Big As a Whale

The B-52s turn the Marin Center into a Friday 'Funplex'


With spacey synthesizers, ’60s girl-group harmonies, post-punk guitar and openly gay Fred Schneider’s distinctive spoken-word, the B-52s’ self-titled debut still sounds innovative 30 years later. This Friday, the “world’s greatest party band,” who heralded the still-vibrant Athens, Ga., music scene shortly after forming in 1976, visit the Marin Center’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium armed with last year’s Funplex, their first album since 1992.

For singer Cindy Wilson, the most vocally versatile new wave siren ever, the wait has been even longer—since 1989’s Cosmic Thing, to be exact. In 1990, after 14 years together—and just a few years after her brother and original guitarist Ricky Wilson’s death—she needed a breather. “The success of that record was great, but with success comes a lot of work,” says Wilson from her Atlanta home. “It was on the heels of Ricky’s death, and I think I just got burned out.” Wilson left to start a family, but soon regretted the decision. “I moved back to Georgia, totally thinking that that’s what I needed,” she remembers, “but I needed the structure of the band, too.”

During this period, the band released, without Wilson, 1992’s Good Stuff. It would be an album that many felt suffered from the splitting of the famous vocal duo, leaving the soaring vocals of Kate Pierson to fare alone. For proof of Cindy Wilson’s indispensability, look no further than their biggest hit, “Love Shack” (“Tiiiiiiii-in roof! Rusted”), or the 1979 classic “Dance This Mess Around,” which she begins sultrily before unleashing her delicious non sequitur shriek “Why don’t you dance with me? I’m not no limburger!”

Wilson eventually rejoined in 1994 only to leave a few years later on maternity leave before returning in 2001. The mother of two is grateful for her band mates’ understanding. “They let me step in and out with my pregnancies,” she says. “They were very, very, very gracious to let me do that.” We spoke on Halloween, a day before the band played a show in New York City. “I think it’s going to be my kids’ last Halloween [trick-or-treating], so I asked that we not work on Halloween,” Wilson says with a laugh.

Although the B-52s have toured consistently between side projects and family raising, their return to recording was a conscious effort to escape the nostalgia-act route. “We were really itching to do that, to show that we’re still artists,” Wilson says. “And if we were going to keep doing this, we wanted to have some new material, new songs; it’s just a muscle you want to flex.”

While another solid set of utopian anthems, Funplex breaks new ground for the band thanks to an electro-funk yet raw production by Steve Osborne (New Order, Happy Mondays). From the throbbing dance-rock groove of opener “Pump” to the poppy punk of the new global anthem “Keep This Party Going,” the band is a tight, well-oiled unit, which is no accident. “Everyone would meet in Atlanta and we’d all jam to the music [guitarist] Keith Strickland brought to the band,” Wilson says. “It was just throwing ideas out, and we would write stuff and then go into the studio and kind of just wing it. It was a pure group effort.”

Even after such a long hiatus from touring and living in separate states (Wilson is the only one still based in Georgia), the chemistry was intact for Funplex. “When I get together with the band, there’s a really cool energy and we bounce off each other so well,” she reports. “Sometimes it could be one entity with four heads.”

No word yet on the next B-52s album, but the band remains united. “Everybody brings something so special,” says Wilson, who still enjoys the B-52s above all other projects. “You get to use your imagination and be an artist and a poet and a singer and a clown.”

Artistic satisfaction aside, fun is still paramount. “I’m having more fun now with the new show and the way it is than I had in a long time,” says Wilson, “and the crowds are all very excited to see us.”

 With the sad passage of Proposition 8, the Bay Area needs the B-52s more than eve. They perform on Friday, Nov. 14, at the Marin Center, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. 8pm. $35&–$90. 415.499.6800.

Sonoma County Library