The B-52s: The stories behind the hit songs
It's been more than 40 years since a group of sexually fluid new wave kooks and nonconformists found each other in a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Ga., and formed a band. Through love, loss (guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS-related complications in 1985), and many Love Shacks, they became beloved heroes of the underground — and a surprise mainstream sensation. This summer, as the original members celebrate with a tour of 40-plus cities, Fred Schneider looks back on the hits.
"Rock Lobster" (1978)
“I was at this club in Atlanta called the 2001 Disco when we were starting the band, and it was pretty empty. But instead of a good light show, they just showed slides of puppies and babies and cooked lobsters on a grill. It made no sense — it was a gay disco! And I just thought, ‘Wow, well, rock this, rock that, rock lobster.’ And then I went back to Athens, where we rehearsed in the bloodletting room of this old black funeral home, and ‘Rock Lobster’ came out of that. I wanted it to be like an Edward Lear, Alice in Wonderland sort of song that just gets wilder and wilder. I thought [the guitar riff] was great. I think Prince even played it instrumentally a couple of times, so we certainly created a memorable lick.”
"Private Idaho" (1980)
“I think I had gone through Idaho when I hitched across the country back in the ’70s. But yeah, Gus Van Sant, I wish we had let him use it [for his 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix]. I guess somebody at the label turned it down because they offered hardly any money. I saw the movie, and Gus thanks us at the end, and some idiot in the audience shouted, ‘Well, why didn’t you use the song?!’ Story of our career.”
"Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland" (1986)
“We didn’t break up, but when Ricky died, that was Keith’s best friend and Cindy's brother, and nobody even knew he was sick until he was in the hospital, so it was definitely a shock. We did make a video for this song, which was bittersweet. I actually think it’s our best one. [Our record label] Warner Bros. realized that, with Ricky gone, the band wasn’t going to tour, so they didn’t promote it. We didn’t break up, but we stopped, and then Keith signaled he was ready and Cindy said she was ready and we got back together. And things changed. Where before it would take months to do one song, we just really stuck together and did the best songs we could.”
"Love Shack" (1989)
“I had to go with our A&R person, bless her heart, and beg radio stations to play it — they thought it was too weird. We felt ‘Love Shack’ was probably the most accessible commercial thing we’d ever done, and finally they started playing it, and it made it all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. But anyway, there’s a place in the middle of nowhere outside Athens called the Hawaiian Ha-Le. It just looked like a shack, but once you get inside it’s, like, this fabulous fun disco. And then Kate and Cindy had their own ideas of what a love shack would be, and when we were jamming, Cindy said something, and I said, ‘Your what?’ and she went, ‘Tinnnnnn roof, rusted!’ and I went, ‘Okay!’ But no, that line has nothing to do with pregnancy, is that really what people say? There’s just a lot of tin roofs in Georgia."
"Channel Z" (1989)
“We were really pretty political as a band. Rather than clothes and wigs and stuff, I’d rather talk about politics, and I know the others do too, because it’s more important, what’s going on in the world. It does seem like we’ve gone back to how things were in the song: ‘Nothing but static.’