B-52'S FLYING HIGH AGAIN
REUNITED BAND FINDS NEW ENERGY
By Paul Freeman [1998 Interview]
The B-52s continue to tour, playing 50-60 shows per year. They were the closing attraction of the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival. The band’s latest album is “Funplex.” And there’s a new DVD/Blu-Ray, “The B-52s With The Wild Crowd, Live in Athens, GA.” For news, visit www.theb52s.com.
The B-52's are airborne again! Original members Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland have reunited, at least for the moment. And they're still capable of generating the same musical energy they unleashed 22 years ago.
After assembling for a handful of corporate gigs, the group decided the time was right for a greatest-hits package. "Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation" contains 16 B-52's classics, including "Rock Lobster," "Private Idaho," "Love Shack" and "Good Stuff," as well as two new numbers, "Hallucinating Pluto" and the single "Debbie."
To rehearse and create, the group gathered in Woodstock, where Strickland and Pierson both reside. Schneider lives in New York City; Wilson in Georgia, where the B-52's were formed in 1976.
"Keith's place is on this fabulous mountain," says Wilson, who left the group in 1990. "You can see forever. You can play music as loud as you want. It's such a great place to be creative. We wrote 'Hallucinating Pluto' and 'Debbie' there.
"I really missed being creative," she continues. "It felt so good to be back with this group of people again. We've been together through so much. It's like a family."
One original member couldn't join the family for the new tunes. Ricky Wilson, Cindy's brother, died from AIDS in 1985. As you open the CD, you'll see his photo, inscribed, "We love you Ricky."
The late guitarist was the key figure in defining the B-52's distinctive sound. "He's still with us, in our hearts and minds," Wilson says. "He was the originator. He played in open tunings a lot, inspired by Joni Mitchell. He also had that Captain Beefheart kind of uniqueness. Ricky was very percussive. He didn't elaborate his guitar parts. He didn't have to play a lot of notes to make it very strong.
"Since then, Keith has done a great job with the music. He and Ricky were very good friends. It was a tough thing for him to do, to take over like he did. But he did it beautifully. He's kept the sensibility that Ricky had."
In the ensuing years, the band has worked tirelessly for AIDS organizations, as well as animal-rights groups. "Everybody stands up for their beliefs," Wilson says. "Kate got arrested for protesting furs. I was bowled over by her commitment. We try to be politically aware and put our beliefs out there."
Nothing gets in the way of the primary mission of the B-52's, which is to entertain. The group's tours always have featured eye-popping costumes and riotous dance steps. "We always thought that it was important to be visual and to try and have fun on stage. If you're having fun, more than likely, everybody else is going to be getting into it as well," Wilson says.
Throughout this summer, the B-52's members performed together for the first time in nearly a decade. "We didn't know what to expect, how people would welcome us," Wilson says. "We knew we always had a solid following, but it was beyond expectations. "We had rehearsed as much as possible, trying to get as slick as possible. I personally had to build my voice to concert mode again. The whole thing got better and better, building into a frenzy!"
Nineteen-eighties nostalgia has given the B-52's a boost. "There does seem to be some kind of movement for the '80s thing. We are an '80s band. But we're also a '70s and '90s band," Wilson explains.
The band's first gig was at a friend's house in Athens, Ga., on Valentine's Day, 1977. It was also that evening that Wilson met her future husband, Keith Bennett. "That was definitely an auspicious night," she says.
In the early '80s, the B-52's helped spark the New Wave explosion. When Ricky Wilson died, there were questions about the band continuing, but the group persevered and, in 1989, released their most commercial album, "Cosmic Thing." They rode the momentum through a two-year tour.
"It was wildly successful, but it was grueling," Wilson says. "That was the first tour without Ricky. So I was having to cope with that. It was horrid to look behind me and not see my brother. He'd always given me confidence. When he wasn't there, I wasn't as brave. That made me unhappy.
"I gave the band a year's notice. When the tour ended, and I still wanted to go, they were surprised. But they wished me well. I just had to go off and change my life. I thought it was a good time to leave, because the band was doing so well. I thought that was the way to go out, on a positive note. There are so many talented people in the band, I knew they'd be all right."
When the band came through Georgia on the "Good Stuff" tour in '92, Wilson went to the show. "I heard Julee Cruise doing my parts. It was like an out-of-body experience. She did a great job, but it made me feel like I was in a strange dream."
With the B-52's subsequently placed on the back-burner, Schneider busied himself with a solo album. Pierson collaborated with R.E.M. and Iggy Pop. Wilson had other experiences to occupy her mind.
A difficult pregnancy confined her to a hospital for three months before her daughter's birth. "I wasn't allowed to get out of bed. I almost lost her. But every day they gave me new hope that she would survive. She arrived three weeks early, breathing on her own, everything normal and fine.
"It was an incredible relief that she's a healthy, happy baby. She's really our miracle baby. We had so many well-wishers putting positive energy out for us. I think that really helped." Wilson and Bennett named their baby India. "In bed all that time, you watch anything that comes on the TV, because you're stuck there. So I was watching 'Gone With The Wind' for the umpteenth time. I noticed this little part, India Wilkes, the sister of Ashley.
"We'd been making out name lists. My husband, who hadn't watched the movie, came in the next day with the name India on his list. He'd had a friend in school with that name. I said, 'My God! It must be destiny!' "
One-year-old India and Bennett, who took a leave of absence from his advertising career, accompanied Wilson on the B-52's tour. "That's the only way I could do it. I had to really talk my husband into it." She laughs. "He went kicking and screaming. But now he's happy we did it. It was an adventure for him."
Wilson, 41, hopes that the B-52's will be sharing more adventures in the future. The band has another album left on its old Warner Bros. deal and will probably return to the studio soon.
"We've managed to last this long because we've always been original," Wilson states. "We're non-conformists. Now we have a new spirit. Everybody in the band is realizing, 'How much longer could we be doing this?' We've got to take advantage and have fun now."