By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Forty years ago, the B-52s came out of the gate a fully formed one-of-a-kind — a wacky cocktail of stoned dance music, surreal vocal histrionics and lyrics that sounded like they’d sprung from the children of The Mothers of Invention.
And then there was the way they looked.
The sky-high beehive hairdos of front women Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson did more than set a retro tone, they also gave the band its name. In their Athens, Ga., stomping grounds, “B-52” was slang for the updo. The kitschy style not only served to further distinguish them from the new-wave vanguard, it also crystalized their way-out sound in an iconic visual image that became about as identifiable as the music itself.
On Aug. 29, that music will get the refined confines of the Au-Rene Theater shimmying like a love shack, as the B-52s make their second South Florida appearance of the year. The group appeared at Sunfest in May; at Broward Center, they’ll be accompanied by OMD and Berlin.
The beehives that topped off the singers’ onstage presence started out as a joke, as the band would crash parties dressed up and adorned with the Conehead-like hairstyles sported by Athens women in the ’70s. The look stuck after drummer Keith Strickland had a waking dream that coalesced the band’s identity and wigged-out image.
“It was a trend in the South, those big bouffants, but it was also a way of kind of transforming a negative, militaristic bomber-jets image into something beautiful and peaceful,” Pierson told Garage magazine last year. “That was really the inspiration when we called ourselves the B-52s.”
Though their gaudy wigs epitomized the band’s fashion sense, it didn’t stop there. Their outfits followed suit. In particular, Pierson and Wilson experimented with a retro/futuristic style that fused looks from the ’50s and ’60s with science fiction accents, like reflective materials and lots of silver.
“Those were the thrift store days,” Wilson said. “In the beginning, we weren’t really polished, but to me, those were some of the best days. We were just starting out and having fun in thrift stores. We were very playful with fashion, kind of on the arty side. We just did what we wanted. There were never any rules.”
No rules, perhaps, but some flamboyant inspirations: the absurdist fantasies in Federico Fellini’s 1960s films, such as Juliet of the Spirits.
“There were big hats and giant sunglasses — this incredible fashion taken to an absurd degree,” Pierson said. “Fellini was the epitome of Italian style taken to the max. We were also very influenced by Vogue in the 1960s under Diana Vreeland. And I used to imitate the makeup of the ’60s models with crisscrossed eyeliner and white on the inside.
“In the first show we did, we got these fake fur pocketbooks that were white, and we turned them upside down into these white afros. Keith wore a little red wig and we wore all black. It was very punk, but still very stylized.”
And their extravagant femininity stood out from the denim and leather aesthetic of the day’s other frontwomen, like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde.
“When we got more money, I found a wig lady named Phyllis who was so creative,” Wilson said. “She would listen to my ideas and we would put our heads together to come up with some crazy hairdos.” Among them, an infamous birdcage wig formed from chicken wire is now on display at the University of Georgia’s Special Collections archive.
Toward the end of the ’80s, the band’s look began evolving in step with simpatico yet fashion-forward brands like Todd Oldham, Norma Kamali and Julia Gerard. The style update was designed in part to shine more of a spotlight on the music. And that it did, as by 1989, the B-52 sound of soaring female harmonies bouncing off Fred Schneider’s hurdy-gurdy sing-speak — a vocal style that could be confused with no one — had matured into the dance party masterpiece of Cosmic Thing.
Produced by Nile Rodgers and Don Was, the album went quadruple platinum and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart. At its heart, the swell of Love Shack into Junebug into Roam is one of the great happy-feat trifecta’s of ’90s-era pop — and the peak of the group’s enchanting alchemy of motion and emotion.
Cosmic Thing also gave greater exposure to the B-52s’ sensibility of quirky queerness, despite it generally being more intrinsic than overt.
“Our music and our image kind of stood for itself — that was the statement — and we weren’t really self-aware enough to think that we needed to say anything else about it,” Strickland said. “We were saying it was OK to be different by just living it.”