Guiding Light Fans Riot At G 20 Summit

New wave’s most unapologetic loons, the B-52s crashed the Billboard chart with their self-titled debut in 1979. On the album cover, the female members wore beehive wigs; Mr. Schneider dressed like an oily used-car salesman, complete with pencil mustache. “It wasn’t like we said, ‘We need an outrageous look,’ ” Ms. Pierson said. “That was what we wore to parties.”

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The B-52s, from left, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider. Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

While most rock fans were listening to Billy Joel and REO Speedwagon, the B-52s were harmonizing about giant lobsters, headless space invaders and Jacqueline Onassis. Onstage the band did extinct dances like the mashed potato. Some people got it. Many did not. Occasionally, University of Georgia students pelted the members with garbage. But the B-52s’ unusual mix of the avant-garde (they cite John Cage and Yoko Ono as influences), 1960s fashion (Diana Vreeland is another hero) and party-friendly pop (girl groups, garage rock) eventually struck a nerve, winning fans like John Lennon and a young Kurt Cobain. And every few years they enjoy a high-profile rediscovery. Most recently their first hit, “Rock Lobster,” was the soundtrack for the drunken conception of a baby in the film “Knocked Up.”

By definition, new wavers should never become oldies acts, but the B-52s have been touring clubs and theaters on and off since the late 1990s. While many of their reactivated contemporaries, like the Police, have not recorded new material, the B-52s were growing tired of playing the same songs every night and desired a fresher set list. “I don’t wanna rehash the past,” Ms. Pierson and Mr. Wilson sing on the new “Eyes Wide Open.” “I just want release.” To that end, “Funplex” has a much more modern sheen than its predecessors. The band’s twangy guitar riffs used to be accompanied by cowbell, organ and a steady backbeat. Now songs like “Juliet of the Spirits” have a shimmering electronic feel too. And, Mr. Schneider said, the group moved on to singing “about the year 3000.”

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But one thing will never change: When the band embarks on the True Colors tour with Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett this summer, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Pierson will be wearing their trademark wigs, lest the audience riot. “There are times when I wish we could just be like the Indigo Girls,” Ms. Pierson said with a sigh. “But we’ve got to maintain the hair.”

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“I used to think the importance of the band gets lost, or overshadowed, by the hairdos and the outfits,” she added. But now she realizes that “our most important legacy is that people had fun.”

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“They come up to us and say, ‘You got us through high school,’ ” she said.

Mr. Strickland befriended Ms. Wilson’s brother, the band’s co-founder and guitarist, Ricky Wilson (who died of AIDS in 1985), at school in Athens in the early 1970s. Ms. Pierson, a New Jersey native, wound up in that liberal college town after vagabonding in the ’60s. Mr. Schneider, also from the Garden State, intended to study forestry at the University of Georgia. According to band lore, the B-52s (named after local slang for their female singers’ signature beehives) formed after sharing a five-strawed Polynesian cocktail at a Chinese restaurant, which led to a jam session at a friend’s house.

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The first song they wrote was about killer bees. Their best song was about a beach party gone bloody. By 1977 the band scored a short gig at Max’s Kansas City in New York, where some people in the crowd assumed that the women in the band were drag queens. “We were nervous as hell,” Mr. Schneider said. “Everyone was standing there with their arms folded.”

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Performing at the Central Park SummerStage in 2002. Credit David Atlas/Retna

They were convinced that they’d bombed, but the booker invited them back. By the time “Rock Lobster” was released as an independent single in 1978, the B-52s were drawing the likes of William S. Burroughs, David Bowie and John Cale to their Manhattan shows.

Punk was evolving into the much more marketable and accessible new wave, with bands like the Cars and Talking Heads enjoying hit debuts. A major-label bidding war ensued; the band signed with Warner Brothers and released its debut album, “The B-52’s,” in 1979. The album went gold and the follow-up, “Wild Planet,” cracked the Top 20 in 1980. In 1982 the group even performed the song “Private Idaho” on the CBS soap opera “The Guiding Light.” “That inspired a whole generation of actors,” Mr. Schneider quipped. “Angelina Jolie became an actress after seeing it.”

Their next few albums had only marginal success, which was partly related to the band’s grief over Mr. Wilson’s death at 32. So for “Cosmic Thing,” the group’s sixth album, released in 1989, the band enlisted as co-producer Chic’s Nile Rodgers, who had worked on second-act hits for David Bowie and Duran Duran. “I had them do things on that album that they’d never done before,” said Mr. Rodgers, which included painstaking multiple tracking of Ms. Wilson and Ms. Pierson’s trademark harmonies. “I remember, when I finished, calling the record company and saying, ‘I hope you do the right thing here, ’cause you got a smash on your hands.’ ”

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He was right; the record sold four million copies and spawned the B-52s’ best-known hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam.” But the band, whose members still considered themselves outsiders at heart, “wasn’t ready for the bigness of that record,” Mr. Rodgers said. By 1992, when “Good Stuff” was released, the group was floundering.

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“We had not had that kind of success before, and everything changed,” Mr. Strickland said. “For me it got too heavy. It just had to stop.”

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This decade, during the ’80s revival, young D.J.’s began playing B-52s songs at parties. Geordon Nicol, of the Manhattan D.J. and promotions trio Misshapes, remembers playing “Planet Claire” at a packed party, but to his surprise, “It didn’t go over so well,” he said in an e-mail message. “I couldn’t understand how such an incredible song could go over everyone’s heads like that.” He thinks that there is a certain stigma attached to saying you love the B-52s, at least for those “who think ‘Love Shack’ and ‘Roam’ are all the band has to offer — most people miss out.”

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The band in 1980, beehive hairdos and all, included the guitarist Ricky Wilson, (third from left), who died in 1985. Credit Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

What was supposed to be a brief break from recording lasted well over a decade. In that time, Ms. Wilson formed the Cindy Wilson Band, Mr. Schneider became a satellite radio D.J., and Ms. Pierson opened Kate’s Lazy Meadow, a motel in the Catskills with theme suites like “The Annie Oakley” and “The Sakajawia.” Meanwhile, Mr. Strickland learned how to use Pro Tools recording software. “I was listening to a lot of electronic dance music and early rock ’n’ roll,” Mr. Strickland said, “and it occurred to me that I should put these two sounds together with our own sound. That was the magic formula. Then all these ideas started coming out again.”

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The band gathered in Athens and upstate New York to jam and quickly decided that it was time to record again. Mr. Strickland suggested the title “Funplex” after a word he’d seen in a newspaper. For the first time, the band’s lyrics are highly carnal. “I am now an eroticist,” Mr. Schneider sings on “Deviant Ingredient.” “I am a fully eroticized being. I have no neurosis.” On “Ultraviolet” he sings, “There’s the G spot/Pull the car over,” which will surely end up in the museum of groaners some day.

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“It surprised me,” Mr. Strickland said of his bandmates’ lyrics. “Little did I know they were going to get all sexy” in their 50s.

But the B-52s have always celebrated music’s power to “make you feel a lot better,” as the early song “Dance This Mess Around” proclaims. Its lyrics list 16 dances, like the “shy tuna,” “the hyp-o-crit,” and the “escalator.” The band traditionally performs them live, but as the members get older they admit that it’s getting harder and harder to get them right.

“We can’t do all 16 anymore” Mr. Strickland confessed during a coffee break in the band’s hotel suite.

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“I danced in bad shoes so my knees are a little shot,” Mr. Schneider said.

“We’ve entered the phase in our life,” Mr. Strickland said sarcastically, “where we’re talking about our knees.” There was a moment of quiet group contemplation, followed, as usual, by peals of laughter.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page AR24 of the New York edition with the headline: Return of the Rock Lobsters. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/arts/music/16spit.html

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