Songwriter Interviews

Cindy Wilson of The B-52s

by Jeff Suwak

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On the "Love Shack" location, songwriting dynamics in the band, and her personal favorites.

"OK. We can go through all the songs."

And we're off...

In preparation for her Songfacts interview, Cindy Wilson made notes on songs spanning the B-52s' catalog, covering the hits ("Rock Lobster," "Love Shack"), and the rarities ("Give Me Back My Man," "Mesopotamia"), explaining which ones have special meaning to her, and which recall important moments in the band's history. We like Cindy Wilson a lot.

The B-52s formed in 1976 with an unusual configuration: Three outlandish lead singers (Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider), a soft-spoken but wildly inventive guitarist (Cindy's older brother, Ricky), and a versatile, energetic drummer known as "Bam Bam" (Keith Strickland). All contributed to the songwriting, with Ricky Wilson most adept at the music and Schneider the most prolific lyricist. They're from Athens, Georgia, which surely led the nation in per capita creative talent - R.E.M. and a raft of other musicians emerged from the area.

From the start, the B-52s seemed to exist outside the normal bounds of reality, with a joyful refusal to take themselves seriously. Their grooves and harmonies were so unusual, reviewers couldn't describe their sound based on any existing constructs. The B-52s experience was more like a John Waters movie, or an interplanetary dance party, they wrote. Their undersea oddity "Rock Lobster" was so out-there, it convinced John Lennon the world was finally ready for Yoko; he came out of retirement to make an album with her (Double Fantasy, which ended up being his last).

Over the course of four albums, the group established themselves as the ultimate party band, but with only minor hits ("Rock Lobster" was the biggest, topping out at #56). Then, in 1985, Ricky Wilson died of AIDS at 32. It took a few years, but when The B-52s regrouped, they put forth an album that outsold all their others combined: Cosmic Thing, with the hits "Love Shack" and "Roam," both co-written by Cindy.

Wilson, 62, is funny and down-to-earth, with nothing resembling a rock star ego. A theme that kept recurring as she talked about the songs was how much fun the band had making and performing their music. That might explain their longevity, as they are still touring, delighting fans at every stop.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): I wanted to ask you some questions about how the songwriting process works with you and the B-52s, and get some insights into some of your specific songs.

Cindy Wilson: Oh, OK. We can go through all the songs. It's probably easier to go through the songs that were written by me. Hold on, I've got a list for you. I just thought it would be a great way to give a reference point.

Starting with the first album - this is how we first started - getting together and jamming. It was just a really joyous time, and really fun with everybody throwing ingredients in the songs. It was amazing group-writing, which was really fun.

But we did it different ways, which was really cool. We would sometimes borrow lyrics or actually buy lyrics from friends. "52 Girls" was by a friend [Jeremy Ayers] who wrote the lyrics to that. "Downtown" was a 45 from Petula Clark from back in the day. It became a jazz spoof on the song, just kind of having fun. It was wonderful. It was joyous.

Songfacts: So, it was all collaborative? Nobody took the lead?

Wilson: There was no lead. That was what was so cool. We were all contributing. Ricky and Keith would write music and bring it to the rehearsal and then Kate and I would jam to it. That is usually how it went, but that's not always how it went.

"Planet Claire" was with Ricky. I loved Ricky's guitar, and Kate's wonderful kind of outer space vocal was really cool. And Fred has amazing lyrics - he can just conjure up and picture a landscape, and it was a really fun place to inhabit. Fred was a poet.

On some of the songs, Kate and I were mostly writing harmonies and girl vocals to accent Fred's lyrics and give it that vibe. Like on "Rock Lobster," that was definitely Fred's lyrics and images. Kate and I got in there, and during jamming we came up with fish sounds and harmonies just to back Fred up a little bit. And with the song in the set every night, we would get to do something different with it because we could make up these different sounds and stuff.

Songfacts: So it was kind of trial and error until you guys came up with something you liked?

Wilson: Yeah, it was all just trial and error and jamming. And Ricky, he put a lot of the funk together on the first three albums after the jamming. On the first album, it was all kind of being there.

