BlackBook Interview: The B-52s’ Fred Schneider on 40 Years of Making ‘Surreal’ Music

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Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

 

When the B-52s self-titled debut album was released in 1979, it was at once one of the most inexplicable records to ever grace the pop canon, and also simply more unbridled fun than any collection of music really even has the right to be.

Indeed, with its monster-movie organs, twisted surf guitar riffs, herky jerky dance beats and Fred Schneider’s peculiar, stentorian vocal delivery, it perfectly epitomized the emerging “anything goes” new wave ethos. To be sure, there was something of an artful anarchy to it all – tearing down basic song structures, and layering on provocative, surrealistic lyrical musings. Listening to it now, it sounds as if it all could have been recorded yesterday, as its sheer originality gives it a thoroughly unstoppable timelessness.

Four decades and 20+ million records sold later, the core of the band – Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland – are remarkably still together and going strong (Ricky Wilson died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1985). And 2018 looks set to be their biggest party yet, as they celebrate the 40th anniversary of that very first album. Launching in Cincinnati May 27, they will carry out a spectacular 46-date North American tour (co-headlining with Culture Club), which will take them all the way to San Antonio on October 3.

We grabbed frontman and all around inimitable personality Schneider for a chat before it all kicks off.

 

A lot of punk ideology was about youth rejecting the ideas and ideals of the previous generations. So does it feel a bit odd to be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the B-52s debut?

Yes, because we never really planned a career in music. We all had day jobs, but we were all creative. We found ourselves doing music for fun, then playing parties…and it all just took off from there.

What do you remember about recording the first album?

One day I was washing pots and pans at the vegetarian restaurant I worked at, and the next I was flying to the Bahamas to record an album. I will say, [producer and Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell was great to work with. And Robert Ash, who did quite a lot of the production, really understood us. Thankfully, they just wanted to capture us as we were.

Was it strange going from being complete outsiders to suddenly recording for a major label? Were you more nervous or excited?

I think we were more excited – we had all the songs ready to go. I mean, going from Georgia to the Bahamas…it was pretty amazing.

 

 

How much did that Athens, Georgia scene project you forward?

There actually was no scene, there was literally nothing going on in Athens at the time. We started the scene and left before it happened. It’s like Michael Stipe used to say: On a Friday night you could lay down in the middle of the main street and not get run over by a car.

Funny, because obviously so much of the mythology suggests otherwise.

It eventually became a magnet for creative people, all these clubs started opening up. But before that, you really had to make your own fun.

Despite a plethora of really memorable hooks, there was a kind of anarchy about the songs on the B-52s debut album. The feeling you get was that musically and lyrically, you just went totally out of bounds.

Yeah, we didn’t try to follow anything or copy anyone. If we had any influences, I don’t know if we brought them to the studio. With the lyrics that I wrote, I was more inspired by dada and surrealism than any other particular songwriters.

There was maybe something of a surreal campiness about it all…

Well, campiness suggests being ridiculous without realizing it. I have to say, we actually knew exactly what we were doing.

But there was a sense of humor.

Yeah, a particular sense of humor is a better way to put it. We found that people either got it or they didn’t.

“Rock Lobster” is actually one of the most surreal songs imaginable.

Thank you, I appreciate that. The inspiration for it was that I went to this club in Atlanta called Disco 2001, and instead of real lighting effects and such, they had this cheesy slide show – which for some reason included lobsters on a grill. So I wrote the lyrics based on that, and then the girls came up with their crazy fish noises.

That guitar riff is surely up there with the Stones’ “Satisfaction” as one of the most iconic in history.

Actually, Ricky at the time said that he thought he came up with the stupidest guitar riff ever.

 

You did what was to become a sort of legendary appearance on Saturday Night Live

Yeah, that really pushed us up the charts. The album went platinum that summer.

Did it feel like a groundbreaking moment?

We were so nervous, I don’t think we gave it that much thought. We had never done TV, and were just hoping we didn’t mess up. Apparently Kurt Cobain saw it and was really inspired by it.

What are some of the memorable highlights of that time for you?

Well, we were still playing dumpy clubs in America. But “Rock Lobster” was a big hit in Australia – so when we went there, it was incredible. All red carpets and limos and such.

Do you now feel hindered or bolstered by nostalgia?

I don’t even think about nostalgia – I feel the songs don’t really date.  I mean, we started out really punky, but we evolved into a formidable dance music band.

People sometimes forget that punk wasn’t about a sound, it was about freedom.

It was all about an attitude. We were serious about doing good songs, even though we didn’t take ourselves seriously. I might have eventually taken some voice lessons.

You’re launching a five-month tour later this month. Are you still just as excited to get up on stage now?

I mean, I really like the travel. I love the people I work with, Kate and Cindy – and we’ve become best friends with our touring band…

But is there still that buzz getting up in front of the fans and playing these songs?

In some ways, yes. But I’m also getting to be really over the thing of the audience watching us on their cell phones. That is definitely really irritating. And to be honest, it’s not really as much fun as it used to be. But I’m happy to play to the people who are not on their cell phones.

Describe the B-52s in the smallest number of words possible.

The world’s greatest party band.