Very Early Concert Footage of the B‑52s, When New Wave Music Was Actually New (1978)

I recall with unchar­ac­ter­is­tic clar­i­ty the first time I heard the B‑52s. Forced on a youth-group ski trip by my par­ents, I arrived an angry thir­teen-year-old wan­na-be punk: mohawk, ripped jeans, patched leather jack­et, dis­af­fect­ed scowl, and feigned air of ado­les­cent cyn­i­cal world-weari­ness. Pop music, I had already decid­ed, was for suck­ers. The only sounds that spoke to me were loud, abra­sive, and delib­er­ate­ly unlove­ly. Then some­one in our dorm put on “Rock Lob­ster” and it blew my nar­row mind. Though the osten­si­ble pur­pose of this church-spon­sored vaca­tion was to stir up some Protes­tant piety, I came away con­vert­ed instead to the gospel of new wave. I cred­it my awak­en­ing to Kate Pierson’s oth­er­world­ly wail, Cindy Wilson’s throaty har­monies, and Ricky Wilson’s bizarrely tuned gui­tar.

Maybe it wasn’t quite that dra­mat­ic, but it was a deci­sive moment in my young fan­dom, after which I found myself seek­ing out the odd, angu­lar, jan­g­ly sounds I’d first heard on that B‑52s record—and find­ing them in John­ny Marr’s Smiths gui­tar work, every ear­ly R.E.M. album, and in more morose form, in The Cure, Psy­che­del­ic Furs, and count­less mopey British post-punks. What sur­prised me at the time was learn­ing how many of these bands arrived on the scene at the same time as the nas­ti­er, grit­ti­er bands that scored my angst-rid­den entry into cal­low teenage-hood. We’re famil­iar with the sto­ry of new wave bands like Talk­ing Heads and Television’s begin­nings at CBGB’s. But around that same time, in 1976, Georgia’s B‑52s got their start in the col­lege town of Athens. As one inter­vie­wee says—in the above short doc­u­men­tary on the South­ern art-rock scene that also birthed R.E.M.—“the B‑52s start­ed the music scene as we think of it.”

Tak­ing their sound from surf rock, 50s doo-wop and girl group har­monies, and a weird­ness that is Athens’ own, the B‑52s carved out a space for them­selves with­in music that had some­thing in com­mon with the Ramones except it was hyper-col­or­ful, thrift-store kitschy, and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly campy. Their warped take on 50s and 60s dance rock—complete with Pier­son and Wilson’s “B‑52” bee­hives—first broke out with “Rock Lob­ster” (a song John Lennon once cred­it­ed with influ­enc­ing his come­back). You can see them open with the song at the top in 1978 at Atlanta’s Down­town Cafe, just pri­or to the release of their debut album. (Stick around to watch the rest of the 28-minute set.) Fred Schnei­der, the band’s wry, flam­boy­ant front­man, intro­duces each band mem­ber with a series of quirky pseu­do­nyms. Above, they do my per­son­al favorite, “52 Girls”—with its pound­ing tom-tom surf rhythms and sung-shout­ed lyrics about “The prin­ci­pal girls of the USA.” Just below catch anoth­er ear­ly gig from 1980, at New Jersey’s Capi­tol The­ater.

The B‑52s plugged along through the 80s—suffered the loss of Ricky Wil­son to AIDS—then hit it very big on the pop charts with “Love Shack” and “Roam” from 1989’s Cos­mic Thing. For my mon­ey, though, noth­ing beats the glo­ri­ous joy­ful­ness of their debut, which sounds like the most fun any band has ever had mak­ing a record togeth­er.

Though the band has always been a high­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive ensem­ble, Kate Pierson’s huge voice came to shape their sound over the years. She would go on to record the torch song “Can­dy” with Iggy Pop and the ridicu­lous, love-it-or-hate-it “Shiny Hap­py Peo­ple” with her home­town peers R.E.M. Now, at 67, she’s putting out her first solo album, Gui­tars and Micro­phones. Lis­ten to the super-catchy title track above, and hear an inter­view with Pier­son on NPR here and anoth­er on WBEZ’s Sound Opin­ions here. For more on the B‑52s ear­ly years, see ret­ro­spec­tives on Dan­ger­ous Minds and Pitch­fork. You owe it to your­self to get to know this band. They may not change your life like they did mine, but they might just expand your under­stand­ing of pop music’s pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Talk­ing Heads Play a Vin­tage Con­cert in Syra­cuse (1978)

The Ramones in Their Hey­day, Filmed “Live at CBGB,” 1977

Blondie Plays CBGB in the Mid-70s in Two Vin­tage Clips

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • icewater says:

    Does Down­town Cafe still exist? If not, what’s in its place?

  • dtheas says:

    The Down­town Café dis­ap­peared ages ago…to be replaced by a gay leather bay (The Texas Drilling Co.) and now…after the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion the spot is now some sort of café.…

  • Paul Tatara says:

    God, the B‑52s annoyed me then and they annoy me now. It’s like a knock-knock joke being played on an end­less loop. It nev­er seems any more clever as they keep doing it.

  • Toad says:

    Don’t think that Paul Tatara and I would get along, but that’s OK, we won’t ever have to.

    I was in high school and then col­lege for those cou­ple or three years when EVERY par­ty you’d go to, if they were play­ing records, they were def­i­nite­ly play­ing some B‑52s. I found them incred­i­bly intim­i­dat­ing with their sheer intel­li­gence. They pulled down so many ideas that were in the air at the time, and wrote them large in fun day-glo; I was blown away. Just like, as a gui­tarist, some extreme vir­tu­osos are just intim­i­dat­ing, and maybe a lit­tle hard to lis­ten to. I got over that with the B‑52s, and now I just enjoy them, but at the time, my reac­tion was more like, “Whoa, I need to try hard­er.”

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