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It's the day of New Year's Eve, and Kate Pierson is having a vision in Joshua Tree. It involves Airstream trailers. Apart from the B-52s, Pierson operates Kate's Lazy Meadow Motel, a vacation getaway near Woodstock, New York, that looks as if it's straight out of a B-52s video. Now, she wants to try something similar on the West Coast, but with trailers. "Have you ever been to Joshua Tree?" she asks. Her cell breaks in and out as she roams about the high desert. "It's full of all this crazy, primitive-looking cactus," she explains.
The B-52s' 35th-anniversary show looms in February. But at 63, after three decades of Big Red Hair and such, is membership in the planet's greatest party band still fun? "In some ways, it's more fun," she says. "When we were younger, we'd party hard after a show." The way she says the word hard leaves no room for doubt as to what she means. "We hang out after a show, but now, we party onstage." She laughs. "We still can."
There has been no new music since Funplex in 2008 (and fans had to wait 16 years for that), but the B-52s are far from retirement. Pierson thinks the band still book something in the neighborhood of 160 dates per year, which amounts to a lot of road time. In the cactus forest, surrounded by solitude and boulders, she seems satisfied with her band's place in the grand scheme of things. "I'd like to count up how many times we've done 'Rock Lobster.' Maybe some day a fan could figure that one out," she says.
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The B-52s formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1976, which, at the time, was the same as saying nowhere. The lineup was Pierson, who sang and played keys; vocalist Fred Schneider; singer/percussionist Cindy Wilson; her guitarist brother Ricky; and Keith Strickland, who originally played drums. They borrowed from '60s surf rock and new wave, and at first, they didn't seem very proficient on their instruments—but no matter. They did one thing better than most: The B-52s made people move.
"Our friends danced," Pierson recalls. "They shook the shacks we played in." Same thing happened, she says, in New York at CBGB. "Even the people who were trying to be really cool, the ones in the back in their leather jackets leaning on the walls, when they started dancing, we knew we had something."
In the beginning, the B-52s were a private joke that went public. The whole goofball act was about self-amusement. "There was nothing to do in Athens back then," she says. They were pretty much alone in their approach. "We had no idea it was going to go over. We just did it for ourselves." How else to describe a foundation built on a cosmic song about a lobster that ultimately led to record deals and radio play and arena stages? You can't.
They came up fast from obscurity, but in less than eight years, it was temporarily over. When Ricky Wilson died, the B-52s took a long break from touring.
They came back in 1989, but Strickland had switched to guitar, and in the meantime, he'd been writing hooks and riffs like crazy. There was enough material to record Cosmic Thing, which would be their commercial breakthrough. But post-Wilson, the roles inside the band changed, Pierson says: "When Ricky died, Keith wrote the music parts." Actually, she says, they write by jamming. "Then, three of us write the melody, harmony and the lyrics." Pierson says they tend toward building their songs by lifting parts from a collage of jams. "Pro Tools makes that much easier."
Funplex came with a tighter rave of sounds than ever before in the B-52s' discography, but the message was the same—a libertarian's approach to fun, politics and sex. But have the band members ever rejected stuff because it wasn't B-52s enough? Not so much. Pierson explains, "We've written lyrics every way possible." A lot of times over the years, she says, Schneider came in with just a song title, and the band worked backward from that. Or they played a game called Exquisite Corpse.
"You write an idea on a piece of paper and fold it so the next person can only see the last word, and then they write something down, and so on," she says. "We've done that." In the end, she says, they don't think about it too hard. "It all sounds like B-52s because we wrote it, and we're playing it."
This article appeared in print as "Still Shackin' Up: The B-52s have been rocking the lobster for 35 years."