By Eleni P. Austin
“Hey, I’m Kate and I am a Taurus/I love tomatoes and black-capped chickadees.” That enthusiastic announcement came from Kate Pierson in the midst of “Song For A Future Generation” off the B-52’s third album, Whammy. By then, the five-piece group were already well on their way to becoming America’s premiere party band.
The B-52’s formed in 1976, after one too many Flaming Volcano drinks at a Chinese restaurant in the coolest college town since Austin, Texas; Athens, Georgia. Vocalists Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, along with Cindy’s guitarist brother Ricky and drummer Keith Strickland shared an affinity for ‘50s kitsch. Even their moniker was a slang reference for the beehive/bouffant hairstyles Kate and Cindy sported.
The B-52’s were influenced equally by cheesy Beach Party movies, cheesy Flying Saucer movies, Girl Groups, Motown, Ed Wood and cheesy Monster movies. Blending those sensibilities, they created their own sound. Songs like “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire” were quirky, clever and ridiculously danceable.
Their eponymous debut arrived in 1979 and was immediately embraced by Punk and New Wave fans. Singing about Plymouth Satellites and dance crazes like the Shy Tuna ran the risk of pigeon-holing the band as a novelty act. But their music was a heady brew of Surf guitar, bongo rhythms spooky Farfisa, toy pianos and irresistible hooks. Hearing “Rock Lobster” motivated John Lennon to end his house-husband phase and get back in the studio, recording what would be his final album, Double Fantasy.
Their sophomore record, Wild Planet, doubled down on the same winning formula from the first. The vocal interplay between Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson was (as the kids say), on fleek. Schneider’s deadpan sing-speak perfectly complimented Wilson and Pierson’s over-the-top emoting.
For their third album, the band tapped Talking Heads’ front man David Byrne to produce. But they ended up scrapping most of the album and releasing an EP, Mesopotamia in early 1982. A year later they issued their third proper full-length, Whammy, which featured the aforementioned “Song For A Future Generation.” The album, which included a canny cover of (kindred weirdo) Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry,” was their first effort to really integrate synthesizers into their sound.
Tragedy struck as the band began recording their fourth album. At the young age of 32, guitarist Ricky Wilson died. It was a blow to the band, especially his sister, Cindy. It was later revealed that Ricky died from an AIDS-related illness, a secret he had kept from everyone until right before he passed.
The band soldiered on, releasing the slightly subdued Bouncing Off The Satellites in 1986. No one would have blamed them if they had called it quits. But following a hiatus they re-grouped as a four-piece, with Keith Strickland switching to guitar, and came back stronger than ever.
1989 saw the release of Cosmic Thing. Produced by Was (Not Was) bassist, Don Was and Nile Rodgers from Chic, the album retained the campy fun of their early records, but also seemed wildly contemporary. It also spawned the monster hits, “Love Shack,” “Roam” and “Channel Z.” Plus, it included the uncharacteristically reflective “Deadbeat Club.”
Two years later, Cindy Wilson took a sabbatical from the band to concentrate on raising a family. As a threesome, the B-52’s released the so-so Good Things. In 1998 the quartet returned with a greatest hits compilation, Time Capsule, and embarked on a co-headlining tour with the Pretenders.
For the next 10 years, the B-52’s concentrated on touring, headlining shows and opening for bands like the Rolling Stones and Cher. Their influence was felt by younger bands like Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior. As one of the first (unapologetically) Gay bands, B-52’s had opened doors and created an enduring legacy.
In 2008, they hooked up with producer Steve Osborn and recorded their seventh album Funplex. It was their trademark mix of quirky lyrics and eccentric instrumentation, but it added elements of electronica. In short, another perfect party record.
When they weren’t on tour or recording, each B-52 has managed find time for different avocations. Fred Schneider has released two solo albums and has a musical side project, the Superions. Cindy Wilson started the Cindy Wilson band in 2003. Keith Strickland got involved in independent films like A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek.
Kate Pierson and her partner, Monica Coleman became innkeepers, first in the Catskills with Kate’s Lazy Meadow and more recently in the high desert with Kate’s Lazy Desert. She also, (finally) found time to write and record her first solo album Guitars And Microphones.
The album opens with the stompy Cha-Cha-Cha of “Throw Down The Roses.” A defiant declaration of independence, it’s powered by sparkly synthesizers and flinty guitar breaks. The lyrics recall early career experience when Kate and Cindy were mistaken for groupies at the concert they were headlining. Her mien is arch and dismissive. “I can’t ever be your girl VIP, Baby that ain’t me, I’m a crowd surfer/I don’t ever do rocker boys like you, I’m an artist too, I’m a showstopper.”
The B-52’s have always integrated environmental themes into their party anthems. Kate Pierson continues that tradition on two tracks, “Bring Your Arms” and “Time Wave Zero.”
Over clickity clack percussion, a gentle synth wash and “whoo-hoo” backing vocals, Pierson recounts a sea tortoise rescue mission she witnessed in Tulum, Mexico. The melody is buoyant, her wonder is contagious.
“Time Wave Zero” is an apocalyptic anthem wrapping global-warming anxieties in a propulsive hand-clap beat, plinky piano runs and sinewy guitar riffs. The predictions are dire, “Ambush asteroid heading our way /What’s to come, Aurora Borealis and the burning sun,” but the melody reassures.
Three tracks, “Crush Me With Your Love,” “Wolves” and “Matrix” are pure paeans to the life Kate Pierson has made with partner, Monica Coleman. “Crush Me…” has the torchy grandeur and layered harmonies that recall the Girl Groups of the early ‘60s. “You’re the north, I’m the south of the magnet I have longed for.”
In a non-“Hangover” way, Pierson and Coleman form their own wolf pack on “Wolves.” The melody echoes the idiosyncratic vibe of the late Laura Nyro. Prickly guitars connect with firefly synths as Pierson shares her gratitude. “As the embers dart, you built a bonfire in my barbwire heart/And are we wild or tame, you call my name I call your name.”
Finally on “Matrix” the duo are free-falling, (in a non-Tom Petty way). Over kinetic percussion and bubbling synths Pierson offers reassurance. “Don’t despair, there’s plenty of air in not knowing.”
The political has always been personal for Pierson. Both “Guitars And Microphones” and “Mister Sister” extends her commitment to remain socially conscious. The former is the B-52iest track on the album. Whip crack rhythms boomerang through the melody as Pierson offers a gimlet-eyed recollection of her adolescent Folk band, the Sun Donuts. “Banded together by guitars and microphones, we wrote our protest songs, we wrote our protest songs.”
The latter opens with tick-tock bass lines and ricochet guitar riffs. The lyrics paint a vivid portrait of gender confusion. “Betrayed by the mirror when what you feel is not what you can see.” The story has a happy ending. “Hey Mister Sister they named you something biblical/Now you are Debbie Delicious and you’re on everybody’s party wish list.
The album closes with “Pull You Under.” Lone piano chords cradle Kate’s simple pledge of love and loyalty. The melody shares musical DNA with the old Shirelles hit, “Dedicated To The One I Love” and Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
Kate Pierson had some expert assistance in bringing solo dreams to fruition. As the project really began to take shape, she enlisted her pal, Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Sia, who ended up co-writing nearly every song. She also tapped Ima Robot guitarist Tim Anderson to handle production chores. He expertly cocooned her warm contralto in sympathetic arrangements and sharp instrumentation. The result is a triumph from start to finish.