In the spring of 1979, The B-52’s was the best unsigned New Wave band in America. Their single had sold ten thousand copies since its release the summer before and had gotten extensive airplay on John Peel’s national British radio show, which led to glowing raves about the band in Melody Maker and New Musical Express. It also attracted the attention of A&R representatives from the hipper independent and British-based labels such as Virgin, Sire, and Radar. The companies put in their bids but the band turned them down, waiting for a major label offer that would bring not only just good money but a commitment to the band.
The B-52’s told the press they were waiting for the best major-label offer. But that was only part of the reason for their delay in signing. The rest of the reason was that they simply didn’t know what to do.
“They had no idea of the business,” Danny Beard says. “Most bands have a manager type in the band, but the B’s were more democratic-like. They didn’t have someone like that to start with. They weren’t a well-run business but they had good instincts. I had some input.”
For their first handful of shows The B-52’s booked themselves, first helped along by various friends: Danny Beard, Teresa Randolph, Curtis Knapp. Ricky Wilson checked out a book from the local Athens library on how to read a contract. As they got offers, they read the contracts and looked up phrases. By the time they pieced sense out of the jargon, they realized everyone was trying to rip them off.
During the initial rush of those first months as they rocketed out of Athens, Ricky made a list of scenarios, potential development: In three months have five more songs. In a year have a contract with a record label. This was the best they could do. Nobody knew what the record business was about; nobody knew what a manager was.
Slowly, however, Maureen McLaughlin stationed herself in the position called, as best anybody knew, manager. Maureen was a friend of Fred’s from the University of Georgia. Maureen at least knew something about the law, having worked as a jury consultant on death penalty cases. More significant, she also had lived in New York City and knew the club owners, the musicians: Eno, Fripp . . . rumor had it she used to hang out with Patti Smith. She had an amazingly pure and high-pitched hick southern accent which New Yorkers found totally disarming and which belied her keen intelligence. She was the doyenne of downtown Manhattan, and her city friends there often got her to record their phone-machine messages.
The B-52’s were on the verge of signing. But there was trouble in Eden as money inserted itself. For the first time the band was forced to reckon with that reality.
Keith Strickland remembers Maureen coming into the kitchen one day waving a contract in each hand, shouting in her high-pitched pull-string southern dollbaby voice, “Ya’ll, I just don’t know what to do!”
“Oh, no!” the band cried. “Neither do we!”
Fun time was over and it was time to get down to business. The B-52’s faced their first tough decision as a band in the real world. Maureen knew something about managing, but it wasn’t enough. It was turning out that Maureen, despite her social skills, was not prepared for the job. Tension and hard feeling bred as the band began to feel that Maureen was using them to enhance her own position in the New York City club scene.
The relationship between her and the band had never been formal. Maureen had organized their first tour in the spring of 1979, driving a Chevy van to Canada, Minneapolis, Ohio, and the northeast after the release of their single. But they needed professional help if they were to avoid getting ripped off in a record deal. They had been talking with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads about what to do, and they suggested they meet their manager Gary Kurfurst.
“We met Gary in Washington, D.C., at a show at the Corcoran Gallery,” Keith Strickland remembers. “Chris’ brother’s band The Urban Verbs opened and they brought Gary down to see both of us. Things started happening quickly after Gary saw us.”
The band knew they had to do something. Gary offered to co-manage with Maureen, but Maureen refused and finally they had to fire her. That decision was the first sour note in their otherwise unfailingly bucolic and perfect adventure. It was the first recognition that it was serious business.
“It was a difficult split with Maureen,” Keith says. “We really hated doing it. But it was a decision we felt we had to make. Gary was saying he would work with her if we wanted to do a split deal, but it was all getting crazy and we thought for the long run it was best to make a clean break. It was very emotional. Fred and I finally had to say, this is it. You could see it was going to get really complicated, so we thought we better do it while we still have the time. It was strange for a while, but later on I ran into her and it was agreeable.”
Between firing Maureen and signing a management deal with Kurfurst, The B-52’s played Hurrah, a hip rock disco in New York City. The club filled to the limit and a crowd outside nearly rioted in frustration. Police were called.
“We really had no notion that so many people would show up at Hurrah,” Kate told a reporter after the show. “I really felt sorry for the crowd. A fully equipped student film crew from New York University had added to the crowding, confusion, and disgruntlement of paying customers. We thought that it was gonna be just one guy in a corner and instead it turned out to be this whole crew.”
