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Trashy Treasure

One man's trash is another man's treasure. And nowhere is this more evident than in a Southern small-town thrift store, where beer helmets and broken furniture end up as impromptu amusement-park rides on lawns and libidinous nights. It's the place in a college town where students and townie kids alike can be found killing time when not killing brain cells, constructing patchwork identities on a budget a half-step removed from the kindness of strangers.

Past the moldy books and needle-seared grooves of the Creedence, George Jones, and Johnny Mathis albums; across the cigarette-singed sienna settees; and to the side of region-inappropriate winter wear and XXL pit-stained T-shirts featuring slogans such as "God don't make no junk" in flaked-off block letters, there lies the potential.

That's where you'll find the glam. That's where you'll find the polyester inspiration, the flammable fabrics that help sleep-deprived, beer-dehydrated imaginations catch fire. That's where you'll find the origins of the B-52's, the fiercest thing to come out of Athens, Georgia, without a bulldog on it. The quartet (quintet till the 1985 passing of founding guitarist Ricky Wilson) famously trailed surrealist kitsch into a new-wave tailgate. And the party quickly stretched from the peach orchards to the Big Apple after the group's debut in the late '70s, eventually seeing a global popularity that has continued through this year's Funplex, the band's first album in 16 years.

Fueled by flaming rum drinks and a successful Valentine's Day 1977 debut at a friend's house party, the nascent poets of the preposterous distilled dead ends into culs-de-sac, yelping in 3-D Morse code that translated into something pink, pouty, and pumping. The artily addled dropouts countered the severity of the post-Velvet Underground black-turtleneck crowd by striking the pose of a Russ Meyer gang as envisioned by Federico Fellini. Faster, Kaleidoscopic Kats! Thrill! Thrill!

The B-52's were performance artists jamming on sinewy themes for killer bee attacks, and immediately they were inspiring the intense pogoing that turned bowing wooden floors of student squats into springboards. The band members — Keith Strickland, Ricky and Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson — slung Day-Glo sass.

"We didn't fit the 'band' look ever, because we wore what we wanted, didn't think ahead to do a retro thrift-shop chic look," frontman Schneider recalls by phone. "We just had no money, so we were space-age, trash-age, and the '60s."

Even though Schneider and Pierson originally hailed from New Jersey, the B-52's were out to prove that the South would rise again, or at least something would rise in the pants of the South. Releasing their first single in 1978 — "Rock Lobster"/"52 Girls" on Atlanta's DB Records — the B-52's disseminated rollicking, thinly veiled raunch. After a decade and a half of unexpected commercial success and personal setbacks (and the temporary departure of Cindy Wilson), the band eventually went under the radar following 1992's Good Stuff.

But like true thrift-store hounds, the B-52's never went away; they just took some time to leisurely scour for new accessories to complete their ensemble. According to Schneider, the band — constantly doing minitours and corporate events and releasing compilations in the late '90s — hasn't changed as much as the format of the industry has.

"Luckily, our contract with Warner [Bros. Records] ended," Schneider reveals. "They were sort of clueless even during [1989's] Cosmic Thing; they didn't think 'Love Shack' was a single... and we were ready to do a new record, 12 years after Good Stuff. So we worked on it, and one year into it, four songs into it, we were in Atlanta in a great ProTools studio when we had to make a complete business change. That threw us back a year, but every time we went to Atlanta, we came up with a song. Now was the time, even though it's all downloads and piracy. During Good Stuff, vinyl bit the dust, and now CDs have bit the dust. So we're releasing this on both!"

Coincidentally inspired during a period that saw the reignition of B-52's contemporaries New Order and Pylon, among others, Strickland began writing the music for Funplex around 2002 at his home in Key West. Over the next few years, the band would brave pollen seasons to use Atlanta/Athens as its recording hub, with upstate New York as the tracking satellite. Always a little Southern-fried, the B-52's used these demos and their live performances to set out re-establishing the band's position, now that far out — thanks to Scissor Sisters, Junior Senior, Peaches, and others — was way in.

Drafted to help was Steve Osborne, based on his production for New Order's 2001 comeback Get Ready. Osborne — a veteran engineer for Perfecto with Paul Oakenfold, as well as on his own with artists such as KT Tunstall — understood the sequenced-to-impulsive balance the band was eyeing. Osborne kept the balmy rolling hills and humid zipper-straining strut of the B-52's sonic real estate, applying a sheen to tightly edited percussion and burbling keyboards. The vocals, meanwhile, were left with their trademark inflection imperfections, and the lyrics wind puckishly through perversions both social and political.

"Keith wrote the music, and I come up with lyrics and titles and ideas along with Kate and Cindy," Schneider explains. "I don't know if anyone else has three singers that all write the lyrics and melodies and arrange things... It takes a lot of biting your tongue; you don't always get what you want, and you have to make compromises, but we make the best compromises."

Schneider, for one, couldn't be happier with the way the B-52's have continued to emulsify deviant ingredients into trashy treasures.

"It was a snowball that got bigger and bigger, because I had dropped out of college, had no career ideas except writing weird verse," Schneider reminisces. "But luckily, we found each other, as none of us had a career. So music came along, and we started doing it, and we kept doing it even as record company people and other crooks saw us, and it turned out like this."

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Tony Ware