What does it mean to be the “World’s Greatest Party Band” (even if self-proclaimed) in an age when the term “party” is increasingly linked to terms like “green,” “people’s” and “for the planet”?
For the B-52’s, holder of said title, it means that more than 30 years into their art-rock and thrift-shop-chic career, they keep on doing what they do best. And while fans (both of the group’s late-‘70s party-scene antics and of their later, slicker, pop-savvy sounds) can convincingly argue that what the group does best is simply be themselves, what exactly does that entail? On the eve of the still-quirky band’s appearance at ultra-sober Biltmore Estate, it’s a question whose time has come.
Of the band’s beginnings in Athens, Ga.: “It was really a magical time,” front woman Kate Pierson said at the group’s 2000 induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. “We felt like we were really doing something. We didn’t know where it was coming from. I think it was coming from our collective unconscious.”
The B-52’s are a strange anomaly: a band both ahead of and behind its time. They were parading beehive wigs a decade after the fad (and, therefore, about a decade too early to be ironic). They formed during the late-‘70s height of New Wave—but achieved their greatest fame in the late ‘80s, just about the time mainstream fashion caught up with the B-52’s trippy, post-psychedelic style and sound. They reprised surf rock, sprechgesang and showmanship. They were townie-cool in Athens before there was even a scene there. They introduced the world to drag queen RuPaul while helping to resurrect the career of punk forefather Iggy Pop. They lost founding member Ricky Wilson to AIDS in 1985, rising from the devastation with their biggest hit: “Love Shack.”
Not that the Bs’ (as they reportedly like to be known) confection of a chart climber should be considered vacuous. Since 1987 they’ve been working to fund grassroots AIDS coalitions, and have performed for Northeast Georgia AIDS Coalition “Party Out Of Bounds” fundraisers since 1995. Because, sometimes, there’s a purpose to all the partying.
The Bs haven’t actually released a studio album since 1992 (singles collection Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation came out in 1998, followed by Nude on the Moon: The B-52’s Anthology in 2002). But the group’s members—like Pierson, also a member of Japanese supergroup NiNa and owner of Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel in Woodstock, N.Y.—manage to keep both busy and current. Vocalist Fred Schneider collaborated with Sleater-Kinney on a 2003 Hedwig and the Angry Inch tribute. He’s also acted in recent movies Godass, Trekkies 2 and Each Time I Kill.
Or as the band’s guitarist, Keith Strickland, cheekily told an interviewer: “We ‘Roam’ when we want to.”
B-52’s songs have appeared in countless films (The Flintstones, Earth Girls Are Easy and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, among others), though their hit “Private Idaho” was curiously absent from Gus Van Sant’s Shakespearean-drama-turned-star-vehicle My Own Private Idaho, a film that besotted grunge-era America in 1991.
While the Athens band led the way for up-and-coming Southern alt-rock groups like Pylon and Love Tractor, the majority of acts that put Athens on the map in the 1980s and ‘90s were politically oriented. REM’s “Orange Crush” was no “Planet Claire.” The tangentially related Indigo Girls’ earnest “Closer to Fine” was a world apart from dance hit “Rock Lobster.” And jam stars Widespread Panic, despite a far-reaching tour circuit, never headed on down to the “Love Shack.”
In fact, the Athens band closest in step with the Bs’ capricious leanings was The Georgia Satellites, the ‘80s-era quartet best known for their honky-tonk hit “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”
Still, kitschy hair and non-sequitur lyrics don’t automatically equal novelty act. “Camp sort of means you don’t know what you’re doing,” Schneider declared to Time Out London. “We know what we’re doing. There are a lot of people who are considered camp who have no idea how ridiculous they are. But I just see us as sort of like surreal. It’s a different level.”
The B-52’s play the Biltmore Estate’s Summer Evening Concert Series on Saturday, Aug. 4. 8 p.m. $45, $50 and $60. Info at (800) 624-1575.