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Saturday, September 23, 2023

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The B-52s at 40, still dancing that mess around

The B-52s at 40, still dancing that mess around

Singer Fred Schneider on duct tape, disco shoplifting, phallic MTV hot dogs, and the beloved band's latest tour.

ALL EARS Getting weird is good — great, even — when you’re The B-52s (playing Mon/12 at Mountain Winery). Everyone’s favorite party band has been doing it since long before it was a meme.

Over the past four decades, the far-out foursome made up of frontman Fred Schneider, vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, and multiinstrumentalist Keith Strickland, pushed boundaries with its over-the-top Atomic Age aesthetic, sprechgesang, “Appalachian”-style vocal harmonies, and innovative instrumentation.

The group also came up with some of the most excitingly oddball lyrics almost a decade before releasing more commercial successes like “Love Shack” and “Roam.”

It all started back in 1979 when the post-punk band issued its self-titled gold-selling album, featuring such fan favorites as “Planet Claire,” “52 Girls,” “Dance This Mess Around,” “Lava,” and the band’s first-ever single “Rock Lobster.”

In a year still mostly dominated by such top-selling disco artists as the Bee Gees, Chic, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the self-described party band from Athens, Georgia was alternately writing about the fiercest extraterrestrial vixen, female identity, a woman who’s not a piece of stinky cheese, a love that burns hotter than lava, and a beach party drawing both real and fantastical marine animals.

But how did Schneider come up with lines like, “Why won’t you dance with me? I’m not no Limburger” from “Dance This Mess Around”?

“I came up with that, and Limburger was a sour note,” The B-52s frontman told 48 Hills. “Who would call a sour note a Limburger? Well, the lines sort of just come to me. I just like to write surrealist poetry, so I guess it’s easy for me to write those sorts of crazy things. I have a harder time writing anything commercial, but I don’t care.”

I spoke to Fred Schneider, who’s celebrating The B-52s’ 40th anniversary with a 40-plus city North American tour, which hits the Bay Area next week (Mon/12 at the Mountain Winery), about the seminal debut LP, what keeps the band together after four decades, and whether fans will ever see another band album.

48 HILLS You initially moved down to Athens, Georgia, not to form a band but to study forestry. What were you going to do with that degree?

FRED SCHNEIDER Well, I was naive. I thought by taking wildlife management, I’d be doing conservation, and let’s just say I was wrong. I wound up switching to journalism and I liked Athens so much that when I dropped out, I stayed. Thank God, because I didn’t have any career plans.

48 HILLS When you think back to the recording of The B-52s album, which turned 40 this year, what are the strongest memories that come up?

FRED SCHNEIDER One minute I was washing pots and pans at the vegetarian restaurant I worked at and the next week, I was flying to the Bahamas to record, and we did the album in three weeks. If only we had the money, we could have paid for it ourselves and not had to give all the money to Warner Bros.

48 HILLS John Lennon famously raved about your first album in a Rolling Stone interview shortly before his death and even cited “Rock Lobster” as an inspiration for his Double Fantasy album. But The B-52s record was described by one critic at the time as drawing from pre-Beatles pop culture. Were John Lennon and Yoko Ono influences on The B-52s?

FRED SCHNEIDER Well, I always liked Dada and Surrealism and my poems were influenced by that. They sort of popped into my head and I’d write them down whether it was on a napkin or whatever for a creative writing class that I took. We did Yoko’s music a lot and I liked John’s writing a lot. He was influenced by Edward Lear, so I read a lot of Edward Lear’s books. So a lot of that was a big influence on me.

48 HILLS Why did you cover Petula Clark’s “Downtown” on the first album?

FRED SCHNEIDER We were doing that all along. It was Cindy’s favorite song and we just butchered it. I guess [the songwriter] Tony Hatch was apparently going to sue us, but [the album’s record producer] Chris Blackwell told him, “You’re going to make a lot of money,” and he did make a lot of money.

