Danny Beard wore his trademark plaid, high-water flares, and Converse All-Stars as he watched from the back of the room when The B-52’s played The Last Resort in Athens at the end of January 1978. The Last Resort was an old folk-rock cafe from the sixties on Clayton Street that had recently reopened as a club after serving for a time as a taxidermy shop. A few remaindered heads still hung from the walls, moldy, moth-eaten, horn-chipped. It was The B-52’s first time playing since the Punk Festival in Atlanta and it was their best show yet. Their timing was perfect. No long lulls between songs. Fred dominated as front man and the band kept it all together for two full sets. Kate and Cindy sang and danced and Fred handled his walkie-talkie and toy piano skillfully. They threw fish to the audience, many members of which had picked up on the band’s image (“Crazy! Really sixties!”) and raided the Potter’s House thrift store earlier in the day for their own dress-up costumes of naugahyde miniskirts and polyester shirts. The show was simulcast over WUOG, the university radio station, and the phone lines there that night were lit with callers asking in disbelief if it wasn’t all some kind of joke.
Danny knew it wasn’t a joke. He’d seen them at Max’s Kansas City that past December. He’d seen them at the Punk Festival in January. Now, here they were at The Last Resort, and the crowd was loving it. Every time they played, there was excitement, the buzz, everyone getting off on a real wonder fix that this local band was so hot. Danny was convinced they were onto something. He had helped The Fans with their first three-song single and had seen what they did right and what they did wrong. After the show at The Last Resort he had some advice he wanted to give the B’s. They needed something to help take advantage of their momentum. He knew what they needed. Plus, he had a killer crush on Kate.
“Ya’ll oughta make a record,” he suggested after the show. “My treat.”
The band agreed.
Danny put up the money and in February, at Stone Mountain Studios in Atlanta, they recorded “Rock Lobster,” the band’s most popular dance number, and “52 Girls,” whose lyrics were written by Jerry Ayers, Keith and Ricky’s early style mentor. At the end of the month Danny threw a party for the B’s in Atlanta, at a room reserved at Emory University.
Demonstrating that punk and new wave had not yet neatly divided, the Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, titled the concert review, “Punk Rock Plays Emory.” “Rumors had been circulating that a virgin composition would debut,” Kurt Wood reported, “but it was not to be. Fred Schneider (lead vocals) said afterwards that the band has been working on several new songs, but none had been rehearsed enough to play live.”
The show was practice for their first trip back to New York since their debut. This trip they would play two nights at Max’s and a Sunday night at CBGB’s.
“Who knows,” the article concluded, “the group may return with a contract, in addition to further experiences in the Northlands.”
That spring, The B-52’s traveled up and down the East Coast between Athens and New York, playing CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City about once a month, coming back, not stopping anywhere between, and riding back into Athens to glory in their little hometown, where they quickly became starlets. Kids from the university began going to the El Dorado Restaurant to sit in its booths and eat whole-wheat biscuits and yellow grits, lingering slow over pots of herbal tea hoping to catch Fred waiting tables in a bikini. The kids in town were becoming aware of the new music do-it-yourself movement. They began to feel, to see, that they, just these kids at school, were a part of it. That Athens, just this town, this nowhere Georgia hick college town, was where it’s at. But even that still didn’t mean too much. Nobody really expected it to really work, to really go somewhere. It was still small-time, underground, homegrown—not yet noticed by the press. The B-52’s were doing it themselves, using what they had, piecing together a show that was as much theater as it was rock and roll.
The B-52’s came together when the hippie thing was giving way to the New Wave thing. Fred especially represented a whole kind of coolness about being clever and dapper and dressing up and having a lot of clothes on. What is the opposite of a long-haired hippie lying around smoking pot with his shirt off? A little guy with a bow tie and a little thin mustache doing wacky little skewed vaudevillian monologues while Ricky replaced a broken string. The B-52’s were harbingers of a stylistic buttoning down. The costume of New Wave wasn’t hippie-style frayed blue jeans and oversized T-shirts. There were no more flushed, nude teenagers. The new kids buttoned the top button, hid their flesh, cropped their hair.
In Athens, The B-52’s dropped the curtain on all the sloppy southern blues. Their new stuff was choppy and non-sensual. Hippie was about openness, softness, anthems and monumentality. The new thing was about tightness and closure and snappy tight songs: being bright, being quick, being ironic. In the dancing they got rid of the free form, body-swaying style, preferring the choppy, mechanomorphic moves of the pogo and the jerk. The dancing was just as ecstatic as always, but was of a different aesthetic. The B-52’s hid and mocked their sexuality. In songs such as “Strobe Light,” where they metaphorized sex into a manipulation of fruits, they giggled about the nasty.
In May, when their single came out, The B-52’s played at the Georgia Theater, an old movie house with a stage, located on the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets. It was their first show in Athens since playing The Last Resort in February. With no clubs in Athens willing to book a band of dragsters playing what was mistakenly referred to in the street as punk rock, the B’s had no place in town to present their set. To warm up for another couple of shows in New York, and also to play for a man from Virgin Records who was coming to town to court them, they organized a show at the Georgia Theater.
It was a grand extravaganza. “The incomparable Phyllis,” a waitress friend of Fred’s from the El Dorado, opened the whole show with a quirky performance piece that became a regular part of the early B’s shows.
Phyllis “The Incomparable Phyllis” Stapler remembers how she ended up being transformed from nerdy art student waitress to a little sub-starlet all her own:
“Really, I think what they needed was somebody to fill in the show, to expand it, because they had to rent the theater and they needed to fill up the time. They still didn’t have a whole lot of songs at that point. Fred and I were working together at the El Dorado, and one day he said, ‘Can you do anything? Have you ever performed?’ and I jokingly said I was on the drill team in high school, and a few days later he came back and said, ‘We talked about it and we want you to do a drill team routine.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I had my drill team boots from high school, and a friend and I looked through a bunch of records and found ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking.’ I opened the whole show. I came out to ‘Boots’ and just did a drill team routine. I did it as straight as I could, with the stick on grin they teach you, and kicked real high. And everyone loved it.”
The Tone Tones opened for The B-52’s that night at the Georgia Theater. The Tone Tones was the band Nicky Giannaris had formed after coming back to Athens, having seen the B’s in January at the Punk Festival. Before the B’s show, he was practicing with Teresa Randolph, the B’s friend, and Dana Downs, Teresa’s roommate, Michael Johnson on keyboards, and David Gamble on drums. They called themselves The Responsibles. Then Teresa left to go to Jamaica and they changed the name to The Tone Tones. When the B’s asked if they would open, they had only been practicing for a couple of months. Michael Johnson, the keyboardist, felt they weren’t ready to play, but Nicky, whose band it was, was foaming at the mouth for the chance. Nicky said they fucking were going to play. Johnson quit and they got Vic Varney to play keyboards. Vic had never played keyboards before but he practiced for two weeks before the show and they played.
“After we finished the first song,” Dana Downs remembers, “a roar came up from the audience. Well, that was it. Throw those college degrees to the wind! I was smitten. It was my first time on stage and I had found the place where I belonged.”
The Tone Tones were the second band in the Athens music scene.
In June, The B-52’s got an offer from Sire Records. Together with Danny Beard and a friend of theirs, Maureen McLaughlin, who had known Fred since 1972 when they were both volunteers on a student activities committee, the band decided to pass up the offer. They preferred to wait and write some more songs. They were getting more popular each time they played. They figured the contract offers weren’t going to stop any time soon.