"Hero Worship" I got to do [the lead vocal]. That was written by Robert Waldrop. Ricky and I came up with the vocal melody, and of course, Ricky came up with the music. That was kind of a punk song that I got to do.

Kate came up with the lyrics to "Lava," and we both came up with the lyrics for "Dance This Mess Around." "52 Girls" was written by a friend and "6060-842" was really a big Fred kind of poem that we jammed on and it came together. I think I'm just on bongos on that one.

Songfacts: So, when you were honing the individual songs, they came together through performance rather than really nailing them beforehand?

Wilson: Oh no, not at all. No, it took a while to hone down all the jams that we did. So, it's more complicated. It sounds like it kind of just came together, but it really was a plan from the beginning, from the jam.

We didn't always do it like normal song progressions would be done - we kind of made that up, which I guess gave it that feel like it was spontaneous. It's very good because what you want is to not make it sound like it is just boring.

Songfacts: Well, to this day you guys still have one of the most unique sounds of any band out there.

Wilson: Yeah, you know, it's so amazing thinking about how we are still doing these songs now. A lot of people would be really bored performing the same songs over and over again, but it's like a ride: You get to go on these ups and downs and turns. The songs make you feel these things, and I really enjoy doing them.

On Wild Planet, "Party Out Of Bounds," that was a jam song. "Running Around," that's all of us. "Give Me Back My Man" was all of us.

Songfacts: The legend is that "Give Me Back My Man" was about a woman whose lover was eaten by a shark.

Wilson: Yeah. Or he was flushed down the toilet by the Ty-D-Bol Man [Laughs]... one or the other.

"Private Idaho," that was a real strong Fred one, but Kate and I contributed.

"Devil In My Car" was the band. It was a band jam, and it's really one of my favorites but we never get to do it. I hate that, you know.

Songfacts: Why can't you do it?

Wilson: Well, it's a very long song and for some reason Fred just doesn't want to do it. There is some kind of superstition about the "Devil In My Car" song - every time we used to perform it something bad would happen. So maybe Fred doesn't want to do it because of that.

But "Quiche Lorraine" was definitely a strong Fred song, and Kate and I wrote our parts. "Strobe Lights," the same thing.

"53 Miles West Of Venus" was one with Ricky's musical talent but with that kind of spacey girls sound that was Kate and me. But we wrote that together. Our harmonies, hers were very pure and I was very rustic, but it always seemed to go together.

Songfacts: "Love Shack" was supposedly about Kate's house. Was the house anything like it sounds like it was in the song?

Wilson: Well, no. When you're jamming, everybody is conjuring up their own images. Sometimes we're all singing at the same time and later you go back and you hear what you're doing. I personally was thinking about this bar that was out in the country [the Hawaiian Ha-Le]. It was a really cool place - a run-down love shack kind of thing, but it was a disco. It was a really interesting place.

Songfacts: Was that in Athens, Georgia?

Wilson: That was outside of Athens. I can certainly see Kate's house being as a source of the tune, but I guess everybody has a different way of coming into the song.

Songfacts: Right.

Wilson: "Loveland" for Mesopotamia [1981], I wrote the lyrics and vocal melody, and Ricky helped with that too. He helped me arrange it and did the music of course, and it's beautiful music.

"Deep Sleep" was one of my favorites - it's beautiful.

Tin Roof, Rusted!
There has been much speculation about the "tin roof, rusted" line that Cindy snarls at the end of "Love Shack." According to her (and who'd know better?), she was simply describing the roof of the bar that, in her mind, was the "love shack."
"Mesopotamia" was a cool song. It came from a poem Fred had. We were all jamming on it, so Kate and I got out licks like, "Throw that beat in the garbage can!" That's one of my favorites now - I wasn't so crazy about it at the time, but now it's really one of my favorites. Ricky's guitar, oh my God, it's so modern. It still sounds so modern to me. But Kate and I got to jam on that one and put our touch on it.

And "Cake" was a wonderful song with music by Ricky and Keith. It was an interesting collaboration with Kate and I jamming on the lyrics, with us coming up with a recipe for cake. It was, as it turns out, pretty good. I like "Cake." A lot of people come up to me and tell me it's one of their favorites. It wasn't one of our big hits, but they love it.

