Know thy beehive

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”?

“Love Shack” at Biltmore Estate: Surreal enough, even for Fred Schneider.

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.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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2 thoughts on “Know thy beehive

  1. sad to say

    The b-52’s concert was great until it went bad. . .
    The biltmore company police used unwarrented and excessive force in restraining a man who was just returning to his seat. The man had gone over to the left of the stage and was returning to his seat along the center aisle about 5 rows back, when a biltmore company police officer from the left side indicated to another officer in the front to stop the man. The officer that was in the middle went after the man, and pulled him backwards such that the man fell to the ground, at that point the two cops jumped on him and started to wrestle him to get his hands cuffed, that is when the band started to react, then another two cops came up to finish arresting the “villan”. I am still upset that the Bilmore Company Police reacted so inappropriately to a concert goer. (the people trying to keep the aisle clear were just ‘security’ wearing white uniforms, the Biltmore Company Police force had brown uniforms and guns) I was watching because one of them (the brownshirts) had already grabbed a woman, that was obeying his direction to return to her seat, by the hand and forcefully walked her off to the left.

    I had purchased season passes this evening and returned them, cause I don’t think I would feel safe with such people “protecting” the estate.

    The other issue is that the Biltmore Company Police force is a private army…there is no local public oversight of these officers. They are sworn officers with weapons, arrest powers, and where is the oversight? What type of complaint process is there? How many arrests do they make? What training do they have in crowd control?

    The Biltmore Estate has some explaining to do, I would encourage folks to avoid going until they do, I know I will tell everyone I know about what happened at the b-52 concert and the black eye that the estate gained on what otherwise would have been a perfect evening.

  2. wrong

    The Biltmore Estate Company Police where in the right during this event. The poster’s view of the incident did not show the whole incident from start to finish. The poster failed to state that the man who was wrestled to the ground had previously assaulted multiple officers and failed to comply with their requests. He was pointed out because he fled the earlier incident and tried to hide in the crowd. I was right up close and saw all this from start to finish and am glad that the Police did what they did. They kept a drunk person that had no regard for authority or any of the other concert attendee’s safety from seriously hurting another concert goer. The Biltmore Estate does not have any explaining to do, they were doing their job. Thanks Biltmore.

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