Remember When: The B-52s Improbably Became Bigger than Ever with ‘Cosmic Thing’

If The B-52s had broken up as they had considered doing after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in 1985, they would have had a legacy as one of the best and most inventive bands of the ‘80s. Their early hits “Rock Lobster” and “Private Idaho” are still popular now, though neither made it to the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Their self-titled debut album went Platinum, and their second album Wild Planet was certified Gold. (Their third album Whammy! would eventually receive Gold certification in 1994.)

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While The B-52s had success on the albums chart, they weren’t exactly a singles band. Each of their first four albums had hits, but the commercial success of those singles was largely limited to the dance charts. That all changed with the 1989 release of their fifth album Cosmic Thing. Just a few years earlier, it seemed unlikely The B-52s would make another album, but when they did, they reached a level of commercial success that was far beyond anything they had enjoyed previously. Cosmic Thing made The B-52s a force on Top 40 radio and an international phenomenon.

Finding Inspiration in Woodstock

The seeds of The B-52s’ comeback were sown with a change of scenery. Drummer-turned-guitarist Keith Strickland and vocalist/keyboardist Kate Pierson had relocated to Woodstock, New York, and Strickland started composing music for what would eventually become Cosmic Thing. He shared the songs with his bandmates, who eventually helped to complete them. Vocalist Fred Schneider told Billboard, “The music he brought us for Cosmic, we thought, was brilliant and inspiring. There was some trepidation about doing another record, but once we heard the music and got to jamming, everything fell into place really quickly.”

A Nearly Forgotten Lead Single

Unlike most multi-Platinum albums, Cosmic Thing did not get a push from a popular lead single. “Channel Z” was released in March 1989, three months ahead of the rollout of Cosmic Thing. The song featured many of the B-52s’ trademarks, including Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s sister) and Pierson’s vocal harmonies, Schneider’s shout-singing, and a funky guitar riff. It became the band’s first No. 1 hit on the months-old Billboard Alternative Airplay chart, but it failed to register on the Hot 100. The lead single from each of the B-52s’ first three albums made it to the Hot 100, and a lack of promotion for their fourth album Bouncing off the Satellites likely contributed to its leadoff single “Summer of Love” missing the singles chart.

“Love Shack”: Weird but Accessible

While “Channel Z” didn’t signal Cosmic Thing would become the B-52s’ comeback album, the second signal did that and even more. Reprise Records put out “Love Shack” a week prior to Cosmic Thing’s release, but its rise to megahit status was a slow climb. In his interview for BIllboard, Schneider said, “We had a hard time selling ‘Love Shack’ at first. …We would go to radio stations basically to beg them to play the song. Even the record company thought it was too weird. I thought it was the most accessible thing we had done.”

Schneider turned out to be correct. It took two-and-a-half months after its release for “Love Shack” to debut on the Hot 100, but it would soon become the B-52s’ biggest hit. Five months after its release, “Love Shack” reached its peak position of No. 3, and it would go on to spend 27 weeks on the chart.

In retrospect, “Love Shack” seems like an obvious hit single. It’s fun, singable, and features a bunch of memorable lines, such as Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale / And it’s about to set sail and Your what?!? / … Tin roof, rusted? But it’s also quirky, and it could have been written off as a novelty hit. “Love Shack” already made Cosmic Thing the B-52s’ highest-charting album. However, by the time “Love Shack” hit its peak, Cosmic Thing was already gliding down the Billboard 200 from its peak position of No. 6.

“Roam” Solidifies Album’s Megahit Status

It was “Roam,” the follow-up to “Love Shack,” that truly cemented Cosmic Thing’s place as a massive comeback album. “Roam” was not typical B-52s fare. It’s a straightforward pop song that relies more on its melodicism than unexpected lyrical turns or funky grooves. Schneider does not sing on the track, and the lyrics were written by Robert Waldrop, who had contributed lyrics to a few earlier B-52 songs, including their 1983 single “Legal Tender.” (Waldrop also provided the art direction for Wild Planet.) “Roam” also peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 in March 1990, and its surge up the charts helped Cosmic Thing to reach a new peak of No. 4.

Cosmic Thing had one more Top 40 hit among its tracks, as “Deadbeat Club” reached No. 30 in June 1990. Unusually laid-back for a B-52s song, “Deadbeat Club” finds the band reminiscing about their lives in Athens, Georgia, before they experienced their first wave of fame.

The Aftermath of Cosmic Thing

Cosmic Thing was a unique moment in the B-52s’ trajectory. It was not destined to be a building block for an extended run of commercial success. Wilson was still mourning the loss of her brother, and in 1990, she decided to leave the band to focus on her family. The B-52s were reduced to the trio of Pierson, Schneider, and Strickland for their 1992 follow-up Good Stuff. The album was not as well received as Cosmic Thing was by critics, and it fell far short of its predecessor’s multi-Platinum status. Good Stuff did receive Gold certification, and the title track gave the B-52s their fourth Top 40 single, peaking at No. 28.

Wilson would return to the band in 1994, but they would not make another studio album until 2006, when they began work on Funplex. They released the album in 2008, as well as a pair of singles—the title track and “Juliet of the Spirits”—both of which reached the dance charts.

Cosmic Thing is not just an important album in the B-52s’ discography and one of the most popular albums from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It stands as one of the most cherished comeback albums in the rock era. Cosmic Thing would still be a great B-52s album even if it had received less notice. Thanks to “Love Shack”—a song that was just accessible enough for radio—it became something more.

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Women’s Day

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