A few weeks ago, friends of the B-52’s singer Fred Schneider started telling him that they were playing the group’s song on Rock Band. Schneider went along and tried playing himself, but he has to admit that the results weren’t too glorious.
“You could do a video of me playing to show people what not to do,” he says. “I got a few notes and that was it; I got to the part where the song ended and everybody booed. I’ll admit that I am totally uncoordinated and I never played many video games; I’m more a Boggle person myself. Whatever I do has to be something really basic — I mean, I can type 45 words a minute with 40 errors. And I liked the game, especially the way you can get a guitar player and a drummer going together. It seems a good way to let off steam — so I may have to give it another try. But after my last miserable experience I’m not so sure.”
I got to the part where the song ended and everybody booed.
Fortunately, Fred has a secure job to fall back on. Originally a bunch of college-town misfits who decided to form a band over Chinese dinner, the B-52’s are a new-wave institution; they’ve had chart hits like our DLC track “Roam,” along with cult-classic songs that have lit up two decades’ worth of parties. 2008 is looking to be a comeback year for the band: They’ve signed with the Astralwerks label and are releasing “Funplex,” their first new album in 16 years (a good one, giving a more techno-friendly slant to those trademark B-52’s surf guitars and three-way vocals). They’re touring twice this year, playing theaters in the spring and then joining Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” tour over the summer. Also, psst: It wouldn’t be too farfetched to expect another B52’s classic to show up as DLC in the not-too-distant future.
Here are some highlights from our phone chat with Fred, once we got past his traumatic memories of crapping out on Rock Band.
Q: Those college parties you used to play in Athens, GA are pretty legendary. I’ve always wondered what the atmosphere must have been.
A: There just wasn’t enough to do back then, Athens wasn’t the music mecca it is now. To me it was dead as a doornail. You had parties but there were no rock clubs and no discos, nothing before around 1978-79. So you had to do your own things and that’s what we did: Friends of mine were having a Valentine’s party one night, Ricky Wilson already played guitar and Keith was a drummer. I used to write poetry, so it went in that direction.
Q: Did people get it?
A: Not at all! People didn’t know what to make of it. There are some video clips floating around that can give you an idea of what it was like. Sometimes we’d just turn around and talk to each other between songs. If Ricky broke a string, we’d turn our backs and be quiet. Then finally I started telling jokes and reciting poetry—that was one reason the serious critics didn’t like us. We just came out of left field and to a degree, we still do. I can’t sing like anybody else or write like anybody else, but we just jell in a way that no other band does. You have to depend on us to fill the void that no other band could when we’re away.
Q: What kind of people would become B-52’s fans?
A: I think we had something people wanted to see, whether they were outcasis in school, gay people…or just everybody. I mean, to this day we get jocks who love “Quiche Lorraine.” So go figure.
Q: You’ve always had an interest in sci-fi. Where’d that come from?
A: I sort of brought that in with “Planet Claire” and “Cosmic Thing.” I’ve always loved science fiction, whether it’s books or movies. I like to read the trashy magazines, and the serious ones too—I read a lot of Discover and National Geographic.
Q: “Private Idaho” was an important track on the second album, one of the band’s first underground hits. Was that a tricky one to record?
A: Not really, the first album was tougher. I thought there was a certain fullness that the first album lacked; I played keyboard bass but you couldn’t really hear it. It wasn’t bad; just sounded…rinky dink or something. I remember hearing it back and thinking, ‘We sound like THAT?’ For the second album we had a lot of songs we’d already been performing—‘Quiche Lorraine,” ‘Strobe Light’ and a few others, so we just went back to the Bahamas and did them. The idea for “Private Idaho” just came from playing around with the term “private eye.” Then Ricky added a guitar part, Kate and Cindy threw other parts in…We just added parts to fill in a song. That’s why so many of our songs just go on and on!
Q: Sixteen years is forever in rock and roll. Why so long without a B-52’s album?
A: We wanted to be ready, we wanted to do the right music. We tried before, maybe seven years ago, and things didn’t really jell. This time we were chomping at the bit to do a B-52’s album. We paid for it ourselves and did it over time—We’d book trips to Atlanta for all of us to get together, and we made sure we came up with a song on every trip. When we got on a roll, we’d have a good idea for the next one. We really fine tuned our methods of writing, there were hours and hours of tapes.
Q: Listening to the album, I couldn’t help but notice there’s a lot of songs about sex on it.
A: That’s definitely one of the themes, and we had a good time with it. And we realized after finishing the album that it’s there in every single song. But you know, we’ve always been sex gods and goddesses, so we may as well write about it.