Then there was "Nip It In The Bud," which was my attempt to write another kind of punk-ish song. Ricky suggested I do a second guitar part, so when we were performing it I would have to do the second guitar part, which was kind of crazy because I didn't have a guitar.

Songfacts: Seems like you were the punk influence in the band.

Wilson: Yeah, I was the youngest one and I was the punk in the group I guess.

Songfacts: So, you just grabbed the guitar and played?

Wilson: When we started I was 19 years old, so I was kind of Southern punk.

On the Whammy! album, "Legal Tender" was fun. "Song For A Future Generation" was a marvel - it had everybody singing on it and everybody was doing a stand-out, where we would come on the stage and we each got to step out like a TV show from the '60s. It was our anthem - we're all in there and we're all contributing.

Songfacts: Chihuahuas and Chinese noodles? [This is what Wilson lists as her interests when she steps out in "Song For A Future Generation.")

Wilson: Yes [laughs]. It was so much fun.

Whammy! era B-52s
Songfacts: Is there a serious message in that song, or is that all just fun? Critics in the past have said that there was something in there.

Wilson: You know, "Song For A Future Generation," I think it has a meaning for everybody. We all had our own meanings that came to it.

And "Butterbean," oh my God, that was so hilarious... that was so much fun. You know, on Whammy! we were using these electric drums and were just getting used to it, so "Butterbean," the beat was like 100 miles an hour - it was so fun to do. We all did that and it was great.

"Trism" we all did. "Queen of Las Vegas," that was me and Ricky and Keith and I think Kate too was on there. "Don't Worry" was just letting it happen and jamming. We wanted to keep that kind of feel to it, just like crazy art. I think that's kind of cool.

"1983" - I can't remember much about that.

"Big Bird," that was one of my favorites. I think it was Fred who came up with the idea. Sometimes he would come in with a couple of lines and we would throw around ideas and write around that. I think "Big Bird" was like that.

The Apostrophe
The group quietly dropped the apostrophe from their name in 2008 with the release of the Funplex album (B-52's >> B-52s). It got there because when a friend of the band designed the logo, he put it in.
Songfacts: So you all contributed your own lyrics to that around Fred's idea?

Wilson: We would bounce off each other, totally.

And "Work That Skirt" was a great instrumental. I loved it.

I loved Whammy! It needed more attention, but it was really, really good.

Songfacts: More attention from you, or more attention from the press?

Wilson: From the press.

Bouncing Off The Satellites [1986], that was Ricky's last album. Ricky thought it would be a good idea for everybody to do a few songs on their own and then come up with ideas. Ricky was sick and I didn't know - I thought the band was just getting a little disillusioned. But looking back now, I think he was probably freaked out. "Summer Of Love" was beautiful.

Songfacts: Is that about the 1969 Summer Of Love?

Wilson: No, it's not. Actually, we were conjuring up imaginary times and imaginary places. A lot of these songs, you inhabit them, and what was going on in the country was so scary, so we needed to have a place called the "Summer Of Love." We needed that.

"Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland," that was really good. That was one of the ones I wrote with Ricky and Keith, and Fred might have put in some lyrics too.

"Housework" was Kate. "Detour Thru Your Mind" was all of us. "Wig" was all of us. "Theme For A Nude Beach" - loved that. "Ain't It A Shame" was a cool song - it was my turn there to do a little ode to country but make it a kind of fast vibe. You know how with country songs it's like heartbreak city? I wanted to add a little bit of science fiction novel.

Songfacts: That's a unique combination.

Wilson: Yeah, it was really cool. And I tried to make it as sincere as possible so it's not like a spoof. I love that song.

"Juicy Jungle" was cool. I loved "Communicate" - that's just me. "She Brakes for Rainbows" is a gay anthem, a gay reference. I got to sing that at Wigstock, and also recently I sang that in San Francisco, where this famous Danish drag queen has a theatre called Oasis.

They did a tribute to the B-52s as well, and it was a hoot and a half. But I got to sing "She Brakes for Rainbows" and I'll never forget that - it was amazing. I'm so glad that song comes out every once in a while.

