio today or the radio that eventually embraced their 1989 comeback album, Cosmic Thing. Schneider credits the album's success to the initiative of alternative and college DJs.
"After a while, all the [bigger] radio stations would go, 'See? We supported you.' Oh yeah, really. One minute they're saying, 'No, it's too weird,' and the next minute, it's like, 'Please, come in. '" Their late-'80s hit, "Love Shack," he says, "wasn't your typical pop plop."
And how does he feel about today's radio?
"Oh, please -- boy bands and divas?" he snorts dismissively.
In conversation, Schneider pretty much sounds like you'd expect from his records, except that he's a little more restrained. In other words, he doesn't scream "Has anybody seen/a dog dyed dark-green?" into the ear with manic fervor, but he's no less animated, especially when he gets all fired up about the sorry state of the union.
"With this administration," he says, "if lies were ice cubes, you'd have an iceberg big enough to sink the Titanic again. It's just appalling that someone who everyone knows isn't very intelligent and never was -- and probably made money the same way Martha Stewart was just convicted for -- becomes the worst president in American history. And everyone around him is greedy corporate types ready to slice up the American pie -- or what's left of it. I guess the pie shell, or the aluminum foil, is left...The Democrats just need to get off their dusty, fat asses and do something. They just need to fight fire with fire."
One would think that the B-52's, who seemed to unabashedly (yet not necessarily directly) represent gay culture, would have experienced firsthand the uglier face of audience discrimination.
"That never happened," he says. "I guess people would yell things. We were either oblivious or just didn't [care]. In Europe, if they like you, they spit on you, so we got a lotta... spit. We opened for the Who once [in Orlando in 1980], and after Joan Jett was on, she started getting bottles thrown at her, so we knew when we got on, it was gonna be a bumpy ride."
Interestingly, he sounds slightly more agitated when describing how actress Teri Garr dissed the B-52's after both appeared on a 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live. "Teri Garr went on Johnny Carson the next night and said [affects nasal, offended voice]: 'You would not believe this band.' Well, she's like the queen of Lite FM here in New York, so I guess we weren't her cup of tea."