Torn Sheets in the Rain: Recalling How The B-52s Changed Pop Music

Four decades look good on The B-52s.
Four decades look good on The B-52s. Pieter M. Van Hattem
I am too old to be standing in the rain at a rock concert.

On the other hand, so is nearly everyone else at this show. It is late September 2018, and we, a generous crowd of mostly better-than-50-somethings, are gathered at an outdoor arena to see a triumvirate of New Wave bands who hit their stride in the 1980s: Culture Club, Thompson Twins (now down to one Twin), and the real reason I’m soaked to the skin and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!”: The B-52s.

“I think this is the sixth time I’ve seen them perform,” I tell my husband, who has never been to a B-52s concert but likes their music. “Maybe the seventh. The time I saw them in Washington, D.C., Cindy Wilson was really pregnant.”

This time, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to see them at all. While we watch a crew build a tent around Kate Pierson’s keyboard, I explain to my spouse that I didn’t love The B-52s at first.

“I was really into the whole singer-songwriter thing back then,” I remind him. “Mostly women whose names began with J: Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Jennifer Warnes, Judee Sill.”

I had heard a couple of punk records in the late 1970s, but didn’t like them. “There were no melodies,” I tell him, and he nods as if he’s never heard me recite this story before. “And so much manufactured anger.”

I remember wondering, after listening to The Toilets and Stiv Bators, why a bunch of middle-class white guys were so furious. But then a year or so later, just before a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Sombrero Theatre, I heard The B-52s’ “6060-842” over the PA. And I was hooked.

“I’d already seen The B-52s on Saturday Night Live a few weeks before that,” I tell my husband as we follow the crowd to a covered area away from the rain. “They did ‘Dance This Mess Around’ and I was kind of pissed off. Fred Schneider was playing a toy piano and the women had giant bouffants. I remember thinking, ‘What are they doing? Are they making fun of punk music? All this stuff about ‘Do the Dirty Dog! Do the Aqua Velva!’ Are they making fun of camp? Is this a comedy sketch?’ Also, it bothered me that their band name had an apostrophe in it like it was possessive and not plural. I was a real snob.”

But “6060-842,” the flip side of their first Warner Bros. single, “Rock Lobster,” changed my mind. Its jangly rock guitar, common-time beat, and slightly naughty story (“Tina went to the ladies room / Saw written on the wall / ‘If you’d like a very nice time / Just give this number a call!’”) wedged itself into my addled teenage brain, pushing aside a pile of mopey tone poems by all those nice Troubadour alumni.

“My friends and I started wearing thrift-store clothing and doing the pogo,” I tell my spouse. He studied abroad in the early 1980s, and because he lived in London while the whole punk and New Wave scene was building steam, he isn’t impressed about a bunch of suburban kids who hopped up and down at trashy little clubs in downtown Phoenix.

“Wearing a safety pin in your ear and having a blue faux hawk was a big deal in 1981,” I remind him. He, a man who saw The Slits open for the Buzzcocks at Vivienne Westwood’s clothing store on King’s Road, smiles politely.

While we wait for The B-52s to take the stage — an announcer keeps assuring us they are just waiting for the rain to stop — I try to explain how the band (who finally, in 2008, dropped the erroneous apostrophe from their name) convinced me that New Wave was credible, worthy, even fun — something pop music hadn’t been for a while.

“Punk rock was so macho and so anti-woman,” I say. “I didn’t want to feel menaced by music. I didn’t think all the hate lyrics were cool. Some of the punk bands didn’t seem to know how to play their instruments, so they just made noise. Their singers couldn’t sing, so they yelled. But it was all very earnest.”

The B-52s seemed to be in on their own musical jokes. If singer Fred Schneider was no Enrico Caruso, and if his vocal stance was angry, it was the anger of insistence, and not punk’s faked-up, cranky ire. In a song called “Trism,” Fred shouts, “She asked me to give her a ride! / She said she had to go!” He was being adamant, not incensed that a woman needed a lift. And then he gave her one: “Dropped her off by the trism / Through the atmosphere by prism.”

It was fun, and as catchy as hell: pop music turned on its head; punk channeled through a working-class sensibility by an Athens, Georgia, quintet that championed freak-flag flying and never shrieked with punk misery. When Cindy Wilson screamed over her late brother Ricky’s surf guitar on “Hero Worship,” it was with purpose, an oddly musical yelp about her lousy boyfriend (“On my knees / I try to please / His eyes / His idol eyes”) and not a poseur’s stab at anarchy. (It was also, as it turned out, an homage to the avant art-rock that Yoko Ono had been performing for years.)

In place of punk’s anti-fashion, The B-52s were all about style: Skinny ties, old sport coats, and those towering beehives worn by Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson were a revelation after last year’s disco-era Nik Nik shirts. And they weren’t faking it musically. Their sound offered a real, post-punk mashup of surf music, ’60s pop, and Stax soul records. The result was an all-their-own sound that continued long after they cracked the mainstream in the late ’80s with monster radio hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam.” Their early records, piled with pop backbeats from drummer Keith Strickland, led me to considering — and eventually loving — other oddball artists: Lene Lovich, Depeche Mode, Yazoo.

“I think maybe they weren’t taken seriously because Fred Schneider sometimes played a walkie-talkie or a toy piano in concert,” I start to tell my husband, but just then The B-52s run onto the damp stage and we, a great soggy mob, head back to our seats, bobbing our dripping heads to the long, snaky introduction to “Planet Claire.”

I point to Fred, who’s clutching his walkie-talkie. He’s singing about a place where the air is pink and all the trees are red; no one ever dies there; no one has a head. And now I don’t care that I’m drenched, or that I’m old enough to be someone’s grandfather. It turns out that, all these years later, even in the rain, I can still do the Aqua Velva.

The B-52s. With OMD and Berlin. 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 14, at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street; Tickets are available via LiveNation.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela