Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: These B-52s Hardly Dropped Bombs

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: These B-52s Hardly Dropped Bombs

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

In the late 1960s, a Beehive was a woman’s latest fashion hairstyle: long hair piled up in a cone, something like a traditional hive created by bees. Pile it up, and spray it with Aqua Net. The longer her hair the better her hive.

To end any confusion, what’s needed for clarity is to distinguish those B-52s from the America’s bomber airplanes. So look here:

These B-52s Gave Us “Party Time”

For new wave group B-52s, both girls (Cindy Wilson the blonde; and Kate Pierson the red hot pile) became the group’s style-to-remember. Their early record label, Island Records, even put out side releases on a sub-label it named “Boo-Fant” Records, a parody of “bouffant.”

The Island label’s Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders also caught the craze, and portrayed a bee-hived waitress in that group’s video, “Brass in Pocket.”

There also were boys and men in the group: older brother guitarist Ricky Wilson; vocalist and cowbell-player Fred Schneider; and Keith Strickland, percussion, too.

The group first came together over cocktails in 1976. Their roots were in early rock’n’ roll, but made advances into all forms of pop. Unlike most rock groups, the ones peopled by rebels, located in the Village, who took everything seriously, the B-52s behaved like kids from Athens, Georgia, which they were. They behaved goofy.

Sessions on stage became a party, not a fight. They sung tall tales and showed how hot romance felt. They became, it’s believed, the most oddball rock band of all time. They drank.

1979 – Album One

Let’s start with Album One. (Before One, the group had gotten together while drinking a Flaming Volcano at a Chinese restaurant in Athens.) They decided to be New Wave by combining surf music and dance songs. Or as guitarist Ricky put it, “thrift-store chic.”

They moved and wiggled, making it to Warner Bros. Records in 1979 for North America, and Chris Blackwell’s Island Records for Europe and Asia. Blackwell recorded them in his Compass Point studios in the Bahamas.

They named the first album The B-52’s. It became known as “the yellow album.”

First single in Album One: “Rock Lobster” went to #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, but even higher (#1) on the charts in Canada.

To print out “Rock Lobster” lyrics takes many inches. So I’ll skip through a few “Ski-doo-be-dop”s just to give you an idea of the poetry herein:

(Ski-doo-be-dop) We were at a party (Eww)
(Ski-doo-be-dop) His ear lobe fell in the deep (Eww)
(Ski-doo-be-dop) Someone reached in and grabbed it (Eww)
(Ski-doo-be-dop) Was a rock lobster (Eww)

We were at the beach (Eww)
Everybody had matching towels (Eww)
Somebody went under a dock (Eww)
And there they saw a rock (Eww)
It wasn't a rock (Eww)
Was a rock lobster (Eww)

Motion in the ocean (Ooh ah)
His air hose broke (Hoo ah)
Lots of trouble (Ooh ah)
Lots of bubble (Hoo ah)
He was in a jam (Ooh ah)
He's in a giant clam! (Hoo ah)

Boys and bikinis
Girls and surfboards
Everybody's rockin'
Everybody's frugin'

Put on your noseguard
Put on the lifeguard
Pass the tanning butter

Here comes a stingray (ooh wok ooh wok)
There goes a manta ray (ah ah ah)
In walked a jellyfish (huah)
There goes a dogfish (rea-owr)
Chased by a catfish (geh geh geh geh geh geh geh geh geh geh)
In flew a sea robin (Laaaaa)
Watch out for that piranha (eh rek eh rek ah hoo)
There goes a narwhal (eeeeh)
Here comes a bikini whale! (Aaaaah!)

(Lobster) Rock lobster (Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah)

The B-52s had created one of their style reputations with “Rock Lobster,” that of creating fishy sounds by soprano Kate and sub-soprano Cindy on behalf of the various fish found (like that Bikini Whale).

Check out the music video for "Rock Lobster":

Other singles included “52 Girls,” and, in Australia, “Dance This Mess Around.” The album kept getting fans, chucklers who bought it til it went Platinum.

1980 – Album Two: Wild Planet

Once again, recorded in the Bahamas and had major hair-do’s.

Wild Planet went #18 in Billboard, enough for “Gold.” Its biggest hit was “Private Idaho.” The group had made it to the top (pop), appearing on Saturday Night Live, and major festivals by now. All five of them lived in the same house, in camp glory.

