There was a point — a brief one, mind you — when Kate Pierson thought fans weren't taking her beloved band, The B-52s, seriously. After years of constant touring, she thought that audiences were only into the veteran Athens, Ga., group's more outward thrills — the mile-high hairdos, the beat-savvy tunes and an often campy charm. Then it dawned on her: What's wrong with that?
"There were definitely times in the band when I felt like — when, really, we all felt like — 'Oh, everyone just talks about the wigs and the hair. They don't really listen to what we're saying in the lyrics.'
"Now I truly realize that the greatest thing we do is give people a good time. They come to our shows. They let their freak flags fly. They just get it. And they do listen. Someone told me after the show last night, 'Wow, all your songs have a message.' And I said, 'Yes. But the top message is to dance your ass off."
Such is the good-time philosophy that has taken The B-52s from being a post-punk band that wowed a mounting New York New Wave movement with performances at legendary haunts like CBGB's and Max's Kansas City in the late '70s to internationally established pop stars who have managed to artfully, and often playfully, modernize its groove with the times.
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"We started out as this tacky little dance band from Athens," said Pierson, 63, who formed The B-52s in 1976 with co-vocalists Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson, and instrumentalists Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson. "We played our first show on Valentine's Day 1977 at a friend's house. Our friends danced so much that the house literally shook.
"We already had this crazy look that we didn't formulate. We didn't say, 'We're going to have a '50s look, a '60s look or even a '70s look. We just put together this sort of thrift-store, off-the-cuff look. Cindy and I happened to find these fake-fur pocketbooks that we turned upside down and kind of teased out. So when we came to New York, people were like, 'What the hell? Where are they from?'
"People thought we were from England — England or Mars."
In quick succession came two introductory albums, 1979's The B-52's and 1980's Wild Planet, full of lean but heavily hook-laden tunes that were as quirky as the band's visual profile. Rock Lobster, Dance This Mess Around and Planet Claire fortified the debut album, and Party Out of Bounds and Private Idaho propelled the followup.
All were populated by elements that shouldn't have worked together: half-spoken vocals from Schneider that played a kind of devilish cheerleading role; singing from Pierson and Cindy Wilson that ran from girl group-style harmonies to otherworldly shrieks; and instrumentation that touched on elements of surf, rock, punk and spacey synth-pop.
"We started out thinking, 'We like to dance, so we're going to be a dance band,'" Pierson said. "After doing shows for so many years now, we know that when the music is really cooking and the beat is great, it just gives us so much drive.
"Rock Lobster, for instance, will always be fun for me. There's a little bit of invention to it. We might do some fish sounds at the end or some crazy new dances. But, to me, that song is sort of timeless."
Touring and recording continued steadily into the '80s, until the band faced its greatest setback followed by its most unexpected triumph.
During the 1985 recording sessions for what became its fourth full-length album, Bouncing Off the Satellites, Ricky Wilson died from AIDS-related illnesses. The album was released a year later, but the group scrapped all touring plans and essentially disappeared from public view.
The B-52s returned in 1989 with Cosmic Thing, an immensely MTV-friendly pop affair that provided the group with its biggest commercial hits, Love Shack and Roam, plus a sleeker but still beat-centric sound fashioned for the '90s.
"After Ricky's death, it just seemed like we couldn't go any further," Pierson said. "But we thought by getting back together to make Cosmic Thing, we were conjuring Ricky's presence again in songs like Deadbeat Club (one of the band's most overlooked and curiously innocent pop creations). So, yeah, it was astounding when everything took off.
"We toured for a year and a half behind that record. We started off doing little clubs because we felt like we were starting all over again. Then Cosmic started taking off, and we went around again and played medium-sized places. We went around after that and played stadiums. It was a really wild ride."
Rocking the 'Funplex'
The post-Cosmic Thing years saw the departure and eventual rejoining of Cindy Wilson, a fine 1992 followup album (Good Stuff) and steady year-after-year touring runs.
Amazingly, it took 16 years for the band to release another studio record. Funplex modified the music again by placing The B-52s' distinctive vocal makeup over more club-savvy beats. In short, the group had once more retooled itself for the times.
"We were like, 'Oh, my God, it's been 16 years?' I mean, we honestly didn't realize that," Pierson said. "We really weren't counting because we never stopped touring.
"Keith started writing instrumentation for the album that was inspired by more of a clubby dance beat. Cindy, Fred and I wrote the lyrics, the melodies and the harmonies. That part you can't mistake. It's classic B-52s. But the production and everything else really helped us achieve a reinvention of our sound while satisfying fans that wanted new material."
So how many more years can it all last? How long can the B-52s' party remain out of bounds yet still in tune?
As long as it wants, Pierson said, because the group's core foursome is, at heart, a family.
"We've been together so long that we understand each other's idiosyncrasies. We accept each other for who we are. We are all very talented in very different ways, and I've really come to appreciate that. We still hang out. We still make each other laugh.
"And we remain grateful that we are still able to do this for a living."