Know your past live your future

B-52s by Nick Levine

B-52s by Nick Levine

Illustration by Sam Russell Walker

Nick Levine is a writer and journalist from south London via south Buckinghamshire. He writes about music, pop culture and LGBTQ+ issues for publications including Gay Times, Refinery29, i-D, NME, Time Out and GQ, and has interviewed the likes of Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears.

These days, they're best known for a surprise hit single that became a wedding disco staple, but there's so much more to the B-52s than Love Shack (baby). Dazzlingly imaginative and intrinsically campy, they're among the queerest and most underrated bands ever. I honestly believe that when you begin to fall for the B-52s, you’ll end up falling hard.

According to their own folklore, the B-52s formed in 1976 after sharing a fishbowl cocktail called a Flaming Volcano at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Georgia. With a little liquor presumably loosening their inhibitions, would-be-vocalists Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider had an impromptu jam session with guitar-playing Keith Strickland and conga-bashing Ricky Wilson (Cindy's older brother). Some inter-band role-swapping followed (Ricky Wilson took over as guitarist, Strickland became drummer), but the band's anything-goes, free-styling approach to songwriting stuck.

More often than not, the result was a song that most macho rock bands could hardly comprehend. The B-52s sang about poorly-planned parties (Party Out of Bounds), printing counterfeit cash in the basement (Legal Tender), a super-chic pet poodle who runs away from home (Quiche Lorraine), astral projection (Is That You Mo-Dean?), and kitsch retro dance moves (Dance This Mess Around). They could do pathos, too: fan favourite Ain’t It a Shame is a devastating ballad mourning a love affair that feels "like a fuse that's burned out".

Some tunes pushed their queer undertones a little closer to the surface: 6060-842 is about finding a phone number written on a restroom wall alongside the promise of a "very nice time"; Wig really is a celebration of hairpieces. Their brilliantly surreal 1978 breakthrough single Rock Lobster contains a nifty flip of then-expected gender roles. "Boys in bikinis! Girls on surfboards!" Schneider barks fabulously.

But perhaps partly because they came to prominence in the '80s, and partly because they were a cult act rather than chart-toppers like Boy George’s Culture Club, the B-52s were never pegged as a "gay band”. Cindy Wilson is the only heterosexual band member, but during the group's most prolific period, their queerness remained ingrained and implied, but not explained. It was there if you wanted to see it in their colourful thrift shore outfits, the female members' outrageous beehive hairdos, Schneider's flamboyant Sprechgesang vocals, and their infectious array of knowing references. "I'm Fred the Cancerian from New Jersey, I like collecting records and exploring the cave of the unknown," Schneider winks on their visionary 1983 single Song for a Future Generation. It's a track about futuristic dating that still sounds fresh in the Tinder era.

 Left to Right - Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson and Kate Pierson

Left to Right - Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson and Kate Pierson

"Not until 1992 did someone ask us about being gay," Strickland told writer and journalist T. Cole Rachel a few years ago. “It was almost more subversive that we didn’t talk about it. We were just trying to be ourselves. Being gay was just a part of it. That’s really how we wanted the world to be, you know? You just do your thing and your sexual orientation is just a part of it. I think it was kind of more revolutionary because of that. People either related to us on that level or they didn’t. Some people got it, some people didn’t, but we certainly never tried to hide it at all. Our music and our image kind of stood for itself—that was the statement—and we weren’t really self-aware enough to think that we needed to say anything else about it. We were saying it was OK to be different by just living it.”

The triumph and tragedy of the B-52s is the way they battled back after Ricky Wilson died of an AIDS-related illness in 1985. Floored by grief, they didn't tour in support of the following year's Bouncing off the Satellites album, and probably looked to fans at the time like goners. But after Strickland taught himself to imitate Wilson's distinctive guitar-playing style, they re-emerged with 1989's Cosmic Thing album, which married a slightly more political batch of B-52s songs to slicker pop production from big names Nile Rodgers and Don Was. It became their most successful record, going four-times platinum in the US and spawning the top three hits Roam and Love Shack. The latter’s video features an appearance from a pre-fame RuPaul, then a fixture on the Georgia club scene.

The B-52s have only released another two studio albums since Cosmic Thing, but they remain a popular live act to this day. The actual love shack (a five-room cabin where Pierson lived in the 70s) may have burned down in 2004, but their legacy lives on in any rock band which dares to be different and show a more playful streak. Scissor Sisters, CSS and Alphabeat definitely share some of their DNA.

And 40 years after Rock Lobster, the B-52s still appeal to pop fans who appreciate the very queer intersection between alternative culture and cultivating a camp sensibility. I can’t quite remember when I discovered them, but I remember feeling exhilarated that a band like the B52s even existed. Now, that same sense of exhilaration returns any time I meet a fellow fan. If you can quote a line from Wig at me, I know you're going to be my kind of person.

Perhaps because their reputation remains cult, especially in the UK, my B-52s-related memories feel particularly vivid. I still remember the sales assistant at a store in the Castro in San Francisco who gave me a list of deep cuts to check out. And a guy I chatted to on a dating site at uni who left a B-52s mixtape in my pigeonhole - we never did meet, but I loved his mix. And the time I lined up five B-52s songs on the jukebox at my local LGBTQ bar in south London. (To be fair, that last one happened just a few weeks ago).

While researching this piece, I came across a fan theory that Roam is about having a crack (pun intended) at anal sex. I think that’s probably a bit of a stretch, but the song’s message of embracing life’s myriad possibilities is definitely inspiring. “Roam if you want to, roam around the world," they sing. "Roam if you want to, without anything but the love we feel." Every time I play it, it makes me want to go ahead and roam - whatever that may mean.

Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.

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