And then, after Ricky passed, it was the most amazing thing to have Keith Strickland call and say, "Do you want to try to start jamming and doing music?" I didn't think it was possible without Ricky. It had just not occurred to me that we could do that, and it turned out to be such a healing, wonderful album [Cosmic Thing, 1989]. And Ricky was right there during the writing of it, in the rehearsal studio that we were in - it just felt like his spirit was there. The album started taking on a sort of nostalgic look back at how life was simple when we were living in Athens. So, there were a lot of references to places we could inhabit in our imaginations to escape sometimes, but also it brings up things that need to be looked at. But, we definitely did a lot of escaping [laughs].

We talked about serious matters in reviews and doing things that we each cared about and represented, but the music didn't necessarily hit you over the head.

In recent years, Cindy has put out some solo material, including the full-length album Change, released in 2017 under the Kill Rock Stars label. "No One Can Tell You" was released as a promotional single from the album.
Songfacts: Could I ask you about a recent one? The song "No One Can Tell You." That had some really beautiful lyrics.

Wilson: That was on my solo album.

Songfacts: Can you say what inspired that one?

Wilson: I was working with some people, including Suny Lyons, and it blowed my mind to experiment with a different kind of approach. So "No One Can Tell You" is an ode to the idea that "nobody can tell you when to leave music." That's one take on it. Or, when is it time to go? Have you stayed at the party too long? That's another interpretation, but it can mean a lot of other things. But that was a gift, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I'm very proud of what we did. We were working as a group and it was fantastic. But it's really hard to keep that going - it got very expensive. We couldn't keep doing it, so now I'm happy to just do music with this one person. I think it's going to be just like Whammy! where you just have a computer and record drums... fewer musicians and more techno. It's all just an experiment. It was pretty good for the soul.

The B-52s have always had a place to retreat in the music, and doing music has always been healing and fun, but it's also work, and you can't have a bad work ethic. It takes a long time to put together, but it's more complicated than just somebody writing a song by themselves - we have so many influences that it takes a little bit longer.

And it's complex. On our last album [Funplex, 2008], we worked all over. We lived in different cities, and it took a long time to do some tracks, but we did it. We would meet in Atlanta and we would jam, and it was really wonderful to be able to do that.

The thing is, it was an increasingly difficult business to be in, especially with computers and effects coming in. It just became different.

The Funplex era
Songfacts: I hear that. Every musician I speak to talks about how difficult it is to make money at it today.

Wilson: Oh, absolutely. We were still kind of old school, but at the same time trying to get into the modern way of doing things. It worked out and we made our money back. It wasn't a gush or anything, but it was some success.

Songfacts: That's hard to pull off these days.

Wilson: I know - tell me about it.

Anyway, then there was Good Stuff [1992], but I wasn't on there. [Wilson took a hiatus to, among other things, raise her daughter. Sadly, we never got to see her with a bone through her bouffant.] And then everybody had their solo stuff. Fred certainly had fun. He was going through a toilet to get that echo sound from the toilet - he just does it real simple, and he does a good job at that.

It's all about having a good time and working that creative muscle. Especially when you get a little bit older, it's really healthy to be creative.

August 1, 2019
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Comments: 4

  • Shawn from MarylandI recently read an interview in the British press with Kate Pierson and she also mentioned Trism. UUmm...not too sure about that one. But, I do love the B-52's (I have 5 releases) and have seen them live. Great band! I love this interview too. It's good to hear about their songwriting process. Also, what Jim from Mobile said: Kate and Cindy's harmonies are outer-worldly. They do layer on top of each other like few other can. They are all amazing musicians and vocalists! :)
  • Tom Mavridis from Des Moines Ia Excellent interview, I've been a fan for many years and am looking forward to seeing the band in concert.
  • Clete from Nc MountainsNice interview. FWIW, I always figured the personal intros on "Song For A Future Generation" were just a goof on "Float On" by who else, The Floaters.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlNice Interview. Shame you didn't talk more about Cosmic Thing, I think "Deadbeat Club" is their best, it's my favorite. Also Kate And Cindy's Harmonies are absolutely outwordly. They layer on top of each other like few others can.
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