48 HILLS You always get described as a sprechgesang enthusiast. What does that mean exactly?

FRED SCHNEIDER It’s German for talk-singing. I never sang. I can’t remember the last time I sang until Keith and I started doing some basement tapes. Then we had a one-time band called Night Soil. We did one show for like three hours and we did the same four songs over and over.

So I guess it’s because I wasn’t a real singer. I was writing poetry, so I decided to speak the lyrics rather than sing them the way most people do. Although I do sing a lot more now.

48 HILLS 2008’s Funplex was one of your most successful debuts as far as charting and you’ve said that you pretty much broke even with that album. Would you ever follow it up with another?

FRED SCHNEIDER Probably not. We might do some songs, but I don’t think we’ll do another album. I can’t imagine doing another album, because we all live in different places around the country and we’d have to pay for it ourselves like we did Funplex.

48 HILLS In 2013, The B-52s announced that Keith Strickland would no longer be touring with the band. What led to that decision?

FRED SCHNEIDER He got tired of touring. It’s grueling. We’ve cut back, because I’m not going to constantly take a bus anymore, taking sleeping pills and trying to sleep and then getting up and slugging my way through the day till we have a show.

48 HILLS What keeps The B-52s together?

FRED SCHNEIDER Duct tape. [Laughs] No, we’re good friends. We hang out. We have dinner together. We’ve just stayed friends and care about each other and look after each other. Then we also have our own projects, so we don’t get bored doing The B-52s.

48 HILLS I want to talk about some of your side projects. I recently rewatched your video for your mid-’80s solo single “Monster” and it looked pretty tame to me, even by 1985 standards. Why was it banned from MTV?

FRED SCHNEIDER I don’t know. They had “Love in an Elevator.” They’re stupid. They said that the hot dog with the hat looked too much like a penis and, to me, it looked like a hot dog with a hat. There’s no explaining it. Or maybe Warner’s thought I was going to leave the band, so they didn’t want MTV to play it. Who knows what goes on behind our backs? I’m serious. I’m too blunt. [Laughs]

48 HILLS I love your more recent side project The Superions and am totally obsessed with the “Who Threw That Ham at Me” song. What inspired that track?

FRED SCHNEIDER It’s the first disco shoplifting song. Let’s just say, when I start writing songs, I don’t think of the commercial viability of them. It’s more important to write a fun song or a good song.

A friend of ours said he had heard an urban legend and it’s always some older woman in a housecoat who gets up to the cashier and a canned ham falls out from under it and they turn around really quick and go, “Who threw that ham at me?” I’m one of the few people who’d think that’s a great idea for a song.

48 HILLS Getting back to The B-52s, you’ve been described as “campy,” “kitsch,” and “wonderfully ridiculous-looking.”  

FRED SCHNEIDER No, we’re not campy. We know what we’re doing. Camp is like Liza Minnelli’s ex-husband and kitsch means garbagey. We’re surreal.

48 HILLS But do you think that perception prevents some listeners from taking The B-52s as seriously as they should?

FRED SCHNEIDER They probably don’t get it, but who cares? We have enough fans that we don’t have to worry about things like that. And if people say negative things, I’ll just tell them to go fuck themselves. So who cares?

48 HILLS What was one of the most important lessons you learned in the 40 years that you were with the band?

FRED SCHNEIDER If you have no skills, start a band. I dropped out of college and didn’t know how to hardly do anything. I could cook and wait tables, but I couldn’t play any instruments, though I lucked out and got a good job as the meal delivery coordinator for the Athens Council on Aging for Clark County. But when the band came along, I had to quit.

48 HILLS What’s next for The B-52s and what’s next for you?

FRED SCHNEIDER For The B-52s, we’re starting our seven-week tour and then we’re also going to be doing shows next year. We’re going to work with Keith tentatively at the end of the year on two new songs for a box set that Warner’s is putting out.

Then I’m promoting The Superions’ LP that we have out and the Christmas album and I’m working with Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove on an album called, “The Vertical Mind.” He’s a fan, and we hit it off really well.

Mon/12, 6:30pm, $55-$125
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga
More info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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