“Yeah, we remember Hurrah,” Fred later explained to writer Glenn O’Brien. “At that time we had no idea that our popularity had reached that peak. That was it. That was the night we realized something was really happening. Our dressing room was right above the entrance, at the door, and we looked out and saw all these people yelling. It really started all at once, after we got there. The monitors went off, and we were stuck on the stage. We couldn’t get off, there were so many people. We just had to sit up there in the back, huddled in the dark recess.”
With the deals all done, signed to Warner Bros. late that April, the B’s faced their next tough decision: Should they move away from Athens? At that time there was no reason for them to stay. There were no clubs where they could play. The music scene was only then in its formative stages. The B-52’s were too big for the town, and it was too expensive to keep traveling and playing in New York.
They decided to leave Athens and relocate north.
“See, we had a lot of things happen in the band when it looked like people were going to go their own way,” Kate recalls, “but it would congeal again. Like, Fred said he was going to move to New York. But I didn’t really want to move because I had such a great place. I was living the lifestyle I wanted. I really loved living there and I had a job I liked doing paste-up at the local newspaper. I couldn’t afford to stop working, but there was some point I had to make the break. Then the paper changed my shift to the weekends, which made it really impossible to do both the job and the band, so I quit the job. I wasn’t working so I was willing to move. If we could have kept living in Athens and done the band, I would have wanted to stay. But we felt like we were on the verge of something so we thought well, why not?”
They bought a house in upstate New York and moved in together. They recorded their first album in three weeks at Chris Blackwell’s studio in the Bahamas.
In July 1979, The B-52’s eponymously titled first album came out. A review in Creem was typical of the acclaim it received: “The B-52’s are at the forefront of a move back toward the goofy, fun side of rock ’n’ roll. . . . [A band] that almost unbelievably manages to hearken back to the early sixties dance craze era without sounding like a bunch of dreary-eyed nostalgoids painfully trying to resurrect the past. . . . They’re so far out they’re in.”
After the release of their album, they went to Britain. That’s when the critics began to plunge like pearl divers looking for political and social connotations in the concept of The B-52’s, applying the politically informed tools of rock-crit analysis to the way the B’s presented themselves. Critics began to try to pin down The B-52’s, but the target was elusive: They found traces of sixties revivalism, the Camp American Trash aesthetic, although they avoided noting its origin in gay culture. They cataloged their influences and the records they listened to: Amazonian marching music, Yma Sumac, African tribal chants, black girl groups, and Captain Beefheart.
“There wasn’t any specific thing they all said we were trying to say,” Kate said, “but they assumed that it had more serious meaning than just dressing up in some fanciful way.”
Little did they know that it really didn’t.
The band was very rehearsed. They were an act; it was performance. Offstage, the girls still dressed up, but not as elaborately as the costumes for stage. Clean-shaven and dressed in T-shirt and slacks, looking vaguely lost, Fred was mistaken for a messenger boy by a rock writer at the Warner Bros. office in New York. An astute British reviewer wrote, “They occupy the stage like people aware of what they’re doing, swapping instruments smoothly, concentrating deeply, suddenly jumping into spasms of demonstration dancing, a frug here, a slop there, some hully-gully everywhere. They neither let go of their straight faces nor seem to recognize the audience all that much; at the end of each number Fred will say something like, ‘Thank you. This next tune is called “Hero Worship.”’ Then he’ll return to the mike as if an afterthought just struck him and say, ‘This is a dance tune.’”
For the time being, critics ignored the lack of spontaneity, or rather the fact that what looked spontaneous was in fact carefully rehearsed. They were temporarily won over by the novelty of their rhythms, the freshness of their style, and their coy southern out-of-the-dark-of-the-wasteland new-discovery-from-the-swamp oddball trailer-park Georgia charm. In interviews, Cindy was naturally saucy. Kate, New Jersey–born but with continental experience, mimicked southern accents for interviewers and never failed to tell about her goats back on the farm, milking them, listening to the tough old rooster in the yard. Keith and Ricky always mentioned their bus station résumés. Fred always dropped that he had waited tables and delivered meals for old folk.
And they won them over with their music.
“The B-52’s play like no band you have ever heard before,” a critic wrote. “Which doesn’t mean that you can’t identify the moving parts; it just means that conceptually they are anything but derivative. They embody a vision.” The girls and Fred sing like gospel call and response. “They are the one true new-age dance band. You either understand rhythm and shape or you don’t, and The B-52’s shudder with the stuff.”
In another interview for Creem The B-52’s repeat their wonderland success story. It’s one of those stories that’s so perfect everyone is dazed and tries to figure out how to explain it. What was the key? How did it happen? What was the secret sauce?
“The Crawling Eye was on the Million Dollar Movie twice a day for a week,” Kate explained, “and we watched it every single time!”