They continued to reach up for more fun. The girls played with their audiences like sex was just around the corner.

1983 – Album Three: Whammy!

Hit songs from Whammy! include “Legal Tender.” The album hit #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and also ranked high on Billboard’s latest set of All Other Charts, including the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Singles chart, along with “Whammy Kiss” and “Song for a Future Generation.”

New sounds: drum machines and synthesizers become “instruments” for the band. Attitude is still anti-adult, as evident in the album’s title cut about how to “earn” a living.

So I fixed up the basement
With what I was a-workin' with
Stocked it full of jelly jars
And heavy equipment
We're in the basement,
Learning to print
All of it's hot
All counterfeit

“Legal Tender” as seen here:

1986 – Album Four: Bouncing Off the Satellites

In 1985, band member Ricky Wilson fell ill with AIDS, and quietly died in October of that year. He was 32.

The band shut itself down in mourning. No tour for this. A time gap of two-plus years followed.

1989 – Album Five: Cosmic Thing

This album became the band’s major break-through, with Reprise handling its sales worldwide.

Cosmic Thing, even after the AIDS-death of Ricky Wilson, showed the four-left-in-the-band at its peak: Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, and Keith Strickland. They could still pose.

Hits from Cosmic Thing were and still are:

• "Channel Z," big with alt rock and college-agers. It described a phony radio station in Chicago, whose motto was “All Static. All Day. Forever.”

I am livin' on Channel Z
Getting nothing but static, getting nothing but static
Static in my attic from Channel Z
Getting nothing but static, getting nothing but static.
Static filling my attic from Channel Z

• • • • •

• "Love Shack," with its let’s party romp, which gave the band its first Top 40 hit way up on the Billboard Hot 100. It went to #3.

If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says
"15 miles to the Love Shack"
Love Shack, yeah, yeah
I'm headin' down the Atlanta highway
Lookin' for the love getaway
Headed for the love getaway
I got me a car, it's as big as a whale
And we're headin' on down to the Love Shack
I got me a Chrysler, it seats about 20
So hurry up and bring your jukebox money

Pop into the “Love Shack”:

• • • • •

• "Roam," which also went to #3, five years after “Love Shack.”

You have no idea how unproductive it is
to fall in and out of you as often as I do.
And lately I've been feeling grey but today,
I'm all right no thanks to you.

Feel “Roam” here:

• • • • •

• "Deadbeat Club," about the group’s early days in Athens, Georgia. It’s by the best “party band” ever. Especially due to its video:

Party Time at the Deadbeat Club...

"Huh, get a job!"
"What for?"
"I'm trying to think..."

We're the deadbeat club
We're the deadbeat club

Going down to Allen's for
A twenty-five cent beer
And the jukebox playing real loud,
"96 Tears"
We're wild girls walkin' down the street
Wild girls and boys going out for a big time

Let's go crash that party down
In Normaltown tonight
Then we'll go skinny-dippin'
In the moonlight
We're wild girls walkin' down the street
Wild girls and boys going out for a big time

• • • • •

Overall, the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing went Top Five on American charts, and sold four-times-platinum. Biggest ever. The group went on a world tour (“Love Shack” went #1 in Australia for eight weeks).

They’d mastered Flaunting and Party Time, both vocally and other-limbs-ly:

1992 – Album Six: Good Stuff

Cindy Wilson became more and more the focus of the band. She co-wrote most of the songs, and the band’s “call-and-response” vocals were prominent in the band’s all-girl songs, like “Roam,” “Cake,” “52 Girls,” “Legal Tender,” “Summer of Love,” and others. She became the band’s #1 vocalist. And her bongo playing (she liked being credited as the band’s “bongocera”).

1992 had become time to move on. Cindy Wilson retired from the band, with the group’s new cover showing them as a trio.

Unlike their prior 13-years of albums, Good Stuff emphasized the B-52s’ liberal politics: belief in save-the-environment, animal rights, and AIDS activism.

Like many in their early, sassy, girls-vs.-boys tunes, they’d now expressed a sassy “there’s more to life” attitude, too.

Not wanting to give up here, let’s offer one more track, the ‘92’s title track.

Experience the B-52s’ hit track, “Good Stuff,” here:

-- Stay Tuned