“Boys in bikinis, girls with surfboards,” snarled Fred Schneider on the B-52s’ first single, “Rock Lobster.” It’s a line that’s easy to miss in the band’s incredible five-minute beach-party fever dream about crustaceans, tanning butter, matching towels and whatever the hell a bikini whale is.
But to me, it’s a lyric that represents everything that makes the B-52s great. Think about what it meant in 1978, when the song was released as the band’s first single. It was a time when surf culture was approaching its peak levels of macho toxicity, and the wahini revolution of women’s surfing was still years away. But the B-52s used this simple gender flip to undermine conventional notions of sexual identity—in the middle of one of the greatest party songs in rock ’n’ roll history.
With a debut like this, the world should have known what was coming. But somehow, as the band celebrates the 40th anniversary of their first hit, pop culture is still coming around to what the B-52s have been sneaking into their party mix for the last four decades. Between songs at the band’s show in Saratoga last summer, Schneider quipped, “an article just came out calling us the most subversive band ever, or something like that. Looks like somebody finally noticed.” That article, a salon.com piece by Annie Zaleski titled “No Novelty, the B-52s May Be the Most Subversive Band America Ever Gave Us,” brilliantly gave the B-52s the long-overdue credit they deserve as cultural vanguards.
A few months later, when I saw the band at the Growlers’ annual music festival in L.A., there were so many kids moshing, crowd-surfing and stage-diving to “Rock Lobster,” “Private Idaho,” “Planet Claire” and other songs from their career-spanning set that you would have thought you were at a punk show. They played like a band possessed, with an intensity that more than one person close to them told me they haven’t seen at this level in years. The B-52s are having a cultural moment, for sure.
Founding member Kate Pierson says she remembers the first time something like this happened, when the group stunned the music industry with their megahit 1989 album Cosmic Thing, which went four times platinum and produced the top 10 singles “Love Shack” and “Roam.”
“We’ve gone through various stages, I guess,” Pierson said in a phone interview earlier this year. “From the beginning, when people were like, ‘What is this?’—because there were aliens and it was something startling and different—to this sort of, ‘Well, they’re just kind of silly,’ focusing very much on our look and the wigs and everything. Then Cosmic Thing came along, and there was this sense of recognition. So I guess the memo-to-self there is ‘Don’t listen to whatever people say.’”
But this time around, it’s a different kind of acknowledgement. It’s about legacy, not commercial success—although the band never thought much about the latter even in their pop heyday, Pierson says. That helps explain why their hits were some of the strangest things on the radio, and why their body of work is getting a critical reappraisal now.
“To be called ‘subversive’ is really interesting,” says Pierson. “In a lot of ways we were, because we were never really commercial, but somehow we became popular. We have a lot of messages—we’ve always tried to not hit you over the head with them too much in our songs, although we do have political songs. And, of course, we’re a mostly gay band, too. And having a sense of humor, which made us very different. Our sensibility was different. It’s hard to have a band that’s both taken seriously and also has a sense of humor and a sense of irony and a sense of fun.”
All of those things are part of what makes their music a lot of fun to re-discover, and the likelihood that more people will do that is arguably the best thing to come out of this new wave of love for the B-52s. While most rock fans probably know their biggest hits, there are so many great songs that kind of fell through the cracks in their career—from the shimmering “Summer of Love” to the mystical “Mesopotamia” to the hard-hitting “Give Me Back My Man” (the best lead vocal from the B-52s other female vocalist, Cindy Wilson)—and the band has cycled several of them back into their set.
The question is: what took everybody so long to catch on? Pierson is neither begrudging nor particularly surprised.
“I think it was subtle,” she says of the band’s subversive streak. “I guess a lot of times people were overwhelmed by the wigs and the sense of humor and the look of things.”
The B-52s perform at Mountain Winery on Tuesday, Sept. 18 and Wednesday, Sept. 19, sharing a bill with Culture Club. The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey opens. More info at mountainwinery.com.