Music News & Reviews

The B-52s are back on the road

The B-52s, from left: Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland.
The B-52s, from left: Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland. PHOTO BY PIETER M. VAN HATTEM

Keith Strickland was riding his bike past a karaoke bar in Key West, Fla., not too long ago when he heard a group of strangers singing a familiar song.

“I was coming around the corner about a block away and there were like six girls up on the stage, and they were all singing ‘Love Shack,’ ” he said. “And the whole place was singing ‘Love Shack.’ I just stopped, and I saw that it was their song now. And it was this great feeling because I could remember when it didn’t have a chorus.”

Of course, “Love Shack” is the signature song for Strickland’s band, the B-52s— a tune so huge it’s still often played at weddings and karaoke bars. Yet the band — torn by the tragic death of its original guitarist — almost ceased to exist before its biggest hit was ever written.

“We pretty much just quit,” Strickland remembered.

The B-52s did bounce back, though. And their show at the Chumash Casino on Friday marks one of many in a career that has lasted more than three decades.

“We’ve always been surprised by our success, “Strickland said. “We were surprised the very first time we played that people even liked it.”

While the B-52s can trace their first gigs back to the late 1970s, the genesis of the band actually began in 1969, when Strickland met Ricky Wilson in Georgia.

“When I met him that summer, he was working for the Athens landfill,” he said. “He would pick up garbage. He was working to save money to buy a 2-track stereo tape recorder, reel-to-reel.”

By the following winter, the two had gotten to know each other, and Wilson played his songs for Strickland.

“They were just really exceptional,” Strickland said. “I was just blown away. It was kind of folkie stuff. But he had some stuff that was more absurd, almost like Dada pieces.”

One song Wilson wrote, he remembered, was called “I’m Not Looking For Myself,” which included vocals from his family members. One of those singers was Cindy Wilson, who would later join them in the B-52s.

“She was like 12 years old when I met her,” Strickland said. “I remember coming to their driveway with Ricky, and Cindy was sitting in the car in the driveway pretending she was driving and had the mirror cocked to where she could look at herself in the mirror. She was mortified because we kind of caught her doing that.”

It would still be a while before Wilson began hanging out with the two, who began writing songs together.

“We called ourselves Loon,” he said. “We never really performed as Loon, but we were writing songs together, we were preparing to perform.”

As the years passed, Cindy Wilson became a member of their crowd. And eventually the trio jammed at a friend’s house with Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson.

“On the very first jam, I played guitar and Ricky played congas,” he said. “And then we thought, ‘Let’s do this again,’ and said, ‘Well, look — you’re a much better guitarist than I am — I think you should play guitar. And I’m a better conga player than you are.’ ”

When Schneider mentioned to a friend that he had a band, the group was invited to perform at a Valentine’s Day party. And after the name B-52s (it refers to a hairstyle, not the bomber) came to Strickland in a dream, their first gig was set.

The gig was a hit, inspiring the band to pursue a music career. Before long its was playing gigs in places like CBGB in New York, where it quickly attracted a following, including people such as William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and David Bowie.

“We were in the dressing room, and somebody mentions that David Bowie was in the audience,” Strickland said. “Cindy hears that and screams at the top of her lungs, ‘DAVID BOWIE!’ She had her back to the door, and right at that moment, he walks in.”

Songs like “Rock Lobster” and “My Private Idaho” garnered early success for the B-52s as an alternative rock band with an avant-garde approach. The group’s songs featured Schneider talking, surf-style guitar riffs and high-pitched harmonies from Cindy Wilson and Pierson. Meanwhile, the members wore outlandish retro fashions, marked by the bouffant B-52 wigs Cindy Wilson and Pierson wore.

As alt rock began to gain steam on college radio, the band was flying high when tragedy struck: In 1985, Ricky Wilson, 32, died of AIDS.

“It was a very young age to lose a friend,” Strickland said. “It was quite shocking.”

The death threw the band into a funk, particularly Cindy Wilson, who was close to her brother. Distraught, Strickland moved from New York to Woodstock, N.Y., where he continued to write but with no plans for the B-52s.

When Strickland visited New York a couple of years later, he met with Cindy and Kate again. And at some point, they decided to start playing music.

“It was very therapeutic once we started writing,” he said.

Their 1989 “Cosmic Thing” album contained recognizable hits like “(Shake That) Cosmic Thing” and “Roam.” But the most popular song almost didn’t make the album.

“Fred had the idea for a song called ‘Love Shack,’ ” said Strickland, who started writing the music for it. “I had a few different versions, and then we jammed and never finished it. We kind of just put it away. And when we met with Don Was, who was going to produce the album, he listened to all of our demos and he says, ‘Well — do you have anything else?’ ”

At that point, the song didn’t have a proper chorus. So Was helped them form the refrain: “The love shack is a little ole place where we can get together.”

“He just made that one little suggestion, and that made all the difference in the world,” Strickland said.

The song, characterized by Schneider’s quirky rhymes, a catchy chorus and Cindy Wilson’s odd “tin roof rusted” call at the end, became a huge hit, one that still pops up in bars and movies more than 20 years later.

“It’s great when what you do brings joy and people are having a lot of fun with it,” Strickland said.

The band peaked with “Cosmic Thing,” only releasing two albums since then — “Good Stuff” in 1992 and “Funplex” in 2008. While “Funplex” wasn’t as well known as “Cosmic Thing,” it still fared well on the charts.

“In some ways, it was the worst time to release an album,” Strickland said, referring to the downturn of CD sales. “But it was ready to go so we just put it out.”

The B-52s are now back on the road, but they’re not sure whether they will record any time soon. This was the band, after all, that took a 16-year break from recording.

“We never plan too far in advance,” Strickland said.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.