After a Decade Off the Radar Screen, the Funky B-52's Are Frequently Flying Again

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As the B-52's launch into "Cosmic Thing," their opening number at Boston's Orpheum Theater, they don't just start a rock concert. They spread a major epidemic of dance fever. Singer Kate Pierson, wearing a green fringed minidress, shimmies wildly, while bandmate Fred Schneider boogies so hard he nearly bursts the seams of his red tuxedo. Meanwhile, out in the audience, arms flail, hips grind, sweat starts to fly, and 2,800 rowdy fans take on the look of a manic aerobics class. Laughing and gyrating, they yell along as the band warbles the chorus, "Shake it till the butter melts! Shake that cosmic thing!"

It's been a long time coming, but finally as the B-52's continue a 52-city, 18-week U.S. tour, they are throwing a nonstop coast-to-coast party. Their fifth full-length album, Cosmic Thing, has sold more than a million copies and gone platinum, fueled by the hit "Love Shack," a dance romp with '60s-style harmonies and a libidinous beat Pierson and Schneider, joined by guitarist Keith Strickland, singer Cindy Wilson and three additional players on bass, drums and keyboards, forgo the typical rock clichés in concert: no black leather or torn jeans, no fake angst or schlocky love songs. What they play is carefree, wacky dance music that rock fans have discovered as a fitting antidote to the turn-of-the-decade gloom. "We're about having fun," says Pierson. "You should enjoy life no matter what's happening."

Considering the irregularities of their flight path, it's a wonder that the B-52's maintained their high spirits. Eleven years ago, their quasi-hit single "Rock Lobster," a campy progenitor of new-wave dance music, seemed to mark them for Top 10 success. But though they toured with the Talking Heads and won fans like John Lennon, the Athens, Ga., quintet had an eccentric musical style that only the underground truly appreciated. Then, four years ago, tragedy nearly ripped the band apart: Guitarist-composer Ricky Wilson—older brother of Cindy Wilson—died at 32 of an AIDS-related illness. The remaining foursome rallied in 1988 to record Cosmic Thing and last summer finally made it onto mainstream radio with the album's title track, also featured on the sound track of the film Earth Girls Are Easy.

The band's current success hasn't eased still-wrenching memories of Ricky's death. "I went crazy," says Cindy. "I couldn't understand what death was. In the back of my mind, I thought. 'Where is he?' " Too grief-stricken to perform or even rehearse for two years, the band regrouped in 1987, when former drummer Strickland took over lead guitar and wrote the first songs for Cosmic Thing. "Sometimes you look behind you, and Ricky's not there, and you're just thrown," says Cindy. "But working with the band has made me feel positive again. Ricky's spirit is in the music."

Growing up in Athens with their father, a fireman, and their stepmother, a factory worker, Cindy and Ricky sang together as teenagers, sometimes joined by Strickland, whose parents managed the local bus station. After Cindy graduated high school, the gang of three took odd jobs and hung out with an avant-garde party crowd that included Schneider and Pierson, both New Jersey natives. One night in 1976, recalls Schneider, "we went out for flaming volcano drinks at a Chinese restaurant, then went over to a friend's house and started jamming." They wrote six songs, including "Rock Lobster," and premiered the next year at a Valentine's Day house party.

Naming themselves after bomb-shaped bouffant hairdos, the B-52's went on to play a string of parties decked out in garish thrift-shop gear. "We wore fake-fur pocketbooks turned upside down on our heads," says Pierson. In late 1977 the band played at Max's Kansas City, the Manhattan hangout where Patti Smith and Blondie got their start. "There were only 17 people," recalls Schneider. "We made 17 bucks." Their second record produced the minor hit "Private Idaho," an obliquely environmentalist song including the refrain "You're living in your own private Idaho/ Get out of that state/ Get out of that state you're in!" Successive releases fared less well. "Radio stations wouldn't play us," says Schneider, "because the people who listened to us didn't buy $30,000 cars."

Still uncomfortable with the intrusions of fame, the B-52's travel under aliases and refuse to divulge their ages. ("We're all old enough to vote," says Pierson.) Wilson, the only married band member, sometimes brings her husband, New York advertising executive Keith Bennett, on the road, where he shares backstage vegetarian meals on a tour that will last at least until March. Schneider keeps the band politically active, directing newfound cash and clout toward AIDS research and other causes. "We want to keep the liberal flame burning," he says.

As for coming up with red-hot new material, they're not worried. "We go into a creative netherworld where you don't monitor yourself," says Pierson. "In jam sessions, we're all singing at the same time, bouncing off each other." So what if the resulting lyrics are slightly nonsensical. The effect can be highly tonic—for the group as well as its listeners. "It's wonderful to be back on this rock and roll adventure," says Wilson. "Working with the band, it's like I'm alive again."

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