Swayed by the pop culture of former years with their big hair, outlandish attire, and the technicolor age of TV, their kitschy musical means and campy customs made The B-52s one of the most non-mainstream and unusual acts to emerge within an era birthing disco, funk, punk, and newer strains of rock.
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Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1976, the band pulled directly from 1950s and ’60s aesthetics, from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s soaring harmonies, mod thrift shop fashions, and mile-high beehives, classic bouffant, and bob coiffures, along with Fred Schneider’s comedic recitatives, the band rounded out with then-drummer Keith Strickland and late guitarist Ricky Wilson (1953-1985).
First playing with the idea of calling themselves the Tina-Trons or Fellini’s Children, named after the famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the band landed on The B-52’s (with the apostrophe).
[RELATED: Behind the Song: “Love Shack,” the B-52s]
Strickland also suggested the band name after having had a dream where the band was performing in a hotel lounge. In this premonition, someone whispered in his ear that the band’s name is The B-52’s.
Picking off the newly surfacing new wave sounds, and dipping into surf and dance beats, the band formulated their own chintzy art pop and played their first gig together at a friend’s Valentine’s Day party in 1977. Soon after, they began taking weekend road trips to New York City to play at musical havens, CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and other venues throughout the late ’70s.
Bombers and Bouffants
Despite having a similar name to the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, an American long-range, subsonic strategic bomber plane, the band was using the Southern slang word for over-the-top retro hairdos.
Named after the beehive hairdo that resembled the nose cone of an aircraft, and a style Wilson and Pierson would incorporate throughout the 1980s, The B-52’s released their self-titled debut in 1979 and introduced “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster,” which remains a signature song.
Their Own “Private Idaho”
In 1980, The B-52’s released their second album, Wild Planet, and hit “Private Idaho”—later used in the title of Gus Van Sant’s 1991 drama, My Own Private Idaho — which gave them some reach at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Party chart. Earlier that year, on Jan. 26, the band also made their first appearance on Saturday Night Live, which saw Pierson in a giant cone-shaped wig and Schneider and Wilson playing dead on the stage.
Whammy! the band’s final release before Wilson died of AIDS in 1985 at 32, saw the band expand their synthesized sounds, along with follow-up Bouncing off the Satellites.
Following Wilson’s death, the band took a break before releasing their fifth album, Cosmic Thing, in 1989 with two of their biggest hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam.”
Their first top 40 hit, “Love Shack,” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, while “Roam” also peaked at No. 3 and earned The B-52’s a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Produced by Nile Rodgers and Don Was, Cosmic Thing also hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and was followed by Good Stuff in 1992, which earned the band another Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. Good Stuff was the last album by the band before a lengthy hiatus prior to their seventh release, Funplex, in 2008.
When the band first formed, a friend who designed their logo, incorporated the possessive apostrophe in their name as The B-52’s. Though it was grammatically incorrect, it remained part of the band’s name until 2008.
As the band worked on Funplex, they finally corrected the spelling faux-pas and have been The B-52s